A Second Chance At...Motherhood
In the early 1960s, Carolyn Ressler (née Smith) was an 18-year-old unwed mother who was forced to give up her son for adoption. After 35 years of wishing, wondering, and longing, she found him.
Photography by Stefan Radtke
What will the neighbors say?” That was Gladys Haight’s first reaction when she found out her 17-year-old daughter, Carolyn Smith, was pregnant. It may sound shallow, even heartless.
Then again, it was 1962. The world was a much different place. Marilyn Monroe was still alive. So was JFK. The Beatles were unknown in America, and the puritanical mores of the 1950s had not yet given way to the free-love credo of the Swinging Sixties. Unwed teen pregnancy, while it certainly happened, was considered scandalous at best. To Carolyn’s mother and stepfather (her parents divorced when she was a child), it was a disgrace.
Gladys suspected that her daughter might be pregnant when she saw that the girl was getting nauseated and throwing up for no apparent reason. “She took me to the doctor and he did a urine test,” Carolyn recalls. “A couple days later, the doctor called my mother and said, ‘The rabbit died.’”
Gladys insisted that her daughter put the baby up for adoption. Just once, Carolyn asked her mother why. “Because I’m not going to have a bastard living in this house,” was Gladys’ answer. The subject was not broached again. Carolyn was not yet showing when she graduated from Hudson High School in Hudson, New York, in June 1962, but as she began to put on weight, she was not allowed to go outside or wear maternity clothes. “So I just stayed in the house in nightgowns and bathrobes,” she says.
Not only was the pregnancy kept secret, the identity of the baby’s father was, too, from everyone (except for Carolyn’s best friend), including her parents. “This man was 23 years older than me,” Carolyn explains. “He was also married—with children. I was his babysitter.”
Though Carolyn, now 71, was a minor when she became pregnant, even today she seems willing to bear the sole responsibility for the affair that led to her pregnancy. “I thought I was in love,” she says. “I was a big flirt and one thing just lead to another. I told him I was pregnant, and he genuinely felt bad.” But she refused to tell her parents because “they’d have had him thrown in jail for statutory rape.”
Since giving birth at a local hospital was not an option, Carolyn’s mother chose St. Faith’s House, a maternity home for unwed mothers in Tarrytown, as the place Carolyn would spend the final weeks of her pregnancy. “It was far enough away from home, 90 minutes, and the cost was very reasonable,” Carolyn says. Of her absence from home, Carolyn’s parents “told everyone that I’d gotten a wonderful job in New York City.”
Carolyn arrived at St. Faith’s, where the 24 pregnant girls and women in residence ranged in age from 13 to 27, on January 3, 1963. At St. Faith’s, the mothers-to-be attended childbirth classes, watched television, listened to records and did chores. The younger girls were tutored. Carolyn’s parents made the trek to Westchester every Sunday, and would take her out to dinner. “My mother was extremely attentive and extremely loving, which confused me,” Carolyn says. “How could my mother love me so much but she’s making me give my baby away?”
Like most residents of St. Faith’s, Carolyn was taken to St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers to have her baby. “I went through labor, and I cried,” she says. “But I couldn’t wait for that baby to be born. I knew that no matter what happened to me in this life, I would always be somebody’s mother.”
On February 19, 1963, Carolyn gave birth to a healthy baby boy whom she named Michael Allan. “He was a handsome little baby,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t keep him, so I prepared myself the best I could; I was realistic. How many tears can an 18-year-old cry? He was with me for 10 days before the surrender.” During those 10 days, Carolyn had her son baptized.
Carolyn did daydream about taking her baby and leaving the hospital. “In the ‘mothers’ room,’ which faced the nursery, was a door that led to the outside, with a red ‘Exit’ sign. I thought, ‘Now why can’t I just dress him up, wrap him in blankets, and leave?’ But to go where? I had no money, no job.”
The time came for Carolyn to surrender her son. At what is now Family Services of Westchester, she sat in the waiting room with her social worker and her baby. “Then a woman came in and said, ‘I’ll hold the baby while you do the paperwork.’ I handed her my son—and she just took him. I didn’t get to kiss him goodbye, didn’t get to tell him I loved him—nothing. I just cried incessantly. I didn’t see him again for almost 35 years.”
Once home, Carolyn asked her mother if she wanted to see a picture of her grandson. “She nodded ‘yes,’ so I got his picture out of my suitcase and handed it to her. Not a word. She was a tough woman.”
For several weeks after she returned home, Carolyn says, “each night as I dropped off to sleep, a phantom baby’s cries woke me up. I tried so hard to find that baby. I had to put pillows over my head so I didn’t have to hear those cries.” Though she longed to talk to her mother about her son, she never did. “‘It’” she says, “was never spoken of—never, ever, ever.”
Three years after Carolyn surrendered her son, she married and had two other sons, now 49 and 45. “When my mother was dying,” she says, “I was her caregiver, and so many times, I wanted to talk about my son, but I couldn’t do it because I just couldn’t take getting yelled at again.” Though she came to terms with the idea that she would never see her first-born again, she thought about him every day. “I worried, wondered, and prayed for him," she says. "When his birthday came, I’d wonder how many kids were at his party, what kind of gifts he got, what kind of cake he had. I was told that it would have been illegal to search for him. And I had to let it go while my mother was alive.”
In 1997, seven years after her mother died, Carolyn, not expecting an answer, posted an inquiry on an adoption website “asking how I would go about searching for him.” Little did she know that, within a matter of hours, her life would change forever. The next day, Carolyn got an email from a woman who had been at St. Faith’s at the same time she had, and she gave her the name of a caseworker at the adoption agency. Just before Thanksgiving, Carolyn called the caseworker and hoped, prayed, and waited on pins and needles, not knowing where her son was, if he was still alive, if he wanted to be contacted.
“On Monday, December 1, just one week later, the caseworker called to tell me she had spoken to my son and that he wanted to call me—if I wanted contact, that was,” Carolyn says. “Through my tears, I said, ‘Tell that boy to call his mother!’” They spoke that evening and several times in the days that followed, “cried a lot” together, and arranged to meet during the Christmas holidays.
Her son, a California-based attorney named Jefford Davis, had unfortunately lost both of his adoptive parents, but was eager to meet the woman he’d always felt love for, the woman he mentioned in his nightly prayers. “My adoptive parents made me feel special and I knew from a very young age that I was adopted,” Jeff, whose adoptive parents lived in Hartdsdale when they adopted him, says. “I felt very loved and very lucky. My birth mother loved me enough to let me go to parents who could give me a good life, and they loved me enough to choose me. I never had any feelings of abandonment. I felt very thankful.”
Carolyn couldn’t wait until Christmas, and booked a flight to California on December 13. “That first meeting at the gate was one of the most emotional experiences in my life,” she says. “I was given a second chance at mothering this tiny baby, who had grown into the man he is. He’s one of only three people who ever heard my heartbeat from the inside. Now he can hear it from the outside, too.”