Ann Fessler.The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade. Penguin Press. 368 pages. $24.95
Rosanna Hertz. Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women are Choosing Parenthood without Marriage and Creating the New American Family. Oxford University Press. 304 pages. $26.00
When it comes to sex, life is not fair. Each era vindicates this insight anew. These books demonstrate that liberation from sex’s imperatives continues to elude us. We have yet to escape the tradeoffs ordained by our natures.
In Ann Fessler’s book, women born at mid-century reminisce about becoming pregnant out of wedlock and relinquishing their children for adoption in the decades before the sexual revolution and the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In Rosanna Hertz’s, the daughters of that generation recount their experiences as women who have decided to become mothers outside of marriage. Fessler’s stories tell of coming of age amidst the seismic shift in sexual mores that yielded the world as we know it. Hertz provides a window into the lives some women live in that world.
For those concerned with sexual mores and modern family life, these books are essential reading. Both authors and their subjects buy into a post-60s ideology heavily suffused with feminist precepts, and the lives of these women provide ample grist for that mill. Hertz’s mostly well-educated mothers intersperse their often poignant personal accounts with a confused brew of half-baked, new age ideas on sexuality, men, marriage, and family life. Likewise, Fessler’s birth mothers of an earlier era, now older but not necessarily wiser, frequently reveal a dismayingly narcissistic take on family relations that embraces self-fulfillment as the chief goal of relationships and self-validation as the main rationale for motherhood. For most of these women, it’s all about me — my kids, my life, my feelings, and my pain. Yet in spite of the equivocation and confusion, these women are not unsympathetic. Indeed, they are only human and their dilemmas are as old as civilization itself. While paying ample lip service to freedom and “alternative life styles,” most harbor conventional yearnings for love, commitment, marriage, and motherhood. For Fessler’s birth mothers, there can be no doubt that giving their children up for adoption, in rending the mother-child bond, was a wrenching sacrifice that indelibly colored their lives. Likewise, Hertz’s moms’ decisions to make a go of solo motherhood are grounded mostly in fervent, age-old longings rather than ideological zeal. Many of her women confront a timeless form of bad luck, albeit one increasingly common in the current climate: the unsuccessful search for “Mr. Right” in the face of the ever-ticking biological clock.
Beset by conflicting desires for freedom and connection, and surrounded by ambivalent men, these women attempt to salvage dignity and happiness from sexual liberation’s vagaries.
For the subjects in both books, however, the feminist rhetoric serves as a way to cope with the demise of traditional expectations. The world these women confront is one in which the institutional forms that bind men to their families have been deliberately disparaged and no longer guide and restrain. Without clear expectations, beset by conflicting desires for freedom and connection, and surrounded by ambivalent and indecisive men, they attempt to salvage dignity and happiness from sexual liberation’s vagaries. Feminist spin serves mostly as window dressing, used to justify, comfort, and explain. For Fessler’s moms, the rhetoric validates their lifelong sense of hurt, high dudgeon, and resentment at being deprived of the chance to raise their own babies. For Hertz’s mothers, it grants them permission to bear and raise the children they so fervently desire. In both cases, these ideas help make the case that the “choice” to become a mother, whatever the context and regardless of cost, is really all for the best.
Hertz’s book is the more scholarly product. She relies on in-depth, audio-taped interviews of 65 mostly middle-class single women, contacted primarily through the Massachusetts chapter of Single Mothers by Choice. Despite her anecdotal methods and small sample, she strives to give her subject comprehensive and systematic treatment. In describing her women’s quest to become mothers, Hertz identifies four principal strategies. Some women acquire a “known donor” by allowing themselves to become pregnant by a casual lover or semi-serious boyfriend (sometimes in a last-ditch effort to cement the relationship or to force the issue of marriage). Some seek out anonymous sperm donors. Yet others find a male platonic friend to serve as biological father. Finally, some choose adoption, either foreign or domestic.
Although women are center-stage in Hertz’s book, the men (whether absent or present to various degrees) loom large. These women’s attitudes toward their children’s fathers and men in general is wary, but also pragmatic and instrumental. They perceive, however grudgingly, that men possess resources, talents, confidence, and a unique “masculine” perspective. Like many in their relatively privileged social class, they seek to give their children every advantage – including the advantage of having a fatherly presence in their lives. If the biological father is unknown, inaccessible or uninterested, they turn to surrogates and second-bests: boyfriends, lovers, consorts, grandfathers, uncles, friends, and teachers.
But these mothers’ most important impetus for involving men is their children’s express desires. Although they speak mostly through their mothers, the children come across as staunchly unreconstructed. As they grow, they want to know: “Who’s my daddy?” “What’s he like?” “Why isn’t he here? and “Where is he?” These mothers cannot help but be moved by their children’s thirst for fatherly involvement and by their delight in masculine attention. Yet they remain riddled with ambivalence and wary of the onerous tradeoffs of nuclear family life. Torn between their children’s conventional desire for a full-blooded dad, and their own wish to monopolize their children and the desire to answer to no one, the mothers reserve the right to pick and choose as it suits their purposes. The result is a constant push and pull, as they attempt to draw the men in while still holding them at a calibrated distance. Some relinquish support — financial and emotional — in exchange for control and independence. Many are roiled with the conflicts of negotiating fathers’ shifting claims while juggling their own love interests and struggling to find a coherent place for all the players. For their part, the biological fathers ride a roller coaster of emotions and intentions.
In this brave new world, all are awash in a sea of uncertainty. Nothing can be assumed and everything is up for grabs. Interactions must be tailor-made for each occasion, worked out and reworked through elaborate negotiations. But as the players too often learn, there are limits to eclecticism. More often than not, the circle cannot be squared: The men are uneasy with the precise terms that women are willing to offer and resist the roles that the mothers “construct” for them. Some men start out with good intentions, but drift away or move on to other relationships. Others remain a shadowy, marginal presence in their children’s lives. The result is that these mothers’ efforts to secure reliable fathers for their children are often thwarted, with the men mostly fading to pale and distant echoes of the real thing. Especially poignant are the children born of sperm donors: In many cases, their fathers are nothing more than a piece of paper jotted with a few “celebrity-profile” facts. (“Likes the Beatles. Plays Basketball”). Even Hertz acknowledges that women who choose this route simply “cannot produce a man to touch, to hug, or to share the child’s deepest hopes and fears.” But most nondonor dads also fall grievously short of what their children long for. Too often the children are left to cope with a hybrid of what their mothers have in mind and their fathers will accept, their needs and desires at odds with the notion that men are dispensable and women can make it up as they go along.
The children come across as staunchly unreconstructed. As they grow, they want to know: “Who’s my daddy?” “What’s he like?” “Why isn’t he here?” and “Where is he?”
Yet no one can doubt that these mothers are loving and devoted. And many are energetic and resourceful. The American virtues of optimism, innovation, and independence shine from Hertz’s pages. In pursuing the middle-class dream despite the lack of its chief bulwark, these mothers are spurred to creative experiments in living. Many improvise lives of richness and interest, and all are determined to carry on and make the best of it. In place of men and marriage, they cultivate friends, relatives, and co-workers, and forge unlikely alliances. Poignant acts of generosity and kindness cushion their lives. Their stories are also a paean to the virtues of private property. Many mothers purchase multiple family homes where they can live while generating extra income. Others substitute their own “sweat equity” for a husband’s financial support. For these women, property serves as a solid hedge against uncertainty and a concrete tie to the community.
These women’s grit in pursuing their dreams under demanding conditions is supposed to evoke our admiration. Hertz strives to make her moms out as heroic, and sometimes she succeeds. But our sympathy distracts us from an uncomfortable truth: the exhilarating “diversity” of their self-authored lives yields a heavy dose of upheaval, confusion, instability, and emotional disappointment. The book is replete with revolving-door boyfriends, intermittent live-ins, uneasy marriages, and inseminators known and unknown, all with equivocal and shifting relationships. And despite the candor and self-revelation, we are shielded from the impact on critical hearts and minds. The question, never confronted head-on, is how it all plays out for the children, their inner lives, and their future fortunes.
Consider Jennifer. She is about to marry her boyfriend, Charles, but is afraid that his adopting her child, Zoe, will undermine Zoe’s already fragile relationship with her biological “known donor” father, Sam. Of this tangled situation, Jennifer says:
I would like him [Sam] not to be absent from [Zoe’s] life. But I really don’t want him to be, which he wouldn’t be, too, in there. I really want Charles to be her father and her daddy. But I would like Sam to have some spot for her. I really do still feel connected to him and she looks like him and me. . . . And there are things about her that remind me of him and I want her to know that they come from him. So I have some investment in him, but I don’t know the answers. It feels like a mess to me.
Life is never neat. But here, where the characters have thrown away the script, the only constant is that no one knows what to do. Jennifer’s dilemma is hardly atypical. The women keep trying to mix and match and make it all work. Everyone’s hazy on the rules and no one has a clue about their role in the drama. All too often it doesn’t turn out as planned, because, as one woman puts it in a model of understatement, “there are other people involved.”
All of this leaves Hertz largely unfazed. Although she purports to let her families speak for themselves, she can’t resist glossing her “data.” The result is a running commentary larded with mindless and unanalyzed assumptions, undefined jargon, and hackneyed buzz-phrases straight from the standard feminist lexicon. While relentlessly spinning and sanitizing her subjects’ stories, Hertz misses no opportunity to celebrate “family diversity” and to denigrate conventional lives. Her outlook on marriage is a parody of vulgar feminist hostility. For her, the traditional, two-parent family is obsolete, soon — and not soon enough — to be replaced by mother and child as the fundamental social unit. The decline of the nuclear family is an unalloyed blessing — a long-awaited liberation from the evils of patriarchy and the oppressive dominance of men.
In seeing single motherhood as the route to a better world, Hertz barely acknowledges the benefits of traditional family forms. Despite ample evidence from the lives she documents, she is willfully blind to the value of established practices and oblivious to the moral vertigo that results from discarding clear rules and customary expectations. Although she gives the subject of fathers a good deal of play, her interest in the age-old problem of socializing men and integrating them into constructive family roles is virtually nonexistent and her understanding of these imperatives primitive at best.
Hertz sees children’s desire for a complete family as the holdover from patriarchy’s nefarious hegemony, the unfortunate but transient manifestation of an unfinished revolution.
Toward her mothers’ decidedly mixed feelings about marriage, fatherhood, and men, Hertz adopts a patronizing tone of tolerant exasperation. The two-parent nuclear, heterosexual family, she asserts, is a nefarious paradigm that has “insinuated itself into the cultural fabric” even though (she assures us) “the ideal is rarely seen in reality.” Her subjects — like the rest of us — are still mesmerized by this gripping “master narrative” that has grown to be “the stuff of legend and a powerful form of social control.” As for her mothers’ struggles and dislocations, these are wholly “constructed” and can be reconstructed. Their travails are mere remnants of a flawed and oppressive system that systematically slights women’s interests. Any costs these single moms incur will magically vanish once conventional marriage is left behind. Likewise, children’s desire for a complete family is depicted as the holdover from patriarchy’s benighted hegemony, the unfortunate but transient manifestation of an unfinished revolution. Implicit in Hertz’s impatience is the assumption that, once the mother-child dyad takes over, the masculine will no longer be valorized and men’s power and privilege will disappear. Come the revolution, children will no longer yearn for their fathers and mothers will no longer feel the need to keep men in children’s lives. Since no one will have a father, no one will care. The playing field will finally be level and the world safe for families without men.
Come the revolution, children will no longer yearn for their fathers and mothers will no longer feel the need to keep men in children’s lives. Since no one will have a father, no one will care.
Hertz’s utopian vision for a fatherless future leaves all the hard questions unanswered. Rather than coming to grips with the implications of her fantasy, Hertz indulges the conceit that observing the details of individuals’ lives will naturally yield insight. We are meant to feel uplifted by the tales of strong women making do. The women themselves share Hertz’s beliefs and blind spots — and her myopia. They see their lifestyle as a matter of individual choice and ultimately of little or no concern to others. They’re proud of embarking on a social experiment, with little thought to the role of sexual morality or the place of norms and institutions in social life. They are neither inclined nor equipped to map out an all-purpose code: Creating and upholding wise rules for society is not their concern. Nor should it be: Until recently, that task was not left to ordinary people’s velleities. Rather, it was performed by the clear precepts of sexual morality that put marriage at the center of family life. Now that these are out the window, it is not surprising that these women are left to fly on their own, making up the rules as they go along.
Yet social policy is made on the basis of books like this, which is why Hertz’s evasions matter. As a work of academic ethnography retooled for the trade, Hertz’s study shares a flaw common to that genre: It is anecdotal rather than systematic. Her focus is on a narrow slice. Sixty-five percent of her subjects hold advanced degrees, and only 14 percent failed to graduate from college. All were working and none received welfare during the study period.
Hertz’s decision to look only at middle class women allows her to finesse the big picture. First, the demography of single parenthood belies her notion that the nuclear family is on its way out. Although out-of-wedlock childbearing has climbed a bit among educated whites in the past 50 years, the percentages remain in the low single digits. Almost all the recent increase is confined to minorities and the less affluent. Second, the class element makes it easy for Hertz to downplay the link between out-of-wedlock childbearing and social pathology. Although it is well known that children growing up with only one parent fare less well across the board, Hertz treats any mention of these effects as part of the “hegemonic” patriarchal narrative. In leaning heavily on the orthodoxies of constructivism, Hertz rounds up the usual suspects: stigma, patriarchy, workplace rigidity, lack of government programs, and pervasive discrimination. Since these disabilities are imposed from without rather than intrinsic to single-parent families themselves, children of single moms will thrive and observed pathologies will disappear once these impediments are removed.
Perhaps the book’s most important omission is its failure to recognize that the well-being of Hertz’s middle-class single mothers depends critically on the conventional lives around them. Her subjects are all drawn from a class still dominated by stable, married, two-parent families. They swim in a sea of bourgeois rectitude and daily draw on its social capital. Their children attend schools populated by the well-socialized offspring of traditional couples and play on streets that devoted fathers help make safe. The social disorder that pervades most fatherless communities is kept off stage. Yet it never occurs to the author — or her subjects — that these families’ safety and success depends critically on being embedded in old-fashioned communities and buffered by traditional structures. Nor do they acknowledge that their well-being depends on others making the choices they reject and upholding the norms they help subvert. If Hertz’s wished-for utopia arrived, the fatherless families she describes would cease to be protected by the traditional families around them. That this hasn’t yet happened makes it easy for the author to spin these single mothers as unthreatening to the social order.
Not only do Hertz’s mothers come from a rarefied demographic, but they are unlikely to be representative of even that narrow slice. Although personal disappointments and disjointed adult relationships abound, there are no really troubled families here — just brave new ones. The men are often unreliable and unpredictable, but relations are mostly a model of bourgeois civility. The book recounts no furious battles, passionate blow-ups, emotional blackmail, vicious blood feuds, or threatening confrontations. There are no violent acts by vindictive boyfriends or crazed fathers. Likewise, children don’t go bad or sour. There are no juvenile delinquents, depressed teens, or youthful implosions. Ingratitude, alienation, or just plain failure are hardly in evidence. The relations of these mothers to their children seem almost idyllic, and motherhood is depicted as an unalloyed joy.
There are no violent acts by vindictive boyfriends or crazed fathers here. Likewise, children don’t go bad or sour. There are no juvenile delinquents, depressed teens, or youthful implosions.
This sugar-coated picture gives the book an expurgated feel. The relentlessly sunny and upbeat tone suggests that self-selection and self-justification are at work. As with college class notes, the most troubled voices are unlikely to be heard from, and failures are soft-pedaled or hidden from view. That these women clearly feel the need to justify their unconventional choices — and that Hertz herself is eager to accentuate the positive — provides more reason to be skeptical. The short time period and lack of long-term follow-up facilitate the positive spin. Because the study period extended over ten years, when most of the children were relatively young, Hertz did not bear witness to the stormy years of adolescence and avoided confronting any possible long-term fallout from these children’s unsettled lives.
The rosy picture is partly a function of her subjects’ lofty position. A parallel sample from less favored groups — in which single-parenthood is an important contributor to children’s troubled lives — would not look so good. No matter. For Hertz and her subjects, a social practice is not to be assessed by whether it provides a workable system for society as a whole. Rather it is about individual experience — whether a choice feels good or bad, and whether it works for you or me. The systemic long-term consequences of abandoning or radically changing traditional practices is no part of this equation. Yet those effects are the true test of whether single motherhood ought to be celebrated or discouraged.
A similarly individualistic focus animates Ann Fessler’s study of out-of-wedlock childbearing before legalized abortion. The women in this study largely speak for themselves and their accounts form the main body of the book. Only the hard-hearted would fail to feel for Fessler’s young unwed mothers, most of whom became pregnant while in their mid-teens. Their timing was unfortunate: Coming of age in the post-war inflection point of sexual mores, they got caught between the loosening of old restraints and the last-ditch attempts to maintain them. In many communities where these women grew up, old-fashioned norms were still firmly in place and feminist ideas had not yet taken hold. Premarital sex — as revealed by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy — was a badge of shame, and having a child without a husband was uniformly regarded as an unthinkable stain on middle-class respectability. Yet the heady brew of relaxed parental vigilance, mass youth culture, and the automobile left young women to cope with male sexual demands unmoored from conventional safeguards and customary restraints. This situation too often produced the expected (or in many cases unexpected) results.
To deal with these unwelcome developments, respectable folk increasingly turned to adoption. The customary fix — shot-gun marriage — was rapidly falling out of favor. As explained by the economists Michael Katz, Janet Yellin, and George Akerlof in a famous 1996 paper, the “techno shock” of the birth control pill fueled that convention’s demise by increasing the availability of sex with no strings attached. Greater educational and occupational opportunities for women and men, rising economic and social expectations, and a stress on upward mobility also contributed to the demise of early marriage as the solution to unintended pregnancies. High hopes extended to the offspring of the illicit liaisons. In that case, better prospects depended on the perquisites that a good adoptive home could provide. In persuading these hapless girls to give their babies up — or, more commonly, in attempting to soothe them in the face of a fait accompli — parents, social workers, and religious counselors repeatedly touted the advantages of their babies’ being raised by married parents. No one doubted that, by virtue of youth and circumstance, the girls themselves were not up to the task. These girls were told in no uncertain terms that relinquishing the child was the best for all concerned.
The pragmatism with which many families dealt with out-of-wedlock pregnancy coexisted with a deep reticence that is utterly foreign to the current sensibility. The problem might be dealt with briskly, brusquely, gently or kindly — but was rarely aired or analyzed. Once over, the episode and the child “were never spoken of again.” Although these evasions had their uses, they also carried costs. The demise of parental vigilance had not yet generated a forceful sexual savvy. The obedient habits of dutiful daughters were too often expressed as sexual passivity in the face of male advances. And most girls were maintained in a state of abject ignorance fit only for the sheltered lives they no longer lived. Their innocence of the basic facts of life left them vulnerable to male exploitation, obscured their awareness that they were “in trouble,” and fueled their anguish and bewilderment.
That was then, but this is now. Although Fessler interviews these girls as grown-ups, it is striking how little distance they have achieved. Full of high dudgeon and resentment, having nursed and rehearsed their pain down through the years, most are still angry at society and their families for the humiliations and hardships they endured. Above all, they cannot reconcile to being “forced” to give up their babies. The main thrust of their commentary is outrage: That they were made to bear the consequences of flouting one of society’s cardinal rules, especially in matters so personal, tender, and intimate as sex and babies, is perceived as an unforgivable assault on their personhood that cannot remotely be justified and from which recovery is scarcely possible. Even efforts to reassure them during their ordeal — such as being told they would marry and have “other children” some day — are viewed in retrospect as rankly insensitive spurs to enduring hurt. What comes through loud and clear is that Fessler’s and Hertz’s subjects share a similar perspective: Their suffering is society’s fault, ordained by a mindless and punitive fear of unregulated female sexuality and a slavish commitment to the oppressions of patriarchy.
That they were made to bear the consequences of flouting one of society’s cardinal rules is perceived as an unforgivable assault on their personhood that cannot be justified.
Emblematic of Fessler’s birth-mothers’ relentless focus on their own adversity is the long list of grievances attributed to their defining trauma. Every imaginable ill, shortcoming, and disappointment is traced back to the experience of relinquishing a child for adoption. The woes cover the field: obesity (“I am overweight, because I was portrayed as a loose girl that no one would want”), “difficulty in forming healthy relationships with men,” “low self-esteem,” “lack of trust,” “depression,” “self-loathing,” “an enduring sense of emptiness and loss,” “persistent loneliness or sadness,” “difficulties with intimacy, attachment or emotional closeness,” “anger,” “severe headaches,” “physical illness that cannot be explained,” “post-traumatic stress disorder,” “extreme anxiety, panic attacks,” “migraines,” “arrested development,” “nervous tics,” “flashbacks,” and “nightmares.” The list goes on, and everything is on it — all emotional infirmities and their opposites. Giving up her child made one woman “an overbearing mother — because I have trouble separating.” Another was rendered cold and emotionally disconnected. One describes herself as smothering and overprotective, while others deplore their distant and unloving nature. Some chose to have no more children, while others had too many. In every case, the root cause is giving up a child. The author takes all this on faith — after all, if the women feel it, it must be true. But correlation is not causation. Despite the undeniable pain, there simply is no evidence that these women would have functioned better if their children had not been taken away.
The woes cover the field: “difficulty in forming healthy relationships with men,” “depression,” “selfloathing,” “severe headaches,” “flashbacks,” and “nightmares.”
The thicket of dire emotions, feminist posturing, and unsubstantiated claims threatens to distract from the more interesting aspects of these women’s reminiscences. The picture is decidedly mixed. The travails of early pregnancy, birth, and relinquishment were always distressful. But they were not always unredeeming. Albeit harsh, these experiences sometimes served as necessary rites of passage. Some girls were swept away by adolescent passion, and others were unlucky, exploited, or merely clueless. But a goodly number were simply immature and impulsive. In transgressing strong conventions of female chastity, they engaged in the ultimate act of teenage rebellion against parents, family, and upbringing. Clearly, they had a lot of growing up to do.
The Florence Crittenton homes for unwed mothers provided a chance to do just that. The book provides a valuable, fascinating portrait of these institutions, which, like the girls themselves, inhabited an uneasy world of changing values. Life in these homes was dull, quiescent, and unadorned. But it was not unpleasant. Boredom was relieved by chores, plentiful and nutritious “comfort food,” and occasional outings (for which the girls were issued fake wedding rings in deference to local sensibilities) for shopping, cinema, or ice-cream. Despite the shame, distress, and expense these girls’ families endured, many took pains to seek out these safe havens for their daughters and patiently stood by them during their ordeal. Few girls were repudiated or abandoned outright. Parents sent letters and care packages and visited regularly, often over long distances. They footed the bill, sometimes at considerable sacrifice. At the homes, other girls provided fellowship, and lifelong friendships were sometimes forged. Although some women grumble about the stern scoldings they received from staff members, what is remarkable is how uncommon and muted these were. Disapproval was expressed more in sorrow than anger, with moralizing already giving way to therapy and “counseling.” Girls from hardscrabble backgrounds, accustomed to taboos against introspection and self-revelation, basked in the staff’s sympathetic interest in their aspirations, feelings, and thoughts. And although many gave birth unattended by family and in relative secrecy (in the former not differing appreciably from their married counterparts), they were soon welcomed back, and often not unkindly, into their homes, schools, and communities. All in all, the quality of mercy was not strained.
As for the euphemistic “silence” surrounding the ordeals in their aftermath, one suspects that shame was far from the only rationale. Many families still viewed discussing these matters as unproductive wallowing at best and selfish naval gazing at worst. The reticence also served as a way to preserve moral clarity while tempering justice with understanding. To air these girls’ lapses would have prompted overt censure or even repudiation in the name of reaffirming society’s values. Silence was the merciful compromise that honored the rules while allowing everyone to get through it, get over it, and move on.
Fessler’s birth moms will have none of this. Whereas Hertz’s subjects make it all out as too good to be true, Fessler’s put the worst face on their experience. The notion that there was any wisdom in how society dealt with them is barely acknowledged, let alone endorsed. Adoption is never seen as a pragmatic and honorable choice, designed to salvage a bad situation, guard the innocent, and minimize the burden on others. Reticence and confidentiality are dirty words, and the failure to deal openly and endlessly with sex and feelings is tarred as the toxic hallmark of a pernicious moral order. Likewise, declining to “out” oneself or one’s biological child is always motivated by fear or shame and never by a genuine concern for others or by the desire to honor one’s youthful promise of confidentiality. And, anyway, fear and shame are nasty emotions that have no constructive social uses.
Although some women grumble about the stern scoldings they received at the Florence Crittenton homes for unwed mothers, what is remarkable is how uncommon and muted these were.
These women’s lack of moral perspective fuels their high dudgeon and prevents them from making peace with their past. There is no question that they suffered a wrenching loss. But the demise of clear rules leaves them grasping for some way to understand and reconcile themselves to their sacrifice, and there is little to leaven their resentment. As with Hertz’s single moms, Fessler’s birth mothers are true children of the current Zeitgeist. No pro-social theory of sexual morality shapes and tempers their emotions, and they are oblivious to out-of-wedlock childbearing as a potentially corrosive social problem requiring a concerted solution. They don’t seem to understand why society might sometimes sacrifice individual interests or keep adolescents from their heart’s desire. Likewise, they lack even the most rudimentary understanding of the function and purpose of traditional institutions like the nuclear family and marriage, and they fail to see their own conduct as bearing on those institution’s integrity. It is not surprising, then, that they feel aggrieved, bruised, bewildered, and relentlessly self-obsessed, or that they are incapable of viewing society’s treatment of them as anything but unjust and harsh.
From this rubble, Fessler and her subjects reconstruct a different moral trope: Resisting relinquishment is depicted as a virtuous form of rebellion against the stifling strictures of patriarchy. On this view, adolescent pregnancy is not to be deplored but rather celebrated as a transgressive act of defiance against irrational taboos and soul-crushing conventions of female obedience. Keeping one’s child is a brave and heroic act, and giving up a child is the “self-serving” path of least resistance. As one mother expresses it, “I wasn’t strong enough to face the idea of raising a child on my own.” In advancing these notions, Fessler and her subjects, like Hertz and hers, buy into a vulgar feminism that romanticizes single-motherhood and sees the hostility to out-of-wedlock childbearing as motivated by the desire to suppress female sexuality, maintain rigid sex roles, and punish “women who did not subscribe to the prevailing domestic model.”
Yet one women does manage to rise above the din of recrimination to express the sound, well-meaning understandings that grounded society’s response:
that it’s really not feasible for [these girls] to be a parent, and they know that they’re doing something good. They’re giving their child to somebody who can really care for her. In that situation, it’s an act of love that they should be proud of.
Yet even this woman doesn’t see that rationale as applying to her own case, because, as she remembers it, she was deprived of a true “choice.” As she puts it, “in my situation, I never wanted to surrender my baby. My baby was taken from me.” Although this woman was better-situated than most — as a college sophomore from a comfortable Jewish family, she became pregnant by the well-heeled, steady boyfriend she eventually married — she says almost nothing about how she would have supported and cared for her child and how keeping the child would have affected her. Like most of the women in this book, she never gets down to the practical details or takes a clear look at what lies in store for a young, unwed, single mother.
The take on search and reunion is likewise skewed. Many in Fessler’s sample sought out their biological children in later years, and almost half managed to re-establish contact. Most assumed that their children felt similarly mistreated and aggrieved and were eager to reunite. But by no means all offspring welcomed contact, and many withdrew once their curiosity was satisfied. Fessler acknowledges that “anxiety over conflicting loyalties to their adoptive parents” caused some adoptees to hold birth mothers at arms length. She nonetheless insists — with no real evidence — that most resisted reunion out of resentment against their birth mother’s early rejection. Most striking is that no woman Fessler interviewed was willing to concede that her baby was better off for having been put up for adoption, and many simply denied it. None acknowledged the possibility that their children were, on the whole, satisfied with their existence and grateful for their good start in life. In pursuing reunion, these women’s own hurts and deprivations come to the fore. In short, it remains “all about me.”
As for those few mothers Fessler interviewed who resisted reunion, the author speculates that their primary reason was a reluctance to reveal their secret to family members and friends and their worries about being judged harshly. But even Fessler acknowledges that her sample is enriched for mothers eager to find their biological children, and that women who have no strong desire to contact their birth children “are much harder to gather” because “more reluctant to tell their story.” That admission suggests a larger problem. Fessler’s birth mothers, like Hertz’s single mothers by choice, are largely self-selected. One suspects there is a world of birth mothers out there who don’t appear in this book. Are they the very ones who achieved closure and are willing to let sleeping dogs lie — who accept the wisdom of relinquishment and the rationale for the reticence surrounding it?
Emblematic of these missing mothers is Fessler’s own. After the adoptee author found her, she firmly resisted reunion and agreed only after repeated urging. When Fessler asked her who in her family knew about the birth, her mother confessed that she had told only her father, whom she judged best able to handle the situation. Her own mother, siblings, and later-born children never found out, and she never disclosed the father’s identity.
Fessler’s birth mothers are true children of the Zeitgeist. They don’t seem to understand why society might sometimes sacrifice individual interests or keep adolescents from their heart’s desire.
The author’s uneasiness with her birth mother’s deep cover is revealing. The author speculates that her mother’s youthful promise “not to have contact with me,” was “at least part of the reason” for her initial refusal to reunite. As Fessler explains, “She is from a generation of women — unlike my own — that generally did what they were told.” In other words, she sees this resistance — and her mother’s reluctance to talk about her birth — not as honorable, but rather as submissive. That this gloss misses the mark is suggested by her mother’s fervent query at the end of their cordial, but brief, meeting: “So you did have a good life?” The mother’s concern was not with her own feelings or experiences, but with whether her choice had turned out well for the baby — the author, her child.
Repeatedly they exclaim “I should have been able to keep my child.” They were children having children, yet they stand on their absolute right to raise their own babies.
That orientation is, sad to say, atypical in Fessler’s book. In their relentless focus on the self, neither Fessler nor her birth mothers step back and ask the all-important question: What was society trying to accomplish through this practice of adoption? And what is the alternative? The hallmark of a viable moral system is a set of dispassionate and impartial guidelines for all. It’s unclear what rules these women would have us adopt to replace the ones that governed them. What alternative vision for society do they have in mind? Repeatedly they exclaim “I should have been able to keep my child.” They were children having children, yet they stand on their absolute right to raise their own babies. Or they couch it as a matter of autonomy: The complaint is that the choice was denied them, that no one told them what was possible, that it was never really left up to them. The pressure was unbearable, there seemed no way out.
But what exactly did this pressure consist of? Above all, in being assured that relinquishing the child would be best for it, that the baby would be placed in loving hands, that it would be blessed with a mother and a father who would provide a proper upbringing and meet its needs better than the birth mother ever could. They were told also that their pregnancies were a burden, that they had already cost those closest to them anguish, trouble and money, and that those costs would not disappear if they decided to keep their child. They were warned that life would be hard, that it would be difficult if not impossible for them to support their child and raise it properly, and that their children would suffer for it. In other words, they were told the truth and given an accurate account of the consequences of their actions. And yet these women strenuously object to what was said to them and to how others dealt with their dilemma. Conspicuously missing from these complaints is the alternative scenario, the hypothetical counterfactual. Not one woman is pressed for an answer to the obvious question: What exactly is the world you envision, the world in which girls like you would not have to go through this admittedly grim ordeal of exile from friends and family, secret birth, and giving up your own flesh and blood?
One that comes immediately to mind is abortion. Its legalization in Roe v. Wade defines the terminus of Fessler’s period of interest. Interestingly, abortion barely makes an appearance and there is very little talk of it in this book. Why? In looking back on the birth of their children, and in often reuniting with them years later, these women seem loath to think about their nonexistence. Which is not to deny that many would have resorted to abortion had it been available. Nor that, like many girls in subsequent decades, they would have emerged relatively unscathed from that experience. But, given how events actually unfolded and the reality of their children’s existence in the world, it is not the first thing on these women’s minds.
So what is? Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in their complaints is the expectation — indeed the demand — that they should have been “helped” to keep their babies. This book’s central flaw, its core evasion, is its failure to come to grips with that expectation. All eyes are averted from its true implications. How can the demand for “help” mean anything other than its being incumbent on others — family, friends, society, the government — to provide these girls with the funds needed to raise a child alone, without marriage, men or fathers. These women’s complaints lead inexorably to an entitlement depressingly familiar in its contours and consequences: a welfare state in which the public pledges unconditional financial support for mothers barely out of girlhood. It leads, in short, to the wholesale bankrolling of children having children. The sins of this path require no rehearsal. Suffice it to say that we have been there and done that. We know where it leads: men without roots, domestic chaos, deprived children, social pathology — and wholesale political rebellion against the unseemly spectacle of welfare as we know it.
Like Hertz and her single-mothers, Fessler and her birth mothers simply fail to confront their own wishes writ large. The broader question of how to run the railroad does not trouble them. They are not concerned with the norms we all should live by. Rather, to borrow Michael Oakeshott’s phrase, these women are taken up with their own “felt needs.” Every hurt (self-inflicted or not) must be addressed and every hardship (defensible or not) assuaged. In this calculus, the dislocations of individual lives are all that matter. Hertz’s and Fessler’s moms are here to tell their stories, not devise wise rules for social life. The conundrums of social policy get pushed off into the background in favor of an endless recital of grievances against the order. Cut loose from a coherent moral framework, they give little thought to the world their desires would entail.
The belief that personal experience defines the moral world — and that its complexity can be reduced to individual feelings and suffering — is enabled and encouraged by ethnographies like these. Yet those who would reject this perspective do not necessarily offer anything better. Fessler’s stories are about sexual repression, and Hertz’s the demise of repression. Few would be willing, in response, to come out for repression as such. Where, then, is the moral space between the dark ages and free love?
Our society is sharply divided on teenage sexuality and sexuality in general. In a post-feminist and contracepted era, all issues must be addressed anew: not just what to do about out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but also how much, and how, to supervise adolescent girls and boys, and what to expect of them. Should we adopt an absolute norm of chastity? If not, what is the acceptable timing and context of sexual activity? Should birth control be available? When, to whom, and where? The challenge for today is to fashion rules for a sexual future. Nostalgia has its place, but it’s not a social program. Conservative thinking on sexuality in the United States today is riddled with contradictions, special pleading, and rank disparities between rhetoric and practice. While the right touts abstinence and “love waits,” educated young conservatives are just as liberated and sophisticated as their politically left-leaning counterparts. Many marry late, engage in premarital sex, and cohabit just like everyone else. They deplore sex education but regularly tune into tv programs that would have made their grandparents blush (and blanch). But how exactly can traditional insights be reconciled with present reality? Even if we wanted to, we could not return to a world in which respectable teenage girls don’t know where babies came from and virgin brides are the norm. But if that’s not possible, what is? Where should information about sexuality come from, and what should be its content? Should there be a role for stigma and how should it work? What behavior should be stigmatized, if any, and how and by whom?
While the right touts abstinence and “love waits,” educated young conservatives are just as liberated and sophisticated as their politically left-leaning counterparts.
As for out-of-wedlock childbearing, a consensus is emerging through the din: It’s not a good idea. Hertz shows bad faith in failing to acknowledge that the harms of single-motherhood can only be minimized if, as they say of abortion, it remains available but rare. Although Hertz never addresses what will happen if single motherhood displaces more traditional forms, conservatives don’t confront the opposite possibility: that, for affluent mothers, that displacement may never happen. If the norm never tips, how much harm will a few single moms really do? Are we willing to tell the casualties of delayed marriage, careerism, and Peter Pan males that the joys of motherhood shall forever be denied? These are hard choices for a pluralistic society.
Like it or not, the world of simple moral verities has yielded to something far more complex and confusing. In our fragmented social universe, sexuality and family structure divide rather than unite. Out-of-wedlock childbearing, marriage, and divorce now vary decisively by race and social class, and cultural differences play a key role. Stark disparities between ideals and behavior — between prescribed values and actions — are the new sexual reality. The sociologist Mark Regnerus has observed that teenagers who express the most liberal attitudes — such as affluent Jews and Protestants — delay sex the longest, while less privileged teens, who profess abstinence, don’t live up to those aspirations. Kathryn Edin and Maria Kafalas have documented that poor inner-city residents idealize marriage but rarely get married themselves. The tumultuous era Fessler portrays is the lead-up to this contradictory world, and Hertz’s mothers provide a partial picture of living in it. Both authors’ work starkly poses the age-old dilemma of how society should regulate the powerful longings for family and love.