Read an Excerpt
Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories
By Merry Bloch Jones
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2000 Merry Bloch Jones
All rights reserved.
Zoe stared, panic-stricken, at the tattoo. It was Jack's fifth, A serpent. It covered his whole forearm and coiled around a ribbon inscribed "Forever."
Zoe tried not to shudder as Jack cupped her chin in his hand, put his mouth to her ear and hissed, "Zoe, this one's for you. Forever."
Zoe Walsh was seventeen. Her parents were in the midst of a heated divorce in California and had sent her to stay with an aunt in the Midwest for her final months before college. Zoe spent her summer aimlessly hanging around with Jack, the mechanic at the local gas station.
"When I told Jack I was pregnant, he actually yahooed," she recalls. "He kept shaking his head and repeating, 'What do you know! I'm a daddy!' and kissing me. Then he jumped up and raced off on his motorcycle, yelling over his shoulder that I should 'call the preacher man.' He left me standing on the street in front of the gas station, with no idea what to do.
"See, I had no intention of spending forever with Jack. I was about to go to college and get back to my 'real' life. For me, being with Jack had been a 'kick,' a way to get through the summer, but certainly not a way to spend forever!"
Zoe's first problem was to tell that to Jack, a "greaser" with a gun collection and an erratic, uncontrollable temper. Jack's moods were unpredictable. She'd seen him beat guys up for offenses as slight as touching his motorcycle. Knowing how thrilled he was about the pregnancy, Zoe hesitated to tell him that she intended to get an abortion and had, in fact, already raised over half the necessary money.
Although abortions were not legal in 1966, Zoe knew of a doctor who would perform them. Finally, after days of false starts and fearful anticipation, she hinted to Jack that, if he were able to raise some money, they would be able to wait until they were older before starting a family.
"When he realized what I was getting at, Jack sat perfectly still for a few minutes without saying a word. I didn't know whether he hadn't heard me or if he was just going to ignore what I'd said. I was about to repeat myself, when he lurched at me and grabbed me by the back of my hair. He looked me in the eye and, real soft and slow, told me that if I killed his kid, he'd kill me. I had no doubt. I believed him.
"After that, I was too frightened to get an abortion. I believed that if Jack found out I'd had one, he'd kill me. I still think he would have.
"Jack had a dark side. I was sure that he would never let me go because I was carrying his child. In order to get away from him, I'd have to 'lose' the baby, but without an abortion. I prayed for a miscarriage. I hoped I'd fall down the stairs or get hit by a car. Anything to make me lose the baby. But, finally, one night, I just blurted out that I'd been mistaken, that I wasn't pregnant, after all. I said that I'd just been 'late.' I hadn't planned on telling Jack that. If I'd planned it, he'd probably have known I was lying. I just said it, spontaneously. He assumed I was sad about it, so he was nice to me, babied me, even left me alone sexually. Six weeks later, when I was about three months pregnant, I left for college. Nobody knew. Nobody."
"We'd been using condoms for over a year. One night, as he sat up, Bob said, 'Oh, no, the rubber broke."
Sue was sixteen, a cheerleader, dating the captain of the football team. They planned to marry after high school.
"We didn't go crazy about the condom because we both thought girls could only get pregnant during their periods. We thought we were OK; we were so uninformed. But we'd also heard that if you douched after sex, you could stop the sperm, so we ran around trying to buy a douche bag, but we didn't know what they looked like and were embarrassed to ask. Finally, we went to Bob's sister and asked her if she had one. She did, but I didn't want to use it, you know, to use someone else's douche bag, so I just took a bath and tried to swish the water around and wash myself out.
"That month I missed my period. Bob cut school and took a urine sample to a hospital. The rabbit died, so he got me some kind of hormone pills that were supposed to help you abort if it was early enough. Again, we had no idea what the pills were or how they worked, but I took them. They didn't work. I woke up vomiting every morning, going to school and acting like everything was normal, and crying with Bob secretly every night. Our relationship deepened, and we talked about getting married as soon as we could."
By the time another month passed, Bob and Sue realized they would have to share their secret with their parents. "Bob came over and asked my dad if they could talk privately. I felt like I wasn't there. It was like I'd left my body and was watching from a cloud. I saw them walk into the den. When the door closed, everything seemed to stop and hang in suspended animation. Even my heart didn't dare to beat. I stared at the door, unable to move. There was a long, unnatural silence. Then I heard my father, my gentle soft-spoken father, scream, 'NO! Not my baby daughter!'
"There was some shuffle of furniture and my father, who'd never lifted a hand to anyone, shouted, 'If I had a gun, I'd shoot you! Get out of this house, while you still can!' He didn't sound like himself; he sounded like some cowboy hired gun. My mother must have heard and rushed in from the laundry room, asking what was the matter. I can still see her, as if it were today. She's got an armful of folded sheets and pillow cases. Dad bursts out of the den, storming towards me. I'm trying to talk, to tell Mom what's happening, but Dad's yelling, 'Bob has some news for you, Dear. Go on, Bob, tell her!' His face is twisted and furious. My mom's completely bewildered. Bob clears his throat and tries to sound calm. He says, 'Mrs. D., Sue's pregnant and we need your help.'
"My mom instantly crumples and dissolves into tears. She's sobbing and runs out of the room, dropping the linens. My dad chases Bob out of the house, tripping over the sheets, hollering for him to get out and stay out. I am frozen, unmoving. Out on my cloud.
"The most bizarre thing about that night was that we were expected to go to a family party, and we went. There was a complete break in the hysteria, rage, and crying while we sat at my aunt's house, eating pie and playing cards as if nothing had happened. That seemed strange to me, and unreal. But, actually, it was only the beginning of the secrecy. It was merely a hint of the way things were going to be from that day on."
Sonia was twenty-three, in graduate school, studying foreign policy. She'd been seeing a high-powered attorney for almost two years. Although they had never discussed it, she hoped that one day, careers permitting, they would marry.
"I told him at dinner, in our favorite little restaurant. In our private, candle-lit booth. I knew he'd be upset, because he liked to be in control, and the pregnancy was certainly not part of his agenda. But, truthfully, I thought he'd marry me. I never could have anticipated what actually happened, or how stupid I had been. After I told him I was pregnant, Michael let go of my hand, looked away, and said three things. Only three.
"First, he said, 'How do I know it's mine?' Next, while I gaped at him, stung by the question, he said, 'Well, it's basically your problem, Sonia, not mine.' I was stunned, speechless. But, finally, I managed to argue that it was not merely my problem and to suggest the idea of marriage. He looked at his linguine and shook his head and said the third thing. 'That's impossible, Sonia,' he said. 'I'm already married.'
"After that evening, I never saw Michael again. He never even called to find out what I did about the pregnancy. And I never called to tell him."
Every year in our country, millions of women like Zoe, Sue, and Sonia face unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Each year for decades, at least a million of these pregnancies have ended in abortion, whether legal or not. Even with the consistently high rate of abortion, however, many women carry their babies to term and deliver children they have not necessarily chosen to bear.
The situations of these women vary from poverty to wealth, from high school dropout to Ph.D. Some are married; others are single or divorced. In fact, more children are born to unmarried women in the United States than in any other country; over 20 percent of our births are out of wedlock.
Unplanned pregnancies occur to women of all educational levels, all professions, and, although about a million each year are teenagers, all child-bearing ages. Those who do not have abortions are usually faced with a single choice: keeping and raising their children or relinquishing them for adoption. This book tells the stories of seventy-two who chose to relinquish: why they relinquished, what happened to them afterward, and how they are managing their lives today.
The Adoption Option
Unmarried women with unplanned pregnancies today face less social pressure and have more options than those of a few decades ago. One source of change has been the consistently high divorce rate, which has diminished the stigma formerly associated with single parents. Unmarried mothers blend into society with divorced ones. The label of "bastard," considered so terrible in past generations, no longer exists; it has, in fact, been abolished by statute in many states.
As social attitudes have evolved, so has adoption. Although most states still adhere to "closed" or "sealed" procedures, many now question the wisdom of closed records and are considering legislation to "open" them, giving triad members legal access to adoption files, medical records, and birth information. Further, through the work of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, the rights of adoptees and birthparents to get to know each other may someday be protected nationwide.
In the meantime, while laws are being reexamined and redefined, many new adoptions are being arranged privately, with "open" terms that vary widely and are usually unprotected by state law. Some private agreements guarantee not only that birthmothers be informed where and with whom their children are placed, but even that they can personally approve the prospective adoptive parents. Many birthmothers are guaranteed regular communication with adoptive families or even with adoptees. Occasionally, birthmothers become accepted as part of the "extended" adoptive family, attending birthday parties and holiday celebrations, just like aunts, close friends, or stepparents.
Although the specific terms of these private, more open adoptions vary, they usually relieve some of the agonies that plague birthmothers in closed adoptions. Through openness, birthmothers can know that their relinquished children are healthy, loved, and well cared for. They can be available to provide information as needed about the child's genetic, ethnic, or medical history. And they can help adoptees see themselves as "whole" people, loved by both adoptive parents and birthparents, not as having been "cut out" of one family portrait and "pasted onto" another.
Despite trends toward openness, however, many new adoptions are still arranged with traditional, completely "closed" terms. Many birthmothers remain unaware of their options and their legal rights prior to, during, and after relinquishment. And, regardless of whether adoptions are open or closed, most birthmothers discover that the road after relinquishment is rocky, at best.
Currently, there are an estimated six million American birthmothers. At least two million have relinquished in the last eighteen years. Not all birthmothers are unmarried or teenagers when they relinquish, but the vast majority fall into one or both categories. Of the half million teenagers who deliver babies each year, about one in five relinquish.
Although birthmothers in open adoptions are less limited than those in closed, many still struggle with the emotional aftermath of relinquishing their children. Regardless of the terms of their adoption agreements, most — even those who know that their children have been placed in loving homes and who would make the same decision if faced with the dilemma again — wrestle with inner conflicts.
One of the sources of these conflicts is clear. Although they come from all walks of life and all types of backgrounds, birthmothers share a common experience: they have each subordinated a most basic maternal drive for what they have been convinced is the good of their children. Regardless of what they believe or think about relinquishment, many continue to struggle with the emotional effects of suppressing these drives in the form of rage, frustration, sorrow, guilt, and self-doubt.
Granted, not every birthmother grapples with ambivalence or regret about her decision. Ellen, a birthmother who relinquished in 1987, had no job and two other toddlers still in diapers at home. The birthfather of her newborn was no longer in her life. She insists that she was not merely relieved but actually jubilant that a young married couple took the new baby off her hands to give him a loving home. "I was sad to lose him, but the last thing I needed was another baby to care for," Ellen remarks. "I just could not have managed another child on my own."
Lynne, also relatively untroubled, was a nursing student who became pregnant in an affair with "the wrong man" in 1986. Believing both the relationship and the subsequent pregnancy to be simply and completely "mistakes," she is philosophical about her decision. "I was glad to be able to help an infertile couple by presenting them with the child they had longed for. Their joy balanced all my negative feelings about the pregnancy. For myself, I just wanted the pregnancy to be over, so I could put the affair behind me and begin the rest of my life."
Neither of these birthmothers, to date, admits to any second thoughts about relinquishment. Perhaps they never will. Such carefree reactions, however, are far from ordinary. A Harvard University study recently estimated that 96 percent of all birthmothers in closed adoptions contemplate search and that more than 60 percent actually undertake them. While some birthmothers have, no doubt, found perfect peace and contentment after relinquishment, many are troubled or curious enough to spend the considerable amount of time, emotional energy, and money required to search.
The birthmothers represented in this book are among those who have not found peace after relinquishing. They reveal their stories, hoping to help others who face similar struggles. Although they are not intended to define or portray the "typical" birthmother, they do present a wide range of experience and insight acquired, often with difficulty, in the years following surrender. These women have relinquished as recently as seven or as long ago as thirty-one years ago. They describe experiences in both closed and open adoptions. Many have grieved; others have felt relief; a number have entirely repressed their emotions. Some have been open about their experiences; others have concealed them, even from their closest friends and family. Many have searched and some have experienced reunion, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Currently married or unmarried, mothers or stepmothers or simply birthmothers, they share their stories and advice, hoping to help other birthmothers, women considering becoming birthmothers, and anyone, in or outside the adoption triangle, attempting to understand birthmothers.
To comprehend fully the experiences of these women, it is necessary to start at the beginning, with the circumstances that greeted their unplanned pregnancies. How these pregnancies were handled often set the stage not only for the futures of the unborn children but also for the directions of their birthmothers' lives.CHAPTER 2
Options and Decisions
Cindy tried to lock her bedroom door while her mother threw herself against it, screaming, "Whore! Tramp! Let me in, slut!"
The door came flying open and knocked Cindy onto the floor. Something hard — a perfume bottle? — hit her on the forehead. She put her arms up and rolled over, trying to protect herself, but a vase crashed into the back of her head, sending pieces of dried flowers all over the carpet. Before she could move, her mother was on her, screaming, slapping her head and chest, and jabbing her knees into her stomach. Cindy rolled herself into a ball, hoping her mother would stop before she killed her or her unborn baby. Whatever it took, she'd have to get away.
"What 'decision?'" one birthmother demands. "There was no decision. The word decision doesn't apply to relinquishing a child. In fact, the word reflects the prejudice of society toward birthmothers. We are supposed to be unfeeling, inhuman trash, who decide to give up our children because life would be more fun, less expensive, and easier without them. That's hogwash. No mother in the world, human or animal, would decide to give up her baby. It isn't normal or natural. It wouldn't happen if mothers had the power to decide. It only happens when they don't."
Excerpted from Birthmothers by Merry Bloch Jones. Copyright © 2000 Merry Bloch Jones. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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