I recently read Second-Chance Mother, by Denise Roessle. The book describes Roessle’s experience of putting her son up for adoption in 1969, and then reuniting with him many years later. Roessle’s story is very powerful, and anyone who reads it realizes that adoption is not an easy decision for anyone involved. Second-Chance Mother is currently the #1 title in the adoption section at Amazon. Over Mother’s Day weekend, over 12,000 readers downloaded a copy of the book.
I caught up with Denise Roessle to ask her a few questions about Second-Chance Mother. When you read what she has to say, I know you’ll have a lot of things to marinate in your brain.
1. What was your motivation for writing Second-Chance Mother?
My initial plan was to write a guide to adoption search and reunion for mothers. After four years in reunion, attending support groups and reading others’ stories, I realized that mothers like me needed help navigating the rough course of reunion. What I had in mind was a book with specifics, real information and advice, not just personal stories, that would help mothers (and possibly adoptees) figure out how to handle things like initial contact, the first meeting, how to deal with adoptive parents’ reactions, etc. Of course I didn’t have all the answers, but I knew where to get them and was planning to research: consulting searchers, adoption therapists, mothers and adoptees who were long into reunion. I had a detailed proposal for the book with a table of contents and sample chapters, which I pitched to various agents and publishers at a writing conference in 2000. I couldn’t convince anyone that this book was viable and needed, even though there were/are six million birthmothers in the U.S. alone. Everyone I talked to, especially after hearing my multi-generational adoption story, said, “write the memoir.” So I began.
My motivation was the same as it was at the beginning: to help other mothers get through this difficult process. As it turned out, in writing the memoir, I helped myself. It was cathartic, working through painful memories and coming to terms with the past.
2. In the book, you talk about how your choices were very constricted. Your parents would have chosen an abortion if you had told them you were pregnant sooner. And then they chose for you to put the baby up for adoption. Ultimately, it seems like you really wanted to keep your baby, but nobody was respecting your choice. Do you feel that this was common for young women during the same time period? If so, why?
My choices were not just constricted. They were, at least it seemed so at the time, nonexistent. Abortion was not yet legal in the U.S in 1969, although it was available overseas. I knew from friends’ experiences that “backroom” abortions, performed by doctors who were willing to do them, were dangerous and traumatic.
In my case, I believed that my boyfriend was going to marry me. By the time he decided he wouldn’t, when I was more than three months along, all options other than continuing the pregnancy were gone.
Yes, my parents chose for me. I was an immature and dependent 19-year-old, with just one year of college, no job, no resources. I’m sure if I’d been only a month or two pregnant when they found out, I would have gone along and had an abortion, most likely in Japan (since I was living in Hawaii at the time), just as I went along with their plan to put the baby up for adoption. If anyone had asked me what I wanted, or offered the help I would have needed to keep and raise my son, I am certain that I would have. I still wonder why I didn’t rebel, run away, or do whatever it took to keep him. Fear, shame and feeling helpless is all I can come up with. If I’d been aware of agencies or anyone providing assistance to young single mothers, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But I wasn’t, and in truth, I doubt there were any in the late sixties.
Absolutely, this was not only common, but the only way in that time period, from the 1940s through the early 1970s. Unmarried women weren’t supposed to be sexually active, hence birth control was not readily available. Certainly not without parental consent for minors, but it was difficult to get for any single woman. I don’t know if Planned Parenthood even existed then. Girls my age were uneducated, even about condoms.
Getting pregnant before marriage was the worst thing that could happen, the biggest shame for a family. I had peers who got pregnant then, some whose boyfriends married them, others who had illegal abortions or went overseas, and girls like me who were sent away to wait out their pregnancies and relinquish their babies for adoption. Maternity homes were big business then. This time became known as the “Baby Scoop Era,” when infants were in demand for adoption by infertile couples, and young women were the providers to fill the need. Adoption agencies benefitted, collecting big money from adoptive parents, and assuring mothers that they would move on with their lives and forget, or have other children they could keep.
Two excellent books on this era:
Wake Up Little Susie, by Rickie Solinger
The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler
I should add that that the demand and this practice continues to this day. In fact, the demand for adoptable infants has increased, as couples wait longer to start a family and find themselves unable to conceive. (Side note: few want to adopt older children out of foster care; parents feel safer with a “fresh slate” infant, and want to avoid the baggage that foster children inevitably present.) So adoption agencies have had to hone their rap, put more pressure on young women to surrender their babies. From ‘it’s the only way to undo your sin, your shame, save your family’s reputation’ (back in my day), to ‘your child will have a much better life in a two-parent home, with more resources than you can offer.’ “Open” adoptions are a recent ploy, where periodic contact (updates and pictures of the relinquished child) is promised, although not legally enforceable. Some adoptive families cut off contact, even move away, to escape from the mother/family of origin.
I am for family preservation: children staying with their mothers and fathers, families of origin, even if it’s the grandparents, aunts/uncles, someone with a biological connection. Unless that is impossible. I realize that some mothers are unable or unwilling to parent. I consider adoption a last resort.
3. Do you consider yourself pro-choice? If so, what does that term mean to you?
I’ve been pro-choice for as long as there was a choice (i.e., abortion legalized). I believe in all person’s right to choose their destinies, reap the rewards and take the consequences of those. As for a woman’s right to choose, whether it’s to try to conceive (i.e. use birth control or not), whether or not to carry the child to term or abort, and, dare I say it, to parent or not parent, yes. I believe this overrides the man’s right, since he is not the one who must carry and birth the child, and often declines to support the child (whether physically, emotionally, or financially).
I am for abortion remaining legal, without question. I hate that some women use it as birth control, instead of preventing it, especially now that prevention is widely available. Perhaps that attitude comes from my experience, when this wasn’t the case.
4. The anti-abortion camp likes to paint adoption as an easy decision with very few repercussions. In your experience, what is it really like for women who choose the adoption route? And what is it like for the children who have been put up for adoption?
Abortion is NOT easy, nor without repercussions. I have friends who had abortions and I don’t know a single one who hasn’t been haunted by that decision.
As for aborting versus adoption, i.e. getting rid of them vs. giving them life without you: I haven’t had both experiences, so it’s difficult to speak to that. All I can attest to is the pain of losing your child, knowing that he/she is out there, but not knowing if they are happy, healthy, or even alive. And finding out that your child didn’t have the good life you had been assured they would, as was my case. Devastating!
I don’t know whose pain is worse.
As for the impact on those who were given up for adoption, I cannot speak to that, but I believe it is huge. The Primal Wound, by Nancy Verrier, is an excellent book on this topic.
All I can say is that my experience in reunion with my son tells me that separation from one’s mother (and family of origin) is almost always impossible to recover from. From the stories I’ve heard, this is true, even if the adoptive family is stable and loving. Adoptees still wonder: “What were the circumstances of my conception and why was I given away? Who do I look like, act like? What are my roots?” Being “chosen,” as many adoptive parents like to say, means to a child that they were “unchosen” by someone else. This is something those of us raised in our biological families take for granted. Which is why I support open records, which in the majority of U.S. states is still denied.
5. When you’re not busy writing and promoting your book, how do you like to unwind?
For the last several months, since Second-Chance Mother was released, I haven’t done much unwinding. I have dedicated myself to getting my story out to as many people as possible. So far, so good, and I have been enjoying the promotion journey. I am so gratified by the response I’ve received and the lives my story has touched.
Writing is my passion, and can even be a means to unwind. I love writing essays on my blog. I’ve tried my hand at fiction and will continue to work on that.
Once upon a time, and I hope to get back to it at some point, I enjoyed photography, scrapbooking, crafts, and reading (other writer’s work, and still do, and need to make more time for that).
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.