Cherie Dupler, left, Melinda Swartz, and Ginny Toth review photos of children found or still lost at meetings of First Mothers of Northwest Ohio. They seek to fi ll a void created when societal pressure forced unwed moms to relinquish their babies.
She remembers the first cry: thin, faraway, as though it were drifting up from the bottom of a well.
I heard a baby cry, Ginny Toth said, and that is all she recalls of the birth. The pain medication kept her senses dulled into numbness.
The next morning, a nurse helped her into a wheelchair and put the baby in her lap. At this point, she remembers the soft forehead, the pale sweep of hair.
And then the baby was gone lifted out of her arms as her mother ushered her into the waiting car.
In 1968, raising a child was not an option for Ms. Toth. She was 18, unmarried, middle class, and coming of age in the years before the 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. Ms. Toth s mother sent her away to spend her pregnancy out of town, with cousins of the family doctor, and arranged for the baby s adoption with the help of the physician.
Jim Majo said he was angry and hurt when he found he was adopted. He said he gains perspective from the meetings.
Forty years later, Ms. Toth, 58, of Toledo still struggles with feelings of shame and grief about the baby she gave up.
In 2006, Ms. Toth and two friends founded a support group, First Mothers of Northwest Ohio, for women who became pregnant out of wedlock in the 1950s and 1960s and were forced by parents and social workers to put their babies up for adoption.
Two years later, the group is still mostly women conservatively dressed, soft-spoken but has expanded to include anyone affected by adoption, Ms. Toth said.
From 1945 to 1973, a tide of social and cultural changes swept through America.
With the postwar economic boom came increased social mobility, and the newfound prosperity for many families created an atmosphere of conservatism and mass conformity.
Meanwhile, this rupture with the past also manifested itself in changing sexual norms. Sexual activity among teenagers increased significantly during these decades, but sexual education lagged behind.
It was a gross humiliation to a family to have a daughter be pregnant before she was married, said Mary Ross, regional director for the national nonprofit organization Concerned United Birthparents. Ms. Ross also gave up a baby in the years before Roe vs. Wade.
It was as though everyone pretended that no one had sex, which was ridiculous because of course, they did, she said.
Jim Majo was 27 when he learned he was adopted. He waited before looking for his birth mom.
And thus the stage was set for what some call the baby-scoop era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Between 1945 and 1973, 1.5 million babies were given up for nonfamily or unrelated adoptions, according to a 1984 study by Penelope L. Maza cited in Ann Fessler s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.
With society s growing intolerance toward unwed, middle-class mothers, pregnant girls across the country were pressured by parents and social workers into relinquishing babies.
As a culture, we pretended that was possible. We relegated mothers to secrecy and stigmatized them, Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said.
The girls who went away
Cathy Beck was 16 when she started dating an older boy from out of town.
After she missed her first period, she knew. But she didn t tell her parents until the school nurse called home six months into her pregnancy.
At home, there was little discussion about the issue.
Pack your bags, her mother told her. You re going somewhere until this is over.
Meanwhile, the father of her baby disappeared; Ms. Beck later found out he was married.
In 1972, Ms. Beck moved into the Florence Crittenton Home in Toledo, which once housed unwed pregnant girls.
Jim Majo shows off a photograph, left, of his half brothers; his birth mother, Ruth Diaz, center, and her husband, Paul Diaz. Mrs. Diaz sent the photograph and inscribed the back of it, right.
The office had a safe filled with plain gold wedding bands. Before going outside, each girl was required to put on a ring.
Three days after Ms. Beck gave birth, her mother and a social worker slid a stack of papers in front of her and told her to sign them.
Afterward, no one mentioned the pregnancy.
Ms. Beck, 51, of Toledo now has two other children. Her only photograph of her first baby is a snapshot the nurse gave her. She has often looked at the pink face and curled fingers and wondered how her daughter is and what she is doing.
More than 30 years passed before she attempted to make contact. When she heard about a woman who helped birth mothers reconnect with their children for a relatively small fee, she put down a deposit.
Two days later, Ms. Beck had her daughter s address and contact information. They soon met for lunch.
When I saw her, I knew who it was right off the bat, Ms. Beck said.
A healing process
In a dimly lit room on the first floor of Park Church in South Toledo where First Mothers meets a young woman with an animated face and fluttering hands is telling the story of her birth.
Melinda Swartz, 64, of Monclova Township, proudly shows off an 11-year-old photograph that shows herself, center; her daughter Sheila Swartz, then 13, left, and Stacy Dening, then 30, the daughter Ms. Swartz put up for adoption in 1967.
My mom never told my dad that I existed until after I was gone, said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. She never graduated high school because of me.
She had discovered all of this within the last few weeks, after she finally made contact with her birth mother s family in Toledo. But her birth mother had not yet responded to attempts at communication.
Around the circle, heads shook in sympathy.
She s reliving the loss, someone said, referring to the birth mother.
When we gave up children, we were told that this is it we would never see this child again, Melinda Swartz, 64, of Monclova Township said. We didn t dare to let ourselves hope that we would.
Ms. Swartz, who gave up a daughter for adoption in 1967, was one of the support group s original members.
Everyone just wants to shove this under the rug again, the young woman said, her voice rising and breaking. I m here. I m alive.
And then, in a calmer moment, she added: You don t know how much I looked forward to this meeting.
Murmurs of agreement moved through the room.
The good thing about this group is that you re able to get the perspective of the other people, Jim Majo, 55, who was adopted, said during the session.
Ms. Toth directs discussion when it stalls, but talk is largely generated by members stories.
There are photos circulated, coos of She has your nose! and He looks so much like your daughter!
One woman s son found her through the Internet after 41 years.
I just want to know where I came from, he wrote in an e-mail. I feel like a man without a country.
Mr. Majo was 27 when he discovered that the parents who had raised him were not biologically related to him.
He is a big, bearded man with bold tattoos etched on his arms and legs a dragon, an eagle, a motorcycle. He wears combat boots and a slick leather vest embroidered with Born Again, and Jesus is Lord.
But when Mr. Majo speaks, his voice is soft, his manner somewhat shy.
I was feeling a lot of hurt, anger, and betrayal directed at everyone, Mr. Majo said.
More than a decade passed before he decided to search for his birth mother.
Often, the search for a birth parent or child can take years. When adoption records are sealed, adopted adults must petition probate courts to receive information such as birth certificates and names of birth parents.
Mr. Majo sent paperwork to the state of Ohio and received his birth certificate in 1988, but finding enough information to contact his birth mother took months of investigation and research.
After he finally tracked down her name Ruth Diaz and her father s address, he wrote her a long letter and sent it to her relatives.
When Mrs. Diaz called Mr. Majo s house shortly thereafter, she was in disbelief.
She never had even seen the baby she gave birth to in 1952. Her mother had told her he was stillborn.
I was flabbergasted, said Mrs. Diaz, 76, who now lives in California.
They met for the first time when he flew out to visit her.
Mrs. Diaz remembers seeing Mr. Majo walk down the ramp in the airport.
I thought, his hair is reddish like mine, and he s got blue eyes like my oldest boy, Mrs. Diaz said.
Now, Mr. Majo and his birth mother talk frequently. He even calls her Mom.
Back in those days, [unwed pregnancy] was a no-no, Mrs. Diaz said. You were a bad girl. You were trash.
Social stigma surrounding unwed pregnancy and adoption has changed considerably.
Back then, it was the idea of being pregnant that was such a terrible thing, Ms. Ross of Concerned United Birthparents said. Today, people say, how could you have given your baby up for adoption?
But the adoption revolution has raised some concerns about the decreased percentage of unwed women relinquishing babies for adoption.
Fewer than 2 percent did so as of the mid-1990s, compared to 8.7 percent from 1952 to 1972, according to a 1992 study by Christine Bachrach, Kathy Stolley, and Kathryn London.
I think women now are being made to feel that it s unnatural to surrender children for adoption, and I think that s wrong, said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard law school and faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program.
During an era in which the conventional definition of family continues to expand, Ms. Bartholet is surprised that adoption has not become increasingly normalized, she said.
Although single parenthood is much more accepted than it once was, adoption is also moving in a different direction.
Instead of the secrecy and suppression of the postwar years, the trend favors open adoption, in which the child grows up fully informed about who his or her birth parents are and is able to maintain contact with them.
Rachel Lucas, 18, of Oregon, one of the youngest mothers in Ms. Toth s support group, got pregnant when she was 16. Her son is now 2 and living in San Diego with his adoptive parents, whom Ms. Lucas personally selected from a series of profiles.
Ms. Lucas speaks to them about once a month, and they frequently send her photographs of her son.
Her open adoption, she said, has worked extremely well, and the adoptive parents are amazing people. But it hasn t always been easy classmates taunted her about giving up her baby, and she often has felt very alone.
I just knew he deserved a lot better than what I could ever give him, Ms. Lucas said.
Above all, it is important to consider whether the best interests of the child might be served by placing him or her in a new family, Mr. Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute said.
I think if you can keep a family together, you want to keep a family together, Mr. Pertman said. You just don t want to do it to the detriment of the people involved.
After Ms. Toth gave birth in 1968, she felt totally numb, she said.
In 1990, Ms. Toth found out that the names and address of her daughter s adoptive parents had been in a drawer of her mother s desk for years.
She wrote them a letter and eventually got her daughter s contact information.
Ms. Toth and her daughter met in 1998.
She was pleasant, but indifferent, Ms. Toth said.
They ve seen each other a few more times since then, but Ms. Toth hasn t heard from her daughter since 2007.
For Ms. Beck, who finally met her daughter three years ago, the reunion process also has been difficult.
It s not all peaches and cream like you see on TV with these reunions with kids and mothers, Ms. Beck said.
For some like Rachel Lucas relinquishing a baby for adoption is a fully informed decision. And our society, Mr. Pertman said, is gradually moving toward a policy of openness, honesty, and education about adoption.
But for many unwed mothers of the 1950s and 60s, the adoption process was unrealistically opaque.
In 1990, the adoptive mother sent Ms. Toth an album filled with photographs.
There is a picture of the farm where her daughter grew up. It is a low white house in a field spiked with silos and trees.
In one photograph she is 17 days old, dazed and chubby in a frilly white dress.
As a freshman in high school, her face is dwarfed by glasses and her teeth glint with braces.
At 21, she is sitting on a red car, her head cocked playfully and reddish hair blowing.
Ms. Toth still flips through these pages, recalling where she was at each stage of her daughter s life.
They said I would forget, Ms. Toth said. You never stop thinking about it. Not for one day.
Contact Laura Bennett at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6728.
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