Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Reading about adoption

I recently finished reading the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fesler. It has historical information on birthmothers from the end of World War II through the end of the 1960s. During this time period, both the teen pregnancy rate and the stigma of having a child out of wedlock went way, way up. The result was an unprecedented number of infants placed for adoption. Most of the book is interviews the author conducted with women who surrendered their children for adoption. They were all, to a greater or lesser extent, coerced into that decision.

Family, schoolmates, priests, social workers, school administrators: I was amazed at how these people acted together to remove infants from unmarried women and place them with married couples. Marriage is a social good, especially for children. But that an entire class of society could, in the name of marriage, forcibly separate infants from their mothers amazes me.

The role infant formula played in this surprised me. In the time period covered by the interviews, homes for unwed mothers only allowed the mothers to feed formula to their infants, and they exerted large psychological and financial pressures on the mothers to coerce them to surrender their infants for adoption. Just a few decades prior, before infant formulas became popular, these same homes required mothers to breastfeed and provided educational and job opportunities to help the women support both themselves and their child.

I was also surprised by the depth of the effect this had on the women who surrendered their children. I thought the women in the first few stories might have been unusually emotional: being a birthmother dramatically affected their career and relationships for the rest of their lives. But then the author described the many studies that had found these reactions in almost all women who went through this. And provided her own anecdotal evidence from the over one hundred interviews she conducted. The interview chapters (sixteen in all) just got more intensely emotional from there. The writing is captivating, of the type that I could normally read in one sitting. But the emotional intensity meant I could only handle one or two chapters at a time.

It really opened my eyes to how profoundly social forces can affect members of a society. We all affect the society we live in to some degree. I hope that the knowledge gained from this book will help me be more aware of, and positive in, my own small impact on society.

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