Adoption & Motherhood: Whose Choice?
It is a great honour to be asked to deliver the 1996 Pamela Denoon Lecture, and to join the list of outstanding women who have contributed so much to keeping Pamela’s memory alive.
If one measure of a woman’s life is the friends and admirers she leaves behind, then the list of previous speakers:
|Senator Pat Giles|
|Justice Elizabeth Evatt|
and the women who organise this memorial lecture, combine to be an amazing testimony to the respect and affection deeply felt for Pamela. I sincerely trust that this Lecture and the Foundation which she so generously funded are a comfort to her family, and adequate testimony to her commitment to the women’s movement.
I am very grateful that the organising committee supported my wish to focus this Lecture on such a personal issue as the adoption of my two children. I have a son, Anthony, now aged 29, and a daughter, Anne, aged 27. Both were adopted when they were 6 to 8 weeks old, and have known they were adopted forever. This Lecture is being delivered with their strong support, and their presence and the presence of my only sister, who also has three adopted children. It’s also delivered with the knowledge and support of their birth mothers, both of whom would have been here, except that one is in Perth and the other in New Zealand.
Before I begin, I must tell you that I have not had one conversation about this topic, nor read these notes, without crying. So the chance of doing so tonight is very slim. I hope this won’t make anyone uncomfortable – and please don’t feel anxious for me – and anyone who wants to is welcome to join in – there is ample need for a good cry on lots of counts! I also decided to speak to most of this lecture rather than read it, but I am very grateful for the chance to write it, because it’s forced me to get on paper a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
As I said, I did not know Pamela, but everything I have heard or read about her, places her firmly amongst that group of women who were the heroines for women like me in the suburbs in the 60s and 70s, cut off in many ways from the decision making in Canberra, but working in our own communities on the same issues that she was tackling at the federal level.
As the women in WEL organised around the Sex Discrimination legislation and the myriad of programs designed to address issues of social and economic independence for women, thousands of us debated, organised, lobbied and gained new skills and confidence as we fought with the Labor Party to keep the pressure on the Party, and later the government, to act on our demands. So although I never met Pam, the links of sisterhood from those heady days of change are very real.
I suppose it is only natural that people involved in social change naturally gravitate to the issues which affect our own lives. In my case, as a young woman living in the suburbs with virtually no family support services, no transport and surrounded by friends and neighbours with very young children, I first became involved in establishing a kindergarten, then a school… very typical!
The second image is sitting with my daughter and her birth mother, in my daughter’s house; we older women were discussing how unmarried women in the 1960s had virtually no other choice but to give up children for adoption, regardless to a large extent on their ability to earn a living, let alone if they had no job or profession. My daughter clearly understood and accepted that reality, but said how hard it was for her to imagine not having that choice – or of anyone telling her what she had to do in such a situation.
From these two experiences, I learnt what it feels like to be connected to the biological mothers of the two people I love most in life, and to feel in one moment a level of relief, of pain, grief and happiness that I hadn’t known existed.
I also saw clearly how all the struggles of the last 25 years in the women’s movement have ensured that at least for middle class, white Australian young women, we’ve made sure that they do have choices. I know it hasn’t happened for thousands of other young women in different situations. I also know that some of the gains for us as white middle class women have not been won for working class and Aboriginal women; that while we naturally gravitated to the issues which directly affect us, we have failed in lots of ways to address their issues and be part of their struggles.
One of the women who has been the greatest influence on my life is Margaret Ray, who was the Member for Box Hill in the Victorian Labor government. When I told her I was doing this lecture, she said not to try to intellectualise the subject, but to just tell the story and celebrate it. As I am entirely incapable of intellectualising it, I am grateful for her issuing this instruction!
The only hint of trying to tie in our experiences with anything like the broader debate, is to point out the recurring thought I have had during the entire process, and in the year since.
I continually think of the depth of trauma for the Aboriginal people in Australia, and for indigenous people everywhere, where the loss of tens of thousands of children through forced adoption and premature, preventable deaths, makes our experience pale into insignificance.
The process of reuniting with birth parents has been for me the start of understanding the process of reconciliation with the Aboriginal community, and at least the beginning of some understanding of the grief and the anger that must be felt within that community for all the thousands of children taken away, with absolutely no choice being exercised by Aboriginal parents.
As a white, educated woman I can’t compare our experiences to the appalling institutionalised racism that underlined the issue of Aboriginal adoption. But as a woman, regardless of class and education, I can connect to the grief and anger, and to the joy and happiness when there is a reconnection.
The death of my friend’s daughter for the first time made me realise the depth of grief there is amongst Aborigines who attend the funerals of their young people with horrific regularity. Karen’s funeral was the first I’d ever attended of someone so young, and the shock waves of grief amongst Jenni and Barry’s friends still goes on.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to lose so many young people through death and separation in the Aboriginal community.
We had two children, a boy Anthony and a girl two years younger, Anne, both of whom were adopted through the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau. Looking back, the system under which we adopted them bore more resemblance to the 19th century than the twentieth, although I certainly didn’t think that at the time – probably because my upbringing and my experience of society – and the Church – actually smacked of the 19th Century!
When we first applied to adopt the children, we were living in a flat in St. Kilda, and were told by the social workers that before proceeding with the adoption, we should have to have a “real” home – certainly not a flat in the Red Light district!
So we borrowed a car, drove to Glen Waverly with a thermos and a packet of sandwiches, found the Jennings Estate that had just opened with five display homes on it, picked one of them and a block of land that was designated for that design, handed over a $50.00 deposit, and informed the welfare workers that we were now ready to proceed, having attained the status of real home ownership – all in the space of a weekend.
When we shifted into the house, the social worker visited us to inspect its suitability. I can always remember her asking to see where “baby would sleep”. I proudly pointed to the bassinet I’d prepared, but she said, “No, which room will baby sleep in?” On being shown the appropriately painted blue boys room she said, “But what about a blind? Baby can’t sleep in a room without a blind.” Blind duly bought and reported on, we were then fully prepared. I should add that the day I took that blind down many years later, I fully expected a social worker to come into the house and repossess Anthony!
Today it seems unbelievable that a social worker wouldn’t be more concerned about the fact that we were the only family on the estate, that my husband was studying two nights a week and would be away from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, that the nearest milk bar was one mile away, that we had no family in Melbourne, no neighbours, no family services, no car and no phone! She hadn’t picked up that I had a series of strange illnesses that had meant I had to give up teaching and generally pointed to my being prone to quite serious depressions. Nor was it noted that I had never once minded a baby, changed a nappy, heated a bottle or been responsible for any small person for any length of time. Looking back, I would probably be the last person in the world that I would have given a baby to!
What I remember of the preparation for motherhood and the choices we both had to make about adoption, is the fear that we wouldn’t “pass the test”. Houses, blinds, references from the Parish Priest, money in the bank – these are the criteria I remember. I can’t remember anyone asking us to consider other options once we knew we couldn’t have children: waiting a couple of years (I was only 24 years old), considering a life without children, or fostering children. My memory is of being handed over from the doctors to the social workers in the room next door, because the assumption was we were:
- middle class,
- educated good Catholics,
obviously destined to parenthood because of the above.
I would like to come back to this point later, because I wonder if the same assumptions are not underlying the “choice” of who becomes eligible for IVF programs today.
The story of raising two small children in the suburbs in the 60s and 70s has been well and truly told, and I won’t revisit it here. It certainly turned out much happier for us than the inauspicious beginnings would have indicated, mainly because both of the children were gorgeous (and still are), and because of the tremendous friendship and support of neighbours who gradually arrived on the Estate, to be greeted by me as though they had recently arrived from God (in some cases, they had).
In 1970 I enrolled at Monash University as a part-time student, and gradually became involved in both the peace movement and the women’s movement, and almost inevitably, the Labor Party. By the mid seventies, when it became obvious there would be a State Labor Government before too long, the serious work of policy development and preparation for government began within the policy committees of the Party.
I was a member of the Status of Women’s Policy Committee which identified reform of the Adoption procedures as a priority for the incoming government. Changes were already occurring under the Liberal Government, as a result of community pressure, but I believe that the work done by Pauline Toner as shadow minister and women within the Labor Party in Victoria in many ways led the world, because it was so firmly based on principles of justice to all the parties involved in adoption. These changes attempted to balance the rights of all the parties, but particularly focused on the rights of the children to access information about their birth parents, a principle that I supported with great passion.
That, very briefly, is the story from my point of view of the early years of being an adoptive mother. My children always knew they were adopted; I don’t think that knowledge was in any way a trauma for them. We always acknowledged their birth mothers on their birthdays, and overall I think we handled their “special status” with gentleness and some humour.
When my son turned 18 we discussed his right to get information about his birth parents. I remember him saying he didn’t feel the need to find his “other” mother, because he was having quite enough trouble keeping up with the one he had. I think both of them sometimes fantasised about their birth mothers being my lovely next door neighbour who always had a cake-smelling kitchen, and who showered her children with lots of chocolate eggs at Easter.
So in 1994, when my daughter decided to start the search for her birth mother, I felt as though the long years of struggle to bring about a more humane resolution to the adoption process for the children were well and truly worth it. The first hint I had of the emotional turmoil came when I went with her to get the first information about her mother. When she walked into the room with the social worker, it felt exactly the same as when she first went to school – the feeling of not being able to be with her as she confronted the world.
The following year, 1995, both my children, then aged 29 and 27, contacted and met their birth mothers, within a few weeks of each other. At the same time, the daughter and son of my only sister also found their birth mothers (and in one case, a birth father), and my dearest friends, Jenni and Barry Mitchell, suffered the overwhelming grief of the death of their eldest daughter, Karen.
These six months of 1995 thus became dominated by what it means to be a parent, and confronting the reality that what ever else I have done in my life, my role as a mother remains the central one, and one through which I connect to my closest friends.
The range of emotions and the roller coaster effect of the two meetings for my own children is very difficult to describe. I had thought up till then that I had actually experienced every emotion possible – but this took us all into a realm I hadn’t imagined.
Both reunions were positive and with minimum complications for everyone. The generosity of the women, the concern for me by both the children and by their mothers was everything that I could have wanted.
There are two images that stay in my mind most clearly. The first is of waiting to meet my son’s mother, sitting in a restaurant in St Kilda on Mother’s Day with my daughter. When Anthony walked in with his birth mother, with his 3 year old daughter in his arms, I felt as though I was in a film. When I put my arms around his mother, I felt a connection that I’d never felt with anyone before.
For Aboriginal children forcefully taken from their families, they lost not only their parents but their identity – an identity and a culture that we as a nation not only ignored, but did our best to completely destroy. And these forced adoptions continued until the late 1970s; as a political activist, I did not know this, nor did I know the extent of the practice. When I taught young Aboriginal children from the Ballarat Orphanage, I presumed that all their parents were dead, and that my job was to prepare them for a life in white society.
Our children were given to us because we fulfilled all the criteria of “acceptable” parents; in meeting their birth mothers they have found similar families, values, backgrounds: there is no heart-breaking choice demanded here between cultures. The reconciliation between the children and the parents of their birth completes a circle of knowledge about themselves that in our case had all been positive. It has become clear to my children what they have gained (and perhaps lost) by living with us and with each other.
Finding their identity for our children has been more about who they look like, and which parts of their personality they can now see may be genetic.
Reunions with Aboriginal families have meant in many case choices not only between families, but between cultures; finding identity has been acceptance of being part of a community which continues to struggle for justice and respect, privileges that we take for granted.
The commonality and the difference of experience between white and Aboriginal adoption is perhaps the most profound lesson I have learnt from the past 12 months.
An experience which I hadn’t expected was the confrontation I would have to make in my mind with the generation of priests, doctors, social workers who controlled the system of adoption that we went through. I am trying very hard to reconcile in my head and my heart with that generation who seemed so certain of the “rightness” of their control over our lives. I accept that every generation acts in the context of its accepted norms and values, and I’m Catholic enough to believe they acted from the best of motives.
I can’t even begin to understand the motives of those who saw the innate “rightness” of destroying generations of Aboriginal families through the forced removal of their children.
We are in fact the last generation of young women (and men) who had such unquestioning faith in authority. By the end of the 1960s, with the advent of the Pill and the effects of Vatican Two on the Church, there was a new generation of women who had some confidence that they could make choices about their fertility (or lack of it). In fact, our generation of women caught up in the adoption process in the early and mid-sixties, had more in common with the 19th Century than we did with women five years after us.
Another question continually addressed my mind – and not just in relation to adoption. How do we pass on the experiences we had as the last of the pre-Second Wave Feminists without sounding (and in some cases being) bitter? I don’t want young women to think that the whole process of adoption was harsh, uncaring, oppressive, and exploitative of women and children, because it wasn’t (at least not in the white community). There was enormous happiness for us as adoptive parents, and a great acceptance of the children into the community in which we lived. The social workers, priests and doctors involved in our case were kind and didn’t appear patronising at the time.
But it is important, I think, to name the adoption process pre-1970s for what it was – a system that allowed very little choice to the relinquishing mothers, and very few “acceptable” options for infertile couples.
It was virtually impossible for unmarried women to keep their children, and the assumption was that having given them up for adoption, that really was the end of it, including the total non-recognition of their on-going grief. As an adoptive parent, it seemed to be assumed that I would not care about the parents of the children, and that I would “naturally” be an instant “good mother” because I fulfilled all the requirements (including being the owner of a suitable blind).
To change the system has required the full force of the women’s movement and the courage of the relinquishing mothers to demand knowledge of their children and recognition of their grief as legitimate.
For those of us involved in adoption in the 60s, the notion of choice was limited; for the Aboriginal community, choice has been non-existent.
I can’t help but wonder if the choice of IVF has now assumed the same proportion of “rightness” for today’s young women. How much counselling, how many other options are being offered to them – particularly if they are “suitable” in the eyes of the “gatekeepers”?
Are the doctors, social workers, priests any better able to advise on what are absolutely fundamental questions about how we are to live our lives? The fertility debate is one to which I have never contributed – it raises such anger and confusion in me that I am incapable of making any sort contribution: my immediate reaction is to compare it with the adoption system of the pre-seventies.
In many ways it is only now that the story has ended so well that I can clearly see that enormous potential for pain in the reconciliation. Even though I personally contributed to the policy development underlying the Victorian Adoption Legislation, in the early 80s, I don’t think I had any real idea of the complications involved in re-uniting families. I always though my primary concern would be for the children, and how they would cope – and it was.
But I wasn’t in any way prepared for the depth of the emotional upheaval for me, a large part of which was my genuine concern for the birth mothers and their families. But, if it had been possible to put that to one side (which it wasn’t), the personal turmoil for me was unbelievable – and that was with the best possible support from the children, the mothers, my close friends and half the town of Bermagui! I can’t imagine how adoptive mothers cope when they don’t have that level of support, or if it happens when they are going through any other kind of personal or family crisis (not to mention the change of life!).
I certainly can’t begin to imagine how any of the parties involved in Aboriginal adoption cope. My admiration for the one family I do know who are going though it is profound.
One of my hopes in delivering this lecture is that other people involved in the adoption process will be inspired by the courage of my children, by the generosity of their birth mothers, and by me and my never ending faith that as long as you’re surrounded by friends (preferably always equipped with a bottle of whisky!), you can come through any change.
I am more grateful than I can say that the courage and warmth of the birth mothers and their husbands, has enabled both reunions to be so positive for our children. And my pride in and respect for my children knows no bounds.
For me personally, I really understand that I am part of the generation of women who gained for young women choices about their lives and their fertility that we never dreamt about. I hope that my fears and reservations about the IVF program are a product of my suspicion of doctors, social workers and other guardians of knowledge, and I personally am very indebted to the women who keep an eye on the bastards.
I also acknowledge that I am part of the educated, politically active generation of people who did not see the institutionalised racism against Aboriginal families until they made us so painfully aware of our ignorance. That is cause for a regret and a sorrow that I would like to reverse in some way by being part of the solution, instead of a continuing part of the problem. That will require a level of energy and courage that marked Pamela Denoon’s life. If that seems daunting, I remind myself that she, and all of us, have achieved for women by organising, not mourning.