On My Mom, The Sex She Had, and The Adoption She Didn’t Plan

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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.


37 Responses to On My Mom, The Sex She Had, and The Adoption She Didn’t Plan

  1. There is so much to learned from your mother’s story. Please express our gratitude for her strength to share it.

    • Thank you so much, RB. I will indeed pass along your gratitude. After being steeped in shame for so many years, the response to her story has been encouraging.

  2. Thank you for listening and telling your Mom’s story.. I, too, am the kept child of a Mom who relinquished during those unjust years.. I’ll be following..

  3. Thank you for this. I lost my daughter to adoption too, and can relate to your mother’s story so much. But for me it was as recent as 2001.

  4. More of the stories about birth mothers and the situations through which they became pregnant should be told. Your story about a relationship underway in 1959 at an aeronautical company in San Diego is strong stuff, Thus, I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

    Meanwhile, it’s good to acknowledge reality, though I wouldn’t do it like this: “The dirty little secret is that, in reality, many women enjoy sex.”

    !959 was well after the publication of the Kinsey Report and the publication of the works of Masters and Johnson. The word was out. The research showed women liked sex, and from an objective viewpoint, there was nothing “dirty” about the facts.

    If there was a secret, it was probably that by 1959 a lot of women had read parts of the books by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson but weren’t admitting it.

    On the other hand there was fear of pregnancy and fears about abortion. Those were undoubtedly two of the realities that terrified women in those days.

    My birth mother had her story too, a story a little like your mother’s story. But she died 20 years before I discovered her identity.

    • SB — I appreciate the history lesson. Isn’t it an awful thing that women and sex are often combined with the word “dirty”?

      I’m sorry you were not able to meet your mother.

  5. Not only is there little thought of what adoption does to the child, but there is ZERO thought given to the siblings of adopted-out children. My three children lost their oldest sister to adoption and not one adoption professional or counselor has even acknowledge their trauma. Additionally, no one prepared me how to answer my 4-year old daughter’s pleading for a sister, older, younger, it doesn’t matter, just please a sister, because she has two brothers but no sister. How do I tell her she has one but I was coerced and shamed in to giving her away?

    • Melynda, So sorry to hear your story. :( I am an adult adoptee now working through trauma and more grief issues (ahd already worked through some in the past) AND emotional neglect/dysfunctional family issues with my adoptive family history. I came across some videos on YouTube by Dr. Jonice Webb, who has written a book called Running on Empty. It addresses the issue of emotional neglect and how those of us who have experienced it can stop the cycle with our own children.

      I am only halfway through it and will be writing a review of it on my blog, Healthy Southern Mama, where I also have shared a little bit more of my story when I began the Celebrate Recovery program. The book is excellent … I read quickly through the hardest parts and am now entering the “good” part where she talks about how the effects of emotional neglect can be stopped and even reversed! I HIGHLY recommend it … I believe it will help you know how to help your children with the trauma/loss. I’m tweeting quotes from it (only one so far) in the coming weeks if you’d like to get a feel for it. BEST wishes to you …

  6. Lots to think about! I have seen great changes in the country of my children’s birth both politically and in the number of organizations created to keep families together. It’s both heartening and for me at times, cringeworthy, as I consider my role in perpetuating the previous system. Regardless, the change is welcome and I am doing what I can to help it along.

  7. Ok, lemme get this straight. Your mom is a birth mother, and you are an adoptive parent too? Cool. I’m an adoptee born in1961 and adopted in ’62. Everyone from the “Triad” needs to share their stories, and I love it when we do! It’s the best way to educate one another and the non-adoption folks. I found my adoptive Fam in 1987. It’s been very successful. I have written one memoir and am working on another. Paige

    • Do you happen to mean you found you natural family in 1987? Generally, the adoptive family is the one that receives the child into it; the natural/birth is the family that loses the child. Just trying to clarify. (And I’m glad that it has been a successful situation for you, whether it was your adoptive or natural family that you found! :) )

  8. I really appreciate your deep thoughtfulness and the genuine respect at the core of your article. Thank you so much.

  9. “But only those who lack power face the potential for condemnation and coercion, loss and abandonment.”

    Thank you so much for this article and for these words in particular. This is the truth of what happened to me. I did not make a plan. I was not brave and selfless. I was powerless and alone. But most people connected to adoption don’t want to hear this. It makes everyone feel better to assign agency to the mother and talk about her plan or her choice where none exist. How awful would it be if powerless women could lose their children for no good reason? They must have done something to deserve it.

  10. Your mother’s 1959 story is mine, except I was a junior in college. I adored my lover and believed everything he told me. I wanted our child also, believing that he would stand by me. He abandoned us instead and I went on to finish college, marry, have subsequent children, earn an advanced degree and have a professional career. My son found me when he was 40. I’m healthy. He’s healthy, but we’ve struggled through a rocky reunion for 15 years now. I guess we are the lucky ones.

    • Thank you, Fran, for sharing a bit of your story. These stories help to dispel so many of the myths about woman whose children have been adopted. May you find peace in your reunion.

      • Thank you. I responded to your comments initially because I am so sick of the stereotypical description of “birthmother” as an alcoholic, drug addicted, promiscuous 15 year old slut whose child was “saved” by altruistic adopters. Since my reunion in 2000 I have met many mothers who were just like me and went on to productive lives. I believe the stereotype continues because adopters have to believe they are entitled to the babies so they encourage the lies. Just my opinion, but I’ve met many adoptees who are surprised and shocked that I and many of my friend mothers could have raised our babies but they were taken from us only because we were unwed. In those days unwed=unfit.

  11. This is a powerful and necessary story. Thank you for writing it. This story so parallels my own story, right down to a young woman who enjoyed sex outside marriage in 1959 and gave me up for adoption. I don’t judge my mom for the choices she made — at least not anymore. Hugs and prayers to you and your mom.

    • Thanks for responding, Craig. I cannot tell you how many people have shared similar stories with me. And how many women have privately shared their stories as the birth mothers here. It would be interesting to get actual numbers, though, like my birth brother, I suspect many people don’t even know they were adopted. I will share your prayers and hugs with my mom. Right back to you as well.

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