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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Birth Control and the Sexual Revolution

Today, we take our ability to mitigate pregnancies through contraception as a given. A visit to the clinic can offer us pills, patches, IUDs, condoms in every imaginable shape, color and flavor. I was a child of the 80s and carry a distinct memory of going to a health clinic with my mum and brother for something commonplace like a cold or flu. In the waiting room there was a big bowl of condoms, which my brother and I secretly filled our pockets with. Afterwards, as we frolicked in a park in the sunshine we blew them up like big balloons and fell into fits of giggles as we bopped them in the air, making up games that required us to keep them afloat. My mum may have been mortified, but I doubt it. She was a pretty free spirit, and we really didn’t have a clear idea what they were for other than something adults did. By 6th grade I clearly understood their purpose, especially in science class as our teacher led us through the process of pinching the tips as we slowly unrolled them over bananas. Yes, I’m the generation that blushed as we unrolled condoms over bananas in science class as if it was a totally normal thing to do.

My, how things have changed! Birth control has actually existed for quite some time, but the accessibility to it is what is so new. Condoms have been around for ages, becoming prevalent in the 16th century in response to syphilis. Originally fashioned from sheep gut, fish bladder or linen they were used with ointments and medicinal solutions. It was the change in rubber processing in the mid-nineteenth century which revolutionized condoms into slowly evolving to those we know today.

condom-animal  condom packaging c1930-1950 Case Western Reserve University website
Animal membrane condom    |     Condom packaging, c. 1930-1950

Aside from condoms, there grew a wide variety of contraceptive options available with mixed reliability including douches, spermicides, cervical caps, diaphragms and sponges.  Most of these were acquired through a visit to your local doctor. Thus lies the challenge to many sexually active men and women, the requirement of talking about this very private activity with an outsider. Women remarked that “It took a lot of courage to even ask the doctor how to limit births. And the doctor was as embarrassed as I was. So I wasn’t satisfied with what he told me, but I didn’t have the nerve to go to another doctor.” (Fisher, p.45) Not only was this a difficult topic for women to have with their doctor, this interchange was restricted to married women. Birth control, or colloquially ‘preventative checks’, ‘artificial checks’ or ‘Malthusianisms’ were widely understood as something relegated to the married, as the unmarried were presumably not sexually active. (Fisher, p. 49) In the early 20th century it was commonplace that men were responsible for managing the family’s reproduction, as the topic was considered something within the masculine sphere and not quite appropriate for women to discuss.

Contraception 1900-1950 from case.edu  

Birth control methods, c. 1900-1950

Revolutionaries such as Margaret Sanger (American birth control advocate, 1879-1966) and Marie Stopes (author, Married Love, 1918) certainly made enormous strides in reproductive history, but as they were entering the scene in the early 20th century they didn’t have an immediate impact on everyday sexual practices between couples. Particularly as the majority of married couples seemed to rely on withdrawal or the rhythm method once it was understood in the 1930s to control the number of pregnancies they had.

Rhythmeter for rhythm method from case.edu

The ‘Rythmeter” to help couples track cycles for safe sex, c.1930

The contraceptive pill did not arrive in England until the 1960s and wasn’t available to unmarried women until  1968, its impact evident in the decreased numbers of illegitimate births and adoptions following that year. (Clark, p.56)

Early Enovid birth control pill bottle c.1960 from case.edu birth control pills from case.edu

Enovid, birth control pill available in England, c. 1968   |   Birth Control Pills later

However, even if young men could acquire condoms through local chemists, the majority of women participating in my study remarked that there “wasn’t really birth control in those days.”  They knew of ‘johnnies’  or ‘French Letters,’ euphemisms for condoms, but for the most part had never seen one. The majority relied on their beau’s knowledge of the withdrawal method. Their parents did not discuss sex with them, there was no sex education in the schools, and contraception wasn’t even included in midwifery texts until the 1960s. Their parents were equipped with antiquated terms such as “taking the kettle off before it boils” (withdrawal) or “driving a car without petrol” (non-coital forms of lovemaking). While the sexual revolution may have been drawing young men and women closer before marriage, it was failing to provide them with much more information than the generations before.  Girls ignorance around sex implied “moral purity, innocence and respectability” but did little to protect them from the very real dangers of unprotected sex.

 

Further reading for the curious:

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

Clark, Gillian. 2008 “The Role of Mother and Baby Homes in the Adoption of Children Born Outside Marriage in Twentiety-Century England and Wales.” Family & Community History, Vol. II/I,Mmay 2008.

Case Western Reserve University. Virtue, Vice and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America. http://www.case.edu/affil/skuyhistcontraception/index.html

*All photos courtesy of Case Western Reserve University

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.