Discovering your unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant can be a traumatic experience no matter what the circumstances. But, during more conservative decades—the 1940s, '50s, '60s and even into the '70s—it was considered so shameful that parents routinely forced their expectant daughters to hide in the house for months in order to conceal their condition from family and friends. When the girls began to show, they were often sent to homes for unwed mothers, where they stayed until they gave birth. Relatives, teachers and friends were told the absent girls were working at faraway vacation resorts or taking care of a sick auntie. Once their babies had been adopted, the new mothers were sent home with instructions to forget the children they'd borne and move on with their lives. The women did move on—graduating high school and college; establishing successful careers; dating; marrying; even having more children—but not one of them ever really forgot the babies they relinquished.
In Ann Fessler's fascinating book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, the author presents the stories of dozens of women who, like her own birth mother, went through this experience. Told in their own words, the women's stories are both surprising and heartbreaking, providing an astonishing picture of what life was like for unwed mothers in the era before single parenting became acceptable in society.
Although the mothers' experiences varied in many ways, there were plenty of similarities: most of the women said they received no sex education as teenagers, not from classes at school, and certainly not from their parents; most knew so little about pregnancy that they were surprised when doctors shaved them "down there," since everybody knew babies came out of their mothers' stomachs; most were bullied or guilted into placing their children for adoption; and many suffered from low self-esteem for the rest of their lives as a result of being made to feel like whores and sinners for getting pregnant before they were married. Nearly all of the women interviewed said that whether or not they would have chosen adoption had they been allowed to make the decision on their own, they would have at least liked to have been given a choice. A common feeling among them was that, because of their young age (which made them both ignorant and vulnerable), parental pressure, societal pressure, and the desire for a clean reputation, they really had little choice but to surrender their babies for adoption by "deserving" married couples.
However you feel about adoption and abortion—and, believe me, I have strong opinions on both—it's impossible not to feel empathy for these young pregnant women who faced such judgment, betrayal and even cruelty from the people who were supposed to love and care for them most. Fessler discusses the way these attitudes have changed—today's parents, for example, are encouraged to discuss sex with their children early and openly and advise their sexually-active children to at least use contraceptives—and ways in which they have not.
I don't agree with all of Fessler's conclusions, but I did find The Girls Who Went Away to be a fascinating study of America's sexual history and the way society's attitude toward unwed motherhood affected so many young girls as well as the children they bore. Fessler's own experience, which she uses to frame the others', makes the whole subject even more intimate and affecting. Overall, it's an interesting book, albeit one I ultimately found to be sad and depressing.
(Readalikes: I can't really think of anything. Can you?)
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and sexual content (although not explicit)
To the FTC, with love: Another library