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FAMILY LIFE

'I Couldn't Forget' : 32 Years of Regrets Dissolve When Girl Given Up for Adoption Calls Long-Lost Tustin Birth Mother

January 28, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

You will forget, the social worker said. You will go on with your life. You will have other children. You will erase this whole experience from your mind.

Carol Manning, 18, unmarried, pregnant and frightened, listened and nodded obediently. Then she signed the papers the woman had placed in front of her, formally agreeing to relinquish her baby for adoption.

And she did try. For more than 30 years, she did her best to forget the child she had never held, never even seen. She got married--she's now Carol Caramagno--had three other children and moved from her native Detroit to Tustin.

"I couldn't forget," she says. "There was no way that I could. Every Christmas, every birthday, each time that I had another child, everything that happened, I was always reminded."

Not that anyone around her ever brought up the subject. Her parents were the only members of her family who knew about the pregnancy, and she says they didn't talk about it when it was happening, let alone afterward.

With the help of their family doctor, they concealed what was then--in 1950--considered a shameful secret by pretending that their daughter had a heart murmur and could not get out of bed for several months.

"My brother and sister didn't even know," she says.

She later did tell her husband-to-be--"in case it made any difference"--but after that they rarely talked about it, nor did they tell their three children as they were growing up.

After reading a Family Life column several weeks ago about an infertile couple trying to adopt a baby, Carol Caramagno wrote to offer the perspective of the least-visible member of the adoption triangle: the birth mother.

Too often, she says in her letter, adoptive parents "would like to have the birth mother of the child they hope to adopt remain faceless, anonymous and probably feelingless. . . . This same attitude was shared by the social worker that handled my case. She described me in her report as being of medium stature, when indeed I am 4'11". Was she unwilling to look at me also?"

Birth mothers may often be forgotten, Caramagno says, but they don't forget. The experience of carrying and then surrendering a child is easier today, when unwed pregnancy is no longer viewed with such scorn and open adoption is an available option.

But even under the best of circumstances, she says, pain is involved, pain that can't be ignored away. The only way to lessen the hurt, Caramagno learned the hard way, is to acknowledge it and deal with it. "The grief doesn't go away," she says. "It just stays there waiting until one day when you're ready for it. In the meantime, it gathers energy, so when it does come up, it's pretty overwhelming."

After years of suppressing her feelings, Caramagno is involved with the county chapter of Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), a support organization for birth parents, which now has 135 local members and thousands worldwide.

Even during her pregnancy, Caramagno recalls, "my condition was never discussed. My feelings were never discussed. It was in that environment that I learned it was not OK to talk about your feelings, and that affected me for the rest of my life. I'm just now learning to express my feelings."

She knew, of course, that there were other women out there who had given up children for adoption. "But I assumed that they all forgot. I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn't. I thought I had some mental deficiency, that I must be crazy."

Then one morning, nearly 32 years after she gave birth to that daughter ("I knew it was a daughter only because one of the nurses blurted out, 'It's a girl!' before everyone else hushed her up," she says), Caramagno got a phone call that "wasn't just a phone call. It was like an earthquake."

"May I please speak to Carol Caramagno?" an unfamiliar female voice asked.

"This is Carol speaking."

"I'm looking for the Carol that went to Cooley High School in Detroit," the woman said.

"I went to Cooley," Caramagno said.

"Are you alone? I want to speak to you about something personal."

"Yes."

"My name is Roberta," the woman said. "You may not remember me. The last time we met was Dec. 15, 1950."

Caramagno froze. "That was her birthday," she says, "so I knew immediately who it was. I was unable to talk. I was in shock. My jaw fell down to the floor."

If she could have found the words, Caramagno would have told her daughter that the problem wasn't that she didn't remember. The problem was that she did.

Roberta had been searching for her mother for 10 years, and experts had advised her that if she ever did make contact she should "be ready to carry the ball because the person on the other end isn't going to be able to respond," Caramagno says.

So Roberta started talking about herself and asked questions about Caramagno's life. "It was difficult, but it became easier to talk," Caramagno says. They talked for about 45 minutes, ending the conversation by exchanging addresses and promising to send letters and photos.

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