Emotional day yesterday. I traveled to Hartford for the screening of Ann Fessler‘s acclaimed documentary, A Girl Like Her, which chronicles the 1 million+ women who relinquished their babies for adoption in the 1950s and ’60s.
Access Connecticut, the grassroots group working to restore the right of adult adoptees born in the state to have access to their original birth certificates, sponsored the screening and an informative Q&A.
On hand were numerous birth mothers, adoptees, adoption rights advocates, and some adoptive parents.
The film is an eye-opener. Fessler shares the heartbreak of 100 young women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, were banished to maternity homes, pressured to relinquish their children and told to go on with their lives, forget it ever happened.
Watch the trailer here. (Seriously, watch it.)
I was eager to see the film both because I have been doing a bit of volunteering with Access Connecticut and because Fessler’s book, The Girls Who Went Away, helped cement my decision to search for my first mother some years ago.
You see, I am the daughter of A Girl Like Her.
I read The Girls Who Went Away in a single sitting one warm Sunday afternoon in 2009, sobbing with every turn of the page. Before that, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to what it must have been like for Pat, my first mother. I was, I suppose, engaged in too much navel-gazing at the time. But here on the pages were glimpses of the pain and sorrow she endured, hints that the decision she made had likely not been her decision at all — and the first I realized that she might want to know me, too.
Closing the back cover of that book, I allowed myself to let go of the mantle I’d adopted, the one that said, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. She didn’t want me. And besides, I have no right to intrude. I’m probably still a secret and it’s better if I stay that way.”
And I set out to find her.
In January, when I spoke to Pat for the first time, I learned that, 47 years later, I was still a secret. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be revealed. My two half-brothers and the rest of the family didn’t know about me.
What would they think?
Her shared shame permeated the screening yesterday. It is a hair shirt many birth mothers can never remove. And shame’s shadow dogs us adoptees, too, as do secrets and lies.
Late in the day, I met Gary, a man a little older than me who found his first mother a year ago. She is delighted to be connected again. And so, very clearly, is he. He proudly showed me her photo on his phone. His mother is a beauty with an engaging smile. They talk or text nearly every day, he said, and he’s been to visit her. But it’s all on the down low because she can’t bring herself to tell her other children or her husband. She fears her husband will divorce her. She has instead given him a letter to share with his brothers after she is gone.
As he tells me his story, Gary’s eyes brim with tears.
He wanted to know about my reunion, still in its early stages. I felt guilty telling him that the family has embraced me, that some cousins traveled distances to meet me in June, that we are connected on Facebook. But Gary said it was good to hear my story, to compare notes and gain understanding.
After all, we adoptees are an odd fraternity, little understood outside our circle.
Back at home, I called Pat, wanting to know how much the film’s anecdotes reflect her story. I asked questions I hadn’t ventured to ask before.
She spoke of being alone, isolated, of wishing she could have kept me, but being comforted knowing I would be with a couple who wanted me so desperately.
Unlike a lot of birth mothers of the time, who were not allowed to hold or see the children they delivered, Pat was able to return to St. Faith’s Home for Unwed Mothers with me in tow for a few days. She was glad to have the time with me, short as it was.
Her parents did not come to visit after my birth. They never saw me.
Ten days after I was born, Pat had me baptised, with a local pastor and one of the home’s baby nurses as witnesses, and turned me over to Westchester Family Services.
No one in her family ever discussed the matter again. Until I arrived on the scene early this year, that is.
She pushes regret away, she says, because she thinks that as she gets to know me now, maybe it was meant to be this way. For if it happened differently, I wouldn’t be the me I am today, there would be no Basil in my life, there would be no Catherine.
We marvel when we talk at how easy our conversation is, how alike some of our thinking is, and how she and I share a distinctive bond.
This, too, Pat takes philosophically: “It’s like you were there all the time.”
We are a tribe! Thanks for sharing. My birth mother gave me up in a home for unwed mothers in Wisconsin. I currently live in LA and hope a screening of the movie happens here soon. I’ve always had empathy for her, and wanted her to know I’m safe, but I found her too late. She had died at the young age of 36, over 30 years ago. I’ve connected with her twin brother and sisters and found an unexpected life line through my cousin, her twins son who lives not more than 3 miles from me. But, I still want to know her, and the girls she went away with. Do you know of any groups or organizations from these unwed mother homes that help re-connect people? Anyway, nice reading your blog. Lots of love to you!
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. I’m glad you have found positive family connections.
You can follow the screening schedule for A Girl Like her at http://agirllikeher.com/
It is a powerful film. Bring lots of tissues.
As for groups that connect birth moms, I’m sure there are many but I am not aware of any in Wisconsin. Perhaps an online search would point you in the right direction?
My father was adopted at birth in 1949 in the mid-West, probably due to similar circumstances you describe here. Unfortunately he died in a car accident at age 30. His history became important when my son was born in 2006 but there is no way to access any of it. I hope by shedding light on this, you can help those families reunite or at least obtain family histories.
I sit here pregnant with my third child and, as I read your story, I couldn’t imagine being told that I had to give up my child – any one of them. My heart breaks for those mothers who made that decision against their wishes. I also feel hopeful as I read you say that maybe it was meant to be this way because you wouldn’t be the person you are without the life you have and do lead.
Thank you for sharing it on the Thumping Thursdays Blog Hop.
Thanks for stopping by … And congratulations to you! I hope you are feeling well.
This is an amazing, remarkable and beautifully written piece that may offer hope to others. My mom was adopted as a baby in 1929 and always wanted to find her birth mother or information about her family, but those documents were sealed. I am so happy for you that you have closure and have gotten to know more of your family members.
Recently read the book. Started searching for my birth mother. After only 3 weeks, I think I may have found her. Not sure how to go about contacting her. Lots of emotions here. She is 73 and I am 56. Any ideas?
Terri, like always…your words have a huge impact on people… Very touching…
Thanks John; means so much coming from you.
I am one of the
“Girls who went away”. The book was so healing for me. I thought I was the only one ! So wish I could see the movie in person with other first mothers, but it is not booked for anywhere near where I live. I did however buy the DVD, but have not yet had the “courage” to watch it. Thank you so much for your words. I am in reunion with my son who found me after nearly 40 years, and it is certainly NOT for the faint of heart. Blessing to all of you involved in the adoption story, and for trying to get “our” story out publicly.
Congratulations on your reunion, and thanks for stopping by here to read my post. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but rewarding in countless ways. …
I’m crying – my heart is touched & I haven’t even seen the trailer yet. Keep doing what you’re doing, Terri! There are mothers, fathers and children who need your help. Huge hugs and proud smile for you! Reia
Thank you, Reia. How very kind you are.
Love and hugs to you and Pat!
Pris (bottom row, 4th from the left)
I saw your name in the credits at the end and sent you a little virtual hug from my seat in the theater!
Terri, thank you for this piece. I too am an adoptee. I am reunited with my first mother as well, due in most part to hearing an interview on NPR with Ann Fessler about The Girls Who Went Away a few years ago. I immediate ordered the book. It took me – a prolific reader – weeks to get through because each page was so emotionally heavy for me. But it changed my thinking, which you illustrate so well in your post – from that of somewhat angry/somewhat resigned apathy – to empathy and need. I could not find my biological family until I paid (a very large sum) to a business specializing in reunion searches to find them for me. But it was the best money I ever spent. It changed my inner feelings from that of a victim of an era and of a legal system who had violated my human rights before I was even born, to someone who had the resources and determination to take back what should have been mine all along. Laws must change. And films like “A Girl Like Her” need continual exposure. I hope I live to be be part of the successful repealing of all “closed” adoption record laws. Anyway, thank you so much. Lisa Hatlestad
Thank you for stopping by and sharing your story, Lisa. I agree the laws must change and the many myths about adoption must be shattered once and for all. I’m so glad you found your family, and so very disturbed that you had to pay for information that is the birthright of most other people.
This topic is touching me very deeply, not only because it is a cause close to the heart for my dear friend Terri. The trailer linked in this post really speaks to the quagmire of misunderstandings that can, do, and have arisen because of the stigmatization of young women/girls for something many/most of them didn’t understand: sex, pregnancy, parenthood. Of course this raises issues around education, advertising, marketing, sexism, community, family, etc. Why should any young woman/girl be forced to live away from her family, fear being ostracized by her community, birth a baby and have it taken away to an unknown destination, and then return home to pretend nothing happened, or to admit to making (what others see as) a “mistake”?
My blood is starting to boil so I’ll stop here. Yes, the immediate issue is adoptees and first mothers finding their ways back to the truth. So very important.
So glad you told me about this movie, Terri. Thank you
Yes, it is, above all else, a human rights issue, a women’s rights issue. We need more people’s blood to boil so we can get the laws changed in every state so that adoptees can have access to their original birth certificates, and the secrets and lies can be erased once and for all.
For adoptees it’s a human rights issue. For birth fathers and mothers it is a parental rights issue. Things aren’t much better these days for unwed dads.
Ann Fessler, the filmmaker, is next going to focus on birth fathers. I’m eager to see her research.
My aunt was adopted at around that time period, and she spent a lot of time searching for her birth parents, but she could never find out much at all because it was all so secretive back then. I am glad that adoption is different now… at least, I HOPE it is… with it being understood that it is a responsible choice made by parents that do love their children, and that the children can grow up having much more information about their origins.
Adoption is still extremely cruel. “Open” adoption is normally a horrible lie: people will say anything to pregnant women to get their babies, but as researcher Karen Wilson Buterbaugh has documented, over 70% of “open” adoptions slam shut on the natural mothers when adopters cut off contact, often with no warning.
All facets of adoption, in all forms, are full of challenges. It is complicated no matter how you slice it.
I too wish that adoption now were different, unfortunately adoption has not changed all that much. More girls and women are choosing to keep their babies but many are still being coerced into relinquishing and are still told they are not good enough to raise a child
At the screening we heard from birth mothers who relinquished their children in the ’80s who said they felt things had not changed.
Angel: I’m not sure things have changed very much. Although open adoptions are more popular now, they don’t always work out. I know, too, that not all adoptions today are open. Our former neighbors adopted twins a couple of years ago and know no more about those girls’ birth parents than my adoptive parents knew about mine when I arrived on their doorstep.
Terri, what a strong and eloquent voice you’re adding to the discussion of such an emotional issue. So proud of you, my friend.
Thanks so much; it means the world to have such a kind response from someone whose opinion I value so.