Ann Fessler’s book brings to light the stories of over a hundred women who surrendered their children for adoption during the American postwar period of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In a time when sex education was nearly non-existent, abortion was uncommon and illegal, and the stigmas of being an unwed mother or a child born out of wedlock were socially devastating, these young women were categorically given no choice about their pregnancies. They were sent to homes for unwed mothers, where they were to remain during their pregnancy, give birth and then give up their baby to be adopted by a family with two parents. After relinquishing their babies, these young mothers were told to move on with their lives, that it would be the best thing for them and their babies if they never looked back.
In an interview on Salon.com, Fessler explores several myths about what type of girls got pregnant and gave their babies up for adoption during this time. One myth was that the women chose to put their children up for adoption. Fessler explains that, “the implication is that the women considered all their options — that they had options — and made a decision. When, in fact, most of the women I interviewed felt they didn’t really make the decision at all”. In the words of Joyce, one mother Fessler interviewed, “Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep [my] baby, or explained the options. I went to a maternity home, I was going to have the baby, they were going to take it, and I was going to go home. I was not allowed to keep the baby. I would have been disowned.”
Fessler, who was adopted herself, discusses her own search for and reunion with her mother within the book. It hadn’t really occurred to Fessler to search for her own mother until she was approached by a woman who believed her to be the child she had relinquished as a teenager. The book is separated into sections including Going Away, Birth and Surrender, The Aftermath, and Search and Reunion. Within each section, Fessler gives voice to the women she interviewed, sharing detailed accounts of their experiences of loss, grief, shame, emptiness, and rage. Several women who were interviewed for Fessler’s book had never before told anyone about having relinquished their child, and described incredible relief at no longer keeping their secret.
As a parent through open adoption, I found it incredibly painful to read Fessler’s book, but it also felt like a book I needed to read. It feels necessary to bear witness to these women’s stories and these moments in history – as a woman, as a feminist, as an adoptive parent, and as a therapist committed to working for reproductive justice.
I have recommended this book to several friends and family members, both for the historical snapshot of a bygone era and as explanation for my commitment to openness, honesty and transparency surrounding the adoption of our daughter.
-Meg Jeske, M.A.