Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Invisible Veil"

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by Margaret Benshoof-Holler

She could have been any of the veiled Afghani women that have been written about in the U.S. media since September 11. But the woman I stood listening to one Saturday afternoon last fall in Sacramento, California was an American woman whose veil was invisible, whose story had been silenced and hidden.

Her child had been taken away. It was as if it had died. Except there was no funeral, no wailing wall for her to pound her fists on and cry! The woman was expected to just get on with her life and pretend that she hadn't just given her child away.

With thirty-some years of internalized emotion still causing her voice to quake when she recalled signing her name on the relinquishment papers, the fifty-six-year-old woman in Sacramento spoke of the pain and grief of losing her daughter to adoption. As I listened, I was reminded that here in the U.S. we often deal with loss by covering up our emotions. I was also reminded that the U.S. was bombing Afghanistan because we lost over 3,000 very dear people. No one, though, ever went to war for these women whose losses were in the millions of newborn lives.

The exact number of women who gave children up for adoption during the era of the 60s is not readily obtainable. The numbers jumped from “50,000 in 1944” to “175,000 in 1970,” according to one source. Another source estimated the number of women who relinquished children to adoption in the 1960s and 70s reached a peak of 250,000 a year. The stigma associated with getting pregnant out of wedlock then contributed to a need for secrecy. The need to hide these pregnancies meant complete information was not always gathered. Thus the reason for approximates rather than exact figures. Nonetheless, it is unquestionable that a large number of women gave up children for adoption during the 1960s and reached a peak some time in the 70s.

And, if even half of the women who gave their children up for adoption in the 60s had banded together their voices would surely have been heard, but they had not been taught nor encouraged to use their voices. Societal dictates, including puritanical attitudes about sex, women, and pregnancy, silenced the voices of many women for many years.

When one loses a child, mother, father, or husband to death, there is a funeral and a time of mourning. That hasn't been the case for most of the 6,000,000 birthmothers in the U.S. who have lost their children to adoption. Relinquishing her child to adoption is looked upon as a single mother's duty for getting herself into that situation to begin with rather than a deeply painful separation of mother and child. In that respect, not much has changed since the 60s. Societal attitudes towards unwed mothers consider adoption a logical consequence to out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Guilt and shame kept unwed mothers' voices stifled during the McCarthy and post-McCarthy era of the 60s, but a small group of birthmothers began, in the 1980s, to find the children they gave up for adoption in the 60s. They began to come to terms with their loss. It is only with the advent of the Internet that more birthmothers have begun to come out of the closet. Many still only talk about what happened to them with each other in much the same way that veterans of World War II and Vietnam only talked afterwards with those who understood what they had been through. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms effect a number of birthmothers.

When President Bush proclaimed November as National Adoption Month in 2001, he did not mention or honor the large group of American women who have lost their children to adoption. He did not present a plan of prevention for unplanned pregnancies or a way to provide free daycare to help financially-strapped mothers keep, rather than give up their babies to the adoption industry. His strong adoption stance appears to fall closely in line with one of his apparent supporters-the Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth, Texas, which was one of the biggest contributors to the National Council for Adoption in their effort to keep birth records closed. President Bush didn't address the issue of opening birth records either. Closed birth records cut adoptees off from knowing who they are and do not protect birthmothers because the majority of them want to be found.

Even though U.S. women have progressed since the 60s in the areas of education and upward economic mobility and many single women are raising children on their own today, there is still a stigma about anything related to a woman having a baby outside of the confines of marriage. I see it in the way that stories about single mothers are reported in the media. Young mothers are made to sound like criminals if they want to keep their children.

One-hundred and forty million people in the U.S. have an adoption in their immediate families. Engrained views and practices pertaining to loss, sex, and adoption help keep many, like the birthmother in Sacramento, veiled and hidden. In this respect, the U.S. tends to fall behind every other industrialized country, most of which have stopped separating the natural mother from her child after it is born except in extreme situations.

The woman that I stood listening to in Sacramento was coerced into giving her child up for adoption in the 60s. She was then encouraged to keep the whole thing hidden. Her story stayed that way for over thirty years. It is time that we recognize and honor her motherhood.

"Invisible Veil" © copyright 2002 by Margaret Benshoof-Holler

"Burning of the Marriage Hat is a powerful book that uses the medium of fiction to explore serious social issues." --Cynthia Parkhill, Lake County Record-Bee
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Anonymous said...


I enjoyed this article very much.

Our daughter's nor granddaughter's don't realize or even have to think how it was for us in the past. They are allowed to obtain good birth control, they are allowed to obtain an abortion if that's what they want, they are allowed to raise their baby.

Only those who were truly given NO choices, understand the place we were put in because we were pregnant.

I am glad for the women of today that they do have choices, I am sad that many of those women including my daughter (who was able to have an abortion) and granddaughter will NEVER understand the pain of being forced into surrendering one's OWN baby.

My own found son nor his daughter doesn't seem to grasp what happened, or they don't want to, it would burst the happy adoption bubble pf adoptress who just wanted a baby to raise, anyone's baby. It would actually make me the mother of my son look a little less inhumane,(as if there was a choice in adoption in the sixties looks like the mother didn't care) and make the adoptress (out agressively searching for her NEXT purchase the supply and demand theroy) look a little more greedy and that just would NOT do in the fairy tale adoption world.

The denial that I as a mother, had no choice.

When I think of my sixties born kids BOTH of them were able to choose abortions for their babies, for whatever reason, they were not ready, judging people etc.

They chose and were able to choose.
I remember having that discussion with my found son. He couldn't quite grasp that I didn't and couldn't have an abortion. He was upset that I would "even" speak that way, but what he wasn't factoring in WAS he "did" have a choice. He chose to abort his baby thus, there was no one "questioning" his decisions.His baby DID not live to question, and that is the difference. HE WAS there, questioning me, while his OWN child was not.

There was no questioning whether he did the right thing or wrong thing. No punishment for getting a girl pg and not marrying her.(as if the male ever suffered or paid for any pregnancy) He just didn't live in the time of truly NO CHOICE.

Believe me even WITH all the questions, ALL the shame I carry for getting pregnant, all the blame for giving birth young and unmarried, all the judging while the judger's are the ones that benefited, or were able to take another route because they could, I
would and did live through this horrendous, cruelty, of adoption and I am able to tell what happened even if it is on deaf ears, I have told, I will NOT be silenced again. I will NOT be put into the closet to make them or any OTHER person comfortable.

NOT MATTER WHAT I have and will tell my truth. EVEN if the truth hurts THEM or ME. THEY need the truth not the lies that adoption tells.

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