Family

The Heartbreaking Story of One Woman Who Was Forced to Surrender a Baby Before Roe

“I feel like I was in a car accident. … It changed my personality.”

Old, yellowed, fraying photograph of a mother holding a baby to her breast
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hollie Santos on Unsplash and Getty Images Plus.

During oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization back in December, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that since people could, in 2022, easily make arrangements to relinquish their babies, “pregnancy and parenthood” were no longer part of the “same burden.” This idea that surrendering a baby is newly easy, and that this ease is an argument for eliminating abortion rights, made it into Samuel Alito’s final opinion, issued on Friday: “A woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.”

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Setting aside the fact that imposing pregnancy on a person is no small thing, the psychological experience of relinquishment is not a neutral one. Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away is a collection of in-depth interviews with women who surrendered babies in the decades between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade. Most of the hundred or so women Fessler—an adoptee whose mother surrendered her under similar circumstances—interviewed were teenagers when they went to maternity homes to save their families the shame of their pregnancies.

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It was usually middle- and upper-class families, Fessler writes, who availed themselves of the private, expensive maternity home system, allowing nuns and social workers to take begrudging care of their daughters through their third trimesters, deliver them to hospitals to labor alone, and then facilitate the adoption of their babies. (Poorer families were more likely to keep pregnant girls at home and keep their babies to raise.) Middle-class families’ fear of social stigma, Fessler found, was so powerful, it led many parents to effectively emotionally abandon their pregnant daughters.

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The effects on Fessler’s interviewees, many of whom felt they had no choice whatsoever in surrendering their babies, were lifelong. Their stories make for harrowing reading. Many of the women were, later in life, alienated from their own parents and overprotective of subsequent children, experiencing extreme anxiety around parenting. “Every time I saw a baby I started to cry,” one woman said. “I will never have peace,” said another.

Here is one such story, from “Nancy.” 

—Rebecca Onion

Things began to get fairly physical between us. I had never entertained the idea of sex before, because it just wasn’t done in our family. In those days, there was just a certain decorum in puritanical families. We were never even allowed to say the word “pregnant”; we had to say “expecting.” Everything I learned about sex was off the walls in the A-wing bathroom. We would talk about it at lunchtime: “Can you believe this is what they do?” “No. You’re kidding.” I mean, we were seniors in high school—how pathetic is that?

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I could tell that he knew a little bit more than I did and, as ridiculous as it sounds, I was learning from him. He had come out to visit me one evening and we went for a walk, and he decided that that was going to be the evening he would “have his way with me,” and he did. I was scared. I just didn’t know… I mean, the whole biology of it. He kept saying, “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s really hard to get pregnant. Don’t worry.” What did I know? I didn’t see a lot of pregnant people, so I figured, I guess it is really hard. Maybe you have to do this a lot to get pregnant.

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Later, I began to notice that there was something awry. I started getting sick in the morning. I knew something wasn’t right. I got clothing for Christmas and I knew that however badly those clothes fit me then, it was only going to get worse. I remember taking a particular green-and-white dress that my father had bought me up to my room. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, This is a joke. This is going right back to the store. I took it back and later my father said, “I’m not gonna buy you kids’ clothing anymore. Soon as I do, you hightail it right back to the store and take it back.”

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I had stayed after school for a student council meeting and I was sitting on top of a desk in a classroom, participating in this meeting, and I saw my mother’s face through the door. She was a teacher at the elementary school in town, but I don’t think she had ever set foot in the high school. I knew when I saw her face that she knew. She motioned for me and I got my books. We walked down the hall and she said, “I need you to come with me.” In the car she turned to me and said, “Are you really four months pregnant?” I was like, “Me? Pregnant? Of course not. What are you talking about?” My sister had heard a rumor and told her. She reached over and sort of pulled my shirt up ever so slightly and touched my stomach and said, “Are you?” I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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She starts driving and we wind up in the parking lot of our church. My father’s car is parked there at 3:30 in the afternoon, next to the minister’s car. This is a party I don’t want to be going to. The reverend and my father were sitting in his living room. I had never been in the reverend’s home before. My mother sat down and my father said, “OK, what’s going on?” I said, “Beats me. I have no idea what you people are up to.” He dismissed that. He talked right over that and said, “We’ve got a problem here. We’re going to get this taken care of. We have to figure out what to do with the baby.” That was the first time I had ever heard that phrase, “the baby,” and it was almost like a safety net for me. It wasn’t my baby, it was the baby. I could separate myself from this problem and I knew I wasn’t going to have to make any decisions about it, because it wasn’t mine. I continued to deny it up and down: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no baby.” My mother finally said, “OK, if it’s not true, would you at least do us a favor and go to the doctor’s tonight, just to get it confirmed?” I said, “Sure, there’s nothing to confirm.”

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My father, my mother, and I drive to the doctor’s. He meets us there at 8 at night. It’s this big, huge Victorian home that I’m terrified to be in. I had never met this guy in my life, never had any kind of exam at all, except for a dentist appointment. He takes me to the examining room, has me take off all of my clothes and put on a johnny. He does an internal exam and then he says, “OK, you can put your clothes on.” I considered leaving through the back door, in the middle of the winter, to go to another planet. All I knew is I did not want to go back out into that room where my parents are waiting. We went home and there were some tears and I remember my mother saying those classic words “Why?” and “How could you?” until finally, out of emotional exhaustion, we all went to bed.

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Arrangements were made for me to be sent to this home. It was presented as an option at the time: “It would be more comfortable for you. If you’d like to do that, we’ll help you.” The night before I was scheduled to leave, my mother was starting to feel the effects of the impending separation and I had the very first, possibly the only, honest conversation I’d ever had with her. I felt safe enough, as we do when we’re feeling close, to ask her this question: “How do they get rid of the mark when they take the baby out?” I’d seen people in bathing suits and I could never tell if they’d had children. She stood there, 3 feet from me, with a look of horror on her face and said, “My God, Nancy, that baby comes out the same way it went in.” I said, “You have got to be kidding me.” She said, “No.”

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I mean, it’s borderline child abuse not to share this kind of information. How can anyone think that we will just absorb it naturally, or that it’s our responsibility as children to figure it out? It just mystifies me. I had no idea. I mean, we had never had pets. I didn’t live on a farm. We had a very puritanical, Beaver Cleaver lifestyle, and it just wasn’t anything that was ever discussed. I mean, as amazing as it sounds, I was 16 and pregnant and I did not know how babies were born. It’s pathetic, but it’s true.

At the maternity home there was a roster on a bulletin board, near the stairway, that indicated people’s chores. The chores rotated. They were minor, like cleaning the bathrooms, running a vacuum cleaner, helping out in the kitchen, setting the table, that kind of stuff. As new girls came in, their names went to the bottom. So, over the time you were there, you would watch your name continue to move up that list—that was one indicator of how close you were. When a girl left, we would never see her again.

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A few girls, revolutionary girls, talked about keeping their babies, but we knew they were crazy. We knew no one was allowed to keep their baby.

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When I went into labor, someone from the home drove me to the hospital. She left the car running, went into the emergency room, and said, “I’ve got a girl from the home here,” and she turned around and left. They put me in a room and I lay on a bed holding on to the bars above my head, enduring contractions in silence. I was afraid to make any noise. I lay there almost all night. It got worse and worse and I held on for dear life.

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Finally, someone came by and said, “What are you doing in here?” They took me into the delivery room. It was a huge room with a lot of people milling around. Here I am, up in stirrups, and all these young doctors are kind of walking by chitchatting, like they’re at a baseball game. I remember being so humiliated. Finally, a doctor comes in. He starts saying, “Push,” and I’m thinking, “Push what?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know how to help. I couldn’t help; I had no control over my body at that point. He started yelling, “Who gave this girl so many drugs?”

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Then two other people started pushing on my stomach, and I could see, in that round light above my head, the reflection of what was happening. My child was being born. And this guy saw that I could see and moved the light. He tipped it away once he realized I could actually see this event that was mine. He took that away from me.

Every day I asked if I could see my baby, and every day they said, “Yes, we’ll come and get you and take you to the nursery.” But they never did. Then the day I was being released, someone took me upstairs and wheeled me in front of the nursery window. She pointed to the one that was mine and said, “That’s him.” I asked if I could hold him, and she said no. I just looked through a piece of Plexiglas and she stepped back from the wheelchair and said, “Are you done?”

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Afterward, I sort of fell into my old ways and started seeing my friends again, but I wasn’t the same anymore. I mean, you just can’t be the same after the experience of becoming a mother. I knew that my son was gonna be part of my life again one day. I never let go of that from the very beginning. I remember writing to the agency because I had some things I was making for him that I wanted to send. I got a note back saying, “Don’t send anything else.” I remember thinking, “Over my dead body are they gonna tell me this is done.” When he was about 2, I met my husband. I remember it was one of the first things I told him: “I have a 2-year-old son that’s gonna be a part of my life someday.” I figured, you know, I’m a package deal now and there was no way to undo that.

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In the late ’80s, I was reading the paper one day and there was a little block ad, which I still have, that said, “Adoption Issues group meeting at the Library.” I closed the paper and then I opened it again, and I thought, Adoption issues? I think I have an adoption issue. So I cut it out and put it on the bulletin board in the kitchen. I found myself ruminating over it constantly. I remember sitting at the table one night and my husband was looking at me and he said, “What are you thinking about?” And I said, “Nothing.” He said, “You’re going to that meeting, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m going to that meeting.” I had to say it many times over the next few weeks in order to actually get my strength up to go.

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When I walked in, someone approached me and said, “Hi, I’m Barbara. I’m a birth mother.” I thought, “She just said that in front of everybody in this room with a smile on her face.” And as those meetings progressed, over October and November and December, all the tears that had never come finally came. I decided that if I could go to the meetings for a year without crying, then I would be ready to pursue an active search.

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In January 1989, which was the year he turned 21, I was ready to search. I finally got the nerve to call the agency and the director said, “I really can’t tell you anything over the phone. If you have any questions, they have to be in writing.” I’m thinking, Oh, that’s just great. I could barely say the words—now you’re asking me to write them? I couldn’t. Then one summer evening my husband said, “Why don’t we just sit outside, you tell me what you want to say, and I’ll write the letter?” It seemed much easier that way.

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On Monday morning, I walked up the granite steps to the old post office and put that letter down on the counter, shaking. On Wednesday, my husband called me at work crying. I’ve only heard him cry once, when his father died. He had done something he’d never done before, and has never done since: He opened mail that had my name on it. The letter said, “Dear Nancy, I got your letter and I’ve read it, and nowhere in it did you say you’d like to meet your son. If that’s something you’re interested in, I’d like you to call me because I opened your file and there’s a letter from your son in there.”

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He read this letter to me and the only word I can use to describe it was, I was paralyzed, absolutely paralyzed at the thought that he had tried to make contact and no one told me. His letter had said, “If you’re interested in talking to me, give me a call.” The thought that my son might even entertain the idea that I hadn’t held him close to my heart for 20 years… I hung up from the call with my husband, picked up the phone, and called the guy at the agency. I said, “I just got your letter.” He said, “I’m not sure if you know what you want to do… You might need some time to think about it.” I said, “I don’t need one more fuckin’ minute, OK?” He said, “Don’t get mad at me. I wasn’t even here then. I’ve only been here 13 years.”

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The phone rang at work and someone said, “It’s for you. It’s a young man.” I took it in the backroom. He said, “Hi, the man at the agency gave me your phone number.” And I asked him the question I’d asked every single night, 365 days a year, for 21 years: “Where are you?” I’d look up at the stars at night and think, We’re under the same sky, and it was the one thing that made me feel close to him. I knew that he was looking at the same stars. I didn’t know where he was. He could have been in Germany, if he was in the service. I was prepared for him to be anywhere in the world. When I said, “Where are you?” he says, “I’m in my bedroom.” I said, “OK, where’s your bedroom?”

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As it turns out, he was right across the river from me. We know a lot of the same people; our paths had crossed many times. We ate at the same restaurants. I had worked in the theater department of a college where he was taking classes.

I wound up seeing a psychiatrist for about a year to deal with the grief, which I hadn’t fully dealt with. It’s never a good idea to delay that process. It was a difficult year for me, juggling family, a job, our relationship, and dealing with my past at the same time.

My son lived near me for about eight years and then he moved to New York City. We started a small business together so we could work together and we became very close during that time.

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Losing him had such a profound influence on me. You know, my siblings all had fancy degrees and very focused careers, and they drew from that in order to define who they were. This is what I had; this is what influenced most of my life decisions, the development of my family, where I lived—I would never have moved out of this state because this is the last place I saw him. It affected the choice of my husband to someone who was accepting immediately and almost passive about it. It’s affected my drive in terms of politics and I think, most of all, my sense of feminism.

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People say to me, “Oh, well, it’s not that way anymore.” I say, “It’s still that way for a lot of us. A lot of my sisters are still suffering in silence.” And the more I read about the physiological effect that stress has on your life—you know, I’m not at all convinced that there isn’t a small connection between illness and this trauma. I’ve known some birth mothers who died when they were 50 years old from cancers of one kind or another. I mean, trauma is not a mystery. It really attaches itself to you in a way that’s very hard to undo. It’s hard to convince others about the depth of it.

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You know, a few years after I was married, I became pregnant and had an abortion. It was not a wonderful experience, but every time I hear stories or articles or essays about the recurring trauma of abortion, I want to say, “You don’t have a clue.” I’ve experienced both and I’d have an abortion any day of the week before I would ever have another adoption—or lose a kid in the woods, which is basically what it is. You know your child is out there somewhere, you just don’t know where. It’s bad enough as a mother to know he might need you, but to complicate that, they make a law that says even if he does need you, we’re not going to tell him where you are.

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It overshadows my life. People can’t believe it has had such influence. Or they don’t believe that it is relevant anymore because I know my son now. But that little wet ink across a piece of paper made me not a mother in the eyes of society. That’s all it took, was the stroke of a pen. They felt they could erase it, but we just aren’t made that way. It’s unnatural to be separated from your child that way. And if it happens when you’re 14, 15, 16 years old and it’s your first experience of motherhood, it makes you a little crazy.

Sometimes I wonder how any of us survived it and are as successful as we are in our interpersonal relationships. Not that I consider myself to be completely successful. I’ve sequestered myself out here in the woods for most of my life to be away from people. It’s changed my personality. I feel like I was in a car accident. You know how sometimes when people have a head trauma their personality changes? Well, it changed my personality.

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I don’t really care if I have the popular view. I suffered this alone for 21 years so everyone around me would be comfortable—“Don’t talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable.” And I didn’t. I think if anything good came from my pain, it has been to encourage other women in my situation to understand that they have as much right to put their opinion out there as I do. I tell them their story is as important as the next person’s story. They all have to be heard. For 21 years I wasn’t allowed to speak about it, but I have my own voice now.

From 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, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2006 by Ann Fessler.

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