Putting up a baby for adoption was the first act of my adult life, but it took me almost 30 years to face what that decision meant for me and my daughter.
At a poetry reading, I sit next to a woman I have known since our daughters, who are now finishing high school, were small. Between poems, my friend says, “I read your article about Florence Crittenton.”
I’m taken back. She’s referring to an article I wrote 10 years ago for a local parenting magazine.
After the reading, she says, “We should have lunch sometime. I was there too.” We’re in our early 50s, but talking about where we were 30 years earlier makes us both look around to see who might overhear.
“You were there?” I say. She seems so well adjusted that she’s the last person I would have expected to have relinquished a child after a stay in a maternity home.
“I was there in 1965,” she says. “I was 18, just starting college. I went to Rush Week at Colorado University and then I found out that I was pregnant, so I had to leave before my first semester even started.”
“I hated the lies. We told everybody I was in California working as a nanny for a rich family.”
“It was the same kind of thing for me. Did you think about abortion?”
“It wasn’t legal. Was it?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“I just went along with it. All of it. What else was there to do? My mom took care of all the details. My family told people I couldn’t handle school. I would rather have told them I was pregnant.”
The crowd has thinned by now. Her husband is looking at books.
“What was it like for you at Crittenton?” I ask.
“Full of shame and fear.”
“I no longer remember that so fully. Meeting my daughter a few years ago softened my memories. Have you met your child?”
“No, I don’t think boys are as interested in searching as girls are.” She adds, “I’m RH negative, and that first delivery was the only normal one I had. After I got married, I lost my first child. We tried again. I had a very anxious pregnancy with lots of amniocentesis. There were complications, and I had to have a C-section. Then it was hard for me to connect with my daughter. My husband had to tell me to go down to the nursery and see her.”
“I went the other way. I was overprotective, afraid of separations. My daughter had complications at birth too, and I had to leave the hospital without her. It was harder than it should have been.” I feel my friend’s assent. She must understand this better than anyone.
“I’ve worked on my grief,” she says. “I’ve worked in therapy, I’ve written,I’ve done body work.”
“I have too. But the grief doesn’t go away entirely. I didn’t grieve then. Did you?”
“Oh no. I just put it all away and went on with my life.”
Before the 1970s, most unmarried teenage mothers put their babies up for adoption. A 1993 New York Times article recalled that pregnant teenagers were treated as “pariahs, banished from schools, ostracized by their peers or scurried out of town to give birth in secret.” Their secrecy was protected in unwed mothers’ homes; the most familiar of these, Florence Crittenton Homes, offered sanctuary to unmarried mothers in most major cities for decades.
Twenty-five years after I gave birth to a daughter at Denver’s Florence Crittenton home, my out-of-wedlock pregnancy was redeemed by meeting my daughter — an intelligent, intense, warm, amazingly verbal youngwoman, obviously cherished by an adoptive family well equipped to care for her. Yet I still think about that pregnancy. A woman I know asked me recently, “Why not just focus on the good that came out of your pregnancy? The birth was good, after all.” She’s right, of course. The birth was good, the child I gave birth to a blessing for her family and for me. Why not leave it at that? I don’t seem to be able to; somehow, I resist telling myself or anyone else the easy story — the story of my child’s birth and my reunion with her, the story that ends simply and happily.
At 19, I couldn’t face the enormity of what was happening or understand what relinquishing my child would mean for me or for her. For a long time, I was afraid to acknowledge how complex my feelings were about the decision I made. But I’ve come torealize that giving up a child for adoption was the first act of my adult life. That means I need to get the story straight for myself, to tell the whole truth about the experience. I need to tell the whole story to honor the young woman I was.
The students I teach now in college level composition classes, even my own adolescent children, think the ’60s were a time of free sex, abundant drugs and bra-burning women’s libbers. But I was there, and I know that this picture isn’t adequate to describe the whole decade. When I started college in 1964 at age 17, I didn’t even feel tremors of the widespread social and political changes to come. The early- and mid-’60swere simply an extension of the ’50s, when race, ethnic background, religion, class, breeding, grammar and table manners all mattered. Concern for keeping up appearances was pervasive, the sexual double standard taken for granted.
If free sex means guilt-free, open sexuality, it was a foreign concept in my college experience. All the sex I was aware of was explored and pursued stealthily, secretly. But evidence that other students were having sex came to light: unplanned marriages, children given up for adoption and abortions sought even though they were illegal.I was just finishing my sophomore year. Disappointed in college, disappointed in my performance in college, I was on shaky ground. It had always been school that stabilized me. But those first two years –with their large classes and the impersonality of lecture and test, lecture and test — left me feeling alienated and disconnected. I’d collected a transcript full of Bs and Cs and was wondering how I’d find a place for myself in the world.
Looking for something my college experience didn’t offer me, I explored my sexuality timidly. I slept with David twice. He was a premed student at CU-Boulder, someone I had wanted to be in a relationship with for many months. The relationship was tenuous, based more on mutual attraction than a deeper sense of connection that might have anchored a lasting bond. And David’s ties to his upper-middle-class family were very strong. My middle-middle-class family didn’t really measure up, and his mother, who kept a close eye on her sons, must have hoped that I was just a passing fancy.
I don’t remember how I told David that I was pregnant. But his response was clear: My pregnancy marked the end of our relationship. I didn’t see him or hear from him after that. He retreated into his family. I learned later that he did tell them about my pregnancy, but at the time I wondered whether he had the courage to do even that.
I do remember telling my mother that I was pregnant. She was sitting on the couch in the living room; my older sister was hovering in the doorway, listening. Mom cried; it was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. I remember that she said, “I’m so sorry your first child has to be born under these circumstances.” I didn’t have to be told that I had to get out of my parents’ house and out of their community. I suggested that I go to Denver. She knew how to arrange it. And she said she’d tell my father.
I was in turmoil. I knew something even worse than what I was telling people. I’d slept with someone else. It was a one-night stand with Harry, whose last name I didn’t even know. I’d gone to a bar and a party with my roommate. Drunk, I’d slept with Harry. I couldn’t justify that act to myself, much less tell anyone about it. It was unacceptable to be 19 and pregnant, but to be 19 and pregnant and not even know the father’s last name was unspeakable.
I felt I had to maintain my story that David was the father of my child with my parents, my friends, David, of course, and my social worker at Florence Crittenton. Because the social worker would see to my child’s adoptive placement, I had to protect myself and my child from what I thought would be certain rejection and absolute shame by claiming that I’d at least had something of a relationship with the child’s father. At least I knew his name and the particulars for an adoption study. At least I had cared for him, had been cared for. And on paper, he and I made good birth parents: Our child was considered a high-background baby, one slated for an especially good home.
I went over and over my story in my head, clarifying the details I would tell, making sure I was consistent. My story was believable, and I would start to believe it myself. But then I’d rub up against the true story: that night with Harry and the fact that I really didn’t know who the father of my child was.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - –
The Denver Florence Crittenton Home was a three-story red brick building.It looked ordinary enough from the street, but once inside there was no mistaking the purpose of the building: dorm rooms, kitchen, school, even a hospital where girls gave birth, and a nursery where the babies were housed until they were taken off to foster homes and adoptive homes. There were 40 girls, high school and college students primarily, most of us within a month or two of term, all of whom had somehow managed to get by in the outside world until we had to come to the institution for cover.
Cover. That’s a good word for what the home did; it covered us until we gave birth and could return to school, to our families, to our friends. Until then, we used no last names; I was simply C.C., even on the labor and delivery record. In the adoption study, I was reduced to: 19 year-old, green eyes, light brown hair, 5-9, fair skin, allergic to sulfa. I even relinquished rights to my child in court under an assumed name, Constance Anne Brown. To keep our secrets, our families concealed our whereabouts from extended family, even brothers and sisters, and friends who might ask questions. Mine said I was working as a nanny for a wealthy family, that I had dropped out of college after my sophomore year, needing a break.
What was it like at Crittenton? On the one hand, it was a safe place designed to protect us from censure. And it was comforting to me to discover that the other residents were very ordinary girls, including the daughter of a minister, the daughter of two teachers, the daughter of a Wyoming rancher. On the other hand, we knew we had done something so terrible that it required that we be segregated. We were hiding away, putting our real lives on hold.
We followed a strict, institutional schedule. Far from finding it limiting, I welcomed the structure. We woke early, had breakfast. The younger girls went to school while the older girls did their assigned jobs. Mine was to help the cooks fix lunch by cutting up fresh vegetables; preparing large bowls of Jell-o, a different color for each day of the week; and serving bowls of cooked, limp, butter-soaked vegetables. This was one of the sought-after jobs, much better than swabbing floors or cleaning up after lunch. After our work was done, we could go out to walk or shop. Curfew was at 4:30 and lights out at 9 p.m.
I don’t remember how I passed the rest of the time. I don’t remember what I read. Or thought. Or felt. Did my friends send letters? I think so, but I don’t know how often. My mother sent letters. I remember a package with her handwriting on the label; I don’t remember its contents. I can see myself in the downstairs lounge where the library cart was placed and where I took knitting lessons. I don’t think I watched TV — it was on all the time, quiz shows, as I remember, during the day.
My dad came to see me once, unannounced. I’d taken up occasional smoking and was embarrassed to be carrying a pack of cigarettes, which I couldn’t hide because my maternity smock had no pockets. My father didn’t mention the cigarettes sitting in my lap or my prominent belly, although he must have noticed both.
No one took photos. There were no autograph books, no addresses were exchanged, no one kept mementos. We would leave our maternity clothes in a community closet so the new girls could use them, just as the girls before us had left clothes behind for us. Maybe there was wisdom in the conventions. Does an experience go away if it’s not mentioned? In someways, it does. Without the anchoring of words, without the repetition of a story, experiences do drift, get less distinct.
Over the years I’ve told and retold the story of my child’s birth to myself, protecting the most profound experience I’d had in my life; I was afraid that it was in danger of getting lost. In fact, for years I thought I had written the birth story over and over again. But when I looked through the boxes of journals I keep in my basement, the account wasn’t there. I realized that it was an oral history, one I recited internally.
My parents took me out to lunch on Easter, the only time they had taken me out since I had gotten pregnant. By that time I was about two weeks past my due date. I can’t imagine what we talked about. Maybe their taking me out into public was enough. Maybe they had told themselves people might think my husband was in the Army, my hands too swollen for my wedding ring. Or perhaps people would think my husband had died and that I deserved great sympathy. Whatever they told themselves, they braved being seen with me in public, but didn’t linger after lunch.
At about 9 that evening, I started to have contractions. I walked up and down the hall as I’d been told to do in a birth preparation class to test whether these pains were the real thing or false labor. The contractions began to come closer and closer. When I was convinced that this was the time I’d been waiting for all those months, I walked upstairs to the third floor Mary Donaldson Hospital, where a single nurse was on duty. I was scared and excited, but for the nurse, I was just another unwed mother who’dcome to term. She hurried me into a nightgown and brusquely showed me to a bed. She prepped me for delivery without speaking and then left me alone.
Later, the nurse gave me Demerol, which she must have assumed wouldslow down labor, so I wouldn’t deliver until morning. But the next time she checked me, at midnight, I was fully dilated and ready to give birth. Horrified that I’d dilated so quickly and without a doctor for the delivery, she ordered me to slow down, not to push while she summoned someone. An intern from Colorado General came just as the baby arrived. The nurse said perfunctorily, “It’s a girl,” and whisked the baby away as if my seeing her or touching her would harm her. I looked over my shoulder at the nurse, bundling the baby in a blanket. Captive on the delivery table, I had no choice but to lie still and quiet while the intern stitched me up.
I wasn’t surprised by this cold treatment in the delivery room; the people who worked in this institution simply shared the attitude of the larger culture. But I was unprepared for the incredible elation I felt, the exhilaration of having carried a child to term. Even the dreary hospital, the cold nurse, the impersonal intern couldn’t dim this realization. I knew would never be the same. It was, in fact, the very impersonality of giving birth that impressed me. I was Everywoman. It hadn’t mattered what my name was, what color my hair was, what my age was, what my marital status was. I had delivered a child, a real child.
Not only Everywoman — I was for a few hours Everyparent, stepping back to consider another, putting self aside, not so much as an act of heroism or altruism or compassion, but bowing to procreation, the beat of life expressed in a new person, separate, marvelous.
The exhilaration was short-lived. In the midst of enormous hormonal shifts and all too aware of my raw emotions, I found the days after my daughter’s birth difficult. I took pills to stem the flow of milk in my breasts and more pills, green ones, to stop the tears that flowed after I saw my child. We were allowed to see our children and hold them, even nurse them if we chose. They were, after all, legally our babies. I opted not to hold or nurse my child on the advice of other mothers, who said it only made relinquishment more difficult. I did pin my hospital gown together with aclothespin and shuffle down the hall to see my daughter in the nursery. Outside the glass, I looked closely at her, tracing her head, her ears, hernose, her mouth with my eyes. I must have visited three or four times. When it came to the nurses’ attention that I was crying after each visit, they told me I must stop because I was upsetting the other girls.
Several days after I gave birth, my social worker drove me to the Denver City and County Building, where I gave up my child and promised never to attempt to contact her or learn her whereabouts.
When I returned home, of course, nobody in my family mentioned the fact
that I’d had a child. Twenty-five times a day, I wanted to mention it
casually: “By the way, I gave up my child for adoption last week,” or “by the way, my child’s ears were shaped just like mine.” But I said nothing.My parents and older sister said nothing. My younger brother, who didn’t even know I’d had a child, of course said nothing. I sunbathed, dieted and exercised, erasing the visible traces of my pregnancy. By summer, I was
tan, fit and thin, ready to return to college.
I didn’t know then that the feelings that lay dormant in me, the ones I hadn’t made a space for, would develop a life of their own to emerge later around the births of my other two children, my divorce, my children’s
gaining a stepmother and single parenting. The grief, the loss — all the themes opened by relinquishing a child for adoption — would demand their
due. Sometimes they arose as questions: Am I a fit mother? Would I be fit with the addition of a husband, money, education, maturity? Can I be loving to a child? Is this pattern of walking away when parenting is inconvenient something I’ll do again? Will I be chosen for marriage? Is
something wrong with me? However, it wasn’t only the doubts that remained; the exhilaration and pleasure also remained as a benchmark against which I
would measure later experiences.
Time passed. A new, more forgiving era emerged. I had long since
finished college, earning close to a 4.0 grade-point average those
last two years. I even acquired a master’s degree. I married and divorced.I had told my husband about my first child, and when my children were old enough, I told them. I hoped someday I’d meet her. It was stronger than a hope, really. I longed to know what had happened to her. I needed to know how the decision I had made on her behalf had turned out. I even joined a birth-parent group in which several mothers were actively
searching for children they had surrendered for adoption. I stopped goingto the group when I learned some of the mothers had illegally located their children’s adoptive families.
I signed up with a birth-parent registry called Soundex, which matches birth parents and children only when both are searching. They didn’t even make matches until the child reached 18. I knew I wouldn’t be imposing myself in her life, but I would be available to her if she was searching.
Eleven years after I registered with Soundex, I got a call from the
daughter I had given up for adoption. That was six years ago, when I was 45 and she was 25. She told me her name, Kristina Marie Zarlengo — after all those years of waiting, her name, this prize, was handed over so simply. We
talked and talked: She had good parents. Her father had died when she was 15, she had an adoptive sister, her mother had remarried recently. She was in graduate school in comparative literature at Columbia University; she’d
been raised in Arvada, Colo., and then south Denver. All of a sudden, the facts of her life were right there, she was right there.
My memories of the reunion are not as clear to me as my memories of
Kris’ birth. There is no reason for me to protect them so fiercely. This could be talked about openly. I wrote about it, Kris and I wrote each other letters, I could tell my friends and, of course, my children; they told their
friends. This was a more public story. And I realized it was a changing, evolving story. The first phone call was superseded by others; the original letters from Kris — reflective, intense, intelligent — were superseded by
new letters — equally reflective, intense, intelligent.
Kristina and I agreed to meet for lunch at a tearoom in Castle Rock.
Walking toward the restaurant, I saw a young woman on the sidewalk. She was about my height, dark-haired. It had to be Kris. Seeing me approaching, she said, “Ceil? Do I call you mother?”
“Call me Ceil,” I said. We hugged, somewhat awkwardly. It was hard to know how to respond when so many emotions were surfacing.
I don’t think either of us ate much lunch. Mostly we stared at
each other. I didn’t want to turn my head away. I wanted to take her in, savor every angle, every expression. I wanted to hear her voice, impossibly a little familiar even though she had learned to speak in a household unknown to me. I’d last seen her when she was a few days old. Now a full, complex human being sat across from me — mother, father, sister, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers, lovers all unknown to me.
After that first meeting, I saw Kris from time to time when she
came to Colorado for school breaks. We wrote, both curious and respectful. And then the story became more complex. After a couple of years, she wanted to find her birth father. I told her, had to tell her, my dilemma: The
father I’d named might not be her real father. Actually, I’d gone farther than that in my mind. I’d convinced myself that Harry, the Harry with no last name, was Kris’ father. And I’d built a whole scenario — one I’d never tested, of course — that he would have been more loving and accepting of me had I told him about my pregnancy than David was. It was an imaginary cushion I’d built
into my private story, easier to live with than the truth.
Respecting Kris’ wishes, I located Harry, rousing him from family
and life to tell him I thought he was my child’s father. He didn’t even remember our encounter. Poor Harry. We met. I appreciated the disguise of middle age, my intrusion into this man’s life somehow easier for me because
I was almost 50.
Harry had blood tests done: They were negative. The story I’d
brandished when I was pregnant was no fiction. David really was Kris’
Nearly 30 years after I’d last phoned him from Florence
Crittenton, I reluctantly wrote David, sending him a photo of Kris. I knew it was essential to Kris
to know her birth father. In fact, locating him might be the only thing she would ever ask of me.
I was relieved to find that David was open to his child and to me.
He had thought of her through the years. He even explained why he had withdrawn when I was pregnant: He didn’t have the strength to see the situation through. He’d had to withdraw to protect himself. It was an honest response, and although my feelings about David were far from resolved, I could tolerate that.
About the time that Kris met David, she told her adoptive mother
about having met me. Shortly after that, Kris invited her adoptive mother, her stepfather, her adoptive sister, me, my son, her birth father, his
wife, their 19-year-old daughter and her longtime friend to a picnic in Boulder, where we ate chicken and salad and chips and watermelon and talked. I got to meet the woman who was my daughter’s mother. I sat across the picnic table from her, asking her question after question and learning what it was like to be Kris’ mother — to be the one who brought her home
after she was born, who was there when she cut her first tooth, who took her to ballet, who saw her through her father’s death, who sent her to Europe and then to college and graduate school as a single parent. I met the woman who had been Kris’ sister her whole life. Meeting Kris’ family,I realized I was not full author of this young woman’s tale. Genetic
influence stretches only so far; I could see that my part in her life had been early and relatively minor. My private story — the one thing I’d held fast to all those years after her birth — was outdated and limited.
Ironically, it was in finally
meeting my daughter that I realized I really gave her up — and how great my loss was. The opportunities for me to know her in the way I know my other children are gone: I gave them to her parents and her sister. And in
that way, I have had to give her up a second time. But now I know how the story I nurtured in isolation all those years connects to Kris’ life and her family. Now, because it is a story my daughter shares, it is whole.
Ceil Malek is a senior instructor in the writing program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She is the single parent of two adolescent children as well as the birth mother of a 31-year-old daughter. More Ceil Malek.
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