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.

So She Wouldn’t Forget

At no one’s urging, my daughter sat at our piano and sounded out the simple tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” practicing it over and over until she could play it quick and smooth. I joined her to add a couple of complimentary chords, so that she would understand the potential of a song.

She wanted more. I dug out my son’s first lesson book. He’d taken piano and voice at a private music school, then picked up cello and guitar in his public middle schools, but no matter how hard I’ve tried, I’ve yet to convince my daughter to take lessons to learn to play an instrument. She doesn’t want to set a timer for thirty minutes of daily practice or be required to perform in a recital. She flipped through the first few pages of my son’s old book and began asking questions. Where do my fingers go? What are the keys called? Continue reading “So She Wouldn’t Forget”

Mother Love

Last week I got sick with a nasty cold, and I wanted badly to check out of my life for a few days. There were things I should have done that I didn’t do, as happens when one is sick. The hardest thing about being sick, though, for me, as a mother, is letting down my kids. I got to thinking about this after I blew up at them one evening when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself and wanting to be the one cared for instead of the one who always has to do the caring. The incident itself was unremarkable, but for days afterward, I ruminated on our relationship to each other, on the roles of mother and child.

Mothering is more difficult than I ever imagined it would be before I became a mother. The first few weeks after my son was born, I remember being in a state of shock over the fact that I could not go anywhere ever again without either taking him with me or arranging for his care while I was gone. This should have been expected, but it was something I’d never contemplated previously. I had been a singular, independent being, then suddenly I was one half of a conjoined duo. Another being was completely dependent on me for survival. Yes, sure, I had help from my husband, who is a very hands-on dad, but that didn’t change the fact that primarily it was me who had the responsibility of making sure our son’s needs were met.

It is still me, the mother, that my now teen and preteen kids depend on. Nothing is right in the world if I do not listen to their stories, if I do not help them with their school projects, if I do not counsel them on their friendships. I am expected to provide them food and remind them to eat it. I am the one they need to take them shopping when they outgrow their clothes and shoes. I am the one who calls the right doctor and gets them the right medicine and holds them close no matter how contagious they are. My husband is still the hands-on dad he’s always been, but I am always the one my kids need above all others.

I am the mother, and mothers are supposed to care for their kids before anyone else, including themselves. I know that my kids love me, but I understand also that their love is based on my satisfying the need they have for a caring mother. Last week they knew I was sick, and I know they cared that I was sick, but that didn’t stop them from needing me to care for them. When I lashed out in protest, they experienced, for a brief moment, the despair of not having a mother who cared about their needs. Shortly thereafter, I apologized to them and, within a few hours, they had recovered from their brief despair and our relationship was back to normal. That was only possible because I have proven to them repeatedly, through our daily interactions, that I do care about their needs. Continue reading “Mother Love”

Reflection (a poem)

In response to today’s National Adoption Month prompt from Lost Daughters, I’d like to share a poem I wrote years ago after my first child was born. This poem was originally published at Poets on Adoption in 2011.

Reflection

You
with your mother’s wide eyes,
olive skin and old-world customs,
with cousins akin to sisters

You
with your father’s gravelly voice,
his cleft branded on your chin,
his surname on your back

You cannot conceive what I saw
when I studied my boy
lying bundled like a burrito
innocently twisting in the plastic hospital bassinet

I gazed into a mirror
and saw my gray eyes for the first time
and saw my milky skin for the first time
and saw my Slavic nose for the first time
and saw my earnest expression for the first time

For the first time I saw
my mother and my father
my tribe
my birthright

For the first time
I saw my self