Secret mothers

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Shadow Mothers by Linda Back McKay

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Shadow Mothers by Linda Back McKay

Linda Back McKay smiles when she talks about the son she was reunited with after 19 years apart, but there is still sadness in her eyes when she talks about the years that led up to their reunion. McKay is one of the lucky ones-if any woman who was forced to surrender a child can be called lucky. She has been “in reunion” for 22 years with the son she surrendered when she was 18 years old. But the joy of knowing him cannot erase the pain of the years they were separated. Knowing her son as an adult does not make her long any less for the boy she was denied the chance to parent.

Today, McKay, who lives in Minneapolis, is married, the mother of four children, a grandmother, a writer and something of an expert on birthmothers. She’s been active in support groups, spoken about the issue, authored a play about it and is the author of “The Shadow Mothers,” a book that tells the stories of 10 women who surrendered their babies for adoption. But in 1966, McKay was a naïve college freshman who had been gang raped. She came home five months’ pregnant. “My father was really really angry … he called me names,” she recalled. McKay’s mother took her daughter’s pregnancy personally: “She said, ‘How could you do this to me?'”

There was no thought that McKay might raise the baby. “My mother took me to the doctor, asked him if he could ‘do anything,’ and he said it was too late,” she recalled. “Anyway, abortion was illegal.” Her parents decided that McKay would go away, have the baby, place it for adoption and never admit the pregnancy. McKay doesn’t recall having a choice. “It was understood that this was the way it would be,” she said.

Sent away
Ann Fessler, author of “The Girls Who Went Away,” a book about birth mothers of the time, said that the pressure on these young women is hard for those who came later to understand. “There was an enormous amount of pressure to conform to social mores in post-World War II America,” she said. “There was a new middle class that were upwardly mobile and did not want to lose what they had gained. There was a great fear of social ruination. Middle class families wanted to avoid social disgrace, and they could afford to send their pregnant daughters away.” Fessler said McKay’s situation was a common one. “For so many of the women, there was the sense that they really didn’t have a voice in this decision. There was pressure to let their families take over … ‘you’ve done the worst possible thing, this is what you’re going to do now, you’re going to go away, not tell anyone.’ The decision was taken away from them; they lost the ability to participate in a decision that was so central to their lives.”

But where did the girls who went away go? Most of them could not get into a maternity home until their pregnancies were well advanced, Fessler said. “The maternity homes were so crowded that they could not take girls until they were seven or eight months’ pregnant.” Some stayed with relatives or went to “wage homes.” This was McKay’s experience.

Earning her keep
“I wasn’t able to get into the ‘home,’ as we called it, until I was eight months’ pregnant,” she said. “They had so many girls, they wouldn’t take you much before that.” Like many pregnant girls, McKay was sent to a “wage home” where she would work for her keep until a space at a maternity home opened up. “Wage homes” were the homes of families who expected the pregnant girls who lodged with them to do unpaid housework and childcare. McKay’s parents worked with a social worker to identify suitable wage homes.

By the time McKay was admitted to the maternity home, she’d served her time in two wage homes. She was treated as a servant, she said, and there was little thought that a pregnant teenager might have special physical or emotional needs. At the first home, she said, “There were seven or eight kids, and I think [the wife] was six months’ pregnant. I was brought upstairs to the third floor and shown an ironing board and seven baskets of ironing. At home I was only allowed to iron handkerchiefs. They expected me to have all kinds of [domestic] experience. I was really young. They didn’t care about me, they just wanted me to work. They didn’t want to give me much food. I remember sitting on the floor, weeping, ‘Get me out of here. Get me out of here.'”

At her second wage home, McKay was expected to clean the bathroom floor daily with bleach and a toothbrush. “He was a big mucky muck in a meat company. I was hungry, starving, there were all these steaks … he would sneak me one when [his wife] wasn’t around. He had compassion. To her, I was her servant. I was just trying to get by, to get through [that time].”

Birth mother
McKay’s days at The Catholic Infant Home on Carroll Avenue in St. Paul were busy ones. “They had a huge list of chores for us to do, so we could stay out of trouble, since we’d gotten into too much trouble already. Girls eight, nine months’ pregnant were using huge industrial floor buffers and bleach chemicals to clean. We had to pay for what we’d done, and pay and pay … and pay with our babies as well.”

When McKay went into labor, she was sent alone in a cab to the hospital. “I was surprised at how much it hurt. I could hear some women screaming in the labor rooms. I was alone, and I was kind of losing it a little bit. A nurse came in and told me to stop crying.” McKay doesn’t remember the actual birth itself. Years later, she talked to the doctor who delivered her son and many of the babies born to single mothers. “He said they were trained to dip us out of consciousness [with medication] at the moment of delivery. And they were instructed to sew the girls up really tight so when they had sex again, it would be like the first time … supposedly so the husband wouldn’t know. I think it was so it would hurt us.”

She saw her son once before signing the adoption papers. “I insisted on seeing him, I raised a fuss, I think they knew they couldn’t stop me,” she said. “I held him, I unwrapped him, I kissed him goodbye-forever, I thought. That’s what they told me.”

‘More money than I had’
They told Marilyn Prince (name changed for privacy reasons) the same thing. “They said I would never see her again. They said I would forget,” she said of the difficult birth of her daughter.

Prince fought the adoption. At first she refused to sign the adoption papers. Though her mother said she would throw Prince out of the house if she returned home with the baby, Prince was determined to raise her daughter. Two weeks after the baby was born, Prince told the social worker that she was going to keep the baby. The social worker told her that if she did not place the baby for adoption, she would first have to reimburse the maternity home for all of the baby’s expenses. “… They kept adding things I would have to pay for. I tried to fight for her. I don’t even remember how much money they said I needed but it was more than I had and there was no one who would help me get it. They said I could not have her until I paid. … really, they were holding her for ransom. It didn’t occur to me to question it. I was so young. I was 16. They preyed on my innocence.

“I signed the papers a week later. And I have never gotten over it. I’m not ashamed I had her. I’m ashamed I didn’t fight harder to keep her. I do not think that wound will ever heal.”

Fessler said many women she spoke with felt shame over surrendering their children. Initially, she said, this surprised her. “The shame for many of them was not about having a sexual relationship or getting pregnant outside marriage. They were ashamed that they had not stood up for themselves … or not been strong enough to fight-that they had allowed their child to be taken away.”

No longer a victim
Healing is something that Susan Fitze knows a lot about. When the son she surrendered for adoption was 4 or 5 years old, Fitze met someone who had found his birth mother after being placed for adoption. “I thought, ‘Why would this child want to find someone who had given him away?'” It was then that she realized she might able to meet her son. “[I thought, maybe] I’m not such a horrible person, birth mothers aren’t so horrible if [adoptees] want to meet us.”

Fitze heard that many adopted children became curious about their birth parents around the age of 14. “I wanted to be ready by the time he was 14.” She went to the adoption agency and corrected inaccuracies in their records. And when her son was 14, she updated the medical records the agency kept and put a letter in her son’s file to his adoptive parents stating that she would be “very willing” to have contact.

When the agency contacted her again, they told her that her son was named David and that he had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that is always fatal. Though David’s stepmother (the adoptive parents had divorced) sent Fitze many pictures, David, who by then was using a wheelchair, wasn’t ready to meet her.

“Women who surrender kids for adoption often end up looking to see if there’s some familiarity with the kids that they see,” Fitze said. “The first years I was looking into little boy’s faces to see if there was something familiar. And then when I found out that David had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, the next few years were spent looking into faces of young boys in wheelchairs to see if there was something familiar. When I found out he died, there wasn’t any reason to look anymore there was no reason to look, and a whole new healing journey began.”

Fitze, who is married and has a son through adoption, has come a long way, she said. Tragic though her story may be, she no longer thinks of herself as a victim. “My perspective comes from a healing perspective, not a victim perspective. It’s been a long journey to get out of that place.”

25 words
‘Healing? I do not think I will ever heal. Both my daughter and I are victims. Victims of a time when what the neighbors thought was more important than anything. Victims of a hypocritical system,” said Marilyn Prince. “I am consumed by my anger at times.” Like McKay and Fitze, Prince wanted a reunion with the child she placed for adoption. Prince initiated a search for her daughter.

“I thought 25 would be a good age, that she would be an adult,” Prince said. “I was at work when I got the phone call [with her daughter’s information], and I made up an excuse and left and went home. I went into my apartment and I picked up the phone with my coat still on and my boots making a puddle on the floor. I had to do it right then. I’d waited so long, I just couldn’t wait another second.

“When she answered the phone I knew it was her because she sounded just like my sister, and everyone says my sister and I sound exactly alike. I said, ‘Is this Sarah?’ and she said yes. I said, ‘Sarah, my name is Marilyn Prince and on February 3, 1965, I gave birth to a baby girl in Minneapolis. I believe I am your birthmother.’ I had rehearsed those words, I had debated exactly what to say, on the drive home I even rehearsed my tone of voice. I knew it was the most important phone call I’d ever make.

“She said, ‘I have parents. You’re not my mother.’ I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to get in the way. I am the mother who gave birth to you.'” And she said, ‘You’re not my mother. I have a mother. I don’t want another one. Please leave me alone.” And then she hung up.

“There were just a torrent of thoughts and emotions flooding over me. Maybe there was someone there and she couldn’t talk. Maybe I should have said something else.

“A few days later, I thought, what if she changes her mind? So I sent her a letter. I said that I knew it was probably a shock to hear from me, and that I wanted her to know that I’ve always loved her, and if she ever wanted a relationship or to have any questions answered … and I also sent her a medical history from my side of the family and a bit about my relationship with her birth father. I mailed it and I never heard a word from her. For years, when I was in her neighborhood I would drive by her house. I wanted to catch a glimpse of her but I never did. Finally I stopped doing it because it was eating me up inside.

“It is really hard to hear about birth mothers finding their child and having a relationship. I hoped and hoped she would change her mind. I wonder if she is angry. If she hates me for giving her away. It has been 17 years now [since the phone call], and I don’t think she will [change her mind]. But sometimes I still hope. She is 42 years old now. I am 59.”

Sarah is Prince’s only child. “Physically, I couldn’t get pregnant again. And adoption … I couldn’t do that. I would not want to build a family on someone else’s misfortune. And that’s what surrendering a child is. It’s more than that, it’s a tragedy.

“She only spoke 24 words to me. 25 if you count ‘hello.’ I guess you would count hello.”

The story in numbers
• 1.5 million: Approximate number of unmarried women who gave birth from 1945 to 1973. About 80 percent, or 1.2 million placed their babies for adoption
• 1.5 million: Approximate number of women from 1945 to 1973 who were pregnant when they married. Unknown: the number of informal adoptions or adoptions within the mother’s family
• 95 percent: Number of birth mothers who would like to meet the child they surrendered
• 30 percent: Number of birth mothers who had no other child
Source: Ann Fessler, “The Girls Who Went Away”

Corrections, 8/8/2007 There were several factual errors in “Secret Mothers,” MWP July 25-Aug. 7 (above story). Regarding the number of single women who surrendered their babies for adoption, 80 percent of women who went to maternity homes surrendered their babies. Regarding the number of women who were pregnant when they married, about half of single women who became pregnant got married. Regarding the percentage of women who surrendered a child and did not go on to have another, 30 percent of the women Ann Fessler interviewed did not have another child. The play “Watermelon Hill” was written by Lily Baber Coyle. The Minnesota Women’s Press regrets these errors.

Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) is a national organization with a Twin Cities chapter that provides support and resources. Find it online at
Bastard Nation campaigns for the right of adult adoptees to access their birth records. Their website is located at