January 24, 2009

"Invisible Veil"

Veiled woman1
© Photographer: Isaiahlove | Agency: Dreamstime.com
"Invisible Veil"
by Margaret Benshoof-Holler

She could have been any of the veiled Afghani women that have been
written about in the U.S. media since September 11. But the woman I
stood listening to one Saturday afternoon last fall in Sacramento,
California was an American woman whose veil was invisible, whose story
had been silenced and hidden.

Her child had been taken away. It was as if it had died. Except there
was no funeral, no wailing wall for her to pound her fists on and cry!
The woman was expected to just get on with her life and pretend that
she hadn't just given her child away.

With thirty-some years of internalized emotion still causing her voice
to quake when she recalled signing her name on the relinquishment
papers, the fifty-six-year-old woman in Sacramento spoke of the pain
and grief of losing her daughter to adoption. As I listened, I was
reminded that here in the U.S. we often deal with loss by covering up
our emotions. I was also reminded that the U.S. was bombing
Afghanistan because we lost over 3,000 very dear people. No one,
though, ever went to war for these women whose losses were in the
millions of newborn lives.

The exact number of women who gave children up for adoption during the
era of the 60s is not readily obtainable. The numbers jumped from
"50,000 in 1944" to "175,000 in 1970," according to one source.
Another source estimated the number of women who relinquished children
to adoption in the 1960s and 70s reached a peak of 250,000 a year. The
stigma associated with getting pregnant out of wedlock then
contributed to a need for secrecy. The need to hide these pregnancies
meant complete information was not always gathered. Thus the reason
for approximates rather than exact figures. Nonetheless, it is
unquestionable that a large number of women gave up children for
adoption during the 1960s and reached a peak some time in the 70s.
And, if even half of the women who gave their children up for adoption
in the 60s had banded together their voices would surely have been
heard, but they had not been taught nor encouraged to use their
voices. Societal dictates, including puritanical attitudes about sex,
women, and pregnancy, silenced the voices of many women for many

When one loses a child, mother, father, or husband to death, there is
a funeral and a time of mourning. That hasn't been the case for most
of the 6,000,000 birthmothers in the U.S. who have lost their children
to adoption. Relinquishing her child to adoption is looked upon as a
single mother's duty for getting herself into that situation to begin
with rather than a deeply painful separation of mother and child. In
that respect, not much has changed since the 60s. Societal attitudes
towards unwed mothers consider adoption a logical consequence to out-
of-wedlock pregnancies.

Guilt and shame kept unwed mothers' voices stifled during the McCarthy
and post-McCarthy era of the 60s, but a small group of birthmothers
began, in the 1980s, to find the children they gave up for adoption in
the 60s. They began to come to terms with their loss. It is only with
the advent of the Internet that more birthmothers have begun to come
out of the closet. Many still only talk about what happened to them
with each other in much the same way that veterans of World War II and
Vietnam only talked afterwards with those who understood what they had
been through. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms effect a number
of birthmothers.

When President Bush proclaimed November as National Adoption Month in
2001, he did not mention or honor the large group of American women
who have lost their children to adoption. He did not present a plan of
prevention for unplanned pregnancies or a way to provide free daycare
to help financially-strapped mothers keep, rather than give up their
babies to the adoption industry. His strong adoption stance appears to
fall closely in line with one of his apparent supporters-the Edna
Gladney Home in Fort Worth, Texas, which was one of the biggest
contributors to the National Council for Adoption in their effort to
keep birth records closed. President Bush didn't address the issue of
opening birth records either. Closed birth records cut adoptees off
from knowing who they are and do not protect birthmothers because the
majority of them want to be found.

Even though U.S. women have progressed since the 60s in the areas of
education and upward economic mobility and many single women are
raising children on their own today, there is still a stigma about
anything related to a woman having a baby outside of the confines of
marriage. I see it in the way that stories about single mothers are
reported in the media. Young mothers are made to sound like criminals
if they want to keep their children.

One-hundred and forty million people in the U.S. have an adoption in
their immediate families. Engrained views and practices pertaining to
loss, sex, and adoption help keep many, like the birthmother in
Sacramento, veiled and hidden. In this respect, the U.S. tends to fall
behind every other industrialized country, most of which have stopped
separating the natural mother from her child after it is born except
in extreme situations.

The woman that I stood listening to in Sacramento was coerced into
giving her child up for adoption in the 60s. She was then encouraged
to keep the whole thing hidden. Her story stayed that way for over
thirty years. It is time that we recognize and honor her motherhood.

"Invisible Veil" © copyright 2002 by Margaret Benshoof-Holler

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