The birthmother myth. What myth? You already know plenty about birthmothers, right? Or you think you do. But these women and girls who have given up their children might not be quite what you think they are.
I have another piece that was featured on Medium yesterday in their publication called Human Parts. It might surprise you.
“Meet your great-granddaughter,” my daughter-in-law said, gesturing lackadaisically toward the plastic doll in the infant seat on the couch. My 15-year–old granddaughter stood nearby, grinning sheepishly. She held her arm aloft, displaying the bracelet that must be swiped across a chip in the doll’s chest to prove that its needs have been met. “Talia” cries when she’s hungry, needs to be changed, or wants comforting. My granddaughter’s mothering skills will be rated. Her high school puts its trust in this robot, touted as a deterrent to teen pregnancy.
I had my doubts from the get-go.
Doesn’t everyone already know that babies are a lot of work?
I loved my dolls when I was a girl. I even wrapped our cat’s kittens in baby blankets, and pretended my brothers were my own babies. The Besty-Wetsy doll that was my favorite still lies in a cabinet, her soft arms and legs atrophied from age. Everyone in a Catholic community prior to birth control knew that babies were work. When I got pregnant as a 16-year-old, it wasn’t because I was ignorant of the care required of a baby. I got pregnant because I was ignorant about sex. I was ignorant about standing up for myself and what I wanted or didn’t want. No one talked about sex, or desire, or birth control. Or a girl having agency in any of those things.
In the 1960s in a town of 3000 Catholics where public schools did not exist, one’s expectations for honest and open discourse about sex were non-existent. I think the bar should be higher now. A lot higher. Birth control is readily available. Tens of thousands of women my age have lost babies to adoption. Mothers these days have sought to raise our children in a more open environment. We now have decades of data and experience to inform us on the subject of teen pregnancy. Four million babies were were adopted during the Baby Scoop. The girls and young women that gave birth to those babies didn’t know what they needed to know.
Sex education is the best teen pregnancy deterrent
As it turns out, my feelings about Talia the robot and the job she’s purportedly performing have been validated by a recent study, published in the medical journal, Lancet. That research has subsequently reported just about everywhere. Newsweek, citing Lancet, reports, “Over 1,000 girls aged between 13 to 15 years old across 57 schools in Western Australia who took part in the scheme were two times more likely to get pregnant by the age of 20 than those who attended standard sex education classes, Australian scientists found.” The kicker: Teen pregnancy rates are even higher in the U.S. than in Australia.
The good news is that teen birth rates are dropping. The rate in the U.S. is at a record low. The Pew Research Center reports that the reason is “Less sex, use of more effective contraception and more information about pregnancy prevention. Furthermore, among never-married teens who have had sex, 79% of girls and 84% of boys used a contraceptive method the first time they had sex.” Holy moly is what I say to that. That never could have happened in my 1970 Catholic life. In my mind, this is the heart of the matter. Education. Contraception. Preparation. Honest talk instead of noise from a robot.
“Adopted children are more likely to live in educated homes,” the headline says. The news has been making the rounds in publications large and small. Adoptive parents are educated!
For me, it was a *smacks self in forehead* moment. When I was trying to finish high school in the spring of 1970 while keeping my secret pregnancy, uh…welll…secret, the last thing I could imagine was somehow keeping my baby and going off to college. Adoptive parents have also been found to have higher incomes. That usually has something to do with education, right? Another forehead smack.
Of course the intent of this report is not to surprise us. Nor is it to overwhelm us with the obvious. It’s to gather data. If you’d like to read more adoption stats, you can see the full report here.
Mostly, I think of the personal angle rather than the statistics when I see headlines like the one above. I think of a woman reading the paper over her morning coffee. A woman who gave away a child, believing that someone else could provide a better life. I think of the ache she might have in the pit of her stomach or the pull in her heart.
Most births to women under 30 occur outside of marriage. THIS STORY from the New York Times is already a week old, but I can’t stop thinking about it. For birthmothers my age, just reading the phrase, “births outside of marriage” gives rise to the stigma we experienced. The contrast between the era in which we gave up our children and today’s regard for single mothers is profound. As far as I know the term, “single mother” did not exist in 1970.
The term birthmother did not exist either. There was no name for girls like me except for girl in trouble or unwed mother. Birthmother is a contested term now. Many prefer first mother or bio mother. I suppose I date myself by using the term birthmother. I like it because it was such a huge relief to hear a word that described me without sounding pejorative. Like I could finally break through the surface of a dark secret and know what to call myself.
I think nowadays women who give birth outside of marriage might not even call themselves single mothers. Maybe they simply call themselves mothers.