The “Illegitimate” Daughter Tells Her Birth Mother’s Story
The woman who gave birth to me did so in a very different age. lt was the 1960s, and my arrival was what would now be called an out-of-wedlock birth. At the time the language was firmer: I was “illegitimate.” That label meant that the woman who gave me life could never be called simply, “mother.” Nor the even jauntier-sounding “single mom” (which is what I have become since my divorce). She would almost always, if she were middle class and white, be forced to surrender her child to adoption. Then she was a “biological mother” or a “birth mother,” at best, and a few cruder terms from less sympathetic lips. My search for words is part of a larger search to understand the woman who gave me away and who 30 years later spoke to me, her only child, for the first time.
The term birth mother is deceptive: her journey neither began nor ended with the birth, despite society’s efforts to that end. Adoption agencies counseled these women to “get on” with their lives and, most of all, forget. Instead of forgetting, many of these women suckled a ghost-child in their hearts for years. They never received recognition from society as mothers who had suffered what was a terrible, terrible loss. These women were forced to hide everything: their names, their pregnancies, their sexual experience, their affection for their newborn children and, sometimes, for the birth fathers as well.
Today, the tide of secrecy is turning. Social and economic change, and feminism, have meant greater openness in talking about, and pursuing, single motherhood. So, too, grassroots efforts by birth mothers, adoptees, adoptive parents and others are reversing laws that tried to erase “shameful” pregnancies and birth mothers from their children’s pasts by sealing adoption records. By the time you read this article, several more states will have restored adoptees’ access to their authentic birth certificates. While paving the way for more humane adoptions today, these new attitudes and laws also reopen those histories that were closed for decades, giving adoptees like myself unprecedented, and sometimes longed-for, access to our birth mothers. And yet, as the tide of secrecy recedes, it reveals a very rocky residue as well.
When a Nice Jewish Girl Got Pregnant
As the rights of adopted people work themselves out in the courts, I have been watching with intense investment. I have wanted to ask many questions. To those birth mothers who have sued to keep their histories locked, I have wanted to ask from the safety of the 21st century, if you never wanted to see your child, why didn’t you just get an abortion? To the other mothers, fighting for the right to know their children, I want to ask, why, if you still care even now, did you give your child away?
Bill Betzen, a long-time child placement social worker who helps run www.openadoption.org, explained “they really couldn’t say ‘yes’ to adoption with their whole hearts if there was no real option to say ‘no.'” The stories birth mothers tell have variations, but in the end, walking the line between coercion and choice, they agreed to give up their babies.
What was it like? Once upon a time in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, a nice, single Jewish girl got pregnant. Perhaps she had a shot-gun wedding, but that wasn’t an option for a Jewish girl who had conceived with a man of another religion or race. Perhaps she took a short “vacation,” accessing a safe, legal abortion outside the country (if she could afford it) or a dangerous, illegal one here in the States. More often than not, however, she “went to live with an aunt.” That meant she was sent away from her friends and family for several months to have her baby among strangers. She could only return after the baby was born or died, but most importantly, this mother was to return with empty arms.
The pressure to accede to this third option was intense. Carol Whitehead, who did disappear to a home for unwed mothers, remembers later meeting a woman who had been at the same home in the 1950s. “She was a minor and [she and the father] both wanted to keep the baby. Her parents took the matter to court to force the issue. They had a judge force her to a maternity home and force her to relinquish her child. Years later she obtained the papers the judge wrote…and found in there that the decision was based on her ‘fornicating with a Negro.'”
My own birth mother, Helen*, did not go to a maternity home but stayed with her own mother, where she says she felt much of the same shame and pressure to give up her child. “It is horrible being dumped by a man, and traumatic to lose a child and to be on the wrong side of society,” she told me after our reunion. The adoption agency made her feel like there were no other options. “I wish they had counseled us that we could rebel. Instead, it was all laid out. We were told we wouldn’t be able to juggle.”
Whitehead, who was single, pregnant and 18 in 1963, went to the Lakeview Home for Jewish Unwed Mothers in Staten Island, affiliated with the Louise B. Wise Adoption Agency. It was one of a string of such homes set up by Jewish philanthropic organizations during the 20th century. The girls under 18 had daily classes. Those over 18 joined knitting tables, crocheting tables, embroidery tables and played endless games of cards. They were told not to reveal their last names to the other residents of the home. They could receive visitors only on Sundays, and their phone calls were screened, according to Whitehead. They were never left unattended with a gentleman caller. They heard frequent lectures on hygiene, but received none on childbirth, nor on alternatives to relinquishing their babies.
“It was like reform school for girls,” Whitehead remembers. “They made us feel worthless while we were there, and we left empty-handed. We were taught that we were not good enough to be mothers.”
Small acts of rebellion were not uncommon, for at least some of the girls were reluctant participants in these relinquishment schemes. At Lakeview, Whitehead made a point of wearing her high school letter jacket. “We were forbidden to disclose our identities to other residents. I was known as ‘Carol 2’ because ‘Carol 1’ had her baby and left the home just before I arrived. One day I wore my high school jacket and another resident said I’d get in trouble because people would be able to look me up. She was going to report me. Inwardly I smiled, it was important that my identity was known. It was my intention to leave the broadest physical and paper trail.”
Another part of the ruse were the fake wedding rings that the older women who ran the homes provided their charges for those times they needed to leave the home. This was a widespread practice and one that was received with mixed response. To Whitehead, they were simply part of the demeaning charade. In contrast, Judy*, who was raised Catholic and may have seen her own sexual explorations in terms of “sin,” appreciated the gesture at the home she went to. “The maternity home, run by nuns…was a warm community,” she recalls, “and they provided us with wedding bands so we felt free to travel outside.”
When labor began, birth mothers were rushed to a hospital alone. Maternity ward staff, mostly Christians, often viewed them as sinners and treated them coldly. Judy recalls “the other three women in my room were brought their babies. I had to buzz and buzz and buzz. Finally a nurse came in and said, ‘Oh, you want your baby?’ in a harsh tone. I glared back at her and said, ‘Yes, my husband’s in the service.'”
After birth mothers returned from the maternity home, they were supposed to resume their lives, eventually get married, and have other children to keep. They were instructed not to look each other up later. They were not even supposed to tell their gynecologists and their spouses about this chapter of their lives. They never met the couple that would raise their flesh and blood, and many a woman, like my birth mother, never even saw the child she had just delivered. Neither Jewish law nor Jewish compassion provided the right words and symbols for birth mothers. No one ever invited a birth mother to say kaddish for the child she lost through adoption.
Birth mothers were also deliberately deceived. Adoption placement workers could tell birthparents and adoptive parents whatever they wanted because adoption records were sealed in most states for at least part of the 20th century. My birth mother was told, no, she couldn’t hold me because I had been adopted immediately after birth. In fact, as I found out from hospital records, I was still down the hall in the newborn nursery long after she was discharged. She was told that I would be raised in Pennsylvania by an Orthodox couple. In fact, I was raised in New Jersey by an interfaith pair. My adoptive parents, in turn, were never told by the agency in the 1960s that I was part American Indian lest they decide not to adopt me. They were also never told that my birth mother had already named me: “Suzanne.” (Today agencies tend to adhere more strictly to standards of truth and disclosure; when I visited my agency for information in 1992, they revealed this information readily.)
Often, two or three months after returning home, the women were called back to the adoption agency, where they discovered the reality. The child they had been forbidden to hold had not been adopted yet; their child had been in foster care all this time, as I was. Agencies kept children in foster care to see whether they developed “normally” before passing them to adoptive families. Only at this point were the mothers called back to sign what are called “relinquishment papers.” Relinquishment documents allow a woman to waive her parental rights and transfer them to a private or public agency.
They are dry legal artifacts that only yield up their human drama on closer scrutiny. Carol Whitehead, when she found her 22-year-old son fifteen years ago, obtained a copy of his relinquishment papers. As she re-read them, she says she could feel the anger of patriarchy in the document’s reason for asking her to give away her flesh and blood: “that I am unmarried; that I have never been married.” She felt relinquishing her child was demanded of her as punishment for having had a child without a husband.
To me, as an adoptee, there is a more significant detail in that document. It explains why many adoptees are angry. On a relinquishment document there is room for one and only one signature, the birth mother’s. I know many birth mothers and many, many adoptees who have found their birth mothers later in life, and the relationships that sometimes result are the most bittersweet I have ever seen. I include my relationship with my birth mother, too. Though a birth mother, like mine, might correctly come to blame her child’s father, her mother, a supposedly unsupportive extended family, or society at large, at that moment, the moment of signing, the only person with complete and absolute power over the fate of the relationship is the birth mother herself. And almost none of them knew it at the time.
The High Price of Secrecy
Relinquished children, however, are not the only ones who suffered from the forced separation. For birth mothers, the ordeal did not end when they signed away their child. My own birth mother, years after my birth, joined a support group for women who wanted to explore their feelings around relinquishing a child. I asked her, How did this affect your life? Do you try to give it a meaning or just forget it? She also shared my questions with the group. Breda*, an Irish birth mother who has not located her child, wrote in reply, “I could never forget the experience or the pain.” Helen wrote, “My life had been on hold. Completely blighted. Then believing [another] child would redeem me, I soon married my ex-husband…who it turned out didn’t want children.”
Several members of her group said the secrecy surrounding the adoption compounded their pain. Every birth mother I spoke with shared the sense that each lie she told to cover up the past seemed to pull her beyond uniqueness into a cold realm of alienation.
Judy describes the extent of her lies: “I remember my gynecologist asking if I’d had a baby and I said, ‘no.’…People [at work] would ask where I’d been, so I’d lie. … I didn’t even tell my husband until eight years into our marriage. He was devastated. … He wanted to go search for her the next day. I’d brought it up in the middle of a fierce argument. I told him it was past, I had closed the door on it and it didn’t have any relevance to now … but I could feel the old mantle of shame and guilt as I said it.”
“In 1974,” Judy explains, “a woman who is now a dear friend told me people were saying I’d had a baby. I put on a mask of honor and said, ‘Gee, I wonder how stories like that get started.’… Twenty-five years later when I told [her], I was just stunned when she said, ‘Judy, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have a son out there who I gave up 36 years ago.’ “
Carol Whitehead felt she “had to pretend I was a ‘virgin’ at my wedding and it felt so ironic that I had already given birth. … When my son Adam, the first child of my marriage, was born, my mother insisted on pinyon ha-ben,” a Jewish ceremony marking the birth of a first-born son.
For some women, the shame and secrecy have become almost habit. There are many more questions I would like to ask my birth mother. But I am halted by the secrecy that is now due to either the forgetfulness of three decades or her self-imposed silence.
And When You Tell the Truth . . .
Adoption will always be a necessary option for birth mothers who are very young, mentally ill, severely retarded, addicted, violently abusive or just plain unwilling or unable to mother. But the era when it was almost the only option for everyone else has passed. Literally a sign of the times, the Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in New York City has finally painted their name on the front door. They have formed an advisory committee of birth mothers to provide ongoing support for others and to humanize the relinquishment experience. They present lectures at clinics and maternity wards on sensitivity toward birth mothers. They coordinate a buddy system that pairs a woman who has relinquished her child with an expectant unwed mother. They also hold a Mother’s Day ceremony that is commemorative, not celebratory. Today, they tell me the operative word is “openness.”
One study by the Maine Department of Human Resources’ Task Force on Adoption found in 1989 that every birth parent who was surveyed wanted to be found by the child they had placed for adoption. Of the adoptees surveyed, 95% expressed a desire to be found.
Still, the pursuit of a once-potent relationship is not easy, and relinquished children and their biological mothers don’t always understand their shared history the same way. After my agency told me that “someone in your biological family has been trying to contact you,” it took six months before I was ready for them to put me in contact with Helen. For those of us who have been found, both birth mothers and adoptees, it awakens feelings we didn’t know we had and it re-awakens feelings we thought we had overcome. There’s curiosity, loss, sorrow, joy, bewilderment and anxiety. There’s also anger (why’d they wait so long?) and concern for how this will affect other family members.
Those who actively search have had to be emotionally prepared to find anything. During the years Mirah Riben searched for her daughter, she created a ritual of the heart, an expression of a birth mother’s feelings so powerful that it spread by word of mouth among those of us in the adoption reform movement. She told of setting the seder table every year after finding and then being rejected by her daughter. As she got to setting out the cup of Elijah, she also set out a second cup in her heart for her missing daughter. Each is a guest who is always welcome, but who never attends. Her vigil came to a close a few years later when her daughter committed suicide. The adoptive parents did not notify her of their daughter’s death, but women from Mirah’s birth mother support group joined her at the grave site to say kaddish for the daughter she lost twice. She says, “If your goal in searching is to find the truth, you will not be disappointed. But if you have preconceived notions, you will be.”
For my own birth mother, I hope one of many happy endings to that era when motherhood was a secret is the blessing she was given at my eldest daughter’s, her first grandchild’s, bat mitzvah this summer. Helen flew from her home in London to attend. No longer hidden in shame, her face appears throughout our family’s album of that event.
In one photograph, she stands in a multi-colored tallit, next to my adoptive father. But this photograph tells more than one story. The growing egalitarianism within and around the Jewish community that allows single mothers to keep their children is entwined with the egalitarianism that allows our daughters to study Torah. The openness that allowed me to introduce Helen to congregants as my birth mother also allowed a role in the ceremony for my ex-husband, an ethnic-Chinese Thai. It was simple for my daughter; she wanted the whole family there. For the rest of us, we had to swallow hard on our ambivalence about the changing definitions of family and tradition and just smile for the camera.
Michele Kriegman’s day job is on the internet, where her words are called “content.” In her free time she prefers to write for magazines, where words are called “prose.”
Why Should We Root for Open Adoption?
by Michele Kriegman
This past century in the United States is an anomaly in human history; from as early as the turn of the last century to as recently as the late 1970s, all states but Kansas and Alaska passed legislation to seal adoptees’ birth certificates and other adoption records. Adoption records were sealed to the public and, more unusually, to the adoptee, the adoptive parents and the birth parent. That secrecy was intended to shield birth mothers from the stigma of out-of-wedlock birth, to shield adoptees from the stigma of illegitimacy, and to shield adoptive parents from the stigma of infertility. Most adoptees were issued false birth certificates that erased the names of their biological parents and replaced them with the names of their adoptive ones.
In recent years, through legislative and judicial efforts across the country the tide has been turning against this walling-off of history. One key victory for this sea-change occurred in Oregon, where warring emotions played out in the battle over Measure 58, which was proposed in the mid-1990s to open adoption records. The courtrooms of Oregon became the setting for a drama that pitted the “right” to confidentiality of birth mothers against the “right” of adult adoptees to know their own heritage. The legislation was challenged by six anonymous birth mothers backed by a closed adoption advocacy group, the National Council on Adoption. They claimed it violated promises of “confidentiality” made to birth mothers by adoption agencies. After several rounds in court, Measure 58 was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
At the center of the storm was an attorney named Fred Greenman. He was the counsel of record in the Oregon case, and only now, after the legal resolution, has he revealed publicly that he is a Jewish birth father—and that his biological daughter had found him. This situation gave him ironic empathy for his adversaries, the plaintiffs: “I guess they didn’t want to face what my daughter put me through when she asked me point-blank, ‘Why’d you dump me?'”
The initial confrontation with his daughter was awkward but seems to have changed him for the good: “I had insomnia for 30 years until my daughter found me. I thought it must be all sorts of anxieties about money and work, never my daughter. [Still,] you’ve got a child out there and you don’t know if they’re beaten up, raped, poor, addicted. So no wonder I’ve heard that most birth parents are clinically depressed until they’re reunited.”
Greenman believes follow-up surveys show that he, and not the Oregon plaintiffs, are in the majority. When birth parents were contacted through intermediaries in Tennessee, 95% of birth parents in closed adoptions agreed to being contacted. Bill Betzen, a child placement social worker who helps run the www.openadoption.org website, has found, “People change their minds. When the adoptee makes that first call instead of a mediator, the odds of her wanting to see her child go up from about 90% to 98%.”
Both Greenman and Betzen warn birth mothers that today’s promises of “openness” may prove as unenforceable as yesterday’s promises of “confidentiality.” The future good faith of adoptive parents matters more than the promises of contact they make to convince a birth mother to surrender her child.
Rosanne Gave Up Her Baby
by Michele Kriegman
On February 4th, 1999, the television host and sitcom star Roseanne Barr revealed on her talk show that she is a birth mother. Shedding her often caustic veneer, she brought on her biological daughter, Brandi, and Brandi’s adoptive parents, Gail Nusinow and Stanley Brown. They all discussed the initial forced meeting, and then the development over the succeeding ten years.
The reunion was precipitated by the threat from a national tabloid to reveal Roseanne’s secret if she refused to grant them an interview. Roseanne acted quickly and had a private investigator find her biological daughter’s family before the tabloid could. The adoptive mother, Gail, prepared their daughter and then had the P.l. speak to Brandi directly. He explained to the then 18-year-old that her birth mother was famous. Brandi, who wanted to enter show biz herself and had been active in her synagogue choir, was elated. She already knew her birth mother was Jewish, and Brandi herself has blonde hair. She put two and two together, and asked, “Bette Midler?”
“No,” replied the P.l.
She gasped, “Oh, my God! Barbra Streisand?!”
“No,” he explained, “Roseanne.”
Brandi paused, “She’s Jewish?”
During the ten years since, Brandi and Roseanne have traveled together to places where Roseanne grew up and where their paths parted. Still, Roseanne confesses that she has “a lot of trouble connecting,” and that sometimes navigating their various stepfamilies is like a “minefield.” She noted that the world has changed so much and that she wished she had lived a little bit later so she could have kept her child. “The guilt and shame of giving up one’s own flesh and blood never goes away.”