Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Mark Twain
The mail arrives. In the clutch of bills, a corner of a glossy newsletter pokes out. I pull the Spring 2000 Gladney Newsletter edition out cautiously. I feel my heart race as usual and a vague pain through my chest, even though I’ve been receiving Gladney’s newsletter ever since our visit in 1980.
I poke my hand into the glossy tri-fold paper and a loose staple embeds itself in my index finger. “Ouch!” A drop of blood collects from the prick. A memory flashes, the heavy pads I wore between my legs after giving birth.
The Edna Gladney Home for Unwed Mothers was what it was called when I went into hiding there in June,1964. I knew nothing of the history then, but later I learned that the Center in Fort Worth, Texas began in the 1880s to find homes for children sent across the country on what became known as “orphan trains.” Edna Gladney’s name became enshrined after she expanded to include services for unwed mothers and adoption for their babies. She was credited with the permanent placement of ten thousand babies. In 1941, MGM released a movie about her life, “Blossoms in the Dust,” which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of the Year. Many years later, I watched the touching story of Edna Gladney helping illegitimate children, presumably orphaned or abandoned by their mothers, receive happy adoptive homes.
By 1964, Edna Gladney was no longer there and Executive Directorship had passed to Ruby Lee Piester, who in 1980 would help to form the National Council for Adoption, with founding goals included to prevent opening of sealed adoption records retroactively and resisting allowing birth mothers at least two weeks before signing adoption relinquishment papers, even though these had been recommended as state models for adoption by an Advisory Panel of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. During Ruby Lee Piester’s period at Gladney, she supervised the placement of seventy-six hundred babies. One of them must have been mine. Had she admired his little rosebud mouth? Probably not.
One of Ruby’s social workers would have brought my tiny boy in to the prospective parents. I imagine him wrapped in the same blue flannel blanket as the one time I held him, his new parents sitting in the social worker’s office dressed in their Sunday go-to-church clothes, nervous, palms a little sweaty, older than me. The worker hands him to the mother first. “Oh, he’s so precious,” she coos. She gawks at his round face, his dark hair, his eyes so blue. “He’s beautiful.” She turns to her husband to show him his new son. That father is tall, clean shaven, his hair brushed back, a whiff of Brillantine drifting from his scalp. He smiles at his wife, pleased she’ll be a mother now. His hands shake just a tad as he reaches to trace a finger across my baby’s forehead.
Drops of blood continue to well from my finger as I examine “The Gladney Center for Adoption,” newsletter. A new name with an admirable ring for a couple hungry for a baby and eager to trust the adoption services.
To me, even the word ‘adoption’ seems dangerous, as if saying it sends tiny slivers of glass into the sensitive tissues in my mouth. Ever since I’d given up my baby, that’s how I’d treated adoption, wanting to eliminate the word from my vocabulary. Some of my professional colleagues specialized in adoption, but I never did. I passed by a lawyer’s sign advertising “Adoption Services” once and wanted to kick it down.
One time at Kaiser Permanente Hospital, where I treated outpatients as a therapist in the psychiatry department, a social worker from California Child Protective Services gave us a training presentation. After telling us how stressful it was to work with cases of child abuse, she declared: “Most of my employees don’t stay long. They go to work for something happy, like adoptions.”
Happy! My colleagues chuckled in agreement, while my jaw tensed. I wanted to blurt out that their picture of adoption, the one with the happy couple receiving the fortunate baby, left out the mothers like me who’d given birth, given them up for adoption, and never seen them again. My picture had a dark empty cutout space where my baby would have been.
I made a fast retreat to my office and hid from my co-workers that day. To me, adoption was like a ferocious dog let off its leash. It might appear friendly, but if you got too close, it could lunge at you, dig sharp teeth in, and rip out a piece of your tender flesh. One of my colleagues, an Asian woman, had adopted a baby girl from China. Someone asked her what happened to the “real mother.” “I’m the real mother,” she pronounced, her voice sharp. I kept silent.
On the front page of the Newsletter is a picture of a girl about nineteen, the age I was when I entered Gladney. She is smiling broadly. Her face, framed by black hair falling down her shoulders, is unlined. In her hands, she clutches a pink plush pillow.
Beneath the picture is her testimonial. “I’m happy I made the right decision for everyone and didn’t think only of myself.”
Yes, that’s “the loving thing” we were supposed to do. I did what the social workers told me. I bought the party line that my baby needed a mother and a father, and it would be wrong of me to keep it.
But did the neatly-dressed, young women social workers at Gladney think of what I would suffer? Their ring fingers sparkled with gold bands and diamonds and framed pictures of their children decorated their desks. How could they have imagined I’d ever forget?
I’d never been given a pink plush pillow to hold. They gave our babies to someone else to hold and praised us for not thinking only of ourselves when we let them do it.
Well, they didn’t exactly give them to the new parents. Those adoptive parents paid a small fortune. They didn’t call that selling babies, though.
How much did my baby cost? I hope it was a lot.
On the back page of the Gladney Newsletter, I am surprised to find an article about a Post-Adoption Department that now helps women who gave up their babies in the past. I never dreamed they might offer ongoing help to birth mothers.
I only have a vague memory of one phone call from some social worker at Gladney a month or two after I left.
“How are you doing?” I recall her asking.
Feeling numb and disconnected, I croaked out a lifeless sounding “Okay.” When the phone call ended, I wandered listlessly over to the refrigerator and stared at the contents. The thought of food repulsed me.
I might have told the caller from Gladney that anxiety held me in its tight grip, as if a thick rubber band clenched my stomach tight. I might have said I looked good without that pooched out fat tummy that most women have after giving birth. I might have asked about my baby, but I didn’t. I had sunk into a hole too deep to plumb, even if I’d been able to fathom what words I might have said.
In the newsletter today, a photo of a genial looking woman with curly dark hair and plastic framed eyeglasses looks at me. Cathy Bowman is her name, a Post-Adoption Social Worker. The thought of contacting Gladney again sends ripples of anxiety down my body and makes my limbs twitch, as if I’ve had too much caffeine. But maybe things have changed.
During my 1980 visit, the social worker informed me Gladney had developed an internal registration process where I could register. My son could also register when he turned eighteen. If both of us registered with contact information, Gladney might put us in touch with each other. I sent away for the paperwork then and I learned that a notary public had to verify my identity. Shock and shame stopped me in my tracks. Who would falsely claim an identity as a birth mother anyway? For two years, I imagined the notary’s disapproving expression before I finally screwed up my courage, got the paperwork notarized, and mailed it off.
Once my son and I registered, Gladney required that we each have a counseling appointment before they’d give us identifying information. What if the counselors decided we weren’t ready to meet? Would Gladney refuse to give me my son’s name then? Where did their control end?
After these brief attempts to reconnect with my past in 1980, I’d done what most of my therapy clients did with traumatic memories—compartmentalized, poked, pushed, and shoved them into the deepest part of my psyche where I barely noticed them. Even though I’d spent six months in my own therapist’s office sobbing through the clinical hours, grieving my childhood pain, I’d managed never to mention my lost son.
I look at Cathy Bowman’s picture again. She has a nice smile. The article says she welcomes calls from birth mothers. I see her phone number. Taking the newsletter into my cluttered office, I lay it on top of the paper pile. It’s too late to call Texas today. Tomorrow morning, I’ll call Cathy to see what she’s like. I can always change my mind.
Tonight, I’ll watch an old movie with Dave and cuddle Girlie, my gray cat, while we hold hands.
 “Mission, History,” National Council for Adoption, Accessed Feb. 18, 2019, ttps://www.adoptioncouncil.org/who-we-are/mission