Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Kim Grayvold's daughter, Amy, as she left her at St. Joseph's Hospital in Pontiac 26 years ago. Grayvold was then 17. She wrote letters to her child that she had no way to send.
First of three parts
Empty arms, empty hearts
Sent away as girls to have babies and give them away, women confront a lifetime of pain and guilt.
Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News
Today Decades later, women forced to give up their "illegitimate children" for adoption still feel the pain. Wednesday Women recall the fear and shame of being sent away to give birth and return "as if it never happened." Thursday Reunions put birth mothers and the children they gave away on an emotional roller coaster.
Janet McDonald before she became pregnant. She gave up her baby daughter in 1967.
Social theorists attributed the rise in out-of-wedlock births to movies, TV and lack of parental discipline.
The Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital was on Elizabeth Street in Detroit. By the mid-1960s, most maternity homes in the United States were run by the Salvation Army or Florence Crittenton agencies.
In 1966, a baby like this one born to an unwed mother would have been put up for adoption immediately after birth. Most hospitals would not let the birth mother see or touch the baby.
They are the invisible walking wounded.
When these mothers lost their children, there was no public grieving. When they cried, they did so alone.
Now in their 50s and 60s, they found themselves pregnant and unmarried when they were teenagers during the decades after World War II before abortion became legal.
Today they are called "single moms." Back then, they were branded "out-of-wedlock mothers" carrying "illegitimate children." Many were told they were a disgrace to their families and communities, "immoral" and "unfit" to be mothers.
Most were plucked from their high schools or college dorms -- here one day and gone the next -- and ferried off to maternity homes, sworn to secrecy to protect their own and their families' reputations.
Friends and family were told they had gone to live with an aunt or to study abroad. They gave birth to babies they were never allowed to hold and then were pressured -- some say coerced -- to surrender their children to adoption.
Not surprisingly, these women suffered decades-long grief, clinical depression, drug and alcohol addiction, anger, persistent guilt over "giving away" their child, intimacy difficulties, lack of trust and damaged self-esteem. After decades of silence and shame, they want to be heard. They want support from mental health professionals. They want new legislation that would open their sealed adoption records so that adult adoptees and birth parents might exchange medical and other information if they so choose. And they want to foster a collective sense of healing.
"The system basically rendered me mute for 40 years," said Janet McDonald, 58, of Detroit. McDonald was 18 and a freshman at Eastern Michigan University when she became pregnant by her boyfriend. She was sent away to a home for unwed mothers and gave her baby daughter up for adoption in 1967.
"It felt like I was living a counterfeit life. Over and over, I was told I could have my reputation back if I just would tear her from my mind and heart; basically if I would live the lie. But how do you forget that you are a mother? How do you forget that someone else is raising your child because you were declared unfit and without any resources?"
Kim Grayvold of Utica was a senior at Bishop Foley High School when she got pregnant and subsequently felt pressured to surrender her daughter for adoption.
Over the years, she would write letters to her child filled with grief and longing but she had no address for them. "I still can't figure out how I walked to the elevator and out of the hospital without you," she wrote when her daughter was 7 years old.
Earlier this year, in Tampa, Fla., some 60 women who surrendered their babies during this era came from across the country to attend a retreat sponsored by Concerned United Birth Parents. It is the first nationwide support group for birth mothers and was formed 30 years ago by a birth mother searching for her child.
For five days, these women, who describe themselves as long-forgotten people of the adoption community, shared the pain of relinquishment, their difficulties searching for their children, and, in some cases, the joy of reunions.
In one-on-one interviews with The Detroit News, these now middle-aged women shared their own teenage experiences, but in many ways they told the same story.
Connie Courtade, 57, from Sparta never conceived again after giving up her daughter in 1969 at age 20.
And it was not for lack of trying (she married twice). "I was desperate to have another baby, but never did," she said. "I always felt like I was being punished for having given away my daughter. Leaving her in that hospital was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, the single largest, most regrettable act of my life.
"There were years of guilt, despair and trying to drink away the loss. I learned that all the trauma that followed in my life afterwards had such a physical effect on my body that that was the reason I couldn't ever get pregnant again."
Liz Scheader, a psychiatric nurse administrator at a hospital in Brentwood, N.Y., was attending an all-girls high school in 1969 when she surrendered her son to adoption.
"I had sex for the first time with the birth father and immediately got pregnant," she said. "The pressure to sign away your baby was enormous. The irony of relinquishment is that we were told we were doing a good thing, giving our babies a good life. But, then after the deed was done, the reaction is, how could you have given away your own flesh and blood? Even now, I'm still shocked I did it. It was like I was brainwashed.
"Later, I married a bad man. I think I married him to punish myself. Everything negative that happened I felt I deserved because of what I'd done. I've never had any other kids. I've always felt that if I couldn't have my son, I wouldn't want any others. After all, how could I? He was out there living and breathing under the same sky. I just wanted him."
Mary Ross, now a grandmother living in Elburn, Ill., said she never told anyone except her husband about the child she gave up.
"That part of my history just did not exist. We grew up repressing our feelings. People didn't share their problems like they do a la Oprah and Dr. Phil. You took care of your own and kept it to yourself. But, inside, I felt cryogenically frozen. Everybody talks about how the death of a child is the worst nightmare for a parent. But our loss just compounds itself with time. To people who say, 'Get over it,' I just want to say, 'Well, you try losing your kid in the woods for 24 years.' "
Gail Hanssen Perry of Milford, Mass. , a grandmother and widow who recently remarried, spoke of the ripple effect on her entire family.
In 1968 at age 18, Perry relinquished her baby to adoption, following her parents' well-meant directive.
"Now, my mother is 85 years old," Perry said. "If you were to ask my mother today, is there anything she would change about her life? -- she would immediately say to you: letting Gail give up her baby. She had no idea what it would mean to me. She had no idea what it would mean to her to give up her first grandchild.
"When I was 35, I wrote my parents a letter. I said I want to talk about the past. I was scared to death. My mother walked into my house with an African violet and said, 'This is a peace offering.' They couldn't go back and change anything, just like I couldn't go back and change the fact that I let my daughter go. But, they said they were sorry. It meant the world to me."
In 2002, Ann Fessler, an adoptee and professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, began to collect oral histories of birth mothers across the country and eventually published more than 100. Their anonymous stories resulted in Fessler's book "The Girls Who Went Away" (Penguin Press, 2006.) The social constructs of the time, Fessler said, somehow made it OK to treat these young woman so harshly.
"So much was predicated on the idea these babies were unwanted," Fessler said in an interview. "It's not that we didn't know they surrendered their children. It's that we didn't know they suffered such long-time grief and loss."
Birth mothers expressed gratitude toward the adoptive families who loved and raised their babies, but they said their long-held pain stems from their inability to have freely chosen adoption as the best course for them.
As Ross explained: "It's not that we didn't have any other options. It's that we were not allowed to even consider keeping our children. You did what you were told back then, even if it meant signing away your parental rights forever."
When Janet McDonald found out she was pregnant, she decided to quit school and run away. She was determined to keep her baby.
Alone and with one small suitcase, she rode a train from Ypsilanti to Chicago and then took a cab from Grand Central Railway Station to O'Hare Airport. She had booked a flight from Chicago to California, where she planned to be a waitress at a friend's restaurant and earn enough money to support herself and her baby.
But before she could board her plane, McDonald was stopped by a social worker who had been sent by her parents who had caught wind of their daughter's plan from an EMU college counselor, one of the few people in whom McDonald had confided.
She spent the months that followed at St. Agnes Foundling Home, a home for unwed mothers in Kalamazoo. To explain her sudden absence, her family told neighbors and friends McDonald had accepted an internship at a hospital.
To everyone but McDonald, surrendering her child for adoption at birth seemed a foregone conclusion. At the time, it was simply unthinkable for a white middle-class young woman to keep an "illegitimate" child.
"I was led to believe that keeping my daughter was selfish, that a baby needed two parents with money more than a baby needed its own mother -- no matter that they were strangers," McDonald said. "Who wouldn't feel inferior? No social worker, doctor, family member, counselor, teacher -- no one -- said I had any other option."
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of illegitimate births skyrocketed during the 25-year period from 1940 to 1965. The number of illegitimate births more than tripled from an estimated 89,500 in 1940 to about 291,200 in 1965. By 1970, the number of out-of wedlock births was estimated at 398,700. More than 50 percent of all of these births were to women 15 to 19.
Adoption statistics collected by private organizations indicate that more than 1.5 million babies were given up for adoption from 1951-72, the last year before abortion became legal in the U.S.
By the mid-1960s, close to 400 maternity homes were operating nationwide, and they were said to be overcrowded.
In archived stories from The Detroit News, social theorists attributed the "alarming" rise in out-of-wedlock births to "torrid movie and TV scenes, obscene literature, lack of parental discipline, night rides and hard liquor, boys and girls registering at cheap hotels and cabins, expose magazines, pep pills and reefer parties, and boys and girls going steady too early." Many shotgun weddings were arranged but, more often than not, the girls abruptly left school (up until 1972, it was legal for most high schools and colleges to expel a girl because she was pregnant) and arranged to give up their babies.
The prevailing view was summed up in 1962 in a speech given by a Port Huron Circuit Court judge at an annual meeting in Detroit of the Michigan Judges Association:
"Removing the illegitimate child from its mother would give it the opportunity of growing up in a social and religious atmosphere acceptable to society. Such acceptance is the birthright of every child.
"In too many cases, mothers keep their illegitimate child, not for love, but as a cross to bear. The child is not a doll, but a human being that should have the opportunity of growth removed from the selfish love of a mother who is using the child as a means of reminder to herself of her mistake."
Such was the tenor of the times for McDonald when she went into labor on Aug. 9, 1967. Because her labor moved rapidly, she was rushed from St. Agnes to Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo.
Four hours later, with little childbirth education and adoption counseling, she gave birth to a healthy 6-pound, 11 1/2 -ounce daughter. McDonald named her Lisabeth Rae.
In the delivery room, she was advised not to hold her newborn daughter, a common practice to prevent any mother-child bonding. But McDonald demanded her baby be placed in her arms. She marveled at her daughter's beautiful head of dark hair, stroked her tiny fingers. Then, the moment was over.
Four days later, she walked out of the hospital alone. She climbed into the back seat of her parents' waiting car where her mother cried quietly on the ride home. "I felt utterly empty," McDonald remembered. "Empty womb, empty arms, empty heart."
Weeks later, with one bang of the gavel, McDonald's baby was given up in an adoption cloaked in confidentiality, sealed records and doctored birth certificates. This irreversible decision, made in her youth, has been under lock and key ever since.
In the dark months that followed, she returned to college but hardly fit in: "I kept wanting to scream: 'I'm a mother! I'm a mother!' " she said. One day, she wrote a letter on loose-leaf lined paper that read:
"My dear daughter,
Many long months I knew the joy of your little body within me. And now those months seem all too short. You are the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. Only once I held you. I told you then that whatever you became, I hoped you would learn the importance of love. And your eyes looked as if they understood. My darling I never meant to give you away. You were the joy of my life and it took all the strength I had to sign the papers that released you. Someday we will know each other again, I know. If God hears the prayer I send every day, it will be so. Until then, know that I love you more than anyone ever will. I love you my first born, my black-haired daughter. God bless you."
You can reach Marney Rich Keenan at (313) 222-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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