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

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Unwanted Pregnancies and the Alternatives

Invariably, the women who participated in this study were surprised by their pregnancies and dismayed at what this meant for them. The fathers could largely avoid any of the responsibility or stigma associated with unmarried parenthood, yet the women were physically marked by their premarital infidelities and plunged into a painful situation where they had to consider what would happen to them, their babies, and the relationships with those close to them. Many of their parents responded with anger, hurt, shame, or disappointment. Women lost friends and boyfriends, jobs and schooling opportunities, all because they were unlucky enough to fall pregnant. It is therefore unsurprising that along with a healthy dose of denial many considered ‘alternatives’ to escape pregnancy. Perhaps more surprising is how many people offered up these helpful suggestions, including their doctors.

Gin bath

Most frequent suggestion: Gin and a Hot Bath (admittedly, Hendricks was unlikely to be the available gin option)

The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot.  One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, “have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.” Falling down the stairs was also mentioned by others. One woman knew that quinine could bring about a miscarriage and unable to buy it in its pure form consumed ample amounts of it that was sold as a flu remedy. She failed to miscarry, instead becoming dreadfully ill thus forcing her to tell her parents she was pregnant. The one thing she was trying to avoid by taking the quinine in the first place.

Quinine Ad

Quinine found in cold remedies

Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe. A woman from Kate Fisher’s research in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 recounts “My one friend used to take gin with, um something, and they used to put it in the oven and when it used to go down they used to drink it. It was like a sedative to make you go to the toilet and – to get rid of it that way. Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.”

Folding Feminine Syringe

Feminine Syringe for Douching

One desperate young woman in my study tried gin and a hot bath, douching, repeatedly jumping off the high dive, and finally took herself to a back alley abortionist she had heard of. Arriving at his shabby door she discovered he was out, but she was invited to come in and wait for him. After sitting in the grungy residence for about an hour she decided it wasn’t a good idea, made her apologies and left. England has a mixed history with access to abortion, where it was legal for the most part to induce a miscarriage up until ‘quickening’ (i.e. when movement is felt at 16-20 weeks, once believed to be the point when the soul was entering the fetus). However the 1861 Offences Against the Person act made all abortions illegal, and while those guidelines varied over the next century, it wasn’t until 1967 that abortions were again made legal in England. This change is largely due to the number of maternal deaths occurring from illegal and self induced abortions in the interwar and postwar periods. As a result legal abortion was not an option for the majority of the women in this study, instead they relied upon wives tales and rumors to help them escape the mantle of shame cloaking them as soon as their pregnancies were discovered.

Lysol advertisement Zonite ad 2 Douche powder ad 1969

 Lysol, Koromex and Zonite all advertised as germicides to be used when douching for ‘Feminine Hygiene’

 

Keep following the journey of these unmarried mothers as I recount their stories of telling their parents in my next update.

 

Further reading for the curious:

http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/index.php/media-and-resource-centre/abortion-law/275

Fisher, Kate.  Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Szreter, Simon and Fisher, Kate. Sex Before the Sexual Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility and Contraception during the Demographic Transition: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 34, No. 2. Pp. 141-154