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Sex, lies and adoption


'Adoption' by Chris JohnstonThe father of my children was adopted at birth, and as a psychologist I now counsel many who have been part of the adoption triangle. The stories that reach me convey a sense of being robbed an abandoned. While for some there is gratitude for the life that has been 'given' to them by their birth mother and subsequently the adoptive parents, there is commonly also a pervasive rage.

The jury is now in. The Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption has revealed heinous practices.

These included denying the mother any sight or knowledge of her baby and being told the baby had died, or the baby being cared for in a nursery with minimal attention being given to facilitate 'bonding' with the adoptive parents. Ignorance was no excuse: even in the '60s English psychologist and child development expert John Bowlby exposed this kind of care as dangerous for infants.

There is now a call for a national and unambivalent apology. As with the Rudd apology to the Stolen Generations it needs to be unstinting and refrain from justifications.

You may not have noticed, but The Royal Women's Hospital has already quietly apologised to single women who gave birth in the hospital from 1945 until 1975 and who were forced to give up their children for adoptions.

The findings of a study by historian Shurlee Swain, 'Confinement and Delivery Practices in Relation to Single Women Confined at the Royal Women's Hospital 1945–1975' have a ghastly Dickensian ring. Young single new mothers were subjected to unsympathetic prolonged labours, denied access to their newborns, encouraged to adopt by social workers and not offered other options or information.

As the Senate inquiry has shown, these horrendous practices have resulted in a lifetime of grief, hurt, shame and anger for many women. Teenage mothers received little or no emotional support and many were instructed to forget about the whole experience. There was a stigma surrounding conception out of wedlock and families hid or denied the truth about the lost babies.

Many women who were forced into a 'choice' to relinquish their child have gone on to lead double lives, carrying internal scars while concealing the 'illegitimate' births from partners and subsequent children. Some later sought reunion, but this has not repaired the loss and rupture of so many years.

This angst has also been bestowed on many of the adopted children. Some have told me that although they felt loved and cared for by their adoptive parents they still felt different, isolated and confused. Many have been lied to, and revelations about their birth were devastating.

Some adoptions have not turned out well. We learn our patterns of love from our earliest caregiver, usually our biological mother. When early bonding and attachment is disrupted or fails, the development of strong attachment may remain impaired for a lifetime.

Upon reunion with their biological mother many report the joy of instant recognition, but also of the sadness of irretrievable loss. The years of separation cannot be restored.

Out of the most horrifying experiences we may collectively learn important truths. What are the truths bequeathed to us by this squalid chapter in our history?

Last century the adoption policy was born out of ignorance, prejudice and lack of empathy. It was premised on the espoused beliefs that there were right and wrong, rigid rules about suitable and unfit parents. These reflected the bias of the day about the sanctity of marriage, the superiority of sex within these bounds and the irresponsibility of young women who had sex outside marriage.

Men were largely allocated a minor role as providers of economic stability and respectability, or as an absent progenitor who was driven by that old male urge.

The pregnant girl had failed to exercise her responsibility of saying no and was treated as 'sinful'. Many of these girls, as young as 14, absorbed the notion that they were bad and unfit, and the kindest thing they could do for their child was to surrender it to a good couple. The solution to these 'unwanted' pregnancies was seen to be to supply the 'right' sort of family.

We now know that loving, well-supported parenting provides the best environment for children. This may be in single, gay, partnered, married, religious or non religious, white or Indigenous families (or families of any race for that matter). Stigmatising the circumstance of the birth or the class of the parents and the ensuing isolation is enormously damaging.

Adoption can be an option, but it is best when it is an open process and is not incited en masse by poor policies and welfare and social systems imbued with prejudice and ignorance. Deep human bonds are best nurtured in the compassionate care of both mother and child.

Lyn BenderLyn Bender is a Melbourne based psychologist. 

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption, Stolen Generations, National Apology, Kevin Rudd



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The role of church based organisations, government departments in adoption practice also needs to be noted. These include the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches as well as state government children's departments. It is also to be noted that Adoption, as outlined above was resisted by some state governments until around the 1930s or 1940s as it was considered an abrogation of the state's duty 'in loco parentis'. There was also the practice, enshrined in law, of boarding out. Should a parent fail to pay the boarding out fees for four consecutive weeks the child was then considered eligible for adoption. ( This was Victorian Law). Hopefully the Senate Inquiry will go well beyond the tip of the iceberg to see how courageous those single parents were, in the 1970s, to stand up against pressures to relinquish and also will note that it was social workers - one of them being Kath Lancaster of the Royal Women's Hospital in melbourne, who, also following precedents in Scotland and the USA set in chain the processes that led to the formation of the Victorian Adoption Legislation Review Committee in 1976 and subsequent changes to the law and practice.

Christine Vickers | 05 March 2012  

It cannot be sufficiently understood in this day and age what a terrible stigma was attached to the 'unwed mother' in those times of forced adoption. Absolute social stigma was attached to illegitimacy and (if I remember rightly) there were even state-sanctioned bans on certain activities later in life if one was found to be so. It is no wonder that unmarried mothers were persuaded that it was in their babies best interest to have them adopted by a 'respectable' married couple.

susan Labartlus | 05 March 2012  

Three weeks after my sixteenth birthday and totally alone in the world I gave birth to my daughter at the RWH in 1962. I repeatedly asked to see her and after 24 hours she was reluctantly brought to me. Social workers and staff tried to cajole me into signing adoption papers which were thrust under my nose, and warned me that I would be responsible for the unhappiness of my child if I did not sign. She was boarded out in a church home where she was beaten for crying when I had to leave on my weekly visits. I will never forget standing outside the closed door crying in despair as I heard those harsh voices and slaps and the cries of my daughter week after week. I was not permitted to visit in the home nor borrow a stroller, and as I could not afford public transport fares, had to carry her wherever we went until she could walk.. Her board took a third of my factory, then nursing wages. Somehow we managed, and she came out of the home aged 4, when I finished nursing training and had someone to care for her while I worked. We are very close. I often thank God for the strength to resist the pressures put on me so long ago, and my heart breaks for those who were forced to give up their beautiful children.

Margot | 05 March 2012  

Society's cruel treatment of unwed mothers is the direct result of the inhumane regimentation of human sexuality, as if the rules of sexual morality could be neatly codified like traffic rules. This illogical, guilt-laden emphasis on celibacy oustide of institutional marriage has warped our collective and individual psychosexual/spiritual development. The church's/society's ostracisation of anyone who breaks the rules has done more damage than this their so-called sinful behaviour. The trauma, guilt and burden this has placed on people is a denial of Christ's true purpose and an attempt to avoid his more difficult social challenges of creating a just society.

AURELIUS | 05 March 2012  

Ms. Bender has written a beautiful, well crafted, and thorough piece on what many of us went through who relinquished babies in that era. I would only add that not all of us were young teenagers, though all of us were forced, whether by belief this was "best for the child" or by economic/other circumstances, to this "choice." Thank you for this article.

Paula | 05 March 2012  

Good on you, Margot. What great courage and love.

john frawley | 05 March 2012  

lyn, thanks for this heartrending piece which really beings home the enormity of this history. And thank you to correspondents. Thank God that at least in this respect, we have become a kinder and more humane society. I am 69, I gre up in the 1940s and 1950s, and I remember Australia was a much harsher and colder society in those days, though I myself was blessed with a happy childhood home. We have changed for the better in this hugely important area of love and respect for women and children. Now if we can only do something similar in our attitudes to asylum seekers and indigenous people in distress ...

tony kevin | 05 March 2012  

I was adopted as a baby in 1962. Catholic. Adopted to a borderline mother and a cowardly/bullying father - both alcoholics. It was a violent and cruel household. I am not an alcoholic and had nothing in common with these people. I am always happy to recall childhood memories and claim "It's not genetic" - it's my one saving grace. Would be nice to meet a blood relative, but when the laws changed about getting your original birth certificate, my natural mother vetoed any contact or information and of course there is no information about the father. It's all very frustrating. One has a sense of rejection that inherent because of being adopted. Not being an alcoholic in a family of them, makes one also have a sense of not belonging. One needs to know who they are to know where they're going. I would like to know who my tribe is. I have no idea what to do to attain this. I have non-identifying info and if I look for my natural mother I will be fined and thrown in jail. Wonderful!

Jo-Anne Duncan | 05 March 2012  

I suppopse it is too non-PC to aspire to having a pubic appreciation of the value of having a "husband" as the father of children, and of a sacremental marriage as the nest in which to raise children? Society has in general changed greatly for the better, thank God, but not necessarily in everything!

Eugene | 05 March 2012  

I was a victim of this practice in NZ in 1973. I was forced to relinquish my daughter to adoption and in 2008 I found her and we now have a strong loving relationship but the fallout is that her adopters want to have nothing to do with her or her daughter, my granddaughter, this rejection because of her relationship with me has caused her so much hurt and pain. They now want her to stop using their name which she has rightly refused to do. My daughter lives in Melbourne and I live in Perth and my husband has embraced them both and they are firmly embedded in our lives and we are all truly grateful because our relationship is very strong. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell a little of my story.

Kay Freeman | 05 March 2012  

While I agree and sympathise with most of the content of this article, I disagree with the characterisation of christian morality as 'the bias of the day about the sanctity of marriage, the superiority of sex within these bounds and the irresponsibility of young women who had sex outside marriage'. It seems to say anything goes. The irresponsibility of those young women didn't deserve the punishment society imposed on them, but it was still irresponsibility.

Gavan Breen | 05 March 2012  

I was treated like a criminal in 1973 but I had seen what happened to two other girls I grew up with. In 1966 one girl had a baby stolen from her at the will of her rich parents. She killed herself when she found out that she had been damaged and couldn't have any more kids. The second one in 1969 I supported actively my 16 year old neighbour and friend and she kept her child with help from her parents and the doting young dad. I was told recently by a friend who had just met her that she still loves me for that support. I was 20 in 1973 and they bullied and abused me. I was snuck in the back door of the hospital, they forced me to wear a ring and called me Mrs. Only thanks to my stepmother and the lessons from my two friends did I keep my daughter who now has two amazing daughters of her own. In 1990 not one person suggested she should give the oldest daughter away even though she was only 16. It is now normal to keep them.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 March 2012  

And the irresponsibility of the young men Gavan?

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 March 2012  

My sister, now deceased, was one of those mothers in the 1950s who had to hand her baby over. She was sent away from our country town to a church run institution.
She knew it was a boy but she never saw him. Another resident of the home later told her that the new parents brought him back to show the nuns and that his name was Michael. I never heard her once complain about the fact that she gave him up for adoption. She got on with her life and a few years later married - not to the father of the baby. After her marriage she and I were pregnant with our babies at the same time - we were in the same country hospital. My baby was a healthy son - her baby son died. We shared some tears at the hospital but once again she got on with life, experiencing another loss of a baby shortly after. Her marriage broke up and she found a new partner - going on to have three healthy children, two boys and a girl. I don't know what she felt about her first child - we didn't discuss it. She died at 32 leaving the 3 children to be reared by their father.

Now I am in my 70s and hearing the stories of relinquishing mothers, I wonder at how well she hid what must have been heartache. The son she had has never attempted to contact her family - easily done as we were well known in the country town and people there would know how to contact us. I hope he had a happy life with his adoptive parents.

pat | 05 March 2012  

GAVAN, why do you presume the young women to be irresponsible? You seem to have missed the point that they intended to keep their babies and look after them. Irresponsible to whom then? Yes, to the so-called "sanctity of Christian marriage", as opposed to hell on earth which they were dished out.

AURELIUS | 05 March 2012  

The practices inflicted on young women as described in Lyn's article and in the Senate Inquiry were horrendous and are rightfully condemned. But it does not mean that all adoptions were or are like this. Please keep that in mind.

ErikH | 05 March 2012  

wonderful article i was 24 when i fell pregnant with my first baby and while pregnant adoption was pushed down my neck however this is before i gave birth before there was a baby...i opted for drug free natural childbirth she came out into my arms i squatted on the floor and gave birth to my first precious little girl.....she was taken to the nursery i was a private patient.....barred from holding her again and taken to sign an adoption consent...salvation army hospital brisbane qld

julie morgan | 06 March 2012  

Gavan's comment is correct about the young women's "irresponsibility". What he should have added is "and their male partner's irresponsibility" which in many cases, ages permitting, could have been alleviated by him taking on the role of father and husband. Naturally we hear heart rendering stories on a thread like this with which we can deeply sympathise. However the issue is far more complex. As Erikh points out, not all adoptions turn out bad. My wife and I finding out that we could not have children were able to adopt a son and a daughter in the 1970's. I regard both as well adjusted, though I don't pretend to know their inmost thoughts. My son had good contact with his natural father and limited contact with his natural mother. Neither my daughter or her natural mother have followed either up. I'm sad about that, but I don't wish to interfere. The other complexity, of course, which no one has mentioned is that post 1970's, abortions replaced adoption as the preferred way of dealing with unwanted pregnancies, and what of the morality of that and the ongoing psychological damage of having an abortion or abortions for the women concerned?

David | 06 March 2012  

Well said everybody. My heart has gone out to the mothers on the sideline, unable to voice their grief giving up their babies to preserve the priesthood, and not that long ago either. Imagining the empty arms, and double lives no doubt. Those who keep them don't fare too well either, including some father's coerced into signing their rights away.

L Newington | 08 March 2012  

Thanks Lyn. This is a message for Jo-anne Duncan. I was told by my birth mother I would never meet my birth family. I went along with her wishes for 5 years then the urge to find them was so great. Do your family tree you will find loving cousins I can assure you and they will want you.

Ellena Biggs | 08 March 2012  

For five years I was Anglican chaplain at a children's hospital in Sydney. It was often my sad duty to conduct funerals of babies or children who had died. In almost every case, a woman would come during the time after the ceremony to tell me of her own loss.Sometimes it was the loss of a baby at birth when the doctors and hospital staff would not allow the woman to see her dead baby, and would often counsel her to go gome and have another baby.Sometimes the mother didn't name the baby and often didn't know where the baby was buried. Others would tell me of babies who were removed from them and about whom they still knew nothing. The depth of pain communicated in such conversations made me dread the funerals I had to conduct, more for the conversations that would take place afterwards. Other chaplains counselled me to conduct the funeral but not to attend anything after the funeral.I considered that, but felt that the women who told me their stories were often taking one of the few opportunities they had to describe their grief. I welcome recent moves to confront just some of this abuse. (Rev Dr) Susan Emeleus

Susan | 09 March 2012  

Congratulations Australia! You're the first to do this. I wonder why.
Karen Lynn
The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers

Karen Lynn | 10 March 2012  

You may note if your read the report that it was not concluded that the way adoptees and mothers were treated arose out of the mores of the times or from ignorance at the time. The premise of an apology will be that those who practised the policies of the time knew that what they were doing was inhumane,, cruel and callous...words used by the Senators themselves on the day of the handing down of the report.An important distinction and one which the report hopes to ensure all institutions and organisations are aware of when they make appropriate apologies which follow guidelines for what is acceptable. They will not be let off the hook as you seem to have allowed!

Von | 11 March 2012  

Is the social worker department still operating at the RWH? What was the bit about katherine Lancaster? I knew her.

carol | 01 February 2018  

Thought this article was great! When you mentioned kath lancaster, the social worker..what did she exactly do? Improve situations for single mums or not? I recall her being very much for adoption.

Carol Knight | 04 February 2019  

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