Carol S. Prentice, An Adopted Child Looks at Adoption, 1940

This excerpt is drawn from two chapters titled “The Case for a Father” and “Spinsters as Parents” in a book-length narrative. By 1940, when Carol Prentice published An Adopted Child Looks at Adoption, women adopting children, either together or alone, were suspected of abnormalities ranging from destructive neuroses to explicit lesbianism, and the definition of an acceptable family consequently narrowed and became more exclusive. “Old maids” and “spinsters” no longer qualified for motherhood, even when they offered material and educational privileges, as they did in this case. For a more positive perspective on the experience of adoption by a single woman written twenty years earlier, see Anonymous, “How It Feels to Have Been an Adopted Child.”

Finally, to complete the unusual picture, I was adopted by two maiden ladies. . . .

Shyness and frustration and a defensive superiority were typical old-maid attributes of Mama. She was aristocratic in manner and appearance in spite of her diminutive size and, when abroad, to her delight was always referred to as “La Duchesse.” She was a mass of inconsistencies—hating European aristocrats and titled people and loving American democracy in principle, yet being one of the most undemocratic people I’ve ever met. Despising and fearing men, she was secretly fascinated by them as a strange species of another race. With the exception of her father, whom she loved and honored and placed on a pedestal far above her invalid mother, she declared and believed men to be greatly inferior to women in every way. . . . Her life was full of sadness and one pitied but did not cross her. A real old maid—stubborn and gentle by turns, generous and warm-hearted but impregnable in her convictions, widely traveled but fundamentally untouched, emotionally loyal and passionate—and defeated.

The other “mama” was nearer the modern spinster type. I always referred to her as my guardian. It seemed more appropriate to her personality and her position as head of a girls’ school. She took charge of my education and was the dominant influence in my life. . . .

These two women lived in charming apartments in the school. So I knew neither a normal family life nor a real home for years. . . .

To-day the general practice is to place children in homes where there will be a father as well as a mother to create a normal family background. There’s a lot to be said for the spinsters, and individual instances furnish splendid examples of successful adoptions, where the child has had a wholesome, well-rounded, and happy development. It would be absurd to say that married couples have the monopoly on the virtues, or that only marriage develops the qualities that are desirable for parenthood. Everybody knows women, and men too, who have remained old maids through many years of matrimony! I personally am so much indebted to so many single women that I hate to say a word opposed to them. All the care I received in childhood and girlhood was from them. And what would any family do without its maiden aunts? I’d like to write a book about spinsters I have known—maiden aunts, teachers, social workers, a whole galaxy of women who carry on the work of all sorts that family people haven’t time for. . . .

But the very thing that recommends the spinster in such a [temporary foster care] situation—her pent-up mother feeling—is a danger in legal adoption. The latter is a permanent arrangement, an irrevocable step by which the child become’s the woman’s very own. It is a relationship entered into usually not so much for the benefit of the child, no matter what the conscious convictions may be, as for an outlet of maternal and other emotions. It seems to accentuate and give free rein to the possessiveness that curses women generally. Possessiveness is one of the natural dangers every mother has to fight against. If, however, she is married, her emotions are divided and have more than one object and perhaps also have a check-rein. . . .

I know from my own experience that a child can long passionately for a father. And being frustrated, she may develop an ideal image that is almost fantastic. . . . Without a human being to check against my fantasy, or a reality to substitute for it, I hadn’t the vaguest notion what a father in real life was. . . .

Many spinsters live in pairs, which relieves some of the disadvantages of the lone woman. But even where there is no trace of homosexuality the child in the ménage forms part of a triangle. Jealousy is probably too strong a word for the subtle interplay of emotions that the child feels, consciously or unconsciously. I knew, for instance, that I often came between my two mamas in a variety of ways. . . . Many an only child finds himself in the same dilemma. . . . Where there are two women involved it is somehow worse. It is more subtle and tense and affords no relief in the distinctions and differences of sex. And there is a surfeit of femininity. My reaction to this was to get away from women as much as possible. . . .

Physically I was looked after solicitously. Mentally I was trained superbly. Spiritually I was offered whatever church or creed suited my needs. In the summer I always had the benefit of the most intelligent and delightful teachers to travel and live with me. But my life at all times was unnatural and abnormal; it had no spontaneity or freedom. I was an overcultivated field. And I was emotionally starved.


Source: Carol S. Prentice, An Adopted Child Looks at Adoption (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1940), 31-33, 35-37, 41-42, 44.

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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
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