July 30, 2015
by Jody Smiling


The news came by evite: Evan and Mary got a baby! After several rounds of unsuccessful in vitro fertilization Evan and Mary underwent the comprehensive screening process to become adoptive parents. They had been waiting many long, frustrating years for a baby and were almost ready to give up when they were startled by a midnight phone call: “A baby is available right now. Do you …?” Not sure if they were awake or dreaming, they got on an airplane, flew across the country, signed adoption papers, and came home with their new family member held tightly in their arms, swaddled in hospital blankets.

Friends hastily planned a reception for the new parents. I was waiting to present my gift and congratulate them when someone watching me watching them asked, “Does it bring you back to when yours was a baby?” I looked again at the new parents full of love and anticipation, holding on tight, not fully aware of how much their lives were about to change.

“No,” I answered, “I am remembering when I was eight years old standing on the Great Divide.”

On family road trips, my proud Canadian parents would regularly park the car and explain the historical or geographical significance of this land of ours. The Great Continental Divide was one such noteworthy spot.

To a geologist, the Great Divide is the most prominent hydrological divide of the Americas, extending from the Bering Strait to the Strait of Magellan, separating the watersheds that drain into the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the river systems that drain into the Arctic Ocean.

To a poet, it is a grand place for moralizing: like there is a turning point in every life that is all important in setting our destinies.

I was eight the first time I stood right on it. My father read an acrostic poem about raindrops falling from the sky written in 1893 by a Member of Parliament, the Honourable J.D. Edgar.

Two little rain drops side by side

Here at the top of the Great Divide,

Ever while falling their love grows warm

Water flows every which way it pleases at the Great Divide. When a raindrop falls this is where its fate is decided—west, east, north, or south. As a child the thought was terrifying: to be divided, separated, and sent somewhere else because a mother called Nature made a decision. What was a little raindrop to do?

Over the years I have stood on the Great Divide too many times to count, each time overwhelmed with the grandeur of Mother Nature and the magnitude of her power. Standing on it as an adult, reflecting on my life, I remember the little raindrops from Edgar’s poem. They  remind me of another form of dispersal: the system of coerced adoption forced onto birth mothers in Canada in the ’50s and ’60s and continuing through to the ’80s. There are over a million Canadians with a connection to adoption, including birth parents, adoptive parents, siblings, and grandparents.

Marilyn Churley’s poignant book  Shameless: The Fight For Adoption Disclosure and the Search for My Son is part memoir, part political history, and part postmodern feminist treatise. It is one woman’s story of unexpected teenage pregnancy and traumatic adoption–a story similar to thousands of other young women in Canada in the ’50s and ’60s who faced few options and were forced by parents, social workers, nuns, ministers, and society as a whole, to relinquish their babies. It is a story that remains relevant today for although teenage pregnancy rates have dropped significantly, teenage passion and unexpected pregnancy remains, at least for the foreseeable future, a fact of life.

With a teenaged girl’s heart, a mother’s love, and a politician’s finesse Churley lays bare the wrenching moral choices young girls face when the personal reality of pregnancy collides with the political, moral, and social conventions of society. Churley is affectionately known as the mother of adoption disclosure law in Canada not because any of her private member’s bills passed, in fact, none of them did. What she did was change the national discussion. She inspired others to tell their stories and soon fundamental changes to the adoption disclosure laws across Canada, the work Churley started and fought for, became law.

But before Marilyn Churley became a Toronto City Councillor, before she was a Member of the Ontario Legislature, before she became known as the mother of adoption reform in Canada, she was a “shameless little hussy who got herself pregnant.” It is a reflection of her sense of humour and tenacity that she uses this insult thrown at her by a nurse after her long and difficult labour as the title of her memoir.

Churley’s story brought back emotions I have long struggled with. Around the same time that she was “a naïve, broken hearted, traumatized girl” facing a “shameful” pregnancy, I was engaged as a practice baby helping vulnerable young women in similar situations.

My mother, a school teacher, was furious when, in 1958, an all-male School Board in Edmonton enforced a policy stating that student pregnancy would result in immediate expulsion. My mother vigorously campaigned door-to-door for Edith Rogers, Edmonton’s first female school board member, but realized a lone woman’s vote would not enact change fast enough for teenagers who were already pregnant. She had to do more: she provided three healthy meals a day and a non-judgemental home to a succession of pregnant teenagers from the moment the school declared them “showing and expelled”; she continued to do so until the day (or night, or afternoon) the baby was born.

As a bonus, I was a baby for them to practice on: I was a real baby with smelly diapers and colicky cries that demonstrated just what having a baby is really like. My job was only for a couple hours in the afternoon while my mother taught kindergarten across the street. Nonetheless, I was responsible for ensuring each pregnant teenager in my charge got a hands-on sense of the magnitude of managing a full-time baby.

My mother’s altruism was wholly focused on education: “I am a teacher: not clergy, not social worker, not psychologist. I am a teacher.” In her mind, the necessity of education wasn’t rocket science, but it was clearly beyond the intelligence of a school board entirely comprised of men: “If she keeps the baby, she’s going to need an education. If she adopts the baby, isn’t she still going to need an education? Why can’t men get this? They are pregnant, not brain dead—the mothers, I mean, not the school board.”

She had one caveat: the young women had to complete their high school education. Each would continue their studies under my mother’s tutelage and obtain diplomas after completing their final examinations. To that end, after I was tucked into my crib for the night, our kitchen table was transformed into a high school classroom.

Over my lifetime, I have met many women who gave birth in their teens and I am drawn to their stories. Gloria had Tim when she was sixteen. When she discovered she was pregnant—after being swept away by a boy on a motorcycle who was as Catholic as she was Jewish—her parents, although not thrilled with her predicament, supported her throughout; when Tim was born the bonds were deep. Donna also had a baby when she was sixteen. She chose adoption and forty years later, with the help of Churley’s adoption disclosure reform, reunited with her adult son. When he asked about his father she recalled everything she could about that night: “He was a sailor on shore leave. His uniform was a navy blue, double-breasted, six-button jacket and trousers and a white peaked cap and he made her laugh.” Kathryn came from a strict religious home where there was no discussion of anything to do with sex, including menstruation and pregnancy. When she discovered she was pregnant, her parents sent her away to a private home to have her baby, fully expecting her to give it to a good home for adoption.

That was us! I said. She laughed—her temporary hiding family did not have a practice baby. When she held her baby for the first time, she ignored her parents threats to abandon her and kept her baby. The father (who was twenty-one to her seventeen years) soon divorced his wife, and, while he and Kathryn never became a couple, he has been supportive emotionally and financially and remains a prominent figure in their daughter’s life. It wasn’t an easy journey. She said there were many ups and downs over the years but today she has a good relationship with her adult daughter and has two grandchildren.

For women and girls, the personal—our sexualities, our bodies, and our desires—has always been political. The battle lines over reproductive rights and sexual freedom are sharply drawn. To even explore these hard-won rights and freedoms is delicate, and I tread carefully.

I was a senior in high school in the mid-’70s. For my generation, sex was a rite of passage. We had rules: 1) have a committed boyfriend who says you are his girlfriend; 2) wait an acceptable period of time (this was a sliding scale); 3) if you want to keep him, have sex; and 4) don’t get pregnant. Going on the Pill made you a woman; a prescription required one parental signature, thus, forgery became an artform. We combed our hair and reapplied our lipstick in the girls washroom while brazenly leaving our handbags open enough the familiar circular pill container would be seen by the other girls, declaring: I have a boyfriend. We are doing it. And I am too smart to get pregnant.

In the ’70s, attitudes about sex were so liberated that some high schools had condom dispensers in the boys’ washroom (not mine— we did, however, have a smoking room). With birth control pills and readily available condoms, sex was increasingly acceptable; teenage pregnancy, not so much. Our parents accepted we were having sex, our school boards even expected we would be “doing it,” but having a baby out of wedlock as a teenager was considered shameful.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s the laws and attitudes towards abortion rapidly changed. If Churley’s generation was capable of getting “themselves pregnant,” my generation was responsible for getting ourselves unpregnant. While we were pleased that we could have sex with less shame and had reproductive choices, we still struggled with pregnancy if our timing was not aligned with societal expectations. Churley says: “No matter what the circumstances, society has always judged women harshly when it comes to sexuality and punished and shamed them if they didn’t conform to social convention. I believe this story continues to be relevant to contemporary struggles around choice, family structures and “slut-shaming.”

By the time my own daughter was on the cusp of teenagedom in the mid-’90s, Life Skills classes were teaching a new approach to pregnancy as early as elementary school. Bouncing home from grade five she proudly waved a piece of paper with a shiny gold star licked onto the top right corner. The assignment posed the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? followed by five lines to list goals and dreams. In careful penmanship she listed: finish high school, finish my ballet exams, go to university, be a famous ballerina, get a job.

Then I noticed she had drawn a line through each of her five goals.

I asked what the line was and she flipped the paper over to demonstrate the real reason for getting a gold star. The backside of the paper bore the instruction: Go back to your original list and cross off everything you would have to give up if you got pregnant.

My prepubescent daughter was being taught that controlling her reproductive self was paramount to success, and that an early pregnancy crosses dreams off the list—at least for the mother. This early educational intervention has worked. The fact is, teenage pregnancy, birth, and termination statistics have been in rapid decline for over two decades. For the millennial generation the morning-after pill is available if you “slip,” regular birth control of all kinds is, in theory, readily and nonjudgmentally available from the school nurse, and a first trimester termination is safe and discreet with no parental signature necessary. In my daughter’s words, “We knew that an unplanned pregnancy ruins your life. Who needs their life ruined?”

Marilyn Churley knows first-hand the hard-won battles fought by feminists; this shows in her appreciation of the significant gains in reproductive technologies, health care, and attitudes towards women’s sexuality: “The number of young women placing their babies for adoption has decreased significantly and the majority of domestic adoptions that do take place allow some degree of openness.” At the same time, though, Churley is keenly aware of the systemic injustices that disproportionately impact birth parents deciding whether to put their children up for adoption: there is a “lack of adequate supports for single moms and indeed for all low-income and working families. Here’s a thought: let’s take better care of the children we do bring into the world by providing their parents with equal opportunity, subsidized child care and afterschool programs, affordable housing, and equal pay for women!”

I expressed to my friend, Jane Ross, how reading Marilyn Churley’s memoir stirred long-quiescent feelings. Jane was a nursing student in Alberta in the ’60s and spent some of her training in a maternity ward. She remembered how authorities informed young mothers that it was in the best interest of mother, child, and society for them to give their babies up to good homes with economically secure and “emotionally stable” mothers.

At that time it was thought the best way for a baby to transition to an adoptive mother was by abruptly severing the mother-child bond at birth. This meant that a baby was whisked away from its mother as soon as the umbilical cord was cut. “It was thought best,” Jane said “that the mother not even see, much less touch, her newborn baby.”

Jane remembers tiptoeing down the hospital corridors in the wee midnight hours when most of the bustling day staff had gone home. She would take new birth mothers to the nursery and let them gaze upon their newborn babies. Some were brave enough to hold them, count out five fingers and five toes, sing a lullaby, and whisper a prayer into little ears:

Shame was so ingrained in these young mothers. The ethos of abrupt severing had huge consequences to the mother’s ego and left a primal wound with the child. The mother was even told she was a destructive force and that touching her baby could cause permanent damage. I think these young mothers wanted me to come with them as a buffer between their baby, God, and the Devil. It was devastatingly sad and I realize now, looking back, how privileged I was to bear witness to these sacred last moments between mother and child.

Marilyn Churley writes about the last day she saw her baby son:

I took my last walk down the corridor to the nursery and asked—begged, really—if this time, I could please, please go in and, if not hold my baby, be allowed to see him without a layer of glass between us. The answer was the same: no. They said that I would be leaving soon and I had to go away and forget about ever having had this baby so I could start afresh and get on with my life. Holding him would make that more difficult, the nurses said… But my begging forced a compromise, and they pulled the bassinet close to the window and, at my request, removed the little blue blanket. He was lying there wide awake, wearing just a diaper. I was as close as I could get, face pressed up against the glass, staring into his blue eyes, and he seemed to be staring back just as intently. I took in every ounce of him, trying to memorize his features.

“Goodbye little Andrew— for now. I love you and one day I will find you,” I whispered.

Jane Ross says as a practice baby I would have absorbed much angst and had much love poured into me. “Those teenagers your mom took in would have likely been facing the same fate–baby whisked away and taken God only knows where. Many a mother’s prayer was whispered into the ears of a practice baby and that was you.”

Is this what benediction feels like?

Edgar’s poem is sorrowful in its ending—his little raindrops sing a departed song and are divided forever.

Down to the flowers, the rivers and trees,

Into the paths of the summer breeze,

Vowing to wander together for aye,

Into the fatal divide they stray;

Divided for ever they float along,

Each sings to the other a parting song.

When the time came to say goodbye to the many young women who finished high school at my mother’s kitchen table and practiced on my little body, my mother would make an angel food cake. She joked that my first words were “Daddy” and “Mommy,” followed with “bye-bye” and “cake.”

As I write this, I think of the young women who practised on me. Are they OK? Did they keep their babies? If not, did their babies get placed in good and loving homes, and did they reunite later? Did a high school diploma bring them success?

I hope the adoption disclosure law Marilyn Churley spent her professional life fighting for has helped them and many like them find reconciliation and peace. Certainly for me, reading Shameless made me more aware of the historical context of the time, and it brings tears of pride for my late mother.

Perhaps history is like the water at the Great Divide moving every which way it pleases. While the past can’t be unlived if we face it with defiance, wade into it and feel it swirling around us, we may not have to live it in quite the same way ever again. We say we want the truth but it’s really the story we want–tell us the story and trust us to find the truth. When we, like Marilyn Churley, illuminate our past by telling our shameless stories out loud, light is shed on the present. And knowing who we were then and who we are now helps us all strive for a brighter future.

Every Canadian should stand on the Great Divide at least once in their life for it is a grand spot for moralizing about the turning points in our lives like they were all important in shaping our destinies–a sailor’s uniform, a whispered prayer, a midnight call, an Act of Parliament.


Jody Smiling is a serial memoirist and essayist currently living in San Francisco.  She was born in Edmonton during what is considered to be one of best Grey Cup games of all time (Bombers v Ti-Cats 1958). She is currently researching the exegesis of the policies in her liberated 1970’s high school which led to putting condom machines only in the boy’s bathroom. She received a 2015 National Magazine Award for her personal essay “Through the Rockies” in Prism International. She tweets @jodysmiling.


Image by Adrianne Williams


  1. A beautifully written piece that should be required reading in high school. Jody Smiling speaks to the social, moral and political forces that for decades shaped women’s lives. I worry that without knowing this history, young woman will take for granted the freedoms Marilyn Churley and other’s fought to secure on their behalf.

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