In the tense final moments of waiting for her daughter to come around the corner of Catholic Charities in St. Cloud, Minn., Sandy Sperrazza could not take her eyes off the floor. It was not an act of submission or fear. Sperrazza was looking for her baby.
"For all those years, I was mourning the loss of the baby," Sperrazza said. "I always wanted the baby back."
When the baby turned the corner, 19 years old and "5 feet 8 with a size 9 shoe," Sperrazza knew her old life was over. "It was like I had been digging a hole for 19 years," she said. "A hole of sorrow."
Like so many women of her generation, Sperrazza, now 62, dug and dug, but never escaped her pain. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Between 1945 and the early 1970s, an estimated 1.5 million unwed American girls and young women, most between ages 16 and 23, surrendered their babies for non-family adoptions. In a unified voice, their parents, clergy and a new breed of professional social workers told them that this was for their own good. The girls were encouraged to get on with their lives, to forget.
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If only they could.
The aftermath of these decisions is only now being fully comprehended. Many women who gave up babies fought depression, developed traumatic stress disorders or turned to alcohol and drugs to numb their chronic grief. Others became super-achievers to prove to their parents that they could have been fine mothers. Some spoke regretfully of how they remained emotionally distant from the children they later had. Others never had another child because they felt it would betray the baby they surrendered.
"Many women said to me, `Have you met anyone else who feels the way I do?' That made me want to weep," said Ann Fessler, author of "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade." Fessler, an adoptee herself, spent many days at the University of Minnesota archives researching for her book.
"They had been living with the secret, the shame, the feeling of loss for 30, 40 years," she said, "and they thought something was wrong with them. No one had ever asked."
No matter where they grew up, or how old they were when they got pregnant, their stories are stunningly similar. They were mostly "good" girls who got into what was considered bad trouble.
Far from being the "sluts" they were labeled, some got pregnant the first time they had sex or were admittedly clueless about birth control, reproduction or how a baby is born.
"I had no idea about protected sex," said Mary L. Johnson, 62, who is featured in Fessler's book.
Many were in long-term relationships with the baby's father. About half married him; others were abandoned by the father, or never told him about the pregnancy. A few risked their lives to get illegal abortions; others bravely raised their child alone, although most families would not consider bringing such shame upon themselves. For them, adoption was the only option.
"My parents were very, very angry," said Johnson, who was 17 and "madly in love" with her hockey-playing boyfriend when she got pregnant. At the time, she was a Girls' State representative, editor of the yearbook and in the top 10 in her class. Her father admonished her to tell no one. "He'd take care of it," she said.
That meant doing whatever was necessary to hide the pregnancy. When even two girdles or an oversized winter coat couldn't hide a growing belly, girls disappeared to care for "a sick aunt" or to be treated for their own mysterious "illness," such as a kidney infection or mononucleosis. They lived secretly in one of hundreds of religion-affiliated or private and secular maternity homes that sprang up nationwide through organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and the Florence Crittenton Mission. There, residents typically were assigned chores and a pseudonym.
Johnson laughs at the name she was given at a home for unwed mothers in St. Paul: "Madonna Gardner." She offered a wry smile as she recalled going with other pregnant girls to the drugstore, all wearing fake wedding rings given to them by the nuns.
But the chipper tax accountant's mood shifted when recounting her birth story. Like most girls, she labored alone, "a long, terrible night and most of the next day," until her newborn girl was whisked away by the nuns to be baptized. On the day she was to return home, the nuns let her hold her baby once. Forty-four years later, she still cries.
"Even giving birth didn't have that wrenching feeling," she said.
Sperrazza, who was 16 when she got pregnant, remembers looking through the nursery glass at the bassinet in the back of the room by itself. "My lost child," she said.
Kathy Pennington, 50 was 15 when she delivered daughter Michelle in California in 1971. On the day she was to leave the hospital, Pennington panicked. "I remember knowing that I had to memorize her face." She asked her mother to please come look. "I wanted validation. I wanted someone to say, `Oh, my God, she's beautiful.'" Her mother refused. "I can't just go look at that baby," she told her daughter, "and walk away."
Many women walked away and into more trouble. Pam Hodgson, 59 gave up a baby boy in 1967 when she was 19. Her boyfriend "dumped me like a hot potato." She returned to college in Texas and started smoking pot and drinking. Her grades plummeted. She became depressed. "You could have asked me, `Did the adoption affect (your) life?' and I would have said no. I would never have connected those things. It's strange the way you absolutely have to shut yourself down."
It was a complicated, albeit short-lived time, Fessler said, "a perfect storm" made up of an upwardly mobile middle class (which viewed out-of-wedlock pregnancy as low-class), a dearth of birth-control options and sex education, a skyrocketing interest in adoption and the professionalization of social workers, many of whom labeled unwed mothers as "neurotic," and thus unfit to raise babies.
Today, "we're night-and-day different in how we understand adoption and how we understand families," said Barb McGuire, director of domestic adoption at Children's Home Society and Family Services in St. Paul. "How we ever thought we could help people by telling them to shove that down and forget it. Now the decisions are made by birth parents on behalf of themselves and this child long-term."
Playwright Lily Baber Coyle, whose "Watermelon Hill" was produced by St. Paul's Great American History Theatre in 2001, also struggled to find "a good antagonist" for her play, which is inspired by the book "Shadow Mothers" by Linda Back McKay. "Watermelon Hill" is what taunting boys called one home for unwed mothers in St. Paul.
"You think it's going to be the nuns, the priests, the parents, maybe the boyfriend," Coyle said. "It was just society as a whole. Parents didn't really want to do this, but Dad will lose his job if he has a bastard grandchild. School will kick her out and the Catholic Church thought they were doing them a favor."
A short time later, Roe vs. Wade passed, the Pill became widely available and the women's movement gave them a voice. "Even if they didn't believe in having an abortion, Roe vs. Wade opened up choices and women were more in charge of those choices," Fessler said. "That's what made it so hard for so many of these women. Even a few years later, they would have been able to continue in school, raise their child."
Like Michelle Hull. The 32-year-old was one of nearly 100 women from across the country who responded to a Minneapolis Star Tribune inquiry about birth mothers forced to give up their babies. While her own mother relinquished a daughter in 1972 before Hull was born, Hull gave birth to a son in 1993, returned to high school to graduate with her classmates, and reports that Tyler, now 14, is "polite with great grades. ... He's been such a joy."
Others did find joy, too, in supportive spouses, in other children and, for many, in reconnecting at last. Some returned to adoption agencies to assist in their search, paying several hundred dollars; others ran into snags and hired private searchers. Many now search on the Internet. They all emphasized that they wanted nothing but to know that their children were all right, that life had been good to them.
Pennington struggled with substance abuse on and off for several years. The divorced mother of three other children, she's been clean for a dozen years. On Christmas Eve of 2002, she got her "happy ending" when she and Michelle met face to face after many weeks of writing, e-mailing and making long phone calls.
Pennington's mother, who once could not look through the glass, got to meet Michelle. "She was relieved to know she did the right thing. And it was the right thing to do," Pennington said. "(Michelle) had a much better life than I would have been able to give her at 15."
Hodgson, who quit drinking 20 years ago, contacted Lutheran Social Services in August 2000 and was reconnected with her son, Calvin, within two months. He was in his mid-30s, "and he looked exactly like my ex-boyfriend. What a shock." Calvin's adoptive father wrote Hodgson a letter, too. "The happiest day of our life," he told her, "was the saddest day of yours."
And Johnson, married for 32 years, went on to have a son and daughter with her first husband, and helped to raise two sons her second husband, Larry, had from a previous marriage. In 1990, Catholic Charities helped her locate Ann. Today, birth mother and daughter exchange e-mails and photographs. The Johnsons have taken two vacations with Ann's adoptive parents.
Still, a world of hurt lurks just below the surface. "The first night I came home without her, I screamed and cried all night," Johnson remembers. "My father came in and said, `That is the last time I ever want to hear anything about this ever again.' He never did.
"Today, we consider those things hurtful. Back then, I was getting what I deserved. I know better now."