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God’s Greatest Gift To Me—Joan Crawford

EDITOR’S NOTE: Few women have ever led such a fabulous life as Joan Crawford. As a child, she earned her schooling as a kitchen slavey. As a teenager, she danced for a living. In 1928, she became a movie star, and has stayed at the top ever since—a record few can equal. Wealth and fame, happiness and the heartbreak of three unsuccessful marriages have been hers. And condemnation, too. When she adopted four children, it was branded as publicity-seeking. When her son ran away, she was called an unfit mother. When she married Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred N. Steele, skeptics said it wouldn’t last six months. Wisely, Joan ignored it all. Today, she is so content with her family that she has confided, after finishing “The Golden Virgin” for Columbia, that she will make few movies from now on, devoting most of her time to her roles as wife and mother. Now, looking back on her remarkable, eventful life, one wonders: Of all the good things that have come her way, what has meant the most to Joan? Photoplay is proud to bring you her story—not merely because it answers the question, but because it turned out to be one of the most heart-warming and intelligent discussions of a controversial subject that we have ever read:

Several months ago, at a large party, I was drawn away from the general group by an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. She had always taken an intense interest in my adopted family, and had murmured at some length about how wonderful she thought it must be to have three daughters and a son, and how she wished that she had children.

She took one of my hands, looked anxiously and searchingly into my eyes and asked, “You’ve been through it, so you can help me more than anyone, can’t you? Tell me: exactly what are the problems involved in adopting children? What ought I do to prepare myself for, and what warnings do you think I should be given so that I might avoid mistakes?”

I told her, as kindly as possible, “If you can ask questions like that, it seems to me that you must feel more apprehension than joy about becoming a mother. If you were to bear a child, I don’t imagine you would start by worrying over the problems to be presented by a teenager, and I’ve seldom seen a natural mother preparing formula and fretting over what mistakes lay in her future attempts to rear her child. Unless you can enter into adoption proceedings with the same spirit of quiet confidence, reliance upon the general goodness of life, and simple trust in the future that go with the garden variety of parenthood, you aren’t ready to take a child into your home.”

She uttered a small, wistful laugh and said, “But suppose, when I do get the child, I don’t like it, or it doesn’t like me. Suppose it’s an unattractive baby?”

This rather foolish query reminded me of the day my Christina was placed in my arms. I had known for several months that she was to be mine. At the adoption agencies, I had been assured of the family backgrounds of a series of babies who were to be born and whose parents, for one reason or another, were not going to be able to keep them.

When I read the history of the baby who was to become Christina, I stopped. “This is mine,” I said. “I needn’t look further. I understand everything about this child.”

Boy or girl, it did not matter. I had found my first-born.

The last few weeks of waiting were almost as endless as those spent by a natural mother. I had prepared the nursery far earlier than was necessary and I had bought enough clothing to swaddle a dozen children.

Finally the day came and I rushed to meet my daughter. “You have a fine little girl,” I had been told. I held her in my arms, a wiggling pink organism without hair, without teeth, without much interest in anything except food.

“She’s the homeliest mite I’ve ever seen in my life,” I murmured, knowing that I was beaming upon her like a full moon. “And she’s mine, all mine. My daughter, Christina Crawford.”

It would have been impossible to convey the magic of that moment, many years ago, to my friend in the midst of the present rather confused evening. I said, rather inadequately I knew, “Possibly you haven’t given much thought to the need of adults for children, and the need of children for a home. I think we should talk about it at some other time.”

What I really wanted to say was, “Never hesitate to adopt one child, or half a dozen if you can give them love, a home, and—as a result of those two conditions—a secure position in a community.”

I’ve thought about this a great deal, but it came home to me more strongly than ever recently, while I was making “The Golden Virgin.” Of course, the adoption situation in the picture was very unusual, but the basic feelings of the mother and the child are always the same. Playing mother to that fine young English actress, Heather Sears, I felt very close to the part, and to this lovely girl, who does such great work in the film that I’ve been singing her praises like a real proud mama.

I don’t profess to be anything approaching an expert on the subject, but I’m always happy to add my small voice to the thunder of the experts who say that every child needs to be loved by a mother in the fullest sense of the word (not by a matron, or a superintendent, or any of the usually noble women who try to fulfill the heart demands of thirty to a hundred youngsters); that a child needs to grow up in a home in which he feels that he has a personal stake, whether that house has four rooms or forty; and that a child needs to grow up in a neighborhood where there are other children living in families, where there are adults in the neighbor category so that property rights and community cooperation can be learned—not in an institution where all experience, necessarily, is limited.

Finally, I believe that a child needs to grow up as nearly free of fear as is possible in this world of ours; an orphanage, because of its inescapably varying condition, is a breeding ground for all manner of fears.

Naturally, some fright is with us always n greater or lesser degree, depending upon the state of nations and our own states of mind, but the fear of “not belonging”—one of the most destructive, we are told by psychologists—should be spared all children. It is the fear that walks the corridors of institutions at night, and looks in through the windows on Christmas Eve.

Like any mother these days, I’ve studied my job; I’ve found that, in spite of all the criticism they have taken and all the lampooning they have suffered, psychologists are excellent teachers, and that their findings—personalized and mixed with ordinary common sense which will apply the proper theory to the proper state of development—can be invaluable guideposts for mothers.

It appears to be a psychological truth that a child, in order to develop a balanced personality, should live in an atmosphere providing four things: response, recognition, security, and new experiences.

The word “response” in this usage merely means the provided opportunity for the child to express his emotional nature and to experience love in return. Love untrammeled, unmodified, untinged with duty. The compassion of even the best-intentioned head of an institution, overworked, over-pressured, and underpaid as she usually is, cannot supply the individual sense of belonging and the interchange of response that a child needs.

Sometimes this business of “response” takes an unexpected turn. When Christina was in intermediate school I picked her up one afternoon to take her to the dentist’s. En route she was so preoccupied that I knew something was disturbing her. When I asked if she were afraid, she seemed surprised, and said no.

“You’ve been taking me to the dentist for years and you’ve never asked me that before,” she said. “You just don’t expect me to be afraid, do you?”

I told her no again, and explained that, after her dental surgery (for which she was to be hospitalized) I would be with her until she emerged from the anesthetic. Then I would have to rush to Christopher’s school to be on hand to cheer during his competition in the swimming meet. After that, I would be back at the hospital.

“I understand,” Christina said. “If Christopher were the one in the hospital, and I were the one in the swimming meet, you’d leave him long enough to watch me, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s fair.” And the sun came out again.

A child must have recognition. “You’ve drawn a beautiful tree, darling. Now, could you draw a house with a red door?” does more for a budding Corot than a year of art instruction. It is an easy matter for a mother, natural or adoptive, to supply this need and in so doing to help the child find himself and his aptitudes.

Yet impartiality is an essential of institutions, so each child must be praised equally. That being the case, the adept child, being brought up in even the best-managed orphanage is likely to conclude that there is little point in exerting himself when his tree, which he can see is quite good, is praised equally with Bobby’s, although Bobby’s work looks as if a tornado had just passed by. Discouragement and frustration are the lot of the child who can’t be given specific, interested, personalized attention.

A great many people have asked me, from time to time, about Christopher’s well-publicized flights from school. In every case, his trouble has stemmed from the problem of recognition. Christopher wants to excel at everything.

He is big for his age and muscular, so it has always been easy for him to play football on the first team. That fact has always kept him happy through the fall months despite the annoyances of history, math, and English.

Because of his height, he has usually been able to win a place for himself on the basketball team, and he swims like a dolphin, so the winter and summer athletic areas have always been periods of ease and accomplishment. However, between basketball season and the season of the swan dive, comes an aggravation known as baseball. Christopher has diamond trouble.

Every time he has failed to make the team, or having made the team has turned in a poor batting performance, he has taken off for parts unknown.

I’ve never told Christopher that he is inclined to get steamed up over unimportant things, because, to him, baseball is of crucial importance. I have pointed out what a fright he has given me as a result of each departure, how much trouble he has caused the officers who searched for him, and how much embarrassment he has brought to his school.

Then, one day (all mothers, adoptive or otherwise, learn by trial and error), I realized that recognition was Christopher’s trouble. He had to make his mark. Ambition, in general, is a laudable trait, but when carried too far it can fill a human life with misery because no one can win all the time in everything.

I’ve always been able to reach Christopher through his wonderful sense of humor, so the next time I took the twins to the zoo, we invited Christopher to go along. I made it a point to take plenty of time at the monkey cage, and I said to Chris, “How would you like to compete against that gym team?”

He said a guy would be crazy to try. After all, that competition was talented.

“In this case the talent is easy to see,” I said. “Sometimes it’s invisible, but it’s there just the same. Each of us is gifted, each in his own way, but nobody has every gift that can be handed out to a human being.”

Chris said something about not trying out for gymnastics, but I knew—from his wonderful grin—that I had put over my point. More important, we now have a point of reference so that when things go wrong for Chris I can always remind him that perhaps he was competing against monkeys.

I think there is one more important fact that should be mentioned about this. It makes me ill to think what would have happened to Chris if he had run away repeatedly from an orphanage. When a boy runs away from his own home—shades of Tom Sawyer—his family takes it in stride and works to get at the root of the decamping urge.

When a lad condemned to grow up under well-intentioned but hard-pressed institutional supervision, because of the refusal of some relative to sign the necessary papers to make him adoptable, does exactly the same thing, he is headed for “delinquency” labeling.

A child’s third great need is security. One of the most abused words, “security” has very little to do with money. I’ve been told that during World War II, doctors found that the most secure group, in terms of mental and emotional stability, were boys brought up on farms.

On the average farm, cash is often scarce (in spite of the Cadillacs of Texas), but an early sense of security is established by the orderly progress of the seasons, by the rhythm of growing things, by early responsibility imposed by the need of crops and domestic animals for proper care.

Not all children can be brought up in the country, but all children—removed from institutions—can be supplied with the solid foundation of an ordered life. They can be made responsible for household tasks and for pets (even if Mother has to feed the puppy, the kitten, the—and the fish when small memories fail).

They can be taught family pride and loyalty in a hundred different ways, one of which is the old familiar method: “We don’t do that in our family.” “We don’t say such things in our home.” “Help your sister, dear—she needs you.”

I was once asked how one welds a family out of a group of adopted children, and I was surprised, because how could it be different from an ordinary group? No baby is born with a sense of relationship; he has to be taught family attitudes and human associations.

Of course, I imagine this was easier for our group than for some because Christina and Christopher resemble one another so strongly; both are sunny blondes with bright complexions and blue eyes. Cathy and Cindy are fraternal twins, and Cindy is the sort who quickly finds identification with her surroundings, being an adjustable type. She said with some pride the other day, “I’ve got buckles all over my nose, just like Mommy’s.”

“Buckles,” in case you are mystified, are freckles, and she’s right. We’re both well-buckled!

Security has another aspect, it seems to me. Each of us seeks a framework for his life. The framework is made up of personal habits and intellectual attitudes, and ideally, never grows too rigid to allow for expansion.

It is natural for children to test this framework. Naughtiness is sometimes only a checking of barriers to discover where they are, and how strong.

I’ve always made rules for my children, being careful to explain them in general and to point out why our particular family laws have been enacted. When a rule is broken once, the culprit is permitted to select his punishment out of a posted list, and chooses a loss of some privilege like television viewing (a closely regulated ‘sport’ in our home in any case).

The second infraction is considered much more serious because a bad pattern may be forming. The second punishment is always calculated to make the rule-breaking seem very, very unattractive; sometimes weekends must be spent at home without guests, or an early-to-bed hour must be observed for a week.

Also, there have been times when I have turned a child across my knee and administered a sound spanking. I believe that sometimes tension is built up in a child to a pitch at which an actual physical blowing off of steam is a healthy thing. The woman’s “good cry,” or the male inclination to wrap a golf club around a tree, are adult versions of the same sort of emotional explosion.

The learning of ethical rules is also a vital part of security. Along that line I remember when Christina, in a scandalized tone, once confided (after I had taken a vow of secrecy which I have never violated, because honor cannot be learned by the young unless it is practiced by their elders) that a certain naughtiness had taken place at school.

Candidly, the prank was fairly routine and slightly humorous; certainly not to be approved, but not terrible. Still, Christina had made a big thing of it, and it was clear that she expected her mother to be appalled. Quickly I expressed shocked regret, assuming the role expected of me.

A few weeks later the framework paid off. Accidentally I overheard Christina refusing an invitation extended by one of her girlfriends to whom I was not partial. “I’m so pleased that you thought of me,” said Christina courteously, “and I’m sorry to have to refuse, but I know how Mother would feel about it. No, I won’t even ask her. She’d be horrified because she just doesn’t believe in doing things that way.”

I’ve never known what it was that would have horrified me, but I was thankful that I had outlined a social stone wall that served my eldest daughter well when she needed its protection.

Self-reliance is, of course, another vital part of security. Christopher was born with a sturdy masculine sense of having to stand on his own two feet and fend for himself, but self-reliance in the feminine gender is a more nebulous quality.

However, it has always seemed to me that one of the things every woman should be able to do, and do superbly, is to prepare a wholesome and palatable meal and to set it up quickly and efficiently.

We live in a day of vanishing household help, so it is becoming more and more important for a girl to become a culinary expert, to develop a sort of cooking-second-nature, in order to have enough spare time and strength to participate in the hundreds of creative activities now open to women.

Christina, because of her cooking experience at home, got a good deal out of last year’s trip to Switzerland. She is entirely capable of putting together a delightful dinner for six.

Even Cathy and Cindy are able to set a delicious breakfast on the table for the family, with everything coming out even—toast piping, coffee steaming, bacon hot and crisp, eggs done to a turn, and butter, jam, sugar, cream ready to be passed.

I think it was Cindy who squinted along the tabletop one morning and observed with satisfaction, “Everything’s hot at once. Good for me.”

All my fussing, fuming, instructing, cajoling and encouraging paid rich dividends in those two sentences.

Finally, we are told that a child needs new experience, and that a humdrum existence hampers intellectual growth, and stultifies the imagination.

I’ve been fortunate in being able to provide a wide range of experience for my quartet. They have traveled in the States, they have been given every sort of athletic instruction. Also, since my marriage to Alfred we’ve taken them to France, Italy and Switzerland.

That reminds me: a few weeks ago I went riding with Christina and Christopher. In the midst of a rambling conversation, Christopher abruptly fixed his gaze on my stubbornly cheerful face and exclaimed, “Mother, you’re afraid of your horse!”

I confessed, “I’ve always been afraid of horses. This one is no worse than the rest!”

“You mean you’ve gone riding with us all these years, and you were afraid every step of the way?” he gasped.

I said that, well, they had to learn to ride, and I would have been a fine mother if I had permitted my terrors to interfere.

“You don’t ever have to ride again,” he said with authority. “All of us ride and like it, so there isn’t any need for you to go on suffering, so there.”

New experiences are healthy for adults, too. Imagine not having to ride a horse again—ever, and suddenly finding oneself protected by one’s young son!

I thought then, as I have thought countless times, that—for me—going through life without having children would have been insupportable. I have used the phrase “having children” advisedly, because “having children” is a condition not satisfied merely by giving them birth. Having children consists of teaching them, and learning from them, loving them and being loved in return, enjoying them, and being exasperated by them, being without illusion about them and yet seeing in them the shining vanguard of the future.

I can only say to any couple wanting children, but unable to have their own, that this country will not have fulfilled its obligation to its youngsters until not one normal child of any age is living in an orphanage.

And, finally, no one should hesitate to adopt a child, because any thinking person must see clearly that just as it is God who sends the natural child, so it is God—working in His mysterious ways—who bestows the adopted child on those fortunate enough to be entrusted with such a gift. It is the greatest gift anyone can ever receive.





1 Comment
  • Ryant
    31 Mart 2024

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