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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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.

Courtship and Dating – Sixties Style!

Dating, courtship, going out, going steady – whatever you called it it was a different concept in the 1960s than the internet laden landscape of the 21st century. For the young women of the mid-century courtship and dating was a group affair. Getting to know the opposite sex frequently meant a gaggle of guys and girls hanging out at the ice rink, going to concerts or the cinema, having fun at someone’s house or mingling during an organized  activity.

Soda Fountain1960 Soda Fountain Group Hangout

The women who participated in my project started ‘dating’ anywhere from 12 to 18 They met their beaus at schools and youth clubs, in jazz clubs, at work, at the bowling alley or  just through friends. Dating meant hanging out with a boy, having him walk you home, and perhaps a kiss good night. But just as you or I might recount tremendously different dating experiences, so too did the women in this study. They recall themselves as being far more mature than today’s teens with greater levels of responsibility and fewer parental checks, while others believed themselves far more naive than teens today. Their naivety they often attributed to how little they knew about the opposite sex, expectations around courtship, and most notably their limited knowledge about sex and contraception. These were the young women experiencing the shifting norms of courtship from a strict nuclear 1950s to the era of free love.

Bowling

Experiencing that shift meant parents still expected a polite young man who would ring them for their permission and arrive with a corsage in hand. While pop culture was actually filling cave-like clubs with cigarette smoke, riotous guitar riffs and ever shorter mini skirts. Teens, just entering the world of sex and dating, were confronted with radical new social norms they were not entirely prepared for.

Nightclub1960s Nightclub

Consider this helpful educational video on what to expect when going out to dinner with your date. If teens were struggling with the etiquette of how to order their food or whether they could apply powder at the dinner table, the notion of being prepared for what happens when they are cornered in the back seat of a car or empty bedroom after a house party is completely beyond the scope of helpful educational videos or the guidance of a kindly aunt.

1960s Teen Dinner Date Educational Video

Whether going steady with their school sweetheart, dating an older fella from work, or juggling a string of suitors; each of these women came up short when their romantic endeavors resulted in unplanned pregnancies in an era with little support for single mothers and a heavy dose of shame. Told little or nothing about sex by parents raised with Victorian ideals, these women may have enjoyed the process of getting to know their beaus, but discovered pregnancy was a long and lonely path. Stay tuned as I continue to explore methods of contraception available and the difficult journeys of the ensuing pregnancies.