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I Chose a Wonderful Family

Joan Crawford tells Juanita Sayer


Originally appeared in Everywoman's, March 1952


Last spring quite a few would-be Huckleberry Finns ran away from home. One of them was my adopted eight-year-old son, Christopher. With Chris, however, it was not so much the desire for adventure. Chris ran away because he couldn't have chocolate sauce for his ice cream. Parents of the other runaway boys and girls punished them. They were exercising the normal prerogative of all parents. But in my case it was different, or so contended a well-known lady columnist who also happened to be a good friend of mine.

When my son was found by the police after a search of many hours, newspapermen asked me if I intended to punish him. I assured them that Chris, like many another naughty little boy, was going to get what we in the Crawford family refer to as a "physical demerit."

Even though I was going to administer the hairbrush to my son in private, the lady columnist warned me that it would bring down the wrath of the public upon me. First of all, I was not a private citizen. Secondly, I was an adopted mother. I was thereby deprived of the status of a normal parent -- at least in the eyes of the world.

A short time later, when Chris and I were alone, my voice quavered a little when I told him to bend over and pull his britches down. I was so relieved that he had come home safely to me that my impulse was to hug him and simply make him promise he'd never run away again. But Chris had developed of late a habit of vanishing from home when he failed to get his way. Another quiet discussion, I was convinced, was not going to prevent my son from suddenly taking off again whenever the whim seized him.

"Shall we get it over with, son?" I asked him.

"Guess we'd better, Mom," he murmured.

Somehow I summoned up the courage to give him a good one on each buttock with the hairbrush. Then we both had a good cry and he slept in my room.

The next morning Chris' escapade -- and my promise to spank him -- made the front pages. And then the wires and letters started pouring in on me from all over the country. So far I've had more than 3,000 of them, from parents as well as single people. To my amazement, with only one exception, all of them approved of my action.

A letter from a woman in a small Iowa town, the mother of five children, sums up the reaction. "It must have taken great courage to discipline your son in the face of public opinion," she wrote me. "I'm sure that it would have been far easier for you to gloss over his misbehavior. Wisely, you didn't haul off and slap him in anger, as so many parents do. Thanks for continuing to set a good example for harassed parents and their offspring."

Evidently, many of my correspondents felt that I was establishing a precedent, that my behavior was remarkable for a bachelor mother whose private life is often subjected to the glare of publicity. Actually, when I am faced with family problems, I try to handle them as I would imagine any normal parent might under similar circumstances.

For example, my four children -- all adopted -- have had to be responsible for certain daily household chores as soon as they were able to walk. After playtime the four-year-old twins, dark-eyed Cynthia and Cathy, must put away their games and toys in the cupboards and chests where they belong. After I help them bathe, they dress themselves and carry their soiled clothes to the laundry-room downstairs. Until they perform these tasks, they cannot sit down to dinner with me and their older brother and sister, Christopher and Christina. Final chore of the day is for all my youngsters to pitch in and help me with the supper dishes.

Tow-headed Chris and blonde, blue-eyed Christina, who is twelve, like to show off their scrupulously tidy domain, which is next to my bedroom. They have separate bedrooms but share a bathroom -- and no hands but theirs keep these quarters ship-shape. Every day they make their own beds, bundle their laundry neatly and take it downstairs, polish their own shoes, and do up the dishes they dirty. Together they set the table for dinner, and Tina often helps me prepare the meal.

Tina vacuums both their rooms, while Chris scrubs the bathroom floor -- on his hands and knees. Chris has a tendency to dawdle over his chores, when he could speed them up and go out to play. He's the dreamer type. Tina and I have to resist the urge to tackle his household duties, so that all of us can get started on a game of basketball with the neighborhood kids or go in for a swim together.

When a mother wrote to me that she was having a struggle to keep house and go to business in order to support her two fatherless children, I described how my children helped with domestic tasks.

"Good heavens!" she wrote back. "Don't you think you're going overboard? With all your servants, you could let the kiddies enjoy their childhood instead of making slaves of them."

Except for the occasional part-time help, I have no servants. Good cooks and housekeepers have been scarce since I became a mother. How many of these rare gems are willing to put up with four active young children -- to give them kindness and understanding and at the same time perform their jobs well?

As most parents know, it's a job that only a mother can and will do. But even more important -- I'm raising my children to be fitted for their own lives, not as puppets for my own pleasure. What right do I have to accustom them to servants, when there's every likeligood they won't have servants of their own when they get married?

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is: "Do you believe children should be told they are adopted?" My answer is always "Yes." And yet with each of my four adopted children I was confronted anew with a terrible dilemma. How can you tell your children they are adopted, when you feel they actually are your own?

I first saw my oldest child, Tina, and held her in my arms within hours after she was born. Then I put in ten delerious days and excited, sleepless nights until the adoption agency let me bring Tina home. Immediately I changed my mind about putting my new daughter in the nursery I had built. I moved her crib next to my bed.

I diapered the baby, made her formula, paced the floor with her at night. I went through the thousand agonies every new mother must undergo. No wonder I felt as if I were the natural mother of this baby I'd been so close to since her birth. And it has been the same with my three younger children.

Despite this feeling that they were not adopted, I forced myself to use the word freely in their presence as they began to talk. Eventually, each child asked me to explain what it meant. Not to tell a child he is adopted is sheer fraud. And if you put it off until the child is older, he may then feel that you've been hiding a guilty secret from him. The worst thing that can happen is for a children to learn of his original background through the sudden, brutal disclosure of a playmate or the innocent remark of one of your friends.

One day not too long ago, a prospective adopting mother took me aside and asked if it would be all right to talk about the subject in front of my youngsters. I told her, "Of course," then suggested she ask the two older children themselves about adoption.

When the woman asked Chris if he knew what it meant to be adopted, he said, "Sure. Mother wanted me more than any other little boy in the whole wide world. So she came and picked me out."

Tina added, "It means that Mama wanted ALL of us -- she needed us as much as we needed her."

Overwhelmed, I excused myself and fled to my room to cry my eyes out. We had talked over adoption many times, but the way my children expressed it that day came from their own little hearts.

One thing many parents fail to grant their children is the freedom to make mistakes. When a parent assumes the role of both mother and father, as I have, there is a tendency to be overly solicitous. So I put important decisions up to my children as often as possible even though I may not like the results.

When it comes to family recreationals, the decision rests solely upon the young Crawfords. For me, this has proved very painful indeed. On weekends they always cast a unanimous vote for horses, and I've always been terrified of the beasts. Even though they're good riders, whenever my four-year-old daughters are up, my heart's in my throat. We go on all-day rides, breakfast rides, moonlight rides. It's my feeling that many good parents don't share enough of their leisure-time activities with their children. I realize that after a long day on the job, it's difficult to muster up enough energy to participate in sports with children who are bursting with pep. But playtime is so important in a child's character development, not to mention what it does for him physically, that no parent can resent such a small sacrifice.

Before I settled down to raise my family, I enjoyed nothing more than a party. And how I loved dancing. But these things don't mean much to me any more. Nowadays I devote virtually all of my leisure hours to my children.

One of the most difficult decisions my children must face is parting with their favorite playthings. At least three times within the last year they have taken stock of all their toys and games and pondered for many hours over which ones to present to children in the local hospitals. On these occasions they must give up their new possessions along with the old. All children, even at an early age, should learn to make a sacrifice. My children realize that means giving up something you like, too.

In common with all proud mothers and fathers, naturally I like to discuss my children's accomplishments. What pleases me most is that they are four distinctive and interesting individuals in their own right. I know this is a comment all parents will fondly echo about their own children. Like them, I'm often asked if I don't have a favorite. I'm just like the mother who had seven. When someone asked her which was her favorite, she made up a reply that sums it up for me: the child that's sick -- until it's well; the one away from home -- until it comes back.

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