It is 4am here in California, but being roused from my slumber for this news is worth the lost sleep. Women have been losing sleep over this issue for years, stifled in heartbreaking silence over the loss of their children. Alice Perman of Ronachan Films has done more than produce a documentary on the subject of forced adoptions, she has aided a movement which has finally been granted an apology by the Catholic Church. There is more work to be done, more stories to be told, more hearts to be mended. But when ITV’s “Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence” airs on November 9th I’ll be among the sleepless women watching teary eyed as this long hidden history sheds another layer to be revealed to the greater public. Kudos to Alice and to the many women who have worked tirelessly for this acknowledgment and apology. I honor you and feel blessed to have played my small part.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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