Life After Baby
After giving birth, and having their babies adopted, the women were invariably told to ‘get on with life’.
To ‘forget about their mistake, it’s ‘best for them and best for baby’. A conspiracy of silence followed them, leaving them desperately lonely and grieving without any support. The arrival and relinquishment of baby was not the conclusion of the experience which those around the mother treated it as, but rather the apex of a long and painful journey with grief and loss.
Without counselling or a sympathetic ear, the women were expected to get back to life as though nothing had occurred. Their grief to be put away, unacknowledged, and their lives to somehow resume as if they had done nothing more than gone away on holiday. In truth, some family and friends believed this to be the case. In need of hiding the pregnancy parents would tell tales of distant vacations, special trainings or new job opportunities that had taken their daughters away for those months. When they returned, their community greeted them not with the sorrow and support one might for a mother who lost a child, but rather with salutations and expected tales of their adventures abroad. For those who did not spin such tales, they nevertheless were expected to return without missing a beat and to never speak of their transgressions. According to many, their parents treated it as if the baby never existed, refusing to look or hold the child when they still cared for it and chiding them for keeping photos or mementos to remember their infant by.
Some returned almost immediately to jobs or schooling, others had to put on a gay face to prepare and host family festivities such as their parent’s anniversary or a father’s birthday. By and large the main thing they could not do was mention what they had been through. One woman broke this sterling rule while sharing her experience with a trusted family member at a family gathering, when her mother overheard she scorned her for talking of such things. A young teacher had left her post under the auspices that she had to care for her ailing mother, and after her baby was adopted she returned with the understanding that her mother was now well.
Many went on to have some kind of schooling, most commonly secretarial training, then entered into their new profession. Teachers and typists, store clerks and secretaries, these young unmarried mothers who had forfeited their children to adoption re-entered the mainstream of life and were surrounded by all the functionings of happy families and social customs, all the while carrying their secret inside them.
Most participants married a few years after the birth of their child, and all told their prospective husbands of the baby they had given birth to and relinquished for adoption. The future husbands were supportive and didn’t treat it as an issue, even though one young woman’s father had told her ‘no man will want you after you have a baby’. While this sexist cliché persisted against young unmarried mothers, the reality for all of the participants in this study was that their husbands were almost unanimously unconcerned over the matter and on occasion even knew of the supposed ‘secret’ beforehand. Yet, when asked if they told their husbands almost all the women replied with some variation of, ‘I wouldn’t dare not to’. They had fully absorbed the message that they were social outcasts and required approval before they could move forward with their relationships. Remarkably, one woman went on to marry the father of the baby they gave up for adoption, though the relationship did not survive in the long term.
Some of the women never had more children, a statistic has been published numerously that 40% of women who gave up an infant for adoption suffers from secondary infertility. That is, they are unable either biologically or due to social conditions (such as not finding a suitable partner) to have children beyond the first which they bore and forfeited. A more recent study indicates that the 40% statistic is drawn specifically from participants in birthmother’s support groups, whereas a larger study of women who have given birth and given up their children for adoption, though not necessarily attended a support group indicates that it is closer to 13% of birthmothers who suffer from secondary infertility. While this could be by choice or from circumstance, many women have felt that having additional children helped them come to terms later in life with the loss of their first child. A study has suggested that birth mothers who have relinquished a child and later suffered from secondary infertility could gain much from attending a birthmothers support group as ‘Women who have not had other children; generally their status has been a secret and their friends do not see them as a mother – often, even after reunion. They have not had an opportunity to discuss their child with their contemporaries. The support group acknowledges and accepts their motherhood. They can say son/daughter without any qualifications, without questions. In this forum, they are mothers, full stop. Perhaps for the first time, they are really part of the motherhood club, and that is comforting.’ (Andrews, p.84-85)
The majority of project participants (78%) married and went on to have additional children. While for some it provided comfort to have the opportunity to raise their children, even if they were not given that opportunity with their first child, for many the repeated birth experience brought up traumatic memories. With each pregnancy and birth they relived some of the painful memories they had worked so hard to suppress. Some suffered debilitating postnatal depression, which felt magnified by their earlier loss.
For those that went on to have additional children, they struggled with another unique facet of relinquishment: whether or not to tell their other children about the sibling that was lost. Some told their kids when they were old enough to understand, often prompted by the discovery of some memento or record. While the majority did not have this conversation until they were confronted with potential reunification and the issues it could bring up in their own home. The women that had to tell their adult children spoke of an intense anxiety, weight loss, and a fear that their children would disown them if they knew their mother had given up a baby for adoption. They assumed their children would carry some of the same stigmatized attitudes which surrounded the initial pregnancy, and thought they would feel personally vulnerable for having a mother that forfeited a child. By and large these feelings were unfounded, and the news was frequently welcomed with curiosity and love.