On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.

About these ads

About Sarah Cedeño

Sarah Cedeño received her BA and MA in Creative Writing from SUNY-Brockport. Her work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Literary Mama, and her short fiction has appeared in Redactions Journal and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A poem about her experience with Multiple Sclerosis appears in the anthology Love Rise Up by Benu Press. She lives in Brockport with her husband and two sons. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport and is an MFA candidate at Goddard College in Vermont. View all posts by Sarah Cedeño

10 responses to “On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

  • Luanne

    Sarah, sounds great. I’m reblogging this on the adoption blog I write with my daughter. I can’t wait to read your final product.

  • Don't We Look Alike?

    Reblogged this on Don't We Look Alike? and commented:
    There has been a lot of talk recently about the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler. Blogger Sarah Cedeno is writing a novella about a 15 year old girl in a similar situation.

  • menomama3

    Interesting insights and difficult information to digest. Good luck with your project.

  • Peggy Harris

    Was actually a “resident” of OLV in 1966-67. I never felt pressured to give my child up for adoption either by the nuns or the counselor on staff. The atmosphere was such that I felt safe and protected when my own family rejected me. I don’t know how anyone could ever say anything negative about everyone at OLV from the nuns to the nurses to the volunteers. They definitely made a traumatic experience of being an unwed mother into an experience that was made bearable by their caring.

  • Sarah Cedeño

    Peggy,
    Thank you for your reply. I’m happy to know Father Baker’s eased your hard time. It was hard for me to accept that women at OLV had the same experience that many of the birth mothers in Ann Fessler’s book had, so it helps to that you were willing to share your experience.
    Sarah

  • Gail Bayer===

    Sarah,
    I wish I could agree with Peggy but not everyone had a caring, loving experience at OLV. They were told they were sinners. The doctor as he was delivering said that he was going to sew you up so this would never happen again, they wouldn’t allow you to eat four days before the birth because they said you were too fat etc. etc. I would not call this loving. Moreover, they discouraged you from ever seeing your baby.

    Maureen

    • Sarah Cedeño

      Maureen,
      So there are great discrepancies in the care birth mother’s received. I am so sorry to hear about your experience. It really pierces the isolation the young mothers were already feeling in such a situation. This is very similar in tone to the experiences in Ann Fessler’s book. I can’t imagine.
      Thank you for sharing this with me.
      Sarah

  • Shawn

    Hi
    I was wondering if during your research you spoke to anyone at Father Baker’s.
    My mother was there when she was pregnant with me in 1975. I never knew my biological father nor the brothers and sisters that I have. Now that I am grown and have children of my own I would like to know that side of my family history. It’s been weighing on my heart for many years. Any help on how to get some info from Father Baker’s would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  • Sarah Cedeño

    Hi Shawn,
    You might try contacting Father Baker’s Directly or the Catholic Charities, who sometimes have records. Good luck with your search!
    Sarah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 848 other followers

%d bloggers like this: