Tuesday, February 16, 2010

THE GIRLS WHO WENT AWAY The Hidden History of Women who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade

Ann Fessler, the author of The Girls Who Went Away, wrote this book after working on interviewing women who surrendered children for adoption. She was doing an audio and video project on the subject, and apparently, the topic grew into a book! Ms. Fessler is also an adoptee, who after years, decided to search for her birth mother.

I found the book fascinating. I have worked with women the past 20 some years, counseling in a drug rehab program, so I have had a lot of experience working with women, both as adoptees and as mothers who have given up children or as women trying to decide what to do once they find they are pregnant. I had never read anything that has come close to actually touching what these women have gone through, until I came across this book.

The book consists of interviews of women of all ages, who "gave up" their babies. I will never be able to hear the term "gave up" in the same way. These women did not "give up" their babies. In almost all cases, the decision was made for them, they had no say in it, and they most certainly did not willingly give up their babies. Incredibly sad.

I was struck by many things in the book. One was how secret everything was kept, especially up to maybe the 1970's. The older women who were interviewed who had babies in the 1930's and 1940's spoke of the absolute secrecy that was imposed and instilled in them for the rest of their lives. Once the baby was born, the family never, ever spoke of it again. And the mother was expected to never, ever tell another living soul that she had a child that was given up.

Even some of these women who went for therapy for their depression later in life never told the therapist about having the baby. Ms. Fessler wrote:

"The symptoms described by the women I interviewed are precisely the same as those of the surrendering mothers chronicled in professional studies of their grief. Many women had experienced several-and some nearly all-of the following symptoms: depression; damaged self-esteem; persistent guilt, shame, and self-loathing over 'giving away' their child; an enduring sense of emptiness and loss that is not erased by having other children; persistent loneliness or sadness; difficulty with intimacy, attachment, or emotional closeness; lack of trust; anger; severe headaches or physical illnesses that cannot be explained or diagnosed; and occasionally posttraumatic stress disorder, characterized by extreme anxiety, panic attacks, flashback , and nightmares."

And yet, the women walked around in their everyday lives never sharing the biggest loss that anyone could ever experience.

A few of the women spoke of how shortly before their mothers (or someone close to them) died, their mother had apologized or at least acknowledged the fact that the woman had had a baby, and how just that little bit of acknowledgment lead to some tiny healing for them.

I have come across some instances of adoption in my genealogy work, and have found it incredibly frustrating. One of the frustrations is that as the book points out, the women were did not use their real names while in the maternity homes so that no one would later know who they were. And the other hard part is that everything is SO secret! Even 60 years later, an adoption will not be acknowledged. Unbelievable!

The book does an excellent job telling the pain of losing a child, not through death, but through adoption, knowing that the child is out there somewhere.

I know that there are a lot of thoughts on whether mothers and children should try to find each other and those are tough calls. Hopefully, open adoptions address some of these hard issues. But if there is one thing that needs to be learned after reading this book, is how important it is to address the shame and secrecy of giving up a child for adoption. Just because the baby is gone, none of the feelings are gone.

Again, really good book! One of those books that I found in the sale aisle at Barnes and Noble.

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