She Was Just 17
Well, she was just 17, if you know what I mean…
That 1st cut on the Beatles debut album was my life in 1965. I was a freshman in college with my future just over the horizon. But life came to a screeching halt with the realization I was pregnant. My boyfriend and I were in love, so we went home and told our parents we wanted to marry. Mine weren’t thrilled; his were vicious. They called me filthy names and whisked their son back to college. And with his departure went all chances of raising my son.
In those days, a single woman who parented, essentially moved to the lowest rung of the social ladder, shunned by her middle class community. She stained her family name and ruined her chances for marriage. Unfortunately, the disdain for her carried over to her child, who lost any chance for a respectable future. While widows were exempt and divorced women got a pass, unmarried women faced disgrace or paid the harsh price of forfeiting their first-born child.
An era of such oppressive morality is barely comprehensible today. And for those of us who lived it, it was nothing short of a whiplash experience! The late 60s and early 70s marked a turning point in American cultural history, in which a massive youthful rebellion caused a major societal upheaval. The shift in sexual mores was merely one of many societal changes. Authority was challenged in areas of racial relations, women’s rights, and the promotion of war.
But wait, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. My pregnancy preceded that revolution. The one in which all the rules changed. So putting things in context, my 1965 options included societal disgrace, marriage or a maternity home. Remember abortion wasn’t legal and while the pill came onto the market in the early 60’s, it was only prescribed to married women.
So when the father of my baby departed, my fate was sealed and I was hidden in a maternity home less than a 100 miles away. It was then that the lies began. Since the official story was that I was visiting cousins in France, my letters were sent to Paris to be postmarked. Responses to my French address were forwarded to me in southern Alabama. The web of deceit grew elaborate and multi-layered. Lies were spun to cover my indiscretion, as well as those told to me about what lay ahead.
Maternity homes were plentiful. There was one in every mid-sized city and in a large city you were able to select according to your religious denomination. An estimated 2 million women live there during the 60’s alone. I was terrified to join their ranks, but surprised to find myself in what seemed like a college dorm. Close friendships grew, yet we were forbidden to know each other’s real names. I became Louise Palmer. My outgoing mail was censored. Future contact with one another was prohibited. Upon release we were to leave everything behind; our babies, our memories, and our connections. After all, no good came of associating with “bad girls.”
Choices? Counseling? Hardly! What passed for counseling was a few minutes every few weeks in which we parroted ‘the plan’ to Sister Anthony Marie. I proved my motherly love, by placing my son’s needs above my own need to parent him. Only a selfish woman would insist on raising her own child. The road to redemption was obtained by allowing him to be raised by two respectable parents. I was admonished to “go on with life, as if this was all a bad dream” and told “you’ll have more children.” The doctor who delivered my son told me not to ever tell the man I married about my experience, saying “No man wants damaged goods.”
For 30+ years I tried to forget and felt ashamed that I couldn’t even do as I’d been instructed. While many of the things I was told did not pan out to be true, I clung to them like beads on a rosary. I had to believe in something, because it was the only way I knew to keep from drowning. Somewhere along my way I read the words of the poet Audre Lorde, who said “to give birth is to be forever changed.” That phrase allowed me to acknowledge that the birth of my son had irrevocably changed everything in my world. Those changes would never be erased.
The wise remind us that through pain our growth occurs. During my months in the maternity home, I remember the actual moment this particular thought entered my mind: “If I survive the pain of losing my son, I might be able to one day help someone else manage theirs.” So it’s never been lost on me that the saddest part of my life is what led me to the work I’ve loved and been so lucky to have all these years. Behind every unpleasant experience is an invitation to discover what you are meant to be living for. I am eternally grateful to be working in this realm of adoption and being a part of change that is long overdue.
Along with sharing more of my journey into the world of adoption, the next column will begin to contrast women from my era with women who place children today.
Leslie’s story is included in the book “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade” by Ann Fessler and the documentary “A Girl Like Her.”