Without a License: Hiding Unwed Pregnancies

Post-war Western societies revered the nuclear family. This is how adoption came to be an acceptable and frequent practice. Couples unable to conceive worried over their inability to form a traditional family and were relieved of their childlessness by the growing practice of adoption. Any young couple understood that step one was marriage, step two was children. Motherhood, revered within marriage, was reviled outside of it. Thus, unmarried women who became pregnant offered the necessary stock of babies for married couples who could not conceive. One participant in my project who desperately wanted to keep her infant son described it as: “A marriage certificate. That’s the dividing line between its good and it’s not good.” This demarcation between the joyful reception an expectant married woman would receive and the dark looks, tears and anger an unmarried mother-to-be would confront all came down to that marriage certificate. Without this license to wed, this license to procreate, women were stigmatized and made to feel ashamed and guilty for their so-called transgressions.

1961_wedding_vera_coupleAdopted Baby 1000 Catholic Herald Nov 19621960s Portrait Family Father Mother Two Daughters Son Standing Together Outdoors

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage”

Unmarried mothers of the 1960s understood the social conditions of their shame so intrinsically they often responded with denial. With fervent prayers to escape the physical mark of their sexual encounter, prayed for miscarriages or marriages, anything to remove them from the heartache that was to come. They masked their growing bodies beneath voluminous fashions, hid their morning sickness, excused their missed periods. However, eventually they had to confront the reality of their situation through doctor’s visits, telling their parents, and being led through the motions of decisions about their future.

Their stigma was cemented in the reactions of parents, friends, family, employers and school principals. In every way they were told that what they had done was wrong and in need of hiding. Banishment was the most  obvious manner of cloaking their pregnancy, as women were shipped off to mother and baby homes distant from their local community as quickly as they could be accepted. Intentionally sent far from home to avoid neighbors uncovering the family’s new secret, taking care to protect their social standing, their ‘good name’ and respectability.

St Faiths Home Bearsted pub by Bearsted adn Thurnham Society

Saint Faith’s Home for Unmarried Mothers. Bearsted, Kent, UK

But for many, the Homes did not accept women until six-weeks or so before their due date. Which meant finding alternatives to conceal their growing bodies, to cloak the reality of their situation from the community. Some found jobs as nannies, as live-in mothers helpers, or stayed in hostels. For those that remained at home until being sent to the mother and baby home they were frequently barred from leaving the house during the day, slipping out on in the cloak of darkness, and keeping to their room whenever someone visited.

Eatons-Montreal-Duffle-Coat-1950-large

1958 Ad for the Duffle Coat – Perfect to disguise a growing waistline

However, the deceptions to mask their infidelity played out in other ways as well. Many of the women in this project described being told to wear a duffel coat when they left the house. These voluminous overcoats popular during the 1960s allowed the women to hide their shame under layers of heavy wool. One admitted to wearing a girdle far into her pregnancy to maintain a slim profile. A grandmother insisted her pregnant granddaughter wear a hat pulled down low anytime they were to be out together so no one would recognize her.

1967 Maternity Corset1962 Maternity Corset

Maternity girdles

The mothers of the pregnant women frequently insisted their unmarried daughters wear a “Woolworth’s wedding ring” to disguise their sin, thus pointing to the clear demarcation in which married pregnancy is revered and unmarried pregnancy reviled. A number of the women protested against this falsehood, removing their ring whenever their mother left or refusing to wear it at all. Though some continued to slip it on anytime they went out with their bellies belying their situation, hoping the slim gold band would offer some protection against suspicious glances or rude treatment in the local shops.

Woolworths 1960s Getty image

Woolworth’s – Purveyors of false wedding bands and other practicalities

In some cases the women were checked into hospital under an assumed married name so the locals wouldn’t learn of the pregnancy and birth. Several homes during this period assigned incoming expectant mothers with false names to be used while in the home so even their roommates would not know their true identity; however this was not the majority experience of the women in my study. Of course, the culminating mask of their maternity came with the adoption of their child. While the women bestowed names lovingly upon their newborns, these were quickly wiped clean as the infants were adopted, given new names and cutting all ties to the women who created them. These mothers without children were then sent home, to pick up the broken pieces of their lives without mention of the life they grew inside them. A new disguise worn: that of a woman without children, a woman who had never known the growth of life within her, expected to move through the world of married families as though she had not experienced such motherhood herself.

The shame, the guilt, the heartache was not soothed upon the relinquishment of their children. No woolen coat or false gold ring could protect them from the feelings of guilt, humiliation, hurt, and disappointment others made them feel for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Or those feelings they felt for having relinquished their child to another family. A family legitimized by a marriage certificate.

 

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8 thoughts on “Without a License: Hiding Unwed Pregnancies

    • Hi Debbie.

      Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving and church/state love you to feel guilt.

      What you did at the time was all you could do. Having a baby leaves you vulnerable and the system knows it.

      Hopefully you will reunite with your creation one day and all resolved as best as possible.

  1. i was very sad after reading this sentence “Banishment was the most obvious manner of cloaking their pregnancy, as women were shipped off to mother and baby homes distant from their local community as quickly as they could be accepted”. hopefully there is a way for all the unmarried women.

  2. The marriage license was a contract with the church/state that allowed men and women to have “LEGAL SEX”. Without it, women were un husbanded and therefore a threat to patriarchal society.

  3. Reading this breaks my heart. I don’t know how any one could get over being forced to give up their baby. I just hope some women find peace of some sort as they had no choice at that time.
    I’m glad I live in a society where we have a choice now and we get financial aid,

  4. I found this article by chance when looking up a friend’s new address. Her posh accommodation has been built on the land where St Faith’s Home once stood. Coincidentally, I was a St Faith’s Home internee, no other way of describing it as we were treated like prisoners and made to work like prisoners. I was sent there after my 16th birthday in March 1959. My beautiful son was born on 19th May 1959 and adopted three months later in August 1959, a day which is carved into every cell of my body. As my son was taken away I screamed with the pain which was physical as well as emotional. It felt like my body was being ripped apart.
    I’ve often wondered what happened to some of the other girls who were there in 1959. My closest friend there was Doreen Bird and our mums occasionally met at the Home.
    In the 1980’s I went back to St Faith’s to try to lay a few ghosts. I found the Home had been closed after having been a place for youngsters with, I think, learning disabilities. The house was locked up so I could only walk round the outside and in the garden. It was like stepping back in time. As I stood on the back terrace and looked down over the overgrown vegetable garden (which the gardener at the time kept immaculate) I could ‘hear’ the voices of the girls and their babies and I wept. I was amazed to see some of the old prams we used were still there. It was a place of tragedy, extreme hardship often bordering on cruelty, and terrible heartbreak.
    I was able to trace my son through the Church of England Society and one of their social workers counselled me prior to trying to contact my son. She showed me a copy of the records that were kept about me. They said I didn’t care about my son and wanted him adopted. I was distraught. Miss Cole was the woman in charge, a tall, formidable woman, and she wrote these lies. I eventually met my son and it was wonderful, he looked like a male version of me! We kept in contact for a while exchanging letters and phone calls. We laughed a lot. He refused to meet my mum who so wanted to see him before she died and then he suddenly decided not to see me any more – so I lost him for a second time. I will never forget him and long to see him just one more time, especially now as I’m to have open heart surgery in 2016. I just want to tell him once more that I love him.

  5. Sorry the date should be 1958 not 1959 – I’ve just realised I kept typing the wrong number! Are you able to change this for me please, if not can you return or delete it Thanks. Gillian.

  6. My mum was in St Faiths in Bearstead in 1955 she had my older brother there but refused to give him up she stayed there for a while after he was born and as board for her and my brothers keep she helped out in the nursery. My dad used to visit when he was stationed locally in the navy and take mum and the other girls cigarettes and nylons. Mum ended up marrying him as he was very persistent and even though she loved him I think it was a way out. They went on to have 10 children of their own and over 26 grandchildren.

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