At the tail end of the 19th century, this was the moniker of a residence in Burlington, Vermont that took in unwed pregnant mothers until they gave birth. Back then, “friendless woman” was a euphemism for single and knocked-up. If a woman entered the Home with a shred of self-esteem, spending nine months living under the spectre of friendlessness was no doubt enough to get rid of it altogether. According to the establishment’s records, the first resident was 38 years old, “destitute and homeless,” although “not a fallen woman.” Translation? If you got pregnant because you had to have sex with strangers in order to feed yourself, you could not “enjoy the comforts and advantages of a quiet, peaceful, Christian home.”
Today this same establishment thankfully has been re-christened the Lund Family Center and is Vermont’s oldest and largest private non-profit adoption agency. At any given time, it houses up to 26 pregnant young women who no longer are viewed as “friendless” but as women in their position historically have been: survivors of neglect, sexual abuse and poverty. The Lund Family Center provides its residents with therapy, life skills, job training, and substance-abuse recovery services. It offers post-adopt services to foster and adoptive families. And it facilitates search and reunions for birthparents and the children they relinquished.
That was not the case when I wrote to the agency’s director 20-plus years ago, asking to be connected with my birthmother. I was born at the Lund Family Center in the 1960s when its identity had evolved slightly for the better to The Elizabeth Lund Home for Unwed Mothers. I received a letter back offering me a few crumbs–the woman who birthed me was an accomplished, artistic college graduate, the director wrote–but advising me that it was “God’s will” that I look no further. He implied that she had gotten on with her life, and that I shouldn’t mess it up by inserting myself back into it.
Flash forward two years: my adoptive father politely harassed the director until he dropped enough identifiable elements for us to track down my birthmother. We got her address through an art gallery that showed her work. I wrote her a letter sealed with a purple heart sticker. She called the day she opened it. She told me she had written the Lund Home a few years earlier asking them to put me in touch with her if I ever contacted them.
If they had honored her request, and mine, we would have been spared years of wondering and dead-end searching. Today, with the explosion of the internet and search-and-reunion web sites, finding lost relatives is often just a click away. But pre-adoption reform, adoption agencies were still manifesting the shame surrounding unplanned pregnancies. Records were sealed, secrets were kept. Birthmothers were advised to go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Adoptive parents frequently were counseled not to tell their children they were adopted. And adoptees had no rights at all.
My birthmother got pregnant over winter break her senior year in college, during the era captured in adult adoptee Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away. The book is a wrenching commentary on, in Fessler’s words, the “social shunning” of unwed women who had the misfortune of becoming impregnated before reliable birth control and Roe v. Wade. This was my birthmother’s story: a debutante and a Seven Sisters graduate, she spent the summer before I entered the world hiding out in a maternity home.
She was given prenatal vitamins during her pregnancy, a shot to dry up her milk post-partum, and off she went to art school just five days after giving birth. Despite being impregnated by a man 30 years her senior, she received no therapy. The staff at the Home looked after her, she said, but in a tacit you’re just a vessel to provide a healthy baby to socially acceptable parents kind of way.
About shame: it trickles down through generations, crippling you if you don’t slough it off. For years, I wanted my original birth certificate but couldn’t bring myself to call the Vermont Birth Registry to apply for it. Some legwork was involved: I would need my birthmother to sign a release giving her okay for the state to release the records. Having to ask permission for what was my birthright, especially since I now had a relationship with my birthmother, felt demeaning and triggered the lack of entitlement that has stalked me as long as I can remember. Each year, as I logged another birthday, I thought about filing the paperwork to get my birth certificate…but somehow never got around to it.
Until last winter, when my ex-husband petitioned for full custody of our son. This latest development was just another installment in a David-and-Goliath saga fueled by his whopping sense of entitlement and my whopping lack of it. The prospect of losing my right to parent my son blew me out from under my procrastination. I now felt compelled to mark my turf, claim my rights, wrap my fingers around something so basic that had been denied me–even if that something was just a piece of white paper stamped “Informational Copy Only.”
After a few phone calls to the Vermont Birth Registry and a signed release from my birthmother, a copy of my “Certificate of Birth” arrived in the mail. There it was, proof of my existence. Who I was, where I came from. Mostly.
I learned that I was born at 12:47 a.m., that my birthfather’s name was listed as “Not Given”, and that Dr. Kenneth S. Mansfield delivered me. I learned that the “Usual Occupation” box in the Father section was left blank and that there was no box marked “Usual Occupation” in the Mother section–presumably because mothers weren’t expected to work. I saw my first given name, the one my birthmother was smitten with when she watched Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago: Lara.
Now my original birth certificate sits next to my amended birth certificate, framed under glass. One child, one birthdate; two names, two sets of parents. When I look at these documents side by side, a sense of calm drifts down on me. Suddenly, I’m as legitimate as anyone else, entitled to my toehold in the world.
Yet wistfulness is companion to the calm. Eyeing my birthright safely under glass, I can’t help but feel grief for those who were, and still are pushed into a corner: “friendless women,” closed-adoption babies, kids forced to take sides in high-conflict divorce.
And good-enough parents everywhere who lose the right to raise their children.