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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.