The pee test came up positive. There they were, two lines, side by side, rose and ghostly.
It was the 1980s, and I was a full-time college student. I’d just been dumped by a guy I was convinced I loved and I was trying to figure out what the rest of my life was going to look like. I was frozen with indecision, attracted to every kind of career. So many could-be lives beckoned and called to me that I found it impossible to decide on just one. Even choosing a single academic major meant a dozen other fields I’d never master, a whole array of breath-taking magical lives I’d never get to live.
Single motherhood wasn’t one of those lives. Besides, I knew enough to know that solo parenting required a person be all-in. And the idea of being all-in on any one thing scared the hell out of me. But there it was: that positive test. And all those dazzling lives? Gone.
I was pro-choice and unreligious, but for complicated reasons, many of them naïve or cocksure, I decided to bring my child to term and relinquish him for adoption. I had great health insurance. I was horse-healthy. I had support from family and friends. I figured I’d spend the next nine months carrying my child to term, continuing my waitressing job, and completing my degree. Not easy, but doable. Right?
The decision upended my life, and not because of the difficulty of those nine months, which was significant. Less than 24 hours after my son was born, I signed relinquishment papers—then learned the delivery had mutilated my cervix. Worse: My child was being screened for meningitis. It seemed to me unlikely the adopters would want an unhealthy baby, unlikely they’d feel the same sense of responsibility for him that had been growing in me for nine whole months.
I hadn’t considered what now seems patently obvious, that these are the selfsame risks every mother takes when she decides to bring a child into the world: her child’s quality of life—and her own. That if all other parenting options evaporate, his natural mother is the only person he has in the world.
The decision upended my life, and not because of the difficulty of those nine months, which was significant.
After a few crushing days, my son’s diagnosis was revised. He recovered and was adopted, which was the outcome I wanted. But for years to come I felt terrified for him—and bereft.
Also alienated. I couldn’t square my grief with the one-dimensional portrayals of birth mothers I saw in movies, novels and television, women who relinquished their children, then started blissfully afresh. Was I some strange outlier, or were such portrayals simply incomplete?
As a college student trapped in my own personal dilemma, I hadn’t wanted to hear other people’s stories, hadn’t wanted to claim the world of motherhood, hadn’t wanted to spend even one extra minute in it. It felt too gooey. But decades later, older and less wild-eyed, here I was, still wondering if other birth mothers felt the way I did. I started reading women’s stories. I fell right into the mind-boggling terrain of unplanned pregnancy in America. My research pulled me into the history all the way up to my neck. I swam around in it. It was gooey. There I found my mother’s peers and their mother’s mothers and many other mothers besides.
Enter Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito, making the case that many other Americans make: Women don’t need abortion rights when they can choose adoption. By the time Justice Alito drafted his opinion, I’d been obsessing for years about the history of women who’d done just that.
The mid-20th century was the heyday of American domestic adoption. Between 1940 and 1964, rates of “illegitimate” pregnancy skyrocketed in every demographic group and every level of society. It was an era when medical professionals and social workers agreed: For unplanned pregnancy, adoption was the best solution. Consensus was so unanimous that historian Rickie Solinger called it an “adoption mandate.”
Middle-class Americans kept their pregnancies secret. Schools expelled unwed mothers, and companies fired them. Thousands became invisible. Those with the most financial resources were admitted to private maternity homes, where some 80 percent relinquished their children to adoption. Such homes had conflicting missions: Were they supposed to be safe havens for exiled mothers, or were they adoption agencies recruiting prospective donors? The answer seems to have depended upon who was running the place. But the homes’ other clients, white childless couples desperate for infants, became their own financial incentive: Find white women to sign away their newborn babes.
The mental health community believed that unwed pregnancy was intentional, either consciously or subconsciously, and an indication of broader personality disorders. There were a host of hypotheses explaining why “girls” got themselves pregnant, many of which sound almost comedic today: “misplaced sexuality,” Oedipal complexes, castration complexes, narcissism, “girls who have never been loved,” and gender “confusion” in her own parents (in other words, the “mom wears the pants” theory). But mental health professionals did agree on one thing: that unweds were de facto unsuitable parents, and that a young mother’s first step toward mental, spiritual and emotional health was to admit her mistake by giving her baby away. Only then could she begin to recover.
Research psychology also played an outsized role in the lives of some adoptees: Institutions gave scientists permission to use temporarily unparented babies as research subjects. Most notoriously, Louise Wise Services in New York City allowed psychiatrists to conduct the infamous “twins separated at birth” experiments.
Poor and working-class mothers and infants experienced a raft of other indignities and tragedies. These mothers were never “diagnosed” or admitted to maternity homes at all. They couldn’t afford such places, and even if they could, many were considered undesirable candidates. Race and ethnicity were enormous factors. Black women faced the particular bias of the day: that they were prone to “fecundity” and should be left to rely on whatever financial and emotional generosity their families’ could spare. Of the women who didn’t go to the homes, there are few records, but 70 percent of their pregnancies probably ended in adoption too, often brokered by family, friends, ministers, doctors or freelance entrepreneurs. Most kept no public records.
For those without a safety net, one option was to work as a domestic servant in exchange for room and board, living in a kind of secret quasi-indentured servitude, or in a private “wage home,” earning money for medical bills while carrying out duties as housekeepers and laundresses. In 1956, the Kefauver Committee, which headed a series of congressional hearings investigating the black and gray markets in adoption, reported that some of these wage homes’ “services” weren’t services at all. Many such places required so much housework and fed their residents so poorly that they actually operated at a healthy profit. Some wage homes told their residents that if they decided to keep their babies, they’d have to pay thousands of dollars in back medical bills and boarding fees to compensate for their change of plans.
Today it’s no secret that a woman’s pregnancy brings tremendous hormonal upheaval, and that this transformation helps create the emotional bond between mothers and their fetuses. But most women planning adoption weren’t prepared for this biological metamorphosis, and some changed their minds and wanted to keep their children—yet in many instances, the decision had been already been made for them. Many felt that the outcome was inescapable.
Often it was. Solinger’s history describes con artists and scams in every part of the country.
Young women in the Edna Gladney Home in Texas placed their babies with the belief that they had a six-month “grace period” to make the decision—but found that if they did reconsider, their children were already gone. The Tennessee Children’s Home Society stole more than a thousand infants from poor and unmarried women who had been drugged or duped, then housed those same newborns without medical care, and eventually sold the surviving babies to wealthy patrons. Other mothers in other facilities were told they were placing their children in “temporary care,” only to find that they were gone forever. Revocation periods were not necessarily honored. Once the baby was placed with a family, such clauses were difficult or impossible for young women without legal representation to implement. A social worker could stall until the waiting period had expired. Few unwed mothers knew their rights or how to go about securing them.
No matter what station in life they came from, single mothers remember being coerced, pressured or tricked into giving up their rights, sometimes by professionals, sometimes by freelance adoption agents, and very often by their own parents.
At the time, gray market adoptions were legal transactions. There were hundreds of private entrepreneurs procuring children they could release to adopting parents in exchange for money. Because adoption laws were so inadequate, freelancers didn’t have to answer to anyone. Some of them used legitimate means to secure custody of the children in their care, and some did not. Incredibly, such entrepreneurs probably arranged more than a third of the adoptions in mid-century America, seeking out single mothers whose lack of money and family support made them most desperate.
One Kansas woman housed pregnant women in the basement of her home for months at a time, then delivered the babies herself and sold them to the highest bidders. Other independent brokers thought of themselves as moral reformists, believing they were making the world better by transferring babies from irresponsible parents to more deserving ones. There were doctors and lawyers who lured single mothers to their offices and later negotiated for their babies, sometimes using the pressure of unpaid medical bills. One Georgia court officer “made children available” by telling mothers that their babies had been born dead. Women who had had twins sometimes never knew there was a second child. Death and birth certificates were forged, records burned. If a contested case ended up in court, some judges felt morally justified in separating children from “immoral” mothers.
No matter what station in life they came from, single mothers remember being coerced, pressured or tricked into giving up their rights, sometimes by professionals, sometimes by freelance adoption agents, and very often by their own parents. Many of these birth mothers grieved both their lost children and their lost sense of agency for decades to come. Studies correlated these birth mothers’ trauma with their lack of agency.
The biggest difference between those mid-century “unweds” and me was that I’d made the decision myself. I’d had a choice. I’d had agency. The experience had devastated me, but it had also left me empowered.
These days, the laws surrounding adoption are more transparent, but they vary from state to state. Some stipulate that mothers cannot be under the influence of delivery room drugs when they’re presented with relinquishment papers. Other states do not. Like women who’ve sought abortion rights, those who’ve chosen adoption have struggled with the very same thing: the say-so over their own decisions and bodies.
And me? After years of research, I found the answer I was looking for. The TV and movie portrayals of birth mothers were even more simplistic than I’d ever guessed. But I wasn’t a worst-case scenario. Far from it. I was one of the lucky ones. The biggest difference between those mid-century “unweds” and me was that I’d made the decision myself. I’d had a choice. I’d had agency. The experience had devastated me, but it had also left me empowered.
Over the years, friends have asked my advice about their unplanned pregnancies or their daughters’. I don’t give advice. What I say is that I’m thrilled that my son walks the earth, but that the emotional cost was so much higher than I’d imagined. That there was no “clean slate” afterward, only loss. That if I were faced with the same circumstances a second time, I would probably choose an early abortion. That what saved me in the end was the ability to make the choice myself.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.