The girl who went away, Sylvia Brown
You just have to set yourself free, and that’s what talking about it does. – Ruth*
On the day of my 94-year old Grandma Sylvia’s wake, I watched my mother pick up her accordion to play Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. I was transported back to the age of 9, listening to mom warming up for a church service. Because it was one of Grandma’s favorites, mom had chosen this hymn as one of the few we would share at her celebration service.
I think I understand at least part of the reason why that song had touched my Grandma so deeply: It was the hope that looking into Jesus’ face might finally make this world’s sorrows fall away. Over the 43 years that I knew her, I don’t remember Grandma–Grandma Brown as we affectionately called her–ever being truly carefree for more than an hour here or there.
Grandma Brown had a wonderful sense of humor. She was impish and loved to play pranks and chat with her children and grandchildren. She was fiercely loyal to her “kin folk.” She was also an exceptional student. She had been valedictorian of her high school class and then graduated with top grades from nursing school during middle age. She was a very capable and caring nurse for the few years she practiced. She was incredibly proud of this particular accomplishment. Even after her memory had diminished greatly, Grandma could still brightly recall the names and dosages of medications and knew just how to take someone’s blood pressure.
Grandma and her cheeky sense of humor visit London
But most of the years I knew her well, Grandma was caught up in a cycle of nearly constant worrying. She fretted and questioned and doubted and lamented and regretted nearly all of the time. She wanted to be positive. She really did. She wanted to exhibit the strong, unwavering faith of her Southern Baptist upbringing. She spoke of grace and God’s love, but she couldn’t seem to hold onto joy or hope for very long. It slipped through her fingers, even more so as she tried to hold on more tightly.
I always assumed that much of this anxiety could be attributed to my grandfather’s death from a heart attack at the age of just 59. But as I got older, I was told that long before my grandfather’s passing, Grandma had been hospitalized for a time due to a “nervous breakdown.”
In addition to this great loss, she had suffered others. She reminisced tearfully about the tragic deaths of her three brothers: Harlan to alcoholism, Bill to a heart attack at a young age, and Earl to a house fire that may have been deliberately set. It’s not surprising that she expressed so much fear about losing those closest to her.
But a few years ago, I found out that there had been even more loss. Grandma Brown had kept a secret that was so far in the dark that most of us didn’t find out about it until she was nearly 90 years old. She had experienced something so deeply painful and traumatic that the other losses over the years merely compounded that first one, making it fresh and new each time she lost someone or something of importance to her.
And what was this secret?
In 1937–at the age of 20, the eldest daughter of an Arkansas farming family—my Grandma found herself pregnant and unmarried. She had been dating my grandfather, her high school sweetheart, for some time but they had not yet wed.
We are not sure exactly what happened because Grandma only revealed certain aspects of her story to my mother, but this is what I picture:
A stressful and tearful scene in which Sylvia is told that she must go to a stranger’s home in Kansas City to live until the baby is born, after which time she would have to give her baby to another couple for adoption.
My grandfather’s mother didn’t support their continued relationship, blaming my grandma for the transgression. (It certainly seems that they were no longer a couple throughout the pregnancy, and blaming the pregnant woman was a common practice at the time.)
She had only one visit from family members or friends while in Kansas City – her younger sister. My grandmother lived in a doctor’s home. It had three levels: the expectant mothers lived in the basement, the doctor and his family on the main floor, and the delivery room on the upper level.
Grandma didn’t use her real name while living there (this too was a common practice.) She used her own mother’s name.
In January 1938, she gave birth to a daughter. The next day her sister arrived by bus and they left the doctor’s home. The day following, Grandma Brown decided that she had made a mistake leaving her baby–not that she was really given a choice—and she returned to the doctor’s home to reclaim her. She was told that it was too late. The baby had already been given away.
It had to be an incredibly painful and profoundly lonely time for my grandmother. She was told to forget her daughter, to pretend that all of this had never happened.
Two years later, she married my grandfather, and they had two more children. Yet, there was another child–a full biological sister to my mother and uncle– somewhere, unknown and not spoken of, but surely constantly in Grandma’s thoughts.
L to R: My mother Jeanne, Grandpa Noble, Grandma Sylvia, Uncle Gary
This is conjecture on my part, but I imagine the following painful emotions, surfacing and resurfacing over the years:
Deep grief at having lost her firstborn;
Regret and guilt at “giving up” her child;
Anger at being forced to make a choice she didn’t want to make;
Resentment at her parents for sending her away and at her in-law relatives for blaming her (my mom and I later discovered that Grandma’s mother was already pregnant when she married her husband, Grandma’s dad, which might have made them less understanding or more so, depending on how they felt about their own experience);
Anger at her husband, who was not with her during this most pivotal of life experiences;
Feelings of worthlessness for having made such an unforgivable mistake;
Anger at God for the injustice of it all.
Is it any wonder that she struggled so?
She never expressed an interest in finding her daughter, at least not out loud. Just a few months before Grandma Brown passed away, my mother located her sister’s family—still living in the Kansas City area and, it turns out, very close to where Grandma had lived for many years. Although my aunt had died the year prior, her family welcomed my mother with open arms. It would have been nice for Grandma to know that her daughter had had a happy life, long and loving marriage, 5 children, and many grandchildren. But since Grandma’s Alzheimers was quite advanced by that point we’re not sure that she ever really understood what was discovered about her adopted daughter.
At Grandma’s wake we shared our gratitude that we had been able to find out about this deeply painful period of her life. It helped us to celebrate her more fully, understanding better why she wanted so badly to believe that “amazing grace” was available for her while never quite grasping the full extent of God’s love.
Shortly after my mother revealed this secret to me, a book titled The Girls Who Went Away practically jumped off the shelf into my cart at a second-hand shop.
I devoured this incredible book and through it discovered that my Grandma’s experience was shared by millions of American women during the years between 1943 and 1973.
The title is apt. Not only did Grandma get sent away to have her child, the girl that she was before she left also disappeared, never to return. How could that girl ever come back? She could certainly never be the same person after that experience. And the healing and restoration that she so longed to experience were always just out of her reach because of the secret she couldn’t reveal, the emotions she couldn’t express, and because of the many things she couldn’t say out loud.
I mourn for the lighthearted girl that Grandma Brown once was. The girl she might have remained if she hadn’t lived during a time when her mistakes were considered confirmation that she was fundamentally unworthy to mother her own child. The girl who didn’t know that there were compassion, forgiveness and redemption for her. Living with her secret and its unresolved emotions was an unjust, cruel burden for my Grandmother to carry throughout her life.
This secret is a part of my heritage, but it is not my legacy. Though as I child I was frequently compared to my grandmother for our shared tendency to be anxious and sad, my life has emerged in a vastly different way. I am immensely grateful that though I have been given the gifts of Grandma’s sensitivity, empathy and sense of humor, I am not bound by the same societal conventions. And, I have been able to break free of the lies and secrets that at one time kept me locked in shame and fear.
Today, I carry a lantern and offer it to women who want to shine a light on the secrets they think they have to protect.
The truth I have discovered and share? The very secrets we believe we must guard to ensure our emotional safety are actually keeping us locked up in a very dark place. The inverse is true: When we don’t have to hide, we can be free.
Grandma, this lantern is for you.
Now that she’s in heaven, I’m imagining a reunion and a celebration: The woman Grandma Brown was here on earth has become whole again, reconnected with the carefree girl she once was. And she and her husband have finally met their daughter, that girl who also went away but who has now been restored to them. Beautiful, beautiful redemption.
p.s. Many heartfelt thanks to my mother for graciously sharing her mother’s story with me, and for giving me her blessing to share it with all of you.
The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler *
There is no accurate count of the number of surrendering mothers in the United States today, but the number of children placed in non-family adoptions is believed to be 5 million to 6 million.
In June of 2002, I began tape-recording the oral histories of women who surrendered a newborn for adoption between the end of World War II, in 1945, and…1973.
Fearing that sex education would promote or encourage sexual relations parents and schools thought it best to leave young people uninformed. During this time, effective birth control was difficult to obtain. In fact, in some states it was illegal to sell contraceptives to those who were unmarried. The efforts to restrict information and access to birth control did not prevent teens from having sex, however. The result was an explosion in premarital pregnancy and in the numbers of babies surrendered for adoption.
Though sexual norms were changing among the young, the shame associated with single pregnancy remained. The social stigma of being an “unwed mother” was so great that many families—especially middle-class families—felt it was simply unthinkable to have a daughter keep an “illegitimate” child. These women either married quickly or were sent away before their pregnancy could be detected by others in the community. Between 1945 and 1973, one and a half million babies were relinquished for non-family or unrelated adoptions.
Just about everyone who lived through this era has a memory of a girl from their high school, college, or neighborhood who disappeared. If she returned, she most likely did not come back with her baby but with a story of a sick aunt or an illness that had kept her out of school. According to the prevailing double standard, the young man who was equally responsible for the pregnancy was not condemned for his actions. It was her fault, not their fault, that she got pregnant.
The girls who went away were told by family members, social-service agencies, and clergy that relinquishing their child for adoption was the only acceptable option. It would preserve their reputation and save both mother and child from a lifetime of shame. Often it was clear to everyone, except the expectant mother, that adoption was the answer. Many of these girls, even those in their twenties, had no other option than to go along with their families or risk being permanently ostracized. For them there was generally little or no discussion before their parents sent them away. Those who went to maternity homes to wait out their pregnancies often received little counseling and were totally unprepared for either childbirth or relinquishment. They were simply told they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget. Though moving on and forgetting proved impossible, many women were shamed into keeping their secret.
“As soon as the time was near and we were going to do this interview, all these physical things started happening. My jaw doesn’t want to open and my lungs are all tight. I thought, “I wonder why I can’t open my mouth.” Then I realized, I’m supposed to be silent. I’m not supposed to tell this story. The secrecy has dominated everything. It’s so powerful and pervasive and the longer you keep a secret, the more power it takes on.” – Diane
I never felt like I gave my baby away. I always felt like my daughter was taken from me. – Pollie
These women describe the surrender of their child as the most significant and defining event of their lives. Given the enormous number of women involved and the impact the surrender had on their lives, not to mention the lives of their parents, their subsequent partners and children, the fathers of their babies, and the surrendered children, it is remarkable that so little is known about these mothers’ experiences even now, decades later.
There are women out there who lost their firstborn child and never got to grieve. I can’t even put it into words. It’s a weird thing, this whole adoption thing where people think that someone could just hand their child over and it will be okay. Obviously it’s not. We live this every day. Every day. – Suzanne
The public’s lack of understanding of these women’s experiences—and the notion that they did not suffer a loss—is a result of the women’s lack of voice, not their lack of feelings…These women were made to carry the full emotional weight of circumstances that were the inevitable consequence of a society that denied teenage sexuality, failed to hold young men equally responsible, withheld sex education and birth control from unmarried women, allowed few options if pregnancy occurred, and considered unmarried women unfit to be mothers. Asking the women to keep their secret and deny their child…their experience and their motherhood have been silenced and denied for too long.”
“I feel lucky. I feel lucky because I know my daughter is out there and she’s fine, and healthy, and productive, and beautiful. I feel lucky that she says she loves me. I feel lucky that my children love me and understand what happened. I feel lucky that I survived cancer. And I feel lucky that I now have a voice. I didn’t for so long, but you’re not going to shut me up now. Keeping things inside kills you. You rot from the inside out. I did a great job of punishing myself for thirty-two years. But you just have to set yourself free, and that’s what talking about it does.” – Ruth