Joining the Tribe

I have recently undergone a transformation, and have been debating whether to share it here. But it has given me such new perspective on so much of my research that I’ve decided it fits here, it makes sense here, and I hope you will indulge my desire to share. I’ve joined the tribe of motherhood. My son, Dashiell, is just four-months-old now. His presence – from the moment his life took shape inside my womb, through those nine-months of constant awareness that I was carrying this little person around in me, to the moment he entered the world, and every day in between – his presence, has changed how I see everything. Relationships I’ve had a lifetime take on new light. Interactions with friends and strangers, have a different hue. My sense of self, of being in this world, has a completely new tenor. And my research, this research that is so close to my heart, now has a new lens with which to be viewed.

Every woman that I interviewed for this project is a mother. Those that kept their children, those that lost their children, those that had other children later in life, those that didn’t. They all are mothers. I am so glad I had the opportunity to interview them before my own transition into this tribe. Because I could approach the subject with wonder, with the untainted curiosity of someone from a different tribe. Details of pregnancy, of childbirth, of separation – all of these were a foreign land that I could delve into with no experience of my own to impact my perspective.

Now, I have been on this journey. A different journey, a unique journey – as we all have had. One of privilege, the privilege of choosing to get pregnant, the privilege of being ‘older’ and therefore have a better understanding of what the process looked like, and most exceptionally in this context, the privilege of keeping my child. Of holding him to my chest and watching him grow from the moment he entered this world. And that privilege, has given me a deeper understanding of the hardship of each of the women who endured an unexpected pregnancy, a (sometimes forced) confinement, the childbirth practices of the 1960s for unmarried women, and the unimaginable hurt of losing a child.  This new perspective on my research is still something I’m teasing out, exploring in the quiet moments as I look at my son and think of the many women and children impacted by the history of mother and baby homes. But for now, what I can say, is that my respect for the difficult decision each of these women made has grown deeper, my empathy for their journey has grown richer, and I wish only to continue honouring this often hidden history by revealing it to the larger public.

For the moment, I will simply introduce you to my new favorite person – Dashiell Elon Bell, born on March 19th, 2016.

Dash bw

He has reintroduced me to all of you in new and unexpected ways.

Thank you, again, for entrusting me with your stories. With your histories. With the intimate hurts and loves you have endured. I honour you.

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Getting Started Tracing Your Family – Part 1

This is a multi-part series in which I will intertwine my own history of tracing lost family with tips and resources on how to trace your own missing people. Come back in the following weeks for additional segments! If you are not familiar with my research, you can find out more from my website: www.motherandbabyhomes.com. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy the journey!

 

During my research, there was one question asked of me consistently – was I adopted? My interest in the topic of women being sent to mother and baby homes, and being pressured to give up their children for adoption is a niche one (though I do wish it could gain a broader audience) and one in which many of the interested parties are those whom have been affected by it in some way. Either they or their relative were a mum sent to a mother and baby home, or a child relinquished to adoption.

The short answer to this question is: no. I was not adopted. But short answers never truly provide us with the full story, do they? It is true; I was raised by my mum who gave birth to me. We were close, had a loving relationship, and her death in 2007 has left me heartbroken for many years. However, I was the offspring of a fractured family whose immediate family tree was splintered and cracked again and again. As a result, I developed a great curiosity for tracing people. Tracking down these individuals whose names were like legends on my lips, their blood the same as my own, and yet I would not know if they were the server pouring my coffee or the dentist checking my teeth. I had names. I had stories of their origins. Stories of their loss. My mother was open and forthcoming about her history (at least it felt so when she was alive, in the years since she departed I’ve come up with a million more questions seeking answers!). She was open to my many prying curiosities, and yet they were like fairy tales to me. Caricatures of the lives they truly represented, their stories expanded and bloated with my childish imagination, these people out in the world living their ordinary lives, sharing my bloodline, cried out for my attention.

The first person I traced was my father. My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me. My father was younger than her, exploring the world with youthful indiscretion, and thoroughly unprepared to become a family man. My mother, the elder of the two, was a bit of a self-styled gypsy, a bohemian of the 1970s with three children trailing her flowing skirts; she was open to whatever the universe offered up to her. Their union, a brief one, resulted in the birth of her seventh child. Me. Snowed in a small cabin in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, end of December, no doctor or midwife to be seen, my mother gave birth to me. This was my legacy. A fatherless hippy kid with a gypsy mother.

Cabin of birth   Mom belly dancer

The cabin, c.1977                                            My mother, a belly dancer

When I started school, and received my first school photo, I had a strong desire to find my father and show him my picture. My mum had an old address for his parents, so I began to write him letters in my four-year-old handwriting. Proudly enclosing my picture, a young, blonde, green-eyed little girl, I mailed it off. And then I waited. Days. Weeks. Months. No reply. My youthful enthusiasm could not yet be dampened however, so I tried again. And again. A few years of this, me sending along my school photograph and awaiting a reply finally crushed my hope and I abandoned the cause. Any knowledge of my father became a still life. My mother described him – tall, blonde. These were apparent in my own growing features, the only blonde of my family. She had a single photograph of him, which existed until a fire when I was four years old consumed my family’s meager belongings. That photo became etched in my mind, a tall, slender, tan blonde man, shirtless and leaning over a woodworking bench. It faded, morphed, distorted itself with age as I tried to recall the features I could only conjure the silhouette.

Rose in 2nd Grade

2nd Grade school photo…the final one I mailed off.

When I turned twelve, I developed a love for the library. I would go in and peruse the shelves to see what they might offer. This is when I stumbled across telephone books dating back for many years and for many regions. I decided to pick up my search. My father’s unique surname helped, and I began collect calling the numbers (I was twelve, had no money, and didn’t want anyone to know what I was up to). I was never successful, and gave up my search once more.

At seventeen I was enrolled in a theatre course at the local college (similar to a uni in England). One day as we sat on the stage in a circle, stretching our limbs and warming our vocal chords, our instructor assigned us my most dreaded project: to develop a family tree. I did not know my father. Knew nearly nothing of my mother’s family. Mine was a short and broken limb, no tree to connect with. That day I was without a ride home, and my instructor kindly offered to give me a lift. On the way I explained my dread of the assignment and my lack of a father. She encouraged me, vociferously, to try seeking him out once more. Bolstered by her encouragement, I went home and picked up where I left off when I was twelve. I began calling everyone in the phonebook on the west coast of America that had the same surname as my father. This time collect calls were not necessary. Alas, I found his brother, to whom I explained my long, convoluted story in the hopes of reconnecting. He promised to have my father call. I spent the next two weeks on edge, waiting for my telephone to ring. It refused to do so. Unable to wait any longer, I returned to the task of cold-calling other numbers asking for my father. When I chanced upon a number who knew him (it turns out this was my grandfather to whom I was speaking) I did not explain who I was, I did not provide my story, I simply asked to be given his number. Thankfully, he obliged.

Alas, the moment had arrived. His phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper in my hand; threatening, encouraging, whimpering for my attention. I scoured the house for a cigarette, came up with little, and dove in. I dialed. Ringing…once, twice… “Hello?” A deep breath, and then I asked – is this Steve? “Yes.” Oh. And here comes the clincher. “My name is Rose. I am the daughter of Elon Rickels, and you.” Silence. A lot of silence. Long, painful, creaking silence. And then… “I always thought you’d come after me with an ax.” Yes. Those are the poignant, encouraging, loving words my father first spoke to me. “Ummm…why?” He explained his fears – he believed I would hate him for leaving, for letting my mother leave, for never reaching out. He believed she would speak ill of him, berate his absence, blame his silences. She did not. My mother, never once even when pushed, said a bad word of my father. He was simply absent. He must have a reason for it. My lack of ax explained, we continued through a jilted conversation, making arrangements to meet.

A month later, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, with a hiking pack, camouflage trousers, and a friend at my side, I stuck my thumb out on the highway leading to my father’s home ten hours away. The journey took two days and was an adventure of its own. My dear friend Nora shivering beside me on the freeway, sipping endless cups of coffee at Denny’s to get through a long night with no money, avoiding creepy men with beds in their vans, laughing as the Stephen King look-alike bought us lunch and someone who had stayed up all night winning at poker bought us breakfast. Tired, road-weary, and bleary eyed we finally appeared at my father’s doorstep. We knocked…silence. That same, long, creaky silence. And then the door opened, and there before me, hunched over, greying, pale, this grizzled man who represented half of my DNA reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and showed me the fading picture of his young, blonde, green eyed little girl.

Rose in Kindergarten

Kindergarten. The first photo I ever mailed.

The father I have known in my adulthood has never matched the distorted photograph formed in my youth. Our relationship has had many starts and stops, small victories, crushing failures. We have come to know each other with a thin and diaphanous thread holding us together. What the experience offered me, more than anything in retrospect, was answers and a taste for seeking out the ghosts of my childhood. My father kept a journal during those years in which he met my mother, and allowed me to read through it. I gained a new understanding of the world I was conceived in.

The research though, the hunting down those legends of my youth, became a new passion. With one success under my belt, I turned to the others waiting for me to find them. I will return on another day to share those stories, but in the process I learned to trace not only the missing who still live, but also the misplaced ancestors who flow through my veins and have been given stories once again.

I want to give you, dear reader, an equal opportunity to seek out your lost legends. To do this, I offer up a host of resources kindly shared with me by the Natural Parents Network and Adoption Search Reunion, along with resources gathered from my own research. This week I will just offer up some first steps to getting started, in future weeks I’ll include more extensive resources as you continue your journey.

Step One: Obtaining your birth certificate

The first step is to make sure you have as much information about your family origins, so you need to have a copy of your original birth certificate, which will contain identifying information about your birth mother and birth father if it has been recorded on the birth certificate. If you do not have a copy of your original birth certificate then you need to apply for a copy.

If you were adopted before 12th November 1975 and do not know your name at birth, you will need to apply to the Registrar General for Access to Birth Records. You will also need to meet with an adoption advisor so that arrangements can be made for the Registrar General to send them the information needed to apply for a copy of your original birth certificate. One of the reasons you are required to meet with an adoption advisor is because prior to 12th November 1975 promises of lifelong confidentiality were given to birth parents and families. At that time it was understood the adoption order would mean that all legal ties to the birth family were severed and that there would be no further contact. If you were adopted on or after 12th November 1975 and before 30th December 2005, and do not know your birth name, you can apply to the General Registrar for the information to enable you to obtain a copy of your original birth certificate.

You can apply for Access to Birth Records and a certificate of your original birth entry by contacting the General Register Office (GRO) on 0300 123 1837 or ordering them through the GRO website:

www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/

You can read more about your right to access information about your origins on the Adoption Search Reunion website:

www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk/search/righttosearch/accessinfo.htm

If you already know your original name then you have the information to apply directly to the Registrar General for a copy of your original birth certificate. Contact information for General Register Offices in the UK can be found on the Adoption Search Reunion website:

www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk/help/websites/#gros

If you were adopted on or after the 30th December 2005 then you need to apply to the Adoption Agency that placed you for adoption.

Step Two: Tracing Agencies. For many, the most direct way to trace your family is to use an agency which specializes in this. This list offers confidential, bona fide tracing services which you may find helpful in your own search. To find out costs and range of services offered, please get in touch directly with the individual company.

1. Tracing your Roots — Family Tracing Service for Adoptees

Sara Jones, based in the Wirral in the North West of England, works closely with Adoption Matters in Chester, and she also provides a professional, discreet family tracing service, specialising in finding birth families of people who have been adopted throughout the UK. Contact Information: Sara Jones. Tel: 0151 608 0503 (ans). Email: sara@tracingyourroots.co.uk www.tracingyourroots.co.uk

2. Adoption Services for Adults (Ofsted Registered)

Jean Milsted, specialises in birth records counselling for adults adopted before 12th November 1975, who want to apply for their original birth certificates; access to information from adoption files; also searching, tracing and intermediary services. Workshops are also run for adults affected by adoption. Contact Information: Jean Milsted. Tel: 01628 481954. PO Box 4621, Marlow, SL7 9DG Email: jean@milsteds.plus.com. http://www.adoptionservicesforadults.org.uk

3. Family Tracing and Locating Services

Linda Cherry started Family Tracing and Locating Services, and works hand in hand with Adoption Services for Adults, which allows her to continue helping birth relatives and adopted adults, and also enables her to work with other adoption support agencies worldwide. Contact Information: Linda Cherry. Tel: 01843 223646. Mob: 07828 078041. Email: lcherry.ftls@btinternet.com

4. Birthlink

Birthlink is where to go if you or your child were adopted in Scotland. If you have been affected by an adoption with a Scottish connection in any way, as a child, parent or relative, and are either looking for somebody, some information, or just someone to talk to, Birthlink can help you. They offer a range of services including search and mediation and also hold The Adoption Contact Register for Scotland. Contact Information: www.birthlink.org.uk  or 21 Castle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3DN, Scotland UK. Tel: 0131 225 6441

5. Adoption Search Reunion

www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk

This website provides information for adopted people, birth relatives and also adoptive parents in England and Wales. It is an excellent resource for getting started on your own without a tracing agency. It also provides information for agencies, professionals and volunteers who provide services for adopted people and their birth and adoptive relatives. The information available on this website applies to adoptions that were made before the 30th December 2005. This website includes a comprehensive listing of Mother and Baby Homes in England, including dates in which they provided services and location of archives.

That concludes this week, but please follow in the coming weeks for more resources on how to trace your family, and my continued journey in tracing the lost legends of my youth.

To learn more about my research, and to find additional resources please visit: http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com

Have you traced your family? Please leave your searching tips in the comments below so other readers may learn from your experience too!

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.

 

Confessions of Pregnancy: Telling Mom and Dad

Our parent’s acceptance, love and pride are some of the most basic things we strive for in life. Some do so with intention, while others navigate these needs subconsciously. There is an understanding that these people have created us, cared for us, and provided for us, which makes us responsible to be the best reflection of them as we can. Even if the realities of how we were cared for deviate substantially from expectations, the cultural standards of familyhood continues to indebt children to the honor of their parent’s gift of life. This desire to make our parents proud, to love and accept us, therefore makes admitting such a failure to do so incredibly painful.

Vintage Family Portrait from CreativeCommons

Vintage family portrait, licensed by CreativeCommons

For young women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant, the meaning of her experience from the moment she discovered her pregnancy, was forged in the relationships with those around her and the ways in which they reacted to what was happening. Their reactions provoked feelings of stress, guilt, trauma and shame in the expectant mother and left her feeling increasingly trapped by a difficult situation. Wishing only to make her parents proud, desiring to escape her humiliation, the young women were nevertheless forced to confront her parents and reveal her transgression. This moment was often one of the most difficult and painful of these women’s pregnancy, and would forever shift their relationship with their parents.

Some studies have suggested that guilt was greatest in those women who came from homes in which there was a strong sense of the family’s social standing, however this didn’t necessarily correlate with the family’s actual economic or social class. Indeed, families from a broad spectrum of backgrounds perceived themselves to exist within the social strata in such a way that a pregnancy out of wedlock would taint their standing by the scandal of their daughters’ pregnancy. It was in this atmosphere where pregnancy equaled immorality, irrespective of social ranking, in which the women turned to their parents.

4186-13545 Coal miner

All economic classes found shame around illegitimacy

Some who were away from home wrote letters or phoned, others sat down with one or both of their parents to explain their situation. The parents’ reactions were shocked, hurt, angered, disappointed and sometimes abusive. A few accused their daughter of being a slut or whore, slapped her, said they always knew she would disappoint them. Others addressed the situation in an efficient and detached manner, saying little but expressing the hurt in the ways they turned away or withdrew their affections. Many were told they would have to go away from the family home and community when they began to show, banished for their detectable transgressions. For those that remained until the time of their confinement in a mother and baby home, they were frequently made to stay indoors, hide in their bedrooms if guests came to call, to wear voluminous woolen ‘Duffle’ coats and Woolworths wedding rings if they left the house. Their mistake was made clear and the shame they brought upon their parents explicit.

 Phone booth

Calling home

One young woman terrified of telling her parents attempted to overdose on Quinine, instead becoming violently ill, and in the end having to confess her true condition when her mother threatened to call the doctor. Another stood face to face with her mother in the doctor’s office as her condition was revealed, her mother’s face crumbling into shock and sadness. Some parents asked whether the girl could marry the father in question, but for a variety of reasons such marriages weren’t possible either by choice or circumstances. A particular young lady pregnant by her school boyfriend, wanted to run away to Scotland to marry him as it was otherwise forbidden in England to marry without parental consent if you were under 21. Yet, her parents put an end to this and instead arranged for her to enter a mother and baby home. In all cases my participants told their mothers, some of their fathers were told at the same time or at a later date, while exceptionally some fathers were never told at all. One lovely man wrote back to his daughter and said, “Welcome home” though it was understood she was not going to be keeping the baby. Responses were consistently shrouded in shame and secrecy, the need to hide the pregnancy and birth was made explicit, and arrangements were made for the young women to go away and only return after the birth. Never to speak of the ‘incident’ again, either in the immediate or in the distant future. Some were told that no man would want to marry them now, thus cinching their new status as stigmatized and no longer qualified for full social acceptance.

Telling their parents was one hurdle the women shared in going through their pregnancies, the next was their banishment to Mother and Baby Homes throughout the country so as to hide their ‘shame’ and give up their children for adoption, before she could return to take up her place in the home once more.

The Shock of Pregnancy for the Unwed

I think for any unmarried teenage girl finding out you are pregnant is an unwelcome shock, perhaps there are exceptions but given attitudes around illegitimacy, women’s sexuality and the difficulties of single parenthood I imagine the majority wish they could simply undo what had been done. I have been debating whether to share my own encounter with teenage pregnancy, worried over whether it would taint the academic nature of my work, would reflect poorly as an experience that happened in a very different time from those mothers whom I have been studying, or perhaps will just offend those that do not agree with the choice I made. In the end I have decided to go ahead and share this, with perhaps a fair dose of hesitation. I feel that all the women interviewed for my project have been so open with their own stories, far far more traumatic than my own, and I have been so honored to bear witness to these stories, that it is somehow feels false to not be willing to share my own.

Pregnancy Test

Home pregnancy test

My tale is not unusual. I was a teenager in the early 1990s, and at one point had a brief and fairly casual relationship with a particular young man a few years older than myself. One day I didn’t feel well, my roommate suggested I take a pregnancy test, which I thought was a joke, there was no way I was pregnant. I used birth control. She wouldn’t let it go so I finally gave in and purchased a test, doing it only to make her drop the issue. When the test returned positive I was beyond shocked. I had had absolutely no awareness of it, and it seemed completely surreal. I grew up decades after the stories of those I’m collecting, and in a very open and loving home, yet I was somehow very prudish and would never talk to my mother about sex. To discover I was pregnant was mortifying, and even though my mother and sister both had children out of wedlock I was terrified that my mother would find out about me. (Anyone who knows my mother might laugh at this, she was a very free-love hippie type. But I was not and feared somehow disappointing her.) I had no hesitation in deciding to terminate the pregnancy. From an absolutely pragmatic sense I knew I was too young, had no resources, and did not want to ruin my life or that of another human being by trying to raise them without the skills or means necessary to do so. I contacted the father, which was strained and difficult as we had already broken off, and I told him he had to take me to the clinic. The day of the termination was one of the worst I can remember, I was awake the entire night before stressing over what was to come. I was angry and upset by the father’s ability to go out drinking then sleep comfortably through the night. We had a long tense drive, where neither of us spoke for a few hours. The entire experience was surreal, like watching your body go through the motions while you float somewhere above it. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he and I finally spoke to each other. Following the procedure I was woozy and sick, felt guilty for making him wait while I recovered, and kept apologizing. He returned me to my home and I don’t think we’ve had a single interaction since that day.  The days and weeks that followed carried a unique level of distress as I fell into a depression and contemplated suicide. Thankfully with the support of my friends and qualified counselors I recovered fairly quickly. I have never once regretted that decision, I have always known it was the right thing to do. And yet, every year my mind will roll back the clock and contemplate how old that daughter would be (for some reason I always imagined the fetus was a girl). And as my own biological clock ticks, as I ponder whether or not to have children as my years tick by, that being often comes to mind. I hope you will not judge me for my choice, and even if it is one you disagree with I hope you will continue to read and consider the stories of these women who had to make another choice in far more difficult conditions. My reason for sharing my own story is twofold, first it seems incomplete to talk about the subject without confessing one of my own connections. Two, it marks the extraordinarily difficult position these women were put into. I was a child of the 80s and 90s, I had an open and loving mother, I had a sister who had already had children outside of marriage, and I had access to abortion. And yet I still suffered the trauma of that loss, of depression and attempted suicide. The women of this study were raised in an era when unmarried motherhood was truly reviled, had parents who refused to discuss such intimate matters as sex and pregnancy, had no access to abortion (though whether they would have chosen this option I could not say), and were forced without having too much choice in the matter to hide their pregnancies, to carry and bear a child they had to give up for adoption.

acutest_1978_popup

Advertisement for the earliest home pregnancy tests, Mademoiselle, December 1978.

 

That is the climate I want you to understand when reading about the moment they discovered they were pregnant. There were no home pregnancy tests in the 1960s, these did not appear until 1978. A few experienced horrendous morning sickness, which they had to go to great lengths to hide as they shared bedrooms and bathrooms with family, waking extra early to be sick before the rest of the family woke. Or being sick in their bedrooms and having to hide it so no one would find out. For the majority it was the absence of their period that clued them in to the pregnancy. Some understood what this meant almost immediately, while others existed in a detached state of denial which kept them from truly believing the meaning of that absence. The women’s mothers were commonly the ones who purchased the sanitary napkins each month, and when the girls failed to show the mothers became aware of what was happening. Many prayed it would go away if they just ignored it.

mornidine

1959 Advertisement for Mornidine for morning sickness, Canadian Medical Association Journal

Eventually they each were made to face the difficult reality of their situation, this often occurred in the doctor’s office. Either on their own or with their mothers the women were taken to their family doctor who confirmed their pregnancy. The news, even if they had already known it, was devastating. One recalls falling into a surreal state, like being underwater. The world moving past her and she was trapped in a dream. The doctors generally didn’t want to know anything, perhaps living in a small community they wished to avoid being involved in anyway. One said to the young woman, ‘Don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to know. I’ll give you the name of a social worker and she’ll sort you out.’ Another told the terrified mother-to-be, ‘Have some gin and a hot bath. Try falling down the stairs a few times.’ While a third said, ‘All I can do is give you a douche can and hope that works.’ The women did not explicitly ask for abortifacients, but their shock and the cultural understanding that unmarried pregnancy was unthinkable prompted their doctors to provide such advice.

The women were devastated with the discovery. For there were many young men and women having sex before marriage, but it was only the unlucky that found themselves pregnant. Their pregnancy marking them for their supposed moral transgressions, and setting them on a path of heartache and loss. A moment, which for married women was one of joy and celebration, became instead a time of shame and guilt. They understood intrinsically the social climate in which they lived, they knew the mark this transgression placed upon them, and they feared what was to come. For some this weight of shame and guilt was too much and they attempted to induce a miscarriage, or at the more extreme end even attempted suicide. Fear of their parents finding out was tantamount to their desperate measures, and underscores the social conditions these women existed in.

Keep reading as this journey carries the women to the unavoidable confrontation with their parents, to admit they were with child, and to enter an entirely new world which was dictated by their pregnancy out of wedlock.

 

Additional reading for the curious

History of the Pregnancy Test http://history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline/timeline.html