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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Grief Memoir: Mothers at the Catholic Infant Home

Linda Back McKay also went to the same Catholic Infant Home as my mother Helen and Kay.
Over a week ago, I had a conversation with Kay (not her real name) who resided and relinquished her baby at the Catholic Infant Home in Minnesota, about 10 years after my own mother was there. Her story revealed details I had only guessed. I've had conversations with other first mothers, but nothing enlightened me as much as this call with Kay.

Unmarried young women like Kay and my mother Helen were taken to 933 Carroll Street, the address of the Catholic Infant Home (an unwed mother's home that shut its doors in 1969). The girls were dropped off with their suitcase and were expected to leave the same way. 
At check in, each were given fake names. (I call this classic Catholic shaming.)
Each day the girls/women were expected to scrub and clean the home and do chores while they waited out their pregnancies; a few went to work for wealthy Catholic families as day workers and nannies. On a few weekends, Kay was happy to leave there to visit with her family during this difficult time. The women were expected to attend daily mass and "act Catholic," in Kay's words. She admits she cannot even remember details of the rooms since she blocked out those memories.
(Her family expected her to give up the baby, as if this was her only option. Nobody talked about it, not before or after.)
When it was time for Kay to deliver her baby, the infant home called her a cab that delivered her to St. Joseph's, the same hospital where I was born in St. Paul, MN.  At the hospital she begged them to call her mother but they refused. It was a long labor since it was her first delivery and at 19, she was very frightened but noone was interested in helping her or guiding her through the contractions. Eventually they drugged her and when she woke up, they wouldn't tell her the sex of her baby and wouldn't bring the baby to her.  As soon as she could, Kay walked to the nursery and put up a sign with her name so a nurse could point to her child.
She finally saw her beautiful son.
Kay wasn't allowed to hold him.  It was all head games, Kay told me, all to make her feel unworthy of him, and of being a mother. She was told to forget about him, he was gone.
Then a day later, a nurse walks into her room with her newborn and tells her to dress him and get ready to leave. The brief contact she had with her baby was the cab ride back to the Catholic Infant Home.
For years, Kay would not go back to St. Paul. She said it held too many bad memories for her.
She handed over her son and he was whisked away to some deserving family, she was told.  Kay signed the paperwork to relinquish him and signed a payment plan to pay for the hospital bill, which she was expected to pay monthly. (She paid for one year then stopped. It horrified her she was expected to pay when they took her baby.)
Kay never had another child. The trauma of losing him, she believes, hurt her so deeply - she was never able to have another baby.
It took many years but Kay found her son in 1986 when he was 19. (He told her he was raised in an alcoholic home in a wealthy Minneapolis suburb and shown no affection by his adoptive mother.)

I was so sad to hear this story but I thanked Kay for her courage in sharing it with me, and for helping me to understand the pain of the mothers at the Catholic Infant Home.

Next week, Kay and her son plan to have another reunion.


  1. I am an with a history that is so horrendous it is hard to believe. When I look back at how my birth father's life was destroyed and his mother's life was destroyed because of foster care and because of forced Catholic boarding schools it really angers me.

    We all have been stripped of our identity....they have passed on because of drugs and alcohol - but I live the life of having grown up in a purely white community with a white family, and not looking at all like anyone around me - and in my opinion it does matter - being given to a "loving" family doesn't make everything okay for that child, we deal with questions, looks, racism Being removed from the only home a child knows simply because of poverty isn't always what is best for that child.

    Adoptees and foster children that have been removed and raised elsewhere never fit in anywhere...most of us are lost, why do you have hair, eyes, skin, nose, lips etc like that, .....I have yet to meet one that has been openly, warmly accepted into either community. And since we have the susceptibility to drug/alcohol abuse it takes a hold of many and never lets go until the removal of the children in what was supposedly for the benefit of the child doesn't work.

    Then jumping through all the governmental hoops simply to get your original birth certificate, even with proof of aunts, cousin's and they are tribal members and your line is documented back for many generations, even with original adoption decree's you wait, and wait and ask what is taking so long, why doesn't anyone have an answer as to where they are in the processing of your paperwork....a year has passed. It means nothing to them, but to miss powwow/family gathering after family gathering as those in control go on about their lives.

    Your blog is the only one I have come across for the longest time that even touches on this sore subject and I am happy to see it.

  2. Anonymous, thank you for your sharing your truth and your story. We share in this loss. This blog is meant to give voice to our long struggle to regain our rights as tribal citizens. Email me and we can talk:


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