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Through interviews with more than women, Fessler has paired oral histories with sociological analysis, depicting an American society blurry to those raised in an era of legal abortion. Fessler focuses on a time when high schools and colleges could expel unmarried students who became pregnant, sex education was minimal and some states barred unmarried people from purchasing contraceptives as an attempt to enforce moral standards. Afterward, the women were expected to return, explaining their absence with a story, perhaps about an out-of-town relative who needed help. They were simply told they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget. Though moving on and forgetting proved impossible, many women were shamed into keeping their secret. Their experiences are similar, and in telling their own stories, the women convey a level of guilt, sorrow and anger that simple statistics cannot get across. As an adoptee herself, Fessler connects with these women, and illuminates their stories with her own about meeting her birth mother for the first time. More than anything else, the experiences documented here demonstrate the perils of inadequate sexual education, and the way one event can alter lives no matter how much people try to suppress it. The greatest tragedy of these stories may be that the people in positions of influence, from social workers to priests to parents, seemed to try to do what they thought best. An astounding one and a half million newborn babies were given up for adoption in the United States between the end of the Second World War, in , and , when abortion was legalized. It happened in Canada, too, and it is estimated the number is more than , Behind those infants are flesh-and-blood natural mothers who suffered their loss and grief in silence. Every woman who has ever given birth or raised and nurtured a child will understand the lifelong torment suffered by these women. Ann Fessler is a U. That is, until one day she met a woman by chance in an art gallery, and they briefly thought they might be mother and daughter. She probably worries every day about what happened to you. This conversation motivated her to seek out her own mother and to find out what it was like for young unmarried women to surrender their babies. She recorded the oral histories of more than women, across the United States, who relinquished their babies in their youth. This is a well-researched and mesmerizing book which provides great insight into the mixed messages of that era and gives voice to women who have quietly suffered lifetimes of grief and shame. They ceased to be beloved daughters and instead became objects of shame. Compassion went out the window at a time when upward mobility meant everything. Birth control and abortion were illegal, and sex education was unheard of. The young men in question were let off the hook and went on with their lives. Some boys did try to stick by the girls, but more often they just dumped them. They received no counselling except a promise that they could return to a normal life at home and school, and to forget they ever had a baby. And no one talks about that in terms of a birth mother…. Why should it be any different? As in Canada, the laws are uneven. However, it is clear that no amount of letting go of shame and coming clean to families can ever set them completely free. Here is Christine, who received a picture in the mail of her adult daughter as a three-month-old baby. It was not crying…. It was like a wounded animal. The reunion unlocked it, but the pictures really burst it wide open…. I hid out in an apartment in a little town where nobody knew me. Until I found my son, when he was 28, I looked for him on every street corner and lit candles on his birthdays. So it is not surprising that I was riveted by each story. But readers who are not part of the adoption constellation will weep along with us, for the raw, wounded voices of these women makes the book compelling. This wonderful book is jam-packed with honesty, passion and occasional flashes of humour. I have only one complaint. The stigmatization of female sexuality runs through it because all of the girls interviewed were innocents who were having sex for the first time. We could still, tragically, return to the days when girls were sent away. Marilyn Churley is a former Ontario Member of Parliament and a reunited birth mother. She is writing a book that tells her personal story and her successful attempts to change the adoption laws in Ontario. The language of adoption makes it clear: A legacy of shame and guilt surrounding the circumstances that forced young women to surrender their babies has effectively silenced them from sharing the emotional fallout of that loss. Between the end of World War II and the legalization of abortion nationwide in , 1. A month or so before her due date, the girl was put on a bus or escorted by a parent to a necessarily distant maternity home, where she waited out her last weeks feeling abandoned, as she in fact had been. She does, of course, have her vested interest in the topic. In other words, it was so misleading as to be propaganda. By then she would have been aware of all that was held in common by the girls who went away, and of the importance of hearing each separate voice. In my all-girl Catholic school, sudden disappearances of girls were not uncommon. Regarding one friend, I remember we were told that she went off to Europe midway in her senior year. Some of us even received postcards, with cheery notes, postmarked from Paris. But that was just a ruse. In truth she was just a few miles away in a home for unwed mothers. She eventually gave birth and put the baby up for adoption. Years later, the smiling face in my yearbook haunts me. So should they all. Fessler interviewed more than of these mothers who relinquished their first-born child for adoption, keeping all of it a secret to preserve their reputations and save mother and child from a lifetime of ridicule. Most never discussed their experiences with anyone — ever — because of the shame and guilt. They were told that keeping it a secret would also allow them to move on and forget. But for most, if not all, losing that child was a pain that never went away, a hole in their hearts that influenced every defining moment of their futures. Recounts one woman over her loss of her son: I knew that he was looking at the same stars. A lot of my sisters are suffering in silence. I suffered this alone for 21 years so everyone around me would be comfortable: Why are you taking it so hard? He listened to the story and he comes up with the idea that I should pretend the baby was born dead and put it behind me that way. But the post-war aspirations to be the perfect Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family, what Fessler calls the pressure to conform, shunned a whole population of women into suppressed pain. The part of me that was his mother remained 17 and the rest of me continued to grow, to be a wife and a mother, eventually a nursing student. I was in therapy for a while for little bit of depression, and they said: After the birth of my first child, I had nothing. You walk out of the hospital with whatever memories you had and the stretch marks on your body. It was as if it never happened. Author follows women forced to give up babies by Jackie Burrell It was an exchange in an art gallery that first forced adoptee Ann Fessler to consider adoption from a different perspective. There, alone and frightened, they gave birth and surrendered their babies for adoption. Many of those women, now 50 to 70 years old, are still here today. And their children — the babies they relinquished under duress — are out there, somewhere. It was a different era, noted Fessler, whose myth-shattering book combines scholarly research with interviews with women. The birth-control pill was unavailable. Sex education barely existed, and abortion was not only a dirty word but a dangerous back alley operation. And the third myth was that they got over it. They were naive and powerless. Census Bureau, in the s and s, when young women had no legal access to birth control, teen pregnancy rates began to skyrocket. Between and , rates rose 78 percent, with one out of every teenage girls pregnant. Many of the women Fessler interviewed — identified only by first name in her book — were like Nancy, who became pregnant at All Nancy knew about sex was what was written on the school restroom walls. There, they waited out their time, delivered and, Fessler said, were coerced into relinquishing their babies to social workers. A prosperous middle class arose almost overnight, and status became everything. A few tried single motherhood. But most were threatened with social and family ostracism if they came home with a baby. No mention was made of support services or options. At maternity homes, 80 percent of the babies born were given up for adoption. Thirty percent never had another child — some felt it would be unfair to the child they lost, others from fear of any further loss. Four of the women Fessler interviewed had tubal ligations before they were Fessler said that guilt is undeserved. They peer into every face they pass, or apologetically approach strangers in art galleries. Some leave notes with their adoption agency or join the Soundex Reunion Registry. Or they stay quiet and keep the secret deep inside.
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