The History of Adoption
in the United States If you know anything about our government and its operations, you know that the church (specifically the Catholic Church) has been involved in adoption practices throughout the 1940s and into the early 1970s before Roe v. Wade. They are also responsible for the invention of birth control, fun fact. What you probably didn't know was that the practice began in the 1850s, with the first formal adoption law being put into place in Massachusetts in 1851, which allowed a judge to take away a parent's rights if they were deemed unfit to be parents, and was enacted in part because of the work done by a Reverand who went by the name Charles Loring Brace, who is 1853, founded the Children's Aid Society in New York City. A Little Bit of Context: Before the 1850s Before this, adoption was informal and usually used between more prominent families to secure wealth via property and other desirable assets for the period. They were like arranged marriages in that they generally benefited both parties. It's not hard to imagine scenarios where the daughter of a prominent wealthy family gave birth to an illegitimate child that her parents forced her to relinquish to save face and protect the family name and remain in good standings with society; in other words, to avoid what today we might call, “a PR nightmare.” So in retrospect, the first adoption law in Massachusetts seems like a significant step forward (and let's be honest, the fact that the birthplace of any form of adoption law has me saying, “Okay, Massachusetts, good for you, girl,” in my head because I'm vaguely aware of the petition at a Massachusetts public school to, and I quote, “bring back slavery,” and like, no?) and in a lot of ways it was, but to say there weren't negative consequences that could be born out of this was obvious.
A Historical Example of Mob Mentality and How it Relates to Adoption
For starters, the earliest example (and one that, right off the top of my head, I know that everyone, young and old, is guaranteed to understand) I can think to use to explain “mob mentality” would be the Salem Witch Trials (and yes I promise this has a point), because some people began to accuse their friends and neighbors of witchcraft out of revenge for some act committed against them (either real or imagined). Is your friend's business doing better than yours? Witchcraft. If your neighbor produced higher yields than you this season? Witcraft. Too many successful births? Witchcraft. Did your neighbor get offered a top position in the church over you? Well, indeed, it must be witchcraft. With that example fresh in your brain, it becomes pretty easy to spot the potential issues. Parents relied on children during this time to help their mothers on the farm and to do housework and other menial jobs required by the period. If parents lost their children (especially if they were older and unable to do the manual labor required), it could leave them destitute with no food and no money or ability to pay their way. If there is as much government corruption as today, you can probably bet that judges held their coffers wide open so the wealthy and influential business people could fill them. Once again, tipping the odds in favor of the rich. The Church's Motto The church, much like Reverand Charles Loring Brace, has always said that it is their duty as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ to help the homeless, widowed, and poor, to be an advocate for children born into such circumstances, and to compel the sinner to rise from their misfortune, repent for their sins and receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and accept him into their lives and hearts. It began with orphanages for children whose parents were unfit or died and eventually morphed into “Magdalene Asylums” or “Mother and Baby” homes. Then throughout the 19th Century and into the first half of the 20th Century, many of these institutions were run by religious organizations. Their primary focus was providing education and healthcare services to communities. Later this turned into institutions for unwed mothers. It allowed women and girls who became pregnant out of wedlock or (in the most unfortunate scenario) were molested or raped. Unfortunately, during this period, society generally believed that in these horrific cases that it was the fault of the woman and not the man who had assaulted or raped her. Women were accused of tempting men, promoting this behavior, and deserved whatever happened to them. This attitude towards victims of sexual assault highlights a problematic societal mindset.
The (Forced) Relinquishment of Illegitimate Children In the years before Roe v. Wade
(If you don't know, the court precedent set stated that a woman has a right to privacy and to make informed medical decisions regarding her reproductive health without interference from the government or any other party) it was social suicide to be considered sleazy or uncouth. It could hurt her prospects of marriage, and this was especially important because, at this time, women did not aspire to have careers or do anything outside of the home other than teaching or caregiving. From the 1940s through the mid to late 1960s, society expected women to be good, god-fearing women who cared for their husbands and gave them many children. A woman's ultimate goal was to be a homemaker. Raise polite, happy, and successful children who become well-rounded adults who don't get in trouble and attend Church every Sunday. Any woman who strayed from the mold forged by the church and affirmed by society, their family name and personal reputation would be in ruins—severely damaging any fruitful marriage prospects. In the book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler talks about the lengths some women and their family members went to save not only themselves and their reputation as parents but also to protect their daughters from being shunned in the community, making her fate all but inevitable. The idea of a family member, a mother, a father, or even a brother coercing their daughter or sister (sometimes even forcefully, giving them only one of two options: relinquish their children or be selfish and condemn the child to a life of poverty and shame (great options, right? Dark, I know) probably seems unthinkable. At this time, however, this was the reality. Right around this time, the Catholic Church saw a rise in demand for those “Mother and Baby” homes; because of this demand, many institutions began accepting only women who were unwed and pregnant and were permitted to stay until their babies were born. Then they were sent home (often coming from nearby towns far enough away from their hometowns that they wouldn't be spotted by anyone they knew) with vague, empty promises that their notes, letters, mementos, and photos they wanted their children to have eventually, would be saved and documented for when they were older. Contact between the birth mothers, their babies, or even the families adopting their children was little to nonexistent. Adoptive families during this period were also encouraged not to mention the adoption to their children (except in the cases of transracial adoption, but even then, as a transracial adoptee, I've heard some crazy things said to me that felt kind of insulting. So if the parents of these children were also encouraged to do the same, it wouldn't be surprising to me) and if they couldn't, they usually opt for something along the lines of, “They didn't want you because (insert drugs or alcohol or promiscuity here), and we (the adoptive family) wanted you because we (insert the reason of infertility or charity or loneliness/sense of duty here) and were more equipped to care for you than your birth mother was,” (at least this is the thing I have not only heard the most in my house but other adoptees have also cited as frequently hearing, either by their family members or friends).
The Girls Who Went Away
Often, pregnancy would befall young women who still attended school. These young women didn't have access to sex education in their schools. Most of the time, these lessons were faith-based and centered around abstinence and purity. Their teachers didn't teach them about the risks of sex (or sex at all), and sometimes these young women had naive, childlike assumptions about sex based on what their parents told them about the subject (often minimal, if at all) in their homes. Some birth mothers were so fearful of their parent's reactions that they engaged in risky behavior like drinking, drugs, and smoking to cause a miscarriage. Others attempted to will it away, denying the obvious until it was no longer possible. As you can imagine, some girls were denounced by their parents and left to fend for themselves on the street. Others had no other option but to go to their church leaders to secure a bed in one of these homes for unwed mothers (as mentioned earlier, usually several towns over), isolating them from the support of their friends and family while simultaneously protecting their reputation), tell her school that she'll be taking a leave of absence for either medical procedures, sick family members, or any excuse that would explain their absence for months at a time. If these girls were exposed by school staff or any community member with any authority to be pregnant out of wedlock, the school also had the right to kick them out, citing that their child posed the risk of corrupting other girls to sin similarly and, therefore barred from attending the school. Most of the time, the cover-up was unsuccessful, and even though it wasn't expressly said out loud, people often assumed that the reason they weren't around was that they had sinned against the Lord, and this was their punishment for consummating with the other sex. Induce Automatic Pearl-Clutching Here When these women came home from these homes, everyone around them was inclined to pretend that the whole ordeal had never happened, and parents had the idea that their daughter's life would continue as usual. Women who have openly discussed the trauma they experienced relinquishing their babies have cited that upon their return, they felt different from everyone around them. Some women, to cope with the pain of giving up a child that everyone around either didn't know existed or pretended not to know existed, engaged in even riskier behaviors than the ones that had led them there in the first place. Engaging in even more unprotected sex, drinking in excessive amounts, being promiscuous, and even going so far as to start taking hard drugs or becoming obsessed with the way they look. Some women immersed themselves in ensuring everything returned to normal while secretly feeling like some part of them had died the minute the baby had left their arms but could not speak about it. Some women never did.
The Condition and Staff of the Homes for Unwed Mothers
The last thing we have to talk about is the staff of these facilities along with their conditions. As much as I would like to denounce every single one of these institutions based solely on their purpose, not all of these homes had deplorable conditions and unkind staff. Some women described their experiences (apart from the circumstances that led them there) as relatively positive. They said that the nurses showed them kindness and understanding that wasn't always present throughout this practice. At other homes, the conditions weren't excellent, and they operated almost like a prison. The women described their time in these homes as lonely, isolating, and often scary experiences. The prenatal checkups and other routine appointments were described as invasive, with the doctor or nurse not explaining what they were doing and why. This was also true if there were complications during birth; the women were sedated and never told what was happening to them, further making the experience even more traumatizing than it needed to be. When it was time for relinquishment, the mothers got no time with their children. Some staff did feel bad enough to allow them time with their children, but most of the time, nurses were trained to remain as detached as possible. Some even go so far as to guilt the more reluctant women to give their children away. Telling them that they're dooming their children to a life of poverty, meaning the birth mothers were sluts and didn't deserve to have children; some were kinder, but the practice was just as manipulative. The more considerate nurses would only pretend to care, not using as forceful language but asking questions like, “How are you going to take off this child?” “Where would you live?” “Your parents would disown you, and then what will you do?” These methods worked. Nurses would then take the children of these unwed mothers to live with other well-off families. As much as we like to vilify birth mothers, I think it's essential for us as adoptees to understand the pain and damage that this practice (when not done correctly or with all parties involved in mind) can cause. Once we begin to process our adoption loss and grief, we tend to become angry at our adoptive parents and birth parents. Still, it's important to remember that they're also victims of this institution. We can't process our loss without understanding that everyone kind of loses uniquely. Birth mothers miss out on raising their children; adoptive parents will never look at their child's face and see one that resembles theirs, and adoptees will never experience the mother-daughter bond that is so crucial to the growth of a healthy and well-rounded child. Instead, it leaves the adoptee feeling empty and lonely, with abandonment looming over their shoulders as they struggle to find home. Everyone loses, and it's my personal goal to spread awareness about the topic since no one else seems to be doing so. I want to provide you, the adoptee, a safe place to discuss these feelings. I don't want you to feel like you're judged for being angry or shameful, or hurt because you have every right to feel these feelings. You deserve a place to express them.