Adoption – Our voices, our stories

New born baby hand hold little finger of mom: concept of love, take care, parent relations Premium Photo

There was a time in Australian society when it was common practice to remove babies at birth from unmarried mothers and give them to childless married couples to raise as their own. Until the mid-1970s, and in some cases into the 80s, it was a popular solution to the twin societal problems of single mothers and infertile couples, and a majority of people believed adoption was in the child’s best interests. They also believed unwed mothers were undesirable role models, fallen women, lacking the moral virtue to raise a child. There are some who continue to hold some part of these beliefs.

A single mother wasn’t permitted to rejoice in the knowledge that she was bringing a new life into the world, to anticipate the arrival, make plans for the future, daydream about the looks and personality of their connected being.

It was hammered into single mothers that any desire to keep their baby was selfish. They were being selfish towards their baby, and selfish towards the adopting parents who desperately want to have a child, and who could do everything for that child that its own mother could not. They were told that if they attempted to keep their babies, they would grow to become resentful of the baby for changing their life.

Mothers were persuaded to sign the adoption papers in the best interests of the child, and many women were convinced they were doing the right thing. They were urged to spare their baby the stigma of illegitimacy, besides which, could they not understand that a woman who had sinned by having pre-marital sex was unfit to mother a child?

This attitude was so pervasive that even though I succeeded in bringing my son home in 1972, two years later, rather than provide me emotional and practical support, church authorities “persuaded” me to sign adoption papers.

Mothers who signed those adoption papers were told to forget they had given birth, and that when the time was right, they would have their family then. Some women, like me, never went on to have another child.

There are two key features of adoptions in this era:

1. The adoptions were closed. The relinquishing parents did not know where their baby had gone, and the adoptive parents did not know where the baby had come from. Records were sealed so that all parties, including the adoptee, remained permanently unaware of the identities of the other persons in the triangle.

2. The clean break theory determined that it was better to remove the baby from its mother immediately at birth, usually with no contact taking place. Many women were drugged during delivery, and/or a sheet or pillow placed in a manner which prevented sight of the baby. The mother was discharged from hospital within hours, and the baby remained in the hospital nursery to be placed with an adoptive family within weeks.

The clean break theory could also extend to never telling the child they were adopted. The term Late Discovery Adoptee refers to those children who find out late in life that they were not born into the family of their upbringing. You can imagine the shock they receive, particularly if they find out from a third party who had always known and withheld the information.

Following a long and courageous fight by many birth/first mothers, a Parliamentary enquiry into adoption practices was launched, culminating in findings that have come to label this the Forced Adoption Era. For convenience it is timed as existing from 1950 to 1975, although open adoptions sometimes take place even today. There are no definitive figures on how many babies were adopted in these decades in Australia. Some estimates suggest 250,000 is a feasible number. The number peaked in 1972. Almost 10,000 children were taken in that year. The prevalence of this practice means that around one in fifteen Australians has some connection to adoption, whether directly or through extended family.

The reason for decline in Australian-born adoption is twofold. Some Government welfare became available, although at first there was a six month wait and the amount pitiful, but more importantly, societal attitudes changed – resulting in legislative change – so that now, a mere fifty years later, there is no such thing as illegitimacy, nor the stigma and shame of being a single mother/parent. In fact, many women who have been married or in permanent relationships that have broken down, refer to themselves as single mothers, whereas previously it was a derogatory term for a woman who was unmarried and pregnant.

A couple of years into the decline a senior social worker, commenting on the lack of babies for adoption, was quoted as saying, “We can’t just grow babies in a flowerpot.” (Fewer Unwanted Babies, The Canberra Times, Wednesday 19 May 1976, page 18). Don’t get me started on the claim our babies were unwanted, but her choice of words reflects that in fact, what had been going on was akin to baby farming.

The focus turned to adoption from overseas. Eventually, with the rise in IVF clinics, adoption waned in popularity.

In April 1991 the New South Wales government lifted the lid on adoption secrecy. Adoptees who were over the age of eighteen could request their original birth certificate. Relinquishing parents could request the adoption certificate. Safeguards were put in place for those who did not want contact.

Australia’s first charity, The Benevolent Society, was funded to support the search and reunion process and all the minefield of emotions that went with that. They set up the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC). I was one of its early clients.
Thirty years later, the hurt and trauma left in the wake of adoption has not diminished, and PARC continues to play a vital role, which includes producing informative and supportive literature and videos.

Forced adoption in Australia may not be widely known about or discussed but it did happen and it’s important to raise awareness and dispel the myths around it, as well as all forms of adoption. In this ten minute video Adoption – Our voices, our stories – 30 Years of the Post Adoption Resource Centre you will meet people from all sides of the adoption triangle. I hope their stories cause you to reflect and reach a greater understanding of the long-term effects of adoption on those it touched.

If you would like to know more of my story of adoption, I encourage you to read my memoir I Belong to No One available in paperback, eBook and Audio, on order from your preferred bricks and mortar bookshop, online from all leading retailers, or order a signed copy from me (post and packaging additional). It is also available in many libraries around Australia. For more information see gwenwilson.com.au

38 thoughts on “Adoption – Our voices, our stories

  1. Good you have the ability to bring this horrible situation to light Gwen! Of course, that does nothing to remove the pain and suffering so many endured. My generation does not hold a stellar record on this subject. Thankfully, times have changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very common in the States also, at least in the 1960s. You might care to look up The Other Mother, by Carol Schaefer for the American perspective. Once you were shuttled into an unmarried mother’s home, it was inevitable you would never get your baby. I only know one woman in New South Wales who managed it, and she was kicked out in late pregnancy for refusing to sign the adoption papers. I know there is a push in several US states to release the files so people can make contact, but I’m not across which ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So much heart break has been caused in the past. I marvel at how we as a human race mess up and blunder along, feeling self-righteous about so many things that has devastating consequences to others. I’m sure your book and this article resonate with many people, Gwen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Gwen, this went to the core of my heart and I saw a different side to this “adoption” process. I am a product of 2 cultures, been longer in Australia than in India and sometimes I joke that I am like a coin with 2 sides, I am Indian and Australian in the same breath. While transparency is good in Australia, it would never work in India where some children are sadly a result of crimes against women and in such cases raising an adopted child as one’s own, not disclosing the truth has worked successfully for some couples that I know…….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Shubha, thank you for your most welcome comment. Yes, my article was written from the Australian perspective. I wouldn’t dare comment on the complex web of Indian family ties.
      When the adoption secrecy was lifted in NSW, not everyone rushed to uncover the truth. There are so many reasons, as you point out. I think the statistics are that about 60% of adoptions have resulted in a reunion. Of this, a large proportion do not endure beyond ten years. I refer to the after effects of knowing your original identity epilogue of my memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A very intense subject indeed & you write about it with deep sympathy & empathy due, I imagine, to your experiences in the past. It is heartening to us, who are now very good friends, to see a well blossomed girl with plenty of zest for life. Let’s hope it continues for a long, long time & that we are there to see it!

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  5. I have not read your book before, Gwen, because of the distressing subject matter. But today I bought it. You’re message must be spread.
    Your post on what you were forced to do as regards of your child was just too much for me to not know more about it and cruel practice. Losing a child at birth is one thing but I can’t begin to imagine the cruelty of losing a child when who reached the age of two.
    We had much the same stigma attached to unwed mothers here in the US. Thank goodness it has for the most part been removed. Although some holier-than-thou people and religions still retain it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don, I appreciate your faith in me, and hope you do not find my book too raw and confronting. There is more to the story of how I came to sign adoption papers than can be included in a short post, and you will see how that unfolded. It was very much set in its time. Overall, though, I hope my book inspires others that you do not have to be constrained by the circumstances of your birth, and that there is hope for the future.
      I recently read Lisa Wingate’s “Before We Were Yours” about the Tennessee Children’s’ Home. While it is a novel and therefore has dramatic emphasis, at its heart it reflects the similar situation in US. Like many of the characters in that novel, in Australia Aboriginal children were routinely plucked away, practically right off the street, and taken into mission home. Now termed the Stolen Generation.
      I know there is a push in some US States to open closed adoption records and I support that wholeheartedly, with the proviso there needs to be counselling to support it. Marching up the front path and banging on someone’s door rarely cuts it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The do-gooders here in the US did the same thing to American Native children. And there is still thousands of kids that the Trump Administration took from their parents at the border that have never been reunited with their parents.

        Liked by 1 person

        • None of what we see unfolding in the US of today was ever hinted at in those Black&White TV shows of the 60s that dominated our screens, ” Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver”, et al. It was probably fantasy even then, especially for those Native American children.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. When I read your book it made me so angry. The treatment of women with our ability to give birth to another human being has been, and in some parts of the world still is, considered a problem if not controlled by society. To me that just underlines how most societies have evolved with the male life as the life of central importance and a woman’s life as secondary. Four things I think have/are challenging that setup; reliable contraception without stigma, IVF, the LGBT movement and lastly DNA testing. I have included DNA as it has brought the possibility for honesty and truth to families and hopefully reduces the need for secrets and lies about a baby’s/child’s/human being’s identity. What is best for a child surely cannot be a life built on lies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with all you say. As you can see from the story of the Adult Discovery Adoptee in the video, the lies that children are told can be life-destroying. I am cautious about the popularity of DNA testing as a fun thing to do, it is often gifted as Christmas and Birthdays to family historians, without people realising the extent of what lies beneath. Conversely, many adoptees take every test available in the desperate search for biological relatives.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Goodness, I am astounded that DNA testing would ever be given as a gift. So, so many families covered up a so-called ‘wrong pregnancy’ one way or another. My mother’s best friend (a baby girl adopted as a beautiful 18 month old child) died unable to tell anybody the truth she uncovered about her birth parents. In her retirement (about 25 years ago) she returned to Ireland from South Africa to trace her roots and left shocked, devastated and unsupported when she learned the truth. One hopes that this wouldn’t happen today, but DNA testing as a gift suggests to me that it very well might.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I suspected that might happen. Anyway, they interviewed various people who had discovered parents, children, siblings they had no idea existed until one of them had thought it fun to do a DNA test – with as many positive and negative outcomes as you can imagine. I’m not against DNA tests per se, I would just like people to have some forewarning of what they may be getting into.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ah finding out you have more siblings than you thought is most definitely a mixed bag. My daughter would love to have a sister, but if an adult, half-sister popped up out of nowhere not sure how that would go down at all. Yes, DNA testing should come with warnings and the offer of follow up counselling too perhaps.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mike, I had no idea you had involvement in search and reunion, and read your linked story with great interest. It is overwhelming, as you say. PARC has a small team of social workers to support each other, as well as their clients. You and your wife were two people single-handedly trying to reunite.
      The statistics here are that something like 60% of adoptions result in a reunion, but of those, a high percentage fail over time. In my case, my son and I have a respectful relationship, but it is like that distant relative you contact at birthdays and Christmas. The familial bond will never rekindle. I wonder what was the experience of ‘C’ over time. Inter-racial adoption adds such another layer of complexity, guilt over differing economic experience and the pressure of “gratefulness” being just a couple of the hurdles.

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  7. I am another who read your book, and felt the pain you experienced at the time, and through the years. Like John, I have passed it on, because it tells a powerful story.

    Seems like ‘the best for the child’ has been a fall back position/excuse for many governmental decisions, here and abroad.

    My daughter is adopted. She was 5 (in the 1960s, in Canada) when she came to us as a foster child, removed from her family, which included 2 siblings. I often wonder why more effort wasn’t spent to try to support the family and keep it together.

    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had not known that Yvonne. Thank you for sharing. My son was fostered initially so the department could “take him back” if the need arose – even though they had already made me sign adoption papers. Why did they not also offer fostering and access as assistance I will never know. It is hard on the foster carers, I appreciate that, but as you know from my own upbringing, those who extended the helping hand to my mum became special people to me.
      I sometimes wonder what those who wrote me off back then would make of me now.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dear Gwen, as you know, I read “I Belong to No One” when it was first published. Then I wrote a review for it, which I can’t find now, and then I lent it to a friend with the instruction to lend it on to someone else. I don’t know where it is now. I should have recommended that they purchase copies themselves. It would have been better for sales.
    All I can say is that everyone should read the story of a girl who felt that she belonged to no one or nothing and yet through all of that grew up to have a very successful life as anyone can see by the smile that is on your face. As for me, I think your book has had a lasting influence on my life.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you John. You have always been an ardent supporter of my book and I greatly appreciate your words. I don’t mind about sales at this point – it is all about spreading the message.
      And I wish I had saved your review to my laptop as it was very significant to me.

      Liked by 2 people

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