Thursday, February 14, 2008

THE GIRLS WHO WENT AWAY



Since my daughter grew up and moved away, Valentine’s Day is pretty much a non-event in our household. Dan doesn’t “believe” in Valentine’s Day. He thinks it’s a conspiracy among florists, candy shop owners and florists to part him from his hard-earned cash.

Therefore, tonight I thought I’d write about a certain kind of love that started out as romantic love (at least on one side of the relationship) but ended up being the pure essence of love.

When I wrote a post in honor of my late mother’s birthday on October 1, I mentioned that she was part of a unique group of young women known as Florence Crittenden Girls. My mom got pregnant “out of wedlock” and went away to a Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers in Fargo to have me.

After I wrote the post, Mary at “Across the Pond” recommended that I read the book “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade” by Ann Fessler.

I have only said this about one other book: Reading “The Girls Who Went Away” has changed my life. A large part of the book consists of interviews with the girls, now middle aged and older women, who went away to Florence Crittenden, Salvation Army and Catholic homes. Or they were sent out of town to live with relatives, or unbelievably, hidden in their homes their entire pregnancy.

It is difficult to believe today, when being a single mom is no big deal, that getting “in the family way” was a source of unspeakable shame for the girls and their families. Oftentimes, their boyfriends abandoned them once the pregnancy was announced. Or, even if the boy wanted to marry the girl, their parents forbade it. The decision was made and that was that.

What struck me so forcibly is that these girls had absolutely no control over their lives or their futures. Instead, they were covertly hurried away, either in the dark of night or, if in the daytime, forced to lie down on the back seat like criminals as they were driven through town.

These girls weren’t made to wear Scarlet Letters but they might as well have. They were doomed from the beginning. They’d never been given information on birth control, the incredible pressures a boy can exert on a naïve girl in the name of “love”, or their own raging hormones. Once pregnant, they received no information on their condition or the impending childbirth. Back at home, the parents made up lies regarding their daughters’ whereabouts. Meanwhile, a large majority of the boys got off scot free, continuing to attend school and living their normal lives. (Though many suffered a great deal of anguish as well.)

I spoke before of these girls’ lack of control and lack of participation in the event that had turned their lives upside down. It would become even worse. After the babies were born, parents and other officials put unspeakable pressure on them to give up their babies.

At that point, I had to put down the book and get a box of tissues. These girls – or more fittingly, women – were now mothers. And with that came strong maternal instincts and maternal love. After all these years, many of the women interviewed spoke poignantly and yearningly of how they could distinguish their baby’s cries from the others in the nursery, or how one woman’s baby “recognized her” as she nuzzled its neck. How incredible, lifelong bonds had been made in split seconds.

In her subtitle, Fessler uses the phrase “women who surrendered children”. The choice is apt. To surrender means to give something up unwillingly. A great majority of girls did not give away their babies, they SURRENDERED them. And for the rest of their lives, they have felt the huge gaping hole that opened when their child was ripped from them.

Not surprisingly, many became depressed and turned to alcohol and other drugs in order to cope.

I was amazed at how many of the interviewed women were able to make contact with their adopted-out children through the agencies that took their babies. For them, there is some measure of closure. For others, there is none. Instead, there is still that sense of loss, that raw, unhealed wound, even though they may have gone on to have other children.

Fessler has done a thorough job of researching this “hidden” social phenomenon that largely disappeared after the invention and widespread use of the pill and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

I learned two very interesting things: At the beginning of its history, The Florence Crittenden Society made every effort possible to keep its girls and their babies together. Also, it was members of a fairly new profession - social workers - who became increasingly instrumental in fostering the movement to convince girls to give up their babies, because it was “in the best interests of both the girls and their babies”.

What frickin’ nonsense. These girls were supposed to “just forget about it,” to go on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened, and stuff their newly-aroused maternal feelings down into a deep dark hole, never again to see the light of day.

I wrote earlier that this book had changed my life, and that this post was about love. I always knew that my mom wasn’t married when she had me. I was sharply aware of my separateness. I knew I was Myrtle Munro’s little bastard and I always felt the stigma.

After reading this book, I knew that I was something far more precious. I realized just how difficult it was for my mom to thumb her nose at society. She didn’t leave me behind; she didn’t surrender me. Instead, she stood her ground. When I was six weeks old she gently cradled me in her arms as she boarded the train that took us back to her hometown of Crosby.

I know now just how strong and brave my mom and my grandmother were to bring up little “Noanie” in a world that looked down on her kind.

Forget cupid and his arrows. Myrtle’s and Julia’s love was far more powerful.

Among the celestial host of Florence Crittenton babes, I was quite the unique little angel. I was one of the few children who were kept. Never again will I think less of myself or be ashamed of my origins.

I may not have known my real father’s name until 55 years later, but I did know the warmth, security, sense of belonging and knowledge of my roots that comes from being with one’s own family.

Thank you for your strength, your wisdom, your courage and your pure, essential love, Mom and Grandma. Happy Valentine’s Day from Noanie.

(P. S. I highly recommend this book to adoptive parents and adoptees too. Adoptees, I’m sure your new parents told you were specially chosen. Now, know that your mother did not give you up lightly. She surrendered you.)

23 comments:

GreenishLady said...

Julie Marie, this post is so moving I find myself wanting to read it over and over again. Your mother and grandmother must have been strong and very loving women indeed to go against the prevailing situation in the society of the day. The same culture existed up to relatively recently in Ireland, and there are still a myriad broken hearts of mothers and their children scattered about this land.

nonizamboni said...

Thank you for sharing this book but more importantly your insights and fantastic breakthrough. I celebrate with you the courage and love of your mom and grandma! I'm always rendered speechless at the extent of a mother's love if it is allowed to flower. Your own daughter is a proud owner of this treasure I'm sure.
Happy Valentine's Day too.

Leanne said...

I am so moved by this post Julie, You Mum was indeed a very courageous woman to stand up for you and herself too,in what were very harsh and judgemental times.all credit to her and how special this must make yuo feel.

Leanne x

Marianne said...

This is such an incredibly touching and beautiful..and sad... post, I have added this book to my list.
I have my own story of pregnancy at 17, giving birth to my first born at 3 days into my 18th year... unwed.
The doctors I had wanted me to give him up for adoption and pressured me throughout the whole pregnancy...
Fortunately for me my parents had just the kind of love you write of...
MA of nonizamboni said it all for me.

Lady P said...

What sad, tragic stories there are from times when others decide what is in a woman's best interest - or a child's. Added to these stories are the ones where children end up in foster homes. Or in the case of my brother, removed from a reservation and placed with a white family. When he found his biological mother, there was no happy ending just as there wasn't with his "white" family either. There is a force of nature that comes out in your writing and I suspect I know of its source. It is good to hear of women who had/have the gumption to do what they feel is best for themselves even if it goes against the common thought of the time ~ it was, and continues to be, women like your mother who bring about the tides of change for us and our daughters. A celebration, indeed!

Diana said...

Hi Julie! NO! I had no ill thoughts of you - really. I know life comes at us fast - and sometimes we forget and just get too busy. I was afraid to comment when I stopped by because I didn't want you to think I was here to badger. :) All things come in their own time. Thanks for remembering! Hope the weather breaks soon - I am also tired of grey skies. Hope your hands feel better soon too! I'll be visiting again.

AnnieElf said...

I cannot express how moved I am by this post Julie. This is truly the greatest expression of love anyone can give. Like our Lord, your mother sacrificed a lot to keep you safe and near. And by making that decision, you were surrounded by loving women. Your weren't surrendered. What a truly blessed angel you were and still are.

Naturegirl said...

Julie a most heartfelt moving post! I have a friend who gave up her child by her own choice back in the 70's and even then..she was NOT allowed to see or hold her child after giving birth.I only found this out recently because now my friend *has reunited with her daughter* whom she grieved for all these years and yes she became depressed and turned to alcohol and other drugs in order to cope.Even though she married and had 3 sons there was always the sadness and I knew why.
I think this book would be a good read for my friend!
You are a special Angel.You come from brave stock.Thank you for sharing your family history with us. hugs NG xo

miss*R said...

Julie ((hugs)) - you do come from a line of exceptionally strong women!! My sister had a baby at 15 and she was taken to a convent when she was pregnant to wait her time out.. and when she went into labour she was taken to 'secret' ward to give birth and the baby was whisked away... to be adopted out. My sister has grieved all her life for this child and tried to trace her... it is so sad.

Janet said...

This is sad, and maddening, and informative and beautiful and most of all filled with love. You come from a strong line of women and you can be very proud of that. What a powerful post.

lila said...

Hugs to you Julie! You have been deeply loved. This post is truly beautiful and strong.
You have givin us all a meaningful Valentine in your story of love!

kathyann said...

What a moving post Julie,it must have taken some strength to write all about your past!I think its so sad when they mark it down on birth certificate, When my grandfather died we found his Birth certificate which didn't have his fathers on it and had the words bastard son of....I never knew this until after his death,he never spoke about!There were so many young girls in the 50/60's who were sent away to "visit an Aunt" no one was to know they were pregnant and their babies taken as soon as they were born,it was a disgrace on the family if anyone found out.My how times have changed!
Love from Kathyann and the girls

Lori said...

Very powerful!In a time when the girls needed the most love, support, and reassurance they were hidden away - how sad. You, your mother, and grandmother - such strong, brave people.

Julie Marie said...

Hi, Everyone,

Kim left a comment for me and by accident I hit the reject button. Kim, I didn't mean to!! Here is your original comment:

What an amazing post. It brought tears to my eyes. The women in your family are a force to be reckoned with.

Mary said...

I was so glad to share this very powerful book with you Julie. Those heart wrenching stories of the lost girls, and their surrendered babies, will touch anyone with a heart..........well any woman that is, perhaps men just don't get it!

We've spoken before about the amazing strength of your mother and her mother. Thank goodness they made the right choice, despite what the neighbors thought, and kept you close and raised you to be the wonderful, talented, special woman you are.

For those who watch 'Cold Case' on Sunday nights (an excellent show and in fact the only network series we care to follow) - there was an episode where this same scenario was played out at a home for unwed mothers in the '60's. It was so terribly sad and brought to life what actually happened in those awful places.

Hugs to you sweet Julie.

smilnsigh said...

Very powerful entry. Thank you for sharing it, from the bottom of your heart.

Mari-Nanci

Gemma said...

Julie....Bravo!!
What a stunning post so raw, touching and full of love. I admire your Mother and Grandmother so much. They had the fortitude to face cruel society, just so they could hold and cradle you and take care of and love their own. I am sure you're proud to be related to those women who followed their hearts and damned all the rest.
PS xx love you

Britt-Arnhild said...

Thank you for this post Julie. How proud you must be of your strong loving mother!

Thanks again for your words!

judie said...

Amazing, wonderful, brave post. Kudos to you for writing this. Bravo!!!!! xoxoxo

KJ said...

This is so very touching, Julie Marie! I know this must have been liberating for you! What courage your Mom and Grandma had in a society of stone casters. How horrible for those whose lives were decided for them...

We are supposed to cover one another's mistakes and challenges with LOVE. We need to be reminded that when we point our finger someone, 3 of those fingers are pointed right back at ourselves.

Now, about your hubby... I understand his not wanting to be manipulated by commercialism. Does this mean that he spoils you with romance and passion on all of the other days? {{GRIN}}

KJ

Bimbimbie said...

Hi Julie, I think you picked the right mum and grandma*!*
Society and it's judgmental morals have a lot to answer for over the years.

Mrs. Staggs said...

Thank you for this beautifully written post Julie.

smilnsigh said...

I've already commented on this wonderful entry. But I came back to wish you well, with changing the color of your bathroom! You know I've gone through *fun,* about mine, recently. And it's finally resolved.

So I wish you Good luck!!! :-)

Mari-Nanci
Smilnsigh