Fifty-eight years ago, a 23-year old women gave up her job as a secretary and entered a home for unwed mothers in Pittsburgh. On December 13, she gave birth to my husband, then left him behind in the orphanage in care of the Catholic nuns. Four months later he was adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. The way they described it to him, they chose him as they might a holiday turkey—the plumpest baby—and took him home to join his older sister Alice.
When I met my husband as a college freshman 40 years ago, he told me he was adopted. Maybe because we were 17 when we met, we always assumed that his birth mother was our age when she discovered she was pregnant in l950. Sometimes we imagined where she might be and assumed she had born other children, but Tom was never curious enough to go looking for her. He was satisfied with his Pittsburgh family. Despite his father’s financial woes and his mother’s alcoholism, he always knew he was loved. His dad died in our senior year of college and his mother died just before our first son was born in l977. His sister died suddenly a few years later. None of them lived long enough to know him as the Governor of Iowa or as a candidate for president.
It was during a campaign announcement tour that we stopped in Pittsburgh in November 2006. A few weeks after his name and picture appeared on the news he received a letter from the nuns who had cared for him before his adoption. They said they had information he might want about the circumstances of his birth. They couldn’t reveal the name of his birth mother because she had never given them permission to do that, but they would give him any other information they had.
His political advisors suggested he could find out himself or read it in the newspaper one morning. The letter arrived near his birthday. His birth mother took the assumed name Gloria when she entered the home for unwed mothers. She was 23 and a secretary. She was the oldest of 5 children in a Catholic family with an Irish surname. His mother didn’t leave the home right away after his birth. Considering our assumptions, this news was shocking.
Did she think about keeping him, Tom wondered? Marriage must not have been an option. Could her family afford to help support them? Did they consider their oldest daughter a bad influence on the other children? Could she afford to raise him on her own? We’ll never know. If she’s still living she is now 82 years old.
Coincidentally, finding Gloria coincided with a new job for me as executive director of The Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, an organization dedicated to creating a national model for how states and the federal government can invest in pregnancy prevention among adult women 18-30. When I held a press conference in January to announce the goals of the organization and my association with it, I mentioned Gloria’s story, and said that she would motivate me every day as I travel the state educating people about the high rate of unintended pregnancy among adult women, which most voters and decision makers know little about.
Rather flippantly, a reporter said to me afterward, “Well, your husband turned out all right, didn’t he?” “Yes,” I said, “he did; but how did she turn out?” It was l950. She had to quit her job and enter a home for unwed mothers. She had to give up her financial security. Did she further her education? Did she marry; have other children? Is she surrounded by a covey of grandchildren who love her? How was her life changed by the decisions she made? We won’t know.
But I do believe, knowing my husband and what he’s accomplished, that Gloria must have been an intelligent woman with a great deal of potential. I do believe that all of us have the opportunity to give women a chance to reach their potential by assuring that they have the information they need and the access they need to the newest birth control methods, so they can control their own fertility and plan their futures.
This holiday season, I honor all the Glorias whose lives were changed by their unintended pregnancies, and I honor the difficult choices they made.