Louise Gardner is thankful to her father for his compassion. Molly Hursh is thankful that her son, at 50, “is so open and loving.” Karen Gillespie is thankful that she can “put a light on for other people.”
In a season focused on family, food and gratitude, these women are a humbling reminder of how lucky we are to be able to sit down with our relatives and disagree on everything from politics to pie.
For these women — each forced to give up her baby for adoption — the word “family” has long carried complicated overtones that, five or six decades later, they continue to sort through.
The emotional weight of that task lifted slightly this month, with big news from England largely unreported in this country.
In early November, the Catholic Church in England and Wales officially apologized for 30 years of “forced adoptions.”
British Cardinal Vincent Nichols said he regretted “the hurt caused by agencies acting in the name of the Catholic Church,” which coerced more than half a million young and mostly unmarried women in Great Britain to put their babies up for adoption until the early 1970s.
Australia, where as many as 150,000 women gave up babies from the 1950s to the 1970s, issued a similar apology in 2013, the year the film “Philomena” introduced large audiences to this well-hidden piece of history. No similar apology has been issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but let us hope that day will come.
“At least they are now acknowledging what they did,” said Pat Glisky, 72, of Alexandria, Minn., commenting on the news from across the pond. Still, she said, the apology “doesn’t change anything.”
What is changing are the women themselves. Emboldened by the passage of time, shifting societal norms and the confidence of age, they are eager to share their stories so no other women have to endure the pain they did.
“It’s about speaking our truth,” said Jackie Steele, 70, of northeast Minneapolis, a singer and actor who got pregnant at 21. Steele was shipped off to San Diego to do “summer stock,” which was the lie her family told.
Steele and several other women joined me to talk about the Church of England’s announcement. They met through Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), a Twin Cities support group.
From 1945 to the early 1970s, an estimated 1.5 million unwed American girls and young women were forced to give up their babies. Parents, clergy members and social workers believed this was the best choice, creating families for people who could not conceive, and giving the girls a chance to get on with their lives and forget.
Of course, they never forgot. Many fought depression or developed post-traumatic stress disorders. Some turned to alcohol and drugs. Some remained emotionally distant from the children they later had. More than one-third of them never had another child.
“Guilt and shame. It spills over always,” said Gardner, 63, of Maple Grove, who was 18 when she got pregnant in 1971. Because she was a few weeks shy of legal age, her father signed on as her legal guardian. But he came to understand the heavy toll the act took on his daughter. In 1989, he gave her his blessing to contact Catholic Charities to initiate a search for her daughter. With the help of Gay Kearin, a CUB birth mother, Gardner reunited with her daughter in 1996.
“My life is greatly healed and greatly enriched,” Gardner said.
Hursh was a cheerleader in her senior year of high school when she was called into the office and told, “there’s a rumor going around school that you’re pregnant.”
She was asked to leave school, then placed in a home for unwed mothers in Arizona. She labored alone and was allowed only one hour with her son five days after delivery. Her family later moved to New York to escape further shame.
This year, she found the birth father on classmates.com and, together, they found their son. He invited them to his 50th birthday party in April. Hursh is grateful to the wonderful adoptive parents who raised him, and they are grateful to her.
“His adoptive mother told me, ‘Thank you for the most wonderful gift anyone has ever given to me.’ ”
Glisky’s son, who lives in Austin, Texas, found her in 2009. Now he and his family come up to Minnesota every summer.
“We’re hearing from a lot of men and women in their 40s and 50s who are really looking,” Glisky said. “They are worried that their birth mothers are getting older and it might be too late if they wait.”
Adoption investigators, coupled with the internet, have been a godsend for many who are searching. But not all reunion stories have happy endings.
Gillespie, 72, of Eagan, reconnected with her son by phone, but he wasn’t ready for more of a relationship. She told him that, should he have a change of heart, she would be there for him.
He died in a car crash, but she has been embraced by his wife and two daughters, a gesture she warmly welcomes.
Steele has been in communication with her daughter for nine years. They have not met face to face. “She is so afraid,” Steele said.
Joining CUB, and speaking publicly about her experience, have helped Steele feel more whole. And she’s working on forgiveness, “big time,” of the church, her family, society. “It’s about not being afraid anymore,” she said. “It never should have been a secret.”
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Recognizing birth mothers in Minnesota
Time will tell whether the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will issue an apology for its role in decades of forced adoptions, as was recently done in England. But the Twin Cities area offers an effort aimed at healing.
Each November, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina holds an annual day of honor and recognition for birth mothers, which includes a healing mass, and opportunities for birth mothers to share.
“It is a recognition of the sacrifices made by those who have relinquished a child to adoption,” said Gretchen Traylor, an adult adoptee and former crisis pregnancy counselor.
While grateful when “an apology is made on behalf of the archdiocese by the priest who is saying mass,” Traylor said, she hopes that the church will go further by supporting efforts to provide original birth certificates to adult adoptees.
“Many adoptees,” she said, “do not search for birth parents. They seek only to discover medical information. They merely wish to have the right to their own accurate birth document, just like everyone who is not adopted.
“Birth mothers and adoptees were placed under such a shame-based system,” Traylor said. “This would do so much to further the healing.”