In the closed adoptions of the past, the role of the birthmother was depersonalized and downplayed. Birthmothers were told to forget about their relinquished children; adoptive parents were similarly advised to move on with their child and never look back. For them, the birthmother may have been given little thought. If she was, she might have been feared as a kind of enemy. As one adoptive mother put it, she might have been thought of simply as "that woman."
This may have served in one of several ways. It may have helped encourage the new family to feel legitimized. Perhaps if they believed that the birthmother was unfit or didn't want the child, they could feel wholly entitled to be that child's parents. Or they may have desired to avoid a connection to an immoral situation - that is, the embarrassing pregnancy of an unwed woman. It may be that this helped adoptive parents quell the thought that their joy was another family's pain. It may have been some combination of all of these, or more.
In the days when closed adoptions ruled, the truth was viewed as undesirable. It was a time when men were men and women were "girls." No one wanted to admit that teenage and unwed women were having sex out of wedlock. It was a sin of great magnitude, a sin that spanned most church denominations and included the majority of people you'd meet every day.
The repercussions for committing this sin were widely accepted and known. For men, premarital sex was immoral but understandable as something they could not help. Yet any woman who didn't save herself for marriage should know better and thus deserved to be punished. Women would almost never speak of their "indiscretions," often not even to friends. The one, sure way a woman's indiscretions were aired was when she accidentally became pregnant.
These pregnancies may have been unplanned, but the babies were usually not unwanted. It may have served the adoption system to label birthmothers as uncaring abandoners, but those same women today speak out to the contrary. Most express that, at some point during that time, they desired very strongly to raise their children. Especially after labor and delivery, when the baby was no longer a pregnancy but a baby, most birthmothers expressed some feeling of regret and deep loss.
Though these feelings are natural, even for birthmothers today, the reality remained for them that parenting the baby was not always viable. In those days, if the social ramifications weren't daunting enough, you could always count on financial and emotional problems. Often, the birthmother still felt like a child herself. She may even have been told by her parents that she would be thrown out of the house if she didn't go through with the adoption.
In the era of closed adoptions, young women fared much differently than they do today. They were largely dependent on their parents, being either teenagers or young women, and were very often untrained in marketable skills. Despite popular conception, most birthmothers were more like the character of Sandy than that of Rizzo in the 1950s-era play Grease. Typically, they were probably known as the "girl next door," with ambitions of family and, perhaps, a career in a field like nursing or teaching.
Because of young women's dependency on family, birth grandparents were often the instigators and controllers of the adoption process. They were the ones who often shamefully "sent away" their daughters to stay with relatives or at anonymous maternity homes. In the 80s and 90s, young pregnant women were still often told to give up their babies or get out of the house. Even years after "Women's Lib," they would enter the adoption process under the value system of their parents' stricter generation.
Nonetheless, much has changed over the years. Abortion has become legal, women have gained more equality, and single parents now garner much more support. Now, a birthmother who chooses adoption for her child makes a much better educated decision in this age of information technology. She will have a very different experience in the process, too, since almost all adoptions these days involve the exchange of identifying information between birth and adoptive families.
The search and reunion movement has also changed, and will continue to change and grow in the coming years. Records are being opened and searchers are helping each other find answers. Perhaps most importantly and lastingly, our country can never be of quite the same mindset as it was in that less enlightened age. Birthmothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents can tell their stories openly and safely, with more confidence than ever. There isn't as much darkness where secrets can thrive.
This means that the American children adopted these days will grow up to be adults with answers. They will probably be handed all the information they request. If they must conduct a search, it will be simpler and easier, and require less digging.
This does nothing, however, for those who must still deal with that past closed system - birth families who must break down the walls that were built decades ago to shield them from the truth. Laws still in place today treat adopted people as children and birth parents as shameful. Many adoptive parents are sad that their children have so few answers. None of this needs to go on.
Deep emotions will always be embedded in adoptions for all those involved. There is no way to avoid it. Many have tried, and we can see how they've failed. It is time to concentrate on the hopeful, positive aspects of openness, even if it means some pain. At least it won't be a new pain. It will be the same old hurt that was buried long ago - but that never went away.
If we unearth it and, in the process, remain committed to openness and truth, I'm positive that everyone involved will be at least a little happier in the end.