Scared, living a lie
Pregnant teens found themselves on the run or hiding to spare their families the shame
Marney Rich Keenen
Detroit News file
Unmarried mothers-to-be stay in the Crittenton home in Washington, D.C., in 1975. Many families concocted elaborate stories to conceal pregnancies. Day 1: Tuesday Decades later, women forced to give up their "illegitimate children" for adoption still feel the pain. Day 2: Today Women recall the fear and shame of being sent away to give birth and return "as if it never happened." Day 3: Thursday Reunions put birth mothers and the children they gave away on an emotional rollercoaster.
Some teenage girls caught pregnant and unmarried in the 1950s to the early 1970s ran away rather than face the scorn and humiliation.
Others broke the news to their parents behind closed doors. After tears and recriminations, the girls were pulled out of school and sequestered in maternity homes.
Those whose families could not afford maternity homes hid the pregnancies from the outside world under large sweat shirts or tent-like dresses. When going out, some recalled laying down in the back seat of the car.
Now, three and four decades later, these birth mothers are coming out of the adoption closet for the first time to tell how they gave up their babies under duress and how their grief has wreaked havoc in their lives since.
By giving voice to their long-held secrets, they hope to lay a path for healing, reform adoption laws and educate mental health professionals about their needs.
Their stories have a sad sameness. Wherever these girls were hidden while their bellies grew, the common thread was the elaborate stories the families wove to conceal the pregnancy. The postcards mailed from abroad, the ailing aunt who suddenly needed care, the apprenticeship too good to pass up were all ruses, of course, but better to live the lie than tell the truth. It wasn't just the girls' reputation at stake, but the whole family's standing in the community.
Ethel Vandenberg, 58, who now lives in Fife Lake, a small village near Grand Rapids, became pregnant in 1965 by a boy she says she loved very much. She was a 17-year-old high school senior and the boy was 16.
"I didn't even admit to myself that I was pregnant; it just couldn't be," she said. "My father would kill me. Just before Christmas vacation, my mom finally dragged me to the doctor. There was no doubt about it. I was six months already.
"My mind was disconnected from my body, probably from shock and fear. I had let my parents down. I had to stay out of school, and after exploring all the options, my father said that I had to give up my baby for adoption. It cost too much money to go to a home, so I stayed at home.
"I hid it well, telling no one at all. I spent most of my time in the utility room if company visited or my sister's friends came over. At least it was near the bathroom."
During her last trimester, Vandenberg says, she remained detached, not thinking about the baby inside her, although he kicked her like crazy. "It was for survival, I know now," she says. "And emotional self-protection because if I thought too hard, I would lose control."
On March 28, 1966, and already in labor, Vandenberg was dropped off at the emergency room entrance of the hospital. Hours later, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, whom she never held, never touched.
"I have blanked out the trip to court to sign papers," she says. "I have no memory of that day."
Afterward, she says, "I became promiscuous and wild, drinking and feeling nothing. I even married a man after knowing him for a month and left him the next month. What a disaster."
In the decades to follow, Vandenberg finally married happily. But when she was hit with breast cancer and subsequent mastectomies, "none of it bothered me much," she says. "You see, I didn't feel much emotionally. I always thought, is this all there is?
"I frequently prayed to God to forgive this horrible, worthless person for giving up my son without a fight. I still had periods of wildness and drinking, but my (present) husband stuck by me. I had no idea why I acted out so badly at times. But it was because I never grieved the loss of my son. They were right about getting over it. I didn't feel it at all, but I felt very little else, either."
In 1966, Mary Carolan was pregnant and 16, the summer before her senior year at St. Stephen's High School in Port Huron. Her mother was desperate for her to marry.
"My mother said to me, 'You're three months' pregnant and you've brought enough shame on the family. You're going to marry him,' " Carolan says. Her mother even purchased an engagement ring, handing it to Mary's boyfriend, Richard. "But I couldn't get married at 16. I just couldn't."
Instead, Carolan went to live with an older sister in Sterling Heights, where she kept house for her sister's family and helped care for her niece. Her mother said Carolan was away taking care of an ailing relative. The cover story didn't work. After Carolan delivered a baby at Mount Sinai Hospital in Detroit and returned home, she was taunted by former classmates who called her a whore.
Tina Caudill was 20 years old and pregnant in 1966. Then, working as a secretary in the central office of an automotive company in Detroit, she told her parents she had been transferred temporarily to St. Louis. She set up a post office box in St. Louis and got a subscription to the local paper so she could provide tidbits of local happenings in letters from her phantom new home.
In reality, Caudill been forced to quit her job once it was discovered she was unmarried and expecting. She spent the rest of her pregnancy as a contracted live-in domestic a few miles away from her home. She got room and board and was paid $10 a week for light housekeeping and helping to care for the family's two children.
"The thing that kills me is that I was good enough to take care of other people's children, but not good enough to take care of my own," Caudill says.
She never did tell her mother the truth about the child she put up for adoption. "It would have given her a nervous breakdown," Caudill says.
Donna Roth of Ann Arbor was 17 and a senior in high school when she got pregnant. Her parents shipped her off to California through an arrangement with a physician who was an infertility specialist and had arranged many adoptions. She lived for six months with a family, caring for a 10-year-old and 6-year-old.
Having the baby adopted out of town was not an uncommon practice, especially if the relationship between the birth parents was commonly known.
"When my daughter was born," Roth says, "I was told not to look at her. I never held her. My last look at her was bundled in pink and being carried out of the hospital by her mother and father. As merely conveyance for this beautiful baby girl, I watched all this in tears."
Kim Grayvold of Utica was a senior at Bishop Foley High School when she got pregnant and subsequently felt pressured to surrender her baby for adoption.
When she handed over her baby, "I honestly felt like I had lost a limb, like a part of me had been amputated," she says.
Barb Anderson Kari ran away from her Saline home to Boston in 1959 when she found out she was pregnant. "I couldn't walk around pregnant without a ring on my finger in those days," she says. "So, I just disappeared. I didn't tell my parents. I just ran off.
"Finally, my mother found out, and she flew out and we went to see a minister. He recommended a Salvation Army maternity home in Sharon, 22 miles outside of Boston. My mother said if I kept the baby, it could grow up being called a bastard on the playground and how would I like that?"
Before she left for the maternity home, Anderson Kari says, she was offered $2,000 from her boss at the factory where she had been working.
"People would pay a lot of money for white babies; they were in such high demand. My boss even said I could get my job back afterwards if I'd sell it. Can you imagine selling your baby? I told him to shove it, or words to that effect."
These were the social pressures of the time facing Janet McDonald of Detroit and countless other young, unwed pregnant women.
When she returned home after trying to run away to California, McDonald says she was terrified. "I knew that what I'd done was going to change the balance and rapport in our family. I'd hurt my parents so badly; I didn't think they could ever love me anymore. And I had a little sister who was 11 years old at the time, and I thought she'd never look up to me again."
McDonald's mother took her to her first gynecological exam, where the pregnancy was confirmed, and then arranged for McDonald to stay at the St. Agnes Foundling Home in Kalamazoo.
"We had to devise a story in case neighbors wondered where I was for the summer," McDonald says. "Since the maternity home was housed in a hospital, we decided to say I had gone to work for a hospital for the experience. The plan was that as soon as the baby was born, I would go back to college, and no one would ever be the wiser."
She saw no option but to acquiesce to her parents' wishes. St. Agnes, run by nuns, was smaller than most maternity homes; it was actually a dormitory within the hospital with 13 beds and a small adjacent living room with a black and white TV.
But its rules and regulations were similar to those of most maternity homes of that era. The girls knew each other by first name only, no last names allowed. Mail was screened, and visits had to be preapproved. Outings were usually supervised. Going to the movie theater two blocks away from the hospital was a momentous occasion. Lights were out at 10 p.m. During the day, the girls were required to work in the hospital laundry room.
There were no prenatal or childbirth classes offered in most maternity homes. The girls knew little of what was going on with their bodies; many went into labor unprepared. McDonald's mother had given her books to read while she was expecting.
"I devoured them," McDonald says, "though they were a bit of a mixed blessing. I tried the exercises and the breathing techniques and a sense of pride began to emerge. I guess I thought I was helping my baby be healthy.
"But there was one book that made me sad because the woman in it was happily counting down the months, she had a husband and they both were so excited."
Much of McDonald's time alone was spent weaving fantasies. "Mom and Dad would see the baby and realize they had made a mistake," she says. "Or it would be a baby boy, and that would make Bobby (the baby's father) change his mind.
"Or what if it was a girl and it looked like me, it would be like giving up a piece of myself, and then I'd get all depressed. Honestly, most nights I just cried myself to sleep."
Her labor was fast -- four hours from start to finish. Again, the prevailing rule among hospital staff was to advise the new mother not to hold her newborn.
In some hospitals, mothers couldn't even see their babies. A sheet would be held up at the mother's chest to prevent a glimpse. Some of the mothers interviewed by The Detroit News said they were blindfolded. The reasoning was that if mother and child had no physical contact, no bond would form. The separation would have no lasting effects, and the baby could bond with a new mother.
But McDonald was insistent and convinced the nurses to allow her to hold her baby daughter, if only for a minute.
She studied her tiny little hands, whispered "I love you," and the baby was taken to the nursery. Later, she sneaked to the nursery and peered through the window. Someone had put a little bow on top of her daughter's head of black hair.
Four days later, McDonald walked out of the hospital, leaving her baby behind. She climbed into the back seat of her waiting parents' car. "I felt utterly empty," she says.
In the days that followed, a social worker began visiting McDonald at home while her daughter was put into foster care.
" 'Of course, adoption would be the best decision, of course,' is all she'd say," McDonald remembers. "I was young and could get on with my life, she told me. It all felt like resignation.
"You know, I will never know what the strongest factor was: whether I felt guilty for shaming my family, or that everybody was telling me a baby needs two parents.
"All I know is that when I was alone, I felt I had no other choice, no other option. I can't say I was convinced that it was the best thing for my baby. But the whole world was convinced it was, and I just couldn't fight the whole world."
When McDonald returned to college that fall, she had no interest in studying or classes. "College was simply something I had to fulfill in order to someday make sense of what had happened," she says.
Not long into her fall semester, she decided to look up a roommate at St. Agnes who was also a student at EMU. She was a pretty blonde girl who had given her baby up for adoption a few months before her.
McDonald was hoping to renew their friendship so maybe they could help each other through their shared experience.
"She pretended not to know anything about what I was talking about," McDonald says. "I was stunned."