Thoughts on Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger

This past month, I finally got around to reading Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger, a book that has been highly recommended in the adoption community. The book’s focus, though, isn’t adoption, but rather the ways in which unmarried pregnant women and girls were dealt with in the United States between 1945 and 1965.

I want to say two things about this book. First, the information it presents is important for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of women’s rights in this country. It was eye opening for me to learn how political and social policies have determined two separate fates for black vs. white women who have deviated from accepted norms. I came to Susie knowing that, in most cases during this time frame, white unmarried pregnant women and girls were convinced to relinquish their babies for adoption while black women and girls in similar circumstances kept and raised their own children with the help of their families, but I did not know why that was the case or how the system was designed to punish those black women at every turn.

Having myself been born to an unmarried white girl in the late 1960s, I was most familiar with the narrative expressed by the women interviewed by Ann Fessler for her book The Girls Who Went Away. Solinger’s book, however, reveals how social support systems across the country aimed to diagnose women like my mother as psychologically impaired and then rehabilitate them via whisking their babies off to respectable, married couples, thereby satisfying two goals: supplying infertile couples with children who could blend into their white families and providing a means for fallen women and girls to become eligible again for marriage and respectability.

Black women and girls were not offered this same chance at rehabilitation. They were deemed to be immoral by nature, and were therefore required to deal with the consequence of their immorality. Services that might have helped them in raising their children were denied to them, because officials decided that to offer assistance would be akin to encouraging illegitimate pregnancies. Thus, the trope of the welfare queen took hold, due largely to a desire within the white establishment to keep black mothers, and, by extension, all black people, in their place. In reality, most financial assistance to single mothers went to white women, because authorities created onerous roadblocks to keep black women from receiving aid. Black women were also denied space in maternity homes or the option of offering their babies for adoption.

What can a woman in crisis do except to utilize the options that are available to her? What better way to control women than to limit their options.

The more I learn about this period in US history, the more obvious it is to me that control of women’s health and financial options has been used repeatedly as a means of trying to shape our society according the vision of white men in power (and the women who go along with them), without too much concern for the individual people or families affected by those political decisions. And this continues today. We see the current administration attempting to cut back or eliminate services related to sex education, birth control, and women’s health, services that have been in place now for several decades and that have been successful in reducing unplanned pregnancies and enabling women to make informed choices for their own lives. There are people in positions of power in this country right now who want to take us back to that time when women had very little say in what happened to their lives because they had so few options when it came to giving birth or raising children. We cannot allow them to force us back there.

The second observation I want to make about Wake Up Little Susie concerns its format, the actual written words in the book. As I said, this book has been highly recommended, however it was clearly written for an academic audience. Solinger’s research consists of studying a slew of sociological studies along with historical documents. Even when she quotes individual women affected by the policies she’s describing, those quotes are taken from previous studies in which the women were interviewed, so it feels as if the women’s voices exist only in service to answering the academic question that’s been put forth. This is not to deny the relevance of Solinger’s work; her synthesis of all this information is still quite valuable, as I’ve already described.

But, here’s the thing. The way the information is presented is so dry and so academically worded that I fear many lay readers would not have the fortitude to stick with this book long enough to fully grasp the enormity of the very important conclusions Solinger reaches. We need researchers and historians like Solinger, but we also need creative writers and other artists who can find ways to better communicate important information like this to a much broader audience. I believe the key to real change in this country lies in raising the awareness and understanding of a broad swath of regular, everyday people.

Everyday people in large numbers demanding change is what makes things happen. It’s up to those of us who first recognize the need for change to figure out how to communicate that need in a way that many others will feel in their bones. Action requires passion. We must inspire in order to effect change.

Talking about Adoption in Public Spaces

My journey into the public realm of adoption discourse began with two life-changing interactions: I found and reunited with my birth mother during the time frame that I was getting to know my husband’s adult adopted son. I was in my thirties.

Reuniting with birth family meant I learned for the first time about the beginning of my life, that missing piece that had prevented my story from being whole. I heard my mother say she had not wanted to relinquish me, that she was given no other option. I heard her say she had not understood that the name she gave me would ever be changed. I wanted to understand what she’d gone through during her pregnancy and my birth, so I sought information about adoption in the late 1960s and I discovered Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away. I learned that I was a product of a historical period in the U.S. called the Baby Scoop Era, so I sought information on what that meant. I wanted to understand how I had lost my original name, and I discovered that I’d had another birth certificate when I was born. For more than thirty years of my life, I had not known that I originally had a different birth certificate than the only one I’d ever seen.

Hearing my new stepson’s story meant I learned for the first time that my experience of being adopted was not an anomaly. I first heard his story from my husband’s point of view, so I heard that he had been adopted from Korea in the mid-1970s; that he was estimated to be four years old though his actual birth date was unknown; that he understood no English when he arrived in the U.S.; that he preferred sleeping on the floor rather than in a bed; that when he first saw a TV he inched over to it and held his fingers out to touch. This story was far different from the one I’d been told about myself. Continue reading “Talking about Adoption in Public Spaces”

Too Much Oxygen

Photo by Matt Lemmon via Flickr

8/5/12 Edited to add: Please also check out this list of blog posts on this topic written by other adoption triad members.

The adoption community is up in arms about a new show that premiered on the Oxygen network this week. I’m Having Their Baby is described as a “six-part docu-series that reveals the story that often goes untold – that of young, pregnant women as they struggle to go through with the most difficult decision of their lives, whether or not to place their babies for adoption.”

My first reaction was to join the @Boycottoxygen movement that quickly sprouted on Twitter. Then I read a post by someone who knew of people who had been banned from the show’s Facebook page for their comments opposing the series. I looked at Oxygen’s site for the show and found statistics from a survey they had commissioned to learn the public’s attitudes toward adoption–a survey of a mere 1,000 people, with no mention at all of adult adoptees. The survey made me mad enough that I tried to leave a comment refuting its results, but after getting an error message for nearly a half hour, I gave up. It had been two days since the last successfully posted comment (there more than 40, all negative), and me thinks Oxygen had heard enough from us protesters.

Now I was REALLY mad, so I went over to the Facebook page for the show to read the discussion there. All I can say is, wow! Every corner of the adoption triangle had chimed in, along with quite a few audience members who seemed to have no real-life connection to adoption at all. Those folks were easy to recognize because of their very misguided comments. I ended up spending over an hour reading the discussions and leaving comments of my own, mostly in an attempt to educate, sometimes to support adoptees who were literally being attacked for expressing their feelings about adoption, both positive and negative. Sadly, some of the attacks came from other adoptees who seemed to be so trapped in their own inner turmoil, they couldn’t accept that anyone might feel differently.

Finally, I decided that if I was going to publicly comment about the show, I had to watch it. So on Wednesday I sat down with my computer and watched the first episode, which is available via Oxygen’s website. Two pregnant women are followed: Mary, who became pregnant with another man’s child while separated from her husband, and Claudia, who became pregnant after a month-long relationship with a guy in his mid-twenties who’d already managed to knock up three other very young women. The women were assisted in their adoption plans by Bethany Christian Services.

Now, I should mention that I watch quite a bit of reality TV, and I’m not naive enough to believe everything I see on a reality TV show is authentic and unscripted. When you watch these shows, you have to always keep the camera in mind, imagine yourself in that place with a crew of people recording your every action and word. Keep in mind also that when you watch a reality TV show, you’re not seeing raw footage. You don’t even see raw footage on the news, so you’re certainly not going to see it on the Oxygen network. It was obvious to me that every scene on this show was carefully pre-arranged. I think it’s important to realize this, because if you acknowledge this fact then you also must acknowledge that the real life experience of a pregnant woman considering placing her baby for adoption is much more complex than anything you’re going to see on this show. A great documentary could be made on the adoption process, but this show is definitely not that great documentary. (If you really want to understand the experience of birth mothers, check out Ann Fessler’s work.)

Of course, having read comments about the episode before I watched it, I already knew going in what to expect. Many commenters were angry at Mary because she decided not to place her child after he was born. I say, good for you, Mary! She was also criticized for her reasons for considering adoption in the first place–because she wanted to try to salvage her marriage. Any idiot could see that her husband just wanted out, that nothing she did was going to save that relationship. Interestingly, Claudia was not criticized nearly as much for her path to pregnancy or her decision to surrender her child for adoption. I had the distinct sense that public opinion–at least on Oxygen’s Facebook forum–was much more symapthetic to potential adoptive parents than to the young women who were contemplating handing their newborns over to strangers. And very few commenters who weren’t adoptees had anything to say about what struggles the children themselves might face in their futures.

What struck me while watching the episode was how very young both Mary and Claudia were. Mary was better established, living in her own home and having a full-time job, but her reasoning was still quite immature. Claudia was barely of age, and an adoptee herself, one of thirteen children who had been relinquished when her biological parents could no longer manage caring for so many young ones. There was a lot the viewer didn’t get to see: we don’t know how the women’s families felt about their pregnancies, and we don’t know what counseling they received at Bethany prior to when they appeared on the show, which was in their third trimesters. The biological father of Mary’s child did not appear onscreen. Claudia’s adoptive mother joins her in one scene, but does not speak on camera. My point is, we have no idea how these very young women were influenced by the important people in their lives or by the staff at Bethany. When I think back to how I made decisions in my late teens and early twenties, I know I was just as immature as these two women. I remember how easily I was influenced by my parents, my friends, my teachers, how easily I was influenced by what was expected of me. In the end, when Mary tells her Bethany counselor she has decided to keep her baby, she cries as she talks about how ashamed she felt because of her unplanned pregnancy. Shame was a factor in her considering adoption for her child. How many young women unnecessarily lose their children to adoption every day because they’re shamed?