The Day I Threw My Guilt Away
by Sheila Ganz
(The Day I Threw My Guilt Away was published in The Communicator of Concerned United Birthparents, 1992, American Adoption Congress Southwest Times, Try Resource Referral Newsletter, 1997, and PBS web site – Hope Issue 1 Fall ’98.)
Randomly scanning the familiar women’s section in the bookstore, my eye caught the title “How Could You?” a book about mothers without custody of their children by Harriet Edwards. She had three children, was married and had left them.
For her book, she interviewed mothers who had also left their children in search of a saner or more fulfilling life. Their stories told of abuse, alcohol, extreme exhaustion and the need to develop and expand their talents in the world.
The thing that stood out the most for me was the author’s stance on not feeling guilty for leaving her children. The feminist in me wanted to support her right to take charge of her life, but the title kept rattling around in my brain.
I had spent countless tearful nights rehearsing my explanation to my relinquished daughter. Each time waiting for her forgiveness. Each time knowing in my heart that only her forgiveness could free my soul from its tortuous knowledge – I had given my baby away… at birth… to strangers… to the great unknown.. to the fathomless world. What worse crime could I commit? I felt the anguish of our separation even before I gave birth.
Years of wretched waiting. Then miraculously, when she was 13, a friend helped me write the first letters to find the adoption agency and pass on medical information. It was some months after that, that my friend told me she, too, had surrendered a daughter for adoption.
When the agency confirmed that my information had been received and passed on to the family, I walked around elated and stunned. The world looked and felt different. I knew my daughter was alive.
My nocturnal conversations intensified. I was really going to get the chance to tell her. I wanted to get the words just right.
“I didn’t want to give you away. I had no choice. I love you very much… always and forever…”
I was 20, when I got pregnant, 21 by the time I had you, I would explain to my daughter. When my parents found out, they decided to put me in a home for unwed mothers. We went to visit one in Boston. It was dark and the women in charge wore uniforms. No way was I going to stay there. I made my own plans. If I saved $50 a week for four and a half months I would have $1,000.
I was the fall of 1968, I had a job with an insurance company. I made $62 a week and lived at home. I didn’t buy anything more than transportation and cigarettes. I saved my money. A friend helped me buy a car. She was engaged to be married. She was doing it the right way. I was much too ashamed to tell her I was pregnant. Only my family knew.
I decided to go to Los Angeles, California, and have you by myself. It was the furthest point in the country away from my parents, who wanted to hide me away like a criminal.
I was an artist, a painter. I wasn’t into selling my work or giving it away. There was no doubt in my mind that I would keep you. I bought a map and charted my course.
On January 1, 1969, I put my first car on the road. It was a ’61 Saab, red with a sunroof. A couple of days later, I packed my car with my things, including art supplies, my favorite Chinese prints and the sculpture of a bird I was working on. Birds are my favorite animals. I always wanted to learn how to fly. My father helped me pack the car.
I stopped off to visit my sister. She was going to U. of Mass. in Amherst. I stayed for a couple of days and then headed across the country.
Sunday morning, January 19, on a deserted country road just east of Pittsburgh, I hit a patch of ice at the top of hill. My car skidded out of control. It spun around, bounced off the guardrail on the other side of the road and flipped over. I was thrown out the side window behind me and got caught at my knees. I was pinned under the car, lying in a pool of gasoline. I had just put out a cigarette. My pelvis was fractured. I was five months pregnant. Those few seconds changed the course of our lives.
I was in the hospital for two months. With my car totaled and no place else to go, I went into a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers. It was on a hill and I was on crutches. I got off that hill twice in those two months before you were born. To this day, I don’t know where I was on the map. And, I had to pay to be there, which was close to all the money I had.
Two days after I gave birth to you, I got to hold you.. for about ten minutes. I was struck by two things: how much you looked like me and that life is a miracle!
The social worker with her clipboard, acted like adoption was a matter of paper work. She didn’t give me any options, or ask me what I wanted to do. She had several couples waiting for you.
After holding you, I wanted even more to keep you. I went down the hall to the pay phone and called my parents to ask if I could bring you home. They said, “No.” With hardly any money and no place to go for help in starting our new life together, our fate of separation was sealed.
I had no choice. And yet, I always had this nagging feeling that there must have been something I could have done to keep you. In all these years, 22 of them now, I have never for one fraction of an instant believed that giving you away was “the right thing to do.”
Then, a month after your nineteenth birthday, I found you! My search for you was full of lies and agonizing delays by the agency, but there were some incredible moments, too. Like the day I got your birth certificate. Proof of your existence!
Boarding the plane to meet you, I remember thinking, “When I come back, I’ll be a mother.”
That’s not quite the way it went. You were very reserved. You hardly looked at me. I was there for nine days and we spent a total of three hours and 20 minutes together. I have only one photograph of the two of us together. Taken by your college roommate. It’s slightly out of focus. I’ve joked with friends that this is the perfect picture of our relationship.
I told you what happened, but you didn’t ask many questions or have much to say. You weren’t really ready to be “found.” Though, reconnecting with you, my daughter, did make me feel more in control of my life.
After meeting you, I knew I was going to have to reassess my private theory about the nature of my forgiveness. I realized I couldn’t put the burden of “saving my soul” on you. I needed to find a way to forgive myself.
I had been reading books on metaphysics for over a year. The Seth books by Jane Roberts were particularly intriguing. I gave you one of her books. Have you ever read it?
I had wonderful dreams from the stories and began to feel that unlimited positive energy in the universe. I worked on loving myself more and opening my heart. It took months of meditation and visualization.
With all of this, I still felt the guilt of giving you away. I hated myself for giving in to the pressures. For not doing what I felt was the right thing to do. For being weak.
And then, I read “How Could You?” written by a woman who didn’t feel guilty about leaving her children. She wasn’t ashamed of saying it, or putting it in print. Her ideas began to chip away at a belief I thought was set in stone.
One sunny weekday afternoon in San Francisco, I went out to do some errands. The radio in my car was blasting out a pop song. I was dancing with one hand and driving with the other. As I turned the corner and headed up the slight incline, I had a sudden inspiration to throw my guilt out the window! My guilt floated out to sea and I haven’t heard from it since.
Later, it occurred to me that “guilt” is an intellectual “idea.” Very different from the gaping hole I feel in my body and spirit because you’re not here with me … your mother.
Guilt is the bent posture one takes for doing wrong in traditional society. I had shamed my family by getting pregnant, by having sex out of wedlock. That’s a whole other story. I was denied my motherhood by my mother, my father and the social worker. I was punished for my “sin” by not being allowed to keep my baby. We were separated to cover up the shame… “in your best interest and mine.”
I believed my powerlessness in the situation was a fault, a sign of my ineptitude. I fell into the old victim mentality, where the victim wears the responsibility that belongs to the victimizer.
Freeing myself from society’s yoke of guilt made me see how the judgmental self-righteousness of one group of people can blind them into believing that they have the right to take advantage of the misfortune of another group of people, and their power is so destructive as to take you, my child, away from me and your birthright away from you.
By telling our stories, we take our power back.
2023 (c) Sheila Ganz