Adoption: Never the Easiest Option
By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.
Little Green, have a happy ending.”
I’ve always loved Joni Mitchell. But it was only last year, when a friend explained the lyrics, that I realized that I had never really listened to one of her most poignant songs. “Little Green” is the third track on an album of melancholy songs, Blue. Sandwiched between two songs about her relationships with men, it’s easy to dismiss. But it’s now one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, because of the simplicity and grace with which it captures one of the greatest tragedies of her life: the child that she gave up when she was 21, when she was still Joan Anderson, an unknown art student in a Toronto boardinghouse. The baby’s father “went to California/hearing that everything’s warmer there,” essentially abandoning her. She didn’t tell her parents she was pregnant, and when her brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell fell apart, Joni Mitchell signed the papers and her daughter was adopted by two teachers in the Toronto suburbs. Mitchell named her “Kelly” (as in kelly green). Even though the two would be reunited in 1997 (under an obnoxious media spotlight), the heartbreak in Mitchell’s lyrics is undeniable:
“Born with the moon in Cancer
Choose her a name she will answer to
Call her green and the winters cannot fade her
Call her green for the children who made her
Little Green, be a gypsy dancer.”
I am reading Ann Fessler’s collection of oral histories, The Girls Who Went Away, for my women’s studies class, very slowly. The book has been difficult for me to finish, for the same reasons that Joni Mitchell’s song is hard to hear. It recounts the stories of eighteen women who gave up children for adoption in the twenty years before 1973, when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. The book is written in a frame of sorts; each chapter begins with an overview of an aspect or stage of the adoption process (“Birth and Surrender”, “Good Girls vs. Bad Girls”), with small quotes from dozens of other women scattered throughout, and is followed by two women’s longer narratives, told in their own words.
Although I can tell that I'm going to have some problems with the sentimentality after a few more narratives, the book is very affecting. Each woman tells a different story of loss and betrayal, of grieving cut short, of rejection and humiliation. To be young, pregnant and single in America in the 1950s and 1960s was essentially to be ostracized. The women were shamed and blamed, shipped off to maternity homes to give birth, and then forced back into their old lives, to be groomed for the life of legitimate (married) motherhood that society demanded of them. They were not permitted to grieve for the loss of their children, and the experience was, in many cases, traumatizing. In many cases, they wanted to keep their children.
There are so many things wrong with the way that the women were treated that I can’t go into them here; neither am I going to address my frustration with the fact that the book has yet to take into account the feelings of the young fathers. But the part that makes me saddest, and angriest (and I haven’t finished the book), is the ignorance of the young mothers. “I mean, the lack of information in 1966 was astounding,” one of the women recounts. “If you wanted to get birth-control pills, you had to be flashing a diamond solitaire. Doctors really didn’t give them to you. Why would you need those? You shouldn’t be having sex anyway.”
Girls were pregnant at sixteen and had no idea about the logistics of vaginal birth. Women got pregnant the first time they had sex, despite the fact that around 25% later reported that they did not want to have sex the first time they did so. There was no information. And the women carried all the blame, were often haunted throughout their lives by the shame of giving up their children, even when it was not a choice, and the pregnancy was arguably not their fault. A sexually active teen who does not use contraceptives has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year.
I’d like to think that things have changed today. And in fact, teen pregnancy rates have been falling since they peaked in 1991, and the teenage women who do become pregnant now have a choice; around one third of teenage pregnancies end in abortion. But then again, I think back to my high school health class, which (thank God) was not my only source of sex education, although for many of my fellow students, it was. Like many public school health classes, it was based in abstinence-only sex education, and I don’t remember my teacher ever referring to contraceptives or any method of pregnancy or STI prevention besides abstaining from sex. Instead, we talked about the negative repercussions of syphilis and gonorrhea, and studied human anatomy, with a heavy dose of guilt. Some of the information that we were given actually turned out to be incorrect. It didn’t seem that much had changed since 1966.
The federal government has funded abstinence-only sex education for the past twenty-five years, despite countless studies which have shown that it just doesn’t work. I feel sometimes as though we’re still living in the dark ages. It doesn’t matter that we tolerate the pregnancies teenagers like Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin today (and when I say tolerate, I mean that in the loosest sense of the word, because they are still censured for their choices) if their pregnancies are not a choice.
And really, what is the choice that teenage mothers are given? Abortion and adoption are both hard roads. I was struck by the numbers of Fessler’s interviewees who had wanted to keep their children. But very few women have Bristol Palin’s luxury. We give young women an impossible choice: we refuse to educate them about pregnancy, condemn them for becoming pregnant, and then give them a choice of two traumas, because our society is too unbending and too sexist to accept, or help, a child raised outside of a heteronormative family.
Margaret Talbot has a great article in the November 3rd issue of The New Yorker about the gulf between red states and blue states on sex education. The rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs are much higher in red states, where abstinence-only education is prevalent, even though these are the homes of chastity pledges and evangelical Christianity, and those teenagers theoretically shouldn’t be having sex at all.
But I keep going back to the Joni Mitchell song. There are many ways to prevent having children, so now every child should be a wanted child. And even though I agree that abortion is a tragedy, neither is adoption an easy venture. Let’s just accept it: teenagers can, and will, have sex. And to deprive them of education, and then blame the women for the result, is utterly cruel.