In the 1901 Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York [State]…, Volumes 11-13; Volumes 16-19, in chapters titled Cheap Meals, Lodgings, and Baths and Reformatories for Women, you will find a listing for the place my first-mother stayed while pregnant with me. Despite decades between the first mention of this “Home” for unwed mothers and their babies (up to three months of age but not older than), I cannot imagine much had changed in the shelter or services they offered single mothers-to-be.
Founded in 1873, in a young New York City, the Washington Square Home for Friendless and Fallen Girls was supervised and maintained by a private corporation, and the “special class cared for” is listed as “Friendless and fallen girls.” At that time, other “Homes” in New York State offered shelter and limited care/accommodations/scant services for “foundlings, and mothers with infant children”, “unprotected and wayward girls”, homeless people and “wayfarers”, “girls of the street” and “itinerants, “colored young women and girls”, and “discharged female prisoners”. My personal favorite – “children in moral danger” – makes me picture diapered, cigar-smoking babies with five o’clock shadows and bloodshot eyes, shooting craps against a gritty city wall. Or maybe they’re more like Pinocchio, naively drawn to all the temptations but really wanting nothing more than experience and a sense of reality.
Forward to the early 2000’s. Internet messages posted by birth-mothers shed light on the Washington Square “Home” as a place [unmarried] pregnant girls and [unmarried] women went before they delivered their babies. Also included in some of those notes, almost predictably, Spence-Chapin adoption agency. Each key word part of someone’s Google search criteria. Some birth-mothers seek to reconnect with girls they knew during their stay. Others seek reunion with the baby(s) they gave away – or reunion with anyone who might know the baby they gave up (or were told they could not keep). Genuine, vulnerable, sensitive, pleading but not pushy or threatening. So much said of their sequestered pregnancy in less than 30 words.
“…my daughter was born, at Lenox Hill [Hospital], then placed for adoption through Spence-Chapin.”
My first-mother spent time at this home near Lenox Hill, where I, too, was born. Once healthy enough, at three months, I was signed-over to Spence-Chapin, from whom I was eventually adopted at 13 months.
I don’t know:
whose idea this home was
who paid for her to go there; (did the agency pay if you decided to use them to re-home your baby?)
who chose the adoption agency,
how she got from the “Home” to the delivery room,
if anyone was with her during the 14 hours of labor.
whether she made friends among the other pregnant girls at Washington Square
if she even remembers being there.
if they allowed her any personal belongings or if she was to remain anonymous while in residence.
how long she was allowed to stay in the hospital’s care
where she stayed afterward
if anyone cared enough to contact her to make sure she was OK, or send flowers or feed or hug or nurture or protect or offer support or a better, loving home to her.
Did she ever go back to her family home? Did her father and step-mother ever embrace her after she was bastard free? Shame on them and their double-standard of “acceptable” morals and behaviors.
I cannot imagine:
how scarring and deep the pain of rejection when her father and step-mother turned their backs on her,
how cold, unfeeling a parent must be to have turned her out of the family home when she needed support and love the most.
what it was like to move to another state to live with favorite aunt
the heartbreak of losing your mother at 16, as my first-mother did.
being shamed by my family, being ignored by my family, being made to believe I am a disappointment to my parents…oh wait, I sort of can.
In the aftermath of my search and reunion, I have not met any of first-mother’s extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins. Perhaps, because I never happened.
When my baby turned three months old, I paid very close attention to how I felt about her. I had read enough medical academic research theories on mother/child bonding: It’s supposedly not significant until the infant reaches approximately three months of age. One morning, nursing her half asleep in my arms, I tried to imagine if it would be easy or impossible to give her away if someone came into the room to take her for good. It made me instantly nauseous and upset. I have everything to be thankful for, including that I didn’t have to make that choice, and that someone else had.
My first-mother was neither friendless nor fallen. She was young, pregnant, alone and unsupported. There is a huge difference in those words. We must change the way we see and address and surround girls and women with unwanted pregnancies; shame is not their character nor defining for their situations, and their babies are not punishment nor marketplace items sold to the highest bidder. A “nicer” family sometimes isn’t, and a “Home” can be anything but.