About Adoption 8
Back in the 1880s my grandfather’s sister was banished from her respectable family of Methodist lay preachers least she bring the whole family into disrepute and negate the message the family set out to transmit by their lives as well as their words. She bore two children to a married cricketer, thereby bringing down his public image as well. She made no attempt to raise them herself. My grandmother laid eyes on her only once, when she was pointed out in the street by a mutual friend. Her name was never spoken.
By the time I took up employment in the Babies’ Home office society was changing and such total ostracism did not usually happen. Silence and cover-up were the alternatives. As a young teen in the 1940s I had no idea what my mother meant when she drew me away from a teenage neighbour in the street and instructed me to stay away from her. ‘Why?’ I asked, with my usual craving for rational explanation. My mother mumbled: ‘Her mother’s not really her mother.’ I failed to understand why this should make her undesirable, or how it would come about. It finally dawned on me that her much older sister was actually her mother. This sort of intra-family ‘adoption’ was one possible cover-up if the sister was still considered acceptable by the rest of the family. However, it was almost impossible to keep the secret. The child suffered a diminished reputation along with her ‘big sister’. Silence was indeed held to be golden well into the ’sixties.
In the early days of my own township a local nurse took in city girls. Her notebook, passed to the local historical society, shows that she was midwife to the residents, but also to unknown girls from the city. . City girls hid out in the country, country girls lost themselves in the city.
Talking to children of the town’s pioneers revealed the other side of the story. One woman still grieved for her sister who had gone to see a city dentist; ‘She died in the dentist’s chair,’ I was told mournfully. Mentioning this sympathetically to a gentleman of the same generation, however, I received a quick sideways glance before he said, looking away, ‘She had more out than a couple of teeth.’ He mumbled a brief remark about a bit going on behind the bushes. The boys always knew what was happening but confided only between themselves; good girls, it seems, even members of the same family, were protected from the embarrassment of knowing the facts.
The Adoption Acts of the late 1920s seemed to offer a perfect solution, certainly a much safer one than the scandalous back-street abortionist who once lived behind my grandmother, whose existence was of course ignored.
The girls went on an extended ‘holiday’ or ‘visit to relatives’ or ‘worked interstate’, returned home with reputation untarnished and resumed their normal lives. The rescued babies were found a good, stable home where they would grow up in a carefully chosen loving family with all its moral and educational advantages. The adopting parents realised their dream of raising a family, when alternatives like IVF or surrogacy were not even the stuff of science fiction. It was a win-win-win situation.
The law provided that the adoptive family had all the obligations and entitlements of a genetic family. A new name was given and all contact with the biological mother cut off, to protect the stability and security of the new family. A member of my own family was told while out playing that he was adopted but his own mother was able to deny it, showing as evidence the new birth certificate with all their own names on it. Of course, the sudden appearance of a new baby was obvious to family and friends, but the child sometimes did not find out until adulthood. It was not spoken of; the birth parents might as well not have existed.
Some children most in need of ‘rescue’ however were Aboriginal and their adoptive status could not be concealed. This could lead to double discrimination, against both origin and circumstance. Just as ‘slum babies’ were removed involuntarily by Welfare to save them from a hopeless or dangerous situation, so Aboriginal children were ‘rescued’ by decree from situations that would not have been tolerated for white children. I once spoke to a prosperous Aboriginal farmer who remained deeply grateful for his late adoption by a white family. ‘I certainly would not have survived if I’d been left where I was,’ he told me.
The focus was on giving the child a better chance in life. Adoption was thought to be a much more successful approach than seeing the children’s stability disturbed by moving in and out of institutions or foster care. This happened through the intervention of Welfare, but all too often the parents themselves were forced into it, through illness or unemployment.
The effect of these changes of custody was not then fully appreciated, as the focus was on physical survival. To the grief of relinquishing parents was added blame; but the damage to the mind of the developing child was only brought to public attention through a World Health Organisation report in the 1950s.