Loretta Renn, “The Single Woman as a Foster Mother,” 1948

 

 

This study was based on the records of fifty-five children placed with single women by the New York Foundling Hospital, a private child-placing agency. Renn interviewed three foster mothers and their respective case workers at the Catholic agency. Miss Gertrude R. was one of them.

This is a study of three single women, each in the employ of a child placing agency, who have, in spite of their unmarried state, made successful foster mothers.

With the present shortage of foster homes, the whole philosophy of home finding has broadened, and many formerly untried resources have been tapped. Yet, in spite of this, we find that the employment of single women as foster mothers is an area which has had comparatively little exploration. In attempting to discuss this possibility with other workers in the child placing field, I have usually been met with a startled elevation of eyebrows and the patient query, “Well, are they ever used?” or, “Of course they don’t work out!” From here on, it is anybody’s discussion while I expertly dodge such phrases as, “a child’s right to a balanced family”. . . “abnormal women compensating for frustration”. . . ”retardation of child’s emotional growth” which are hurled with feeling from all directions. Occasionally, an unusually perceptive soul will conclude that perhaps single women do have a place in the child-care set-up, but she wonders where it is, or how we can know until they are tried. . . .

Does the unmarried foster mother work equally well with both sexes and all ages of children? Is it possible for her to let the child go? What about over-possession, which is a commonly accepted tendency on the part of the single woman? Is it possible to generalize on the types of service the unmarried foster mother is able to give to a child placing agency? Finally, does the fact that a woman is unmarried necessarily mean that she will not be able to give a child that which is necessary for his emotional development?. . . .

Miss Gertrude R.

Miss Gertrude R. has boarded five children in the past three years, continuing the work of her sister, Miss Elizabeth R., who died suddenly in 1942. From 1931 until the time of her death, Miss Elizabeth boarded nine girls, three of whom remained in the home when Miss Gertrude R. was formally accepted as a foster mother. Of that group, two were under two when placed in the home, and one was four. The two children who have been placed since Miss Gertrude R. has become the foster mother, were two years of age at the time of placement. Of this group, one child was discharged to her mother and one was transferred to an adoptive home. Three children remain with Miss R. at the present time: two little girls of two and a half, and one child of eight.

Miss R., who is thirty-eight years old, is thin, slight of build, and rather drab in appearance. Not particularly responsive to adults, she is, nevertheless, courteous and sincere. Her sincere manner is at times surprisingly off-set by a casual gesture and a quick spurt of humor, which seems to transform her for a moment from a very plain type of woman to a rather vital person. In spite of the fact that her vocabulary is limited, and her conversation rather colorless, she gives the impression of being very interested in activities about the home. She is somewhat prim in demeanor; but there is no evidence of the compulsive neatness which is usually associated with this type of person. Her home has a definitely “lived-in” appearance, and one would feel that it is almost exclusively utilized for the children. Doll carriages and roller skates present the greatest hazards to visitors, and it is very possible that, on a rainy afternoon, one would have to step rather high through the clutter of blocks, paint boxes, sewing sets, and musical toys in the living-room.

Although not particularly interested in men, Miss R. has no apparent aversion to them. It is probable that she has not felt any particular desire for male companionship. Her social contacts are limited, and she may have had little opportunity, or created little opportunity, to meet men who would be interested in her. It is quite possible, however, that should she “meet the right man” she might, like her sister, marry late in life. . . .

When applying, Miss R. expressed the motive to be the desire to carry on the care for the children left in her home by the death of her sister. She said that she loved the children dearly, and inasmuch as that was really their home she was fearful of what transfer might do to them. The house, she said, would be empty without them, and she herself would be quite lonely. She had a deep feeling of responsibility toward the girls who had been there for years, and she wished to continue caring for them, at least until permanent plans could be made. It was her original plan to take care of only the girls who were already in the home. Although this was, perhaps, her conscious motive, we see a deeper meaning in the fact that she took other children when two of the original group left her home. It is easily seen that although she sincerely meant to prevent the necessity of moving the children to another home, at the time of her sister’s death, she still had personal needs which would be satisfied only by the possession of the children. . . .

Dolores, another girl of the original group, was placed in an adoptive home. Dolores, born in 1936, was placed with Miss Elizabeth R. at the age of one and a half. A happy, active, well-balanced child, she was greatly loved by the R. sisters. When she entered school, however, she began to see the difference between herself and the other little girls who had father and mother. Miss Gertrude R. smilingly recalls the day Dolores came home and told her she wanted a Daddy. Taking this as a very natural request and not as a personal challenge, Miss R. handled the situation with admirable poise. She told Dolores that she would see what she could do about getting a Daddy for her, emphasizing the fact that this is quite the usual thing for little girls to have Mommies and Daddies, thereby not being on the defensive, but easy and natural. The next time they went to the agency together, Miss R. gravely told the supervisor of Dolores’s wish. As the child’s mother had recently died, Dolores was released for adoption, and a few months later, she went to meet her prospective adoptive parents. “Aunt Gertie” explained that being adopted meant becoming someone’s very own child, and going to live with two people who would become her very own Mommy and Daddy. Dolores thought she would like that, and was especially delighted with the Daddy idea. . . .

Helen, age eight, has been in this home since infancy, and is still there. Her adjustment has been good and she, too, is very fond of Miss R. Helen, however, shares this affection with her mother, who is a frequent visitor to the home. “The children all know that I am not their mother,” Miss R. explained, “and if they have mothers of their own they are encouraged to visit.” This we know as a fact, for both Misses R. were adept at handling the parent problem. . . .

Miss R. shows no undue concern over the fact that most of her children are illegitimate. Having learned this time and time again from the individual mothers themselves, Miss R. is able to discuss the situation quite openly and factually, neither excusing nor blaming them, and certainly not even considering that it could make any difference in her feelings toward the children. . . .

Miss. R. prefers to take children about eighteen months of age because, “You can train them into your own ways,” She likes them to remain in her home until they are about nine, unless their parents take them before then. She showed considerable conflict about the handling of older children chiefly because they become interested in sex. Miss R. cited the example of one of the girls who had boarded with her sister, and who at the age of nine was “crazy about the boys.” In a confidential tone Miss R. explained, “She used to ride down the hill on her bicycle with a group of boys and you can’t tell what might happen. We couldn’t stand for that!” One gets the impression that her own inability to handle every-day normal boy and girl relationships would make it impossible for her to take the responsibility which the care of an adolescent child would involve. . . .

That these three women were, in spite of their unmarried state, good foster mothers, there is no doubt. There can be others just as successful in almost any foster home agency which will consider the applications of single women. They should be selected with their assets and liabilities well considered, and with the same general philosophy which we use in choosing any foster parent. I feel that with this in mind they open up to us a new field for the placement of children with certain needs, if used with discrimination.

 

 

Source: “The Single Woman as a Foster Mother,” in Studies of Children, Gladys Meyer, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), 59, 60, 69-70, 71, 72-74, 75, 95.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

 
To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman