Kansas City, Mo. — The following column appeared in a previous edition of The Joplin Globe. It’s being reprinted today for Mother’s Day.
“There isn’t anything you can do that is so bad that you can’t come to me with it, and together, we’ll figure out what to do.”
— Vincent Looper
That was my father’s statement to me when I was a young teenager in the early 1960s. I’ve repeated it to others throughout the years as evidence of his unconditional love for me, and it was. But only recently, after I read the book “The Girls Who Went Away,” did its meaning hit me like a lightning bolt.
My dad certainly wasn’t saying I could tell him if I robbed First National Bank on Main Street at gunpoint. Rather, he was referring to the possibility of my showing up pregnant and unmarried. Although that didn’t happen to me, not every girl in the 1950s and 1960s was so fortunate.
We all knew someone in that era who disappeared suddenly. I remember a girl who spent summers sunning at the pool. She was a beautiful blonde with a tan extending all the way to her toes. One day she was gone, with the explanation given that she was visiting an “aunt” in another town.
In the decades of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s — the years after World War II and before Roe v. Wade — a million and a half girls disappeared to have babies and give them up for adoption. Then they were expected to return as if nothing had happened.
Today, on Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about them.
Ann Fessler’s book gives painful voices to more than a hundred women who emerged from decades of silence to share their heartbreaking stories and reveal the shame and loss that often shapes their lives to this day.
These interviews, which reverberate with stunning similarity, bring to life a social climate and devastating double standard that punished girls while the young, male oat-sowers paid little or no price. These were not girls gone wild, but girls next door, who came of age in a time when there was no access to birth control, no sex education and certainly no acceptance of out-of-wedlock births.
Many parents, in their fear of ostracism, and with an almost obsessive concern about what the neighbors would think, shunned their pregnant daughters and treated them with a cruelty that is a common thread in the stories these women poignantly recount. Many were pushed away in their deepest time of need — disowned emotionally, if not literally.
The girls felt they had no choices. Their parents told them that they had to give up their babies — often they said the young women were “unworthy” to keep them. And, as many of them were teenagers who had no money and no means of support beyond their families, they truly had no choices.
They were sent to maternity homes where they spent their pregnancies in isolation and fear, without benefit of counseling or education about what would take place in childbirth. There was little preparation for the relinquishment of the baby. They were simply told that they must surrender their child, move on and forget.
All they were allowed to keep was their secret.
Most of the women never recovered from the experience and the wrenching loss. The interviews chronicle woman after woman describing how she was forever altered by the loss of giving up a child. It is a cruel irony that many people who have been adopted feel abandonment by their birth mothers when the reality is that, in many cases, they were not surrendered willingly.
We all know wonderful stories of the adoptive families who provided warm, loving homes for these children and whose lives, in turn, were enriched by being the mothers and fathers of these babies who were given up under such painful and tragic circumstances.
But the next time I stretch out under the sultry summer sun to get a tan that extends to my toes and wonder about the beautiful blond girl at the pool who went away to visit an aunt so many decades ago, I won’t be wearing rose-colored glasses.
To her and to all the other girls who went away — today on Mother’s Day — I say: “Welcome home.”
Jeanne Looper Smith grew up in Joplin and now lives in Kansas City. You may share memories of growing up in Joplin with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.