She wanted the sex.
It was 1959. My mother worked for an aeronautics firm in San Diego, California. It would be easy to paint the affair she was having with her co-worker as workplace harassment. Maybe it was. She was a female. He was a male. That was all that was required to create a power differential in 1959 — when female secretaries had to know their places — what they could and could not say, who they could and could not refuse. She was also many years younger, single, a virgin. Though he told her otherwise, he was married with children. In nearly every way conceivable, he could have held all the power in their relationship. According to my mother, though, “The only power he had over me was he was sexy as hell. And I was on the lookout.”
Though women weren’t particularly encouraged to enjoy sex in 1959, my mom was aware that she did. It was the great equalizer. It held power — one thing she could control in an industry and country dominated by men. It was something her father could not take away, a secret her mother needn’t know, a sin her church didn’t condone. And she enjoyed it.
She also wanted the baby conceived out of that affair, though she could not admit it then.
Women whose children were being placed for adoption, by choice and by force, were seen as either victims of their circumstances, or perpetrators of a sin that required reparation.
When it comes to pregnant women in circumstances not condoned by the dominant population, coercion has always been considered a necessary evil — the pill to be swallowed by any woman who dares to be anything but married, financially secure, free from mental illness or challenges, and privileged.
That my mother, an unmarried woman who had taken a lover, would lose her baby was non-negotiable. It was mandated by her father, calculated by her church, and applauded by the same culture that simultaneously condemned her.
In 1959, tragically not enough unlike today, women whose children were being placed for adoption, by choice and by force, were seen as either victims of their circumstances, or perpetrators of a sin that required reparation. In both cases, once the pregnant woman signed on that dotted line, the one that said someone else would be raising the baby, she became a sacrificial saint, choosing to do what was best for the baby. For my mother and women like her, now in the final chapters of their lives, people crave a narrative that forces adoption as the only possible solution.
I did it for years. When I put the pieces together to form the story of my mother, I inserted tragedy where none existed. I assumed that she could not have wanted the sex, that she must have been forced. I wanted the back-story to explain why she would give up a child.
Every bit of my mother’s life experience is informed by that single moment when her son was taken from her.
My mother was no victim when it came to sex, though. Nobody forced her into it. And she was no saint when it came to adoption. She did not volunteer to do what she thought was the best thing for her child.
She was a woman who was punished for enjoying sex. For being single. For being Catholic in 1959. If she was a victim of anything when it came to sex, it was a system that ignored the desires of women. It was a church and society that painted woman and sex as diametrically opposed forces, two sides of a coin that could never meet face to face. And if she was a saint for adoption, it was because she did not rip out the hearts of the medical staff and administrators at the home for unwed mothers, the very people who took her child from her. She did not pursue them and demand retribution. She did not demand that her child be returned to her at all costs.
Every bit of my mother’s life experience is informed by that single moment when her son was taken from her. It is a story that played out many times with many women before she lost her son and that has been repeated over and over again since.
By hiding the stories of mothers like my own, and all mothers who are not raising the children they birthed, we force their stories into submission. Holding them under our proverbial thumbs, we control how the stories are told and how they are interpreted.
My mother’s story is one that is not told often enough.* By hiding the stories of mothers like my own, and all mothers who are not raising the children they birthed, we force their stories into submission. Holding them under our proverbial thumbs, we control how the stories are told and how they are interpreted. Overwhelmingly then, adoptive parents, like myself, decide how the mothers who birthed our children should be perceived. We tend to filter their motives through lenses that favor the narratives of adoptive parents, however elegant our phrasing might emerge to perfume our more pointed interpretations:
She does not have the resources to raise another child (she is poor).
She is struggling with substance abuse and needs to take time to recover (she is a drug addict).
The baby was conceived through tragedy and she could not bear the trauma of raising a child under those circumstances (she was raped).
She did not plan to get pregnant and felt it was not the right time to parent a child (she had sex outside of marriage).
While stories like these may hold some truth, they impose the role of delinquent on the birth parents (though more often the birth mother) and the role of savior upon the adoptive parent. Note that the norm does not include verbally shifting the narrative to account for imbalances of power:
I had enough money to adopt and so decided to do that instead of helping her out financially or supporting organizations that work to keep families in need together.
She got addicted to her substance of choice and I did not. So she shouldn’t get to raise a child and I don’t want to help her recover or support organizations that would offer respite care for her child while she recovers.
She was raped and is therefore damaged. Rather than support her or organizations that might support her to raise a child after trauma, I will raise the child instead.
She was irresponsible. None of my mistakes ever led to pregnancy so I should be the one to raise her child.
In writing that, I recognize that I place myself in the line of fire. I adopted two of my children out of poverty. I made the choice to adopt from a country in a dire financial situation because I near-sightedly thought it would create a win-win-win situation: children for my husband and myself (who wanted to adopt since before marriage but also, at the time, were working under the erroneous assumption that we would never conceive biological children), relief for my children’s family of origin, and a better life for my kids. I am ashamed to say that what I did not spend enough energy and time doing was parsing the effects of my choices on each member of the adoption constellation — particularly my children’s family of origin.
We don’t typically take the time to consider how our random entry into privilege gives us adoptive parents power that we acquiesce to withholding from our children’s mothers.
We adoptive parents must know that in many (if not most) cases, other options for our children and their families existed — like financial support, kinship adoption, respite care, legislative changes. We were there to adopt, though — not to help a struggling family. For most of us, we might never have crossed paths with the families who gave us our children had we not met them through adoption.
As it is, we don’t typically take the time to consider how our random entry into privilege gives us adoptive parents power that we acquiesce to withholding from our children’s mothers. The dirty little secret is that, in reality, many women enjoy sex. Many have it outside of marriage. Many have affairs. Many drink and smoke and take drugs, lucky enough to be among those who do not develop a debilitating addiction. Many raise children while suffering economically or working to quell the effects of a mental illness. But only those who lack power face the potential for condemnation and coercion, loss and abandonment.
For most of us, we might never have crossed paths with the families who gave us our children had we not met them through adoption.
Last week, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Five days later, while examining the years past and considering the months ahead, she received a hand-written note explaining that the child taken from her over five decades ago, like so many children placed for adoption, had committed suicide. Now, while purging the poisons she never knew were growing inside her, she must work to close a chapter she had never wanted to open.
Photo by sparkstudio. Used with permission.