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