Recently I learned from a friend that her nineteen-year-old niece, Jane, had made the decision to place her unborn child for adoption. My friend told me how Jane was offered counseling and education during her pregnancy and that along with the help of the adoption agency she was able to choose the perfect couple she thought would be wonderful parents. Jane would be able to maintain limited contact with the adoptive parents, and she would receive photos of her child growing up over the years.
Although this story warmed my heart, adoption stories always trigger a feeling of loss and sadness in me.
I was an unwed mother in 1967 and wrote a memoir about that time in my life. Whenever I speak about my book, it is always surprising how people in the audience are completely unaware of how far we have come over the decades in the realm of unwed mothers and adoption.
My experience mirrors that of hundreds of thousands of unwed women from the 1940s through the 1970s. Society frowned on unwed mothers and when there was no support from her family and no husband in the picture, those young women were covertly shipped to maternity homes. Once there they were expected to leave their baby after birth, never to see that child again. They were never told where their child would be placed or who the adoptive parents would be.
As a seventeen-year-old, my parents, propelled by our minister along with society drove me to an unwed mothers’ home in New Orleans where five months later, I left my first-born son.
Although, we were never physically abused at the maternity home, there was the overwhelming feeling of guilt, shame, and grief brought on by the lack of counseling, education, and the rule for secrecy. While waiting to give birth, we were expected to use fake names and were told after the birth we could return home and go on with our lives. We were told we were doing the right thing. They said to forget the baby we had carried for nine months as if he or she never happened.
That traumatic experience altered my life and changed the direction of it for fifty years.
Never once, after I left my son, did I forget him. How could I? That baby had been part of me. It crushed my soul to leave my son and for decades I thought of him daily. I went on to have three more sons, and because of my shame and private grief, I never talked about my secret son to my other children. Only my husband knew there was a child somewhere in the world that I would probably never see or know anything about.
That private grief tore at my heart throughout the years and although I tried to find my secret son, Louisiana adoption records were sealed, and I met a brick wall with each search. Carrying such a deep secret within oneself damages a person physically, mentally, and emotionally. I went on to have a joyful life filled with love from my family and friends, and a successful career, yet I always longed to know what had happened to my son. I always felt loss.
Who had raised him? Was he happy? Was he loved?
I only held my secret son three times, and he was 2 days old when I left the maternity home. No one ever counseled me or spoke of him again. While writing my book I spoke to many birth mothers, and I realized that silence was something we all held in common. We were sent on our way, with no thought of the grief we held or the shame. That grief and shame stays with many of us even now – and we are in our sixties and seventies.
I am one of the lucky ones. My son and I did reunite. It was a magical reunion when he found me through Ancestry.com DNA in 2016. After fifty years I had the gift of my son! I was extremely relieved to learn he had been adopted by wonderful people who loved him and gave him a beautiful life. Ecstatic to have him in my life, once again the direction of my life changed.
I went from not being able to talk about what had happened to me to wanting to shout it to the world. It was a heady and marvelous time. Yet, if I am honest, I still had doubts and still felt that enormous mountain of shame that I had left him, even knowing I had no choice at the time.
Legal adoption records continued to be sealed in many states creating an archaic secrecy. The same secrecy that damaged so many families over decades. Had I not submitted my DNA, it is likely I still would not know what had happened to my son. My heart would continue to ache for him, and I would have continued to hide behind the secrecy. I would never have gotten to know the life he had or the man he grew up to be. I would never have met my three new grandchildren.
Today unwed mothers like Jane have more options and support they richly deserve. I am grateful for that. Still, it is heartbreaking for all of us birth mothers who were traumatized and left with empty arms, holes in our hearts, and years of not knowing what happened to our children.
Laura L. Engel is the author of You’ll Forget This Ever Happened: Secrets, Shame, and Adoption in the 1960s