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.)