A Woman's Love for the Child She Gave Up for Adoption

By Carol Schaefer

Soho. 294 pp. $19.95

In 1965, 19-year-old Carol Schaefer got pregnant by her boyfriend. Her white, middle-class, Catholic parents reacted with swift, sorrowing predictability. They told her she had two choices: Marry the father or leave town to have the baby and put it up for adoption. Marriage was not feasible and Schaefer left town. "My penance," she writes, "would be to go to a home for unwed mothers. Absolution would come after I gave up my baby." Giving up her baby was, in effect, Schaefer's ticket home.

"The Other Mother" is the story of what happened next, how Schaefer bore a son, signed him away to be adopted and then, almost 20 years later, decided to go on a search for him. Any woman who has gone through any part of her experience, or been close to somebody who has, will attest to the story's authenticity. The facts ring terrible but true, although most of the book's darkness is concentrated in the first half.

Looming over her head like a giant crow is Sister Amadeus, the bloodless and powerful director of Seton House, the Catholic home for unwed mothers in Richmond, where Schaefer's parents take her.

"Do you want the child raised Catholic?" she asks Schaefer's mother.

" 'Oh yes, of course, Sister,' my mother obediently responded as if answering a catechism question.

" 'Do you prefer that the parents be college graduates?'

" 'Absolutely,' I answered, finally finding enough strength to speak."

In the interview stage, before Schaefer is admitted to Seton House, everything seems neat, tidy and bound to go well. The reality of her child, soon to overwhelm her with his soft, translucent perfection, is obscured. She battles against the coldness of the nuns while rejoicing over what was happening inside her.

"Within three days of my arrival, my belly blossomed as if it had released a great sigh. My body had cooperated quite well with my secret, but now it wanted to experience the joy of creating life."

In fact, the period during which Schaefer awaits the arrival of her son and the immediate aftermath only occupies the first third of the book. But it somewhat overwhelms the middle and end because so much confusion, love and pain are concentrated within it. What powerfully intricate influences caused Schaefer, for example, to ask her father for forgiveness. "I just want you to know," she said when they were driving home from Seton House, "that I will never, ever do anything to disappoint you again."

The reader winces but understands the source of that confession. Equally as sad but comprehensible was Schaefer's exclamation when the doctor came in to examine her several days after she had given birth. Holding her son in her arms she said sarcastically, "What a beautiful sight! Madonna and child." Self-hate and maternal love break like opposing waves in Schaefer's mind all the time.

It should be mentioned that "The Other Mother" does not founder upon its own sorrow. The story has a genuinely happy ending, if one equates raised consciousnesses and greater compassion with happiness. Everybody, including Schaefer's son, does well, and there are subtle miracles of plot development that redeem the not-so-subtle cruelties of early on.

"The Other Mother" is not an argument for abortion, against adoption, for single parenthood or a mere vehicle for an extended crying jag. The readers who stand to gain the most from it are probably the mothers and daughters who are "other mothers" and "grandmothers" too. But "The Other Mother" also gives you another view of the early '60s, currently idealized by some as the last time we watched parades and licked ice cream cones while saluting. It was also the time that illegitimate babies were consigned to the back walls of hospital nurseries. That attitude is out of business. We can all salute that.

The reviewer is the author of "Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark" and other books.