Delving Deeper — Unwed Mothers and Maternity Home History

A character in my novel is in trouble.  She is  a pregnant, young and unmarried. Should she raise the baby? Should she give it up to a childless couple?

It seems that everyone has the answer but her. The father campaigns for her to keep the baby, but the character fears being stigmatized by her small rural community if news of her situation begins to circulate.  Her parents are eager to rush her off to a maternity home. Going off to ‘spend the summer at an aunt’s house’ was a common cover story for girls who needed to disappear during the last months of pregnancy.

What follows is some introductory research into the topic of maternity homes. I expected that this would be an emotionally charged subject, but I was unprepared for the numerous stories of despair. After hours of reading, I determined to share a few insights about historical attitudes toward unwed mothers and pregnancy along with a description of the maternity home experience.

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An unwed mother arrives at a Salvation Army Maternity Home (photographer Ed Clark)

During eras when sex outside of marriage was taboo, being  single and pregnant was socially and morally unacceptable. Unwed mother’s were labelled by their communities as ‘ruined’ and they carried the burden of having shamed their families.  Girls were commonly disowned by their parents.

Regarded as bad girls or fallen women, they were secreted away to hide their condition and their babies were often given up, or in some tragic cases, left on the church steps.  At the very least, the mother would return to her life and suffer in silence.

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During the Victorian era, North American middle and upper classed women, even married ones, often corseted themselves to conceal their pregnancies and then entered a phase of confinement during the final months. Babies were delivered at home by friends, relatives or midwives so, for unwed mothers, the anonymity of giving birth at a busy hospital was impossible.

It was during this time that the first maternity homes were organized to shelter unwed expectant or nursing mothers. For the first fifty years of the last century, the options of a pregnant single woman included marriage or hiding out and having the baby in secret, then putting it up for adoption.  Until 1969, abortion was illegal and punishable by imprisonment, for both mother and physician.

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A 1950s family at home in a very traditional family structure. Photograph: Fpg/Getty Images

Canadian maternity homes increased in number along with the increase in pregnancies following World War Two. The experience of living at one of these homes could feel very isolating and lonely.  Some homes insisted that the girls use false names and resist building relationship with other residents. Contact with family and friends from home was often restricted or forbidden. Girls were kept busy with daily assigned chores.

“In the postwar era, the maternity home became a social agency designed to pull a girl off the wrong branch of the road to correct her course toward femininity and motherhood.” Rickie Solinger –Wake Up Little Susie

Some maternity homes required that the girls remained for up to six months of service following delivery of their child. They would be trained to perform tasks for the home as a form of payment for medical and confinement expenses. Because many of these establishments also had a connection to a religious organization, the good works were viewed as redemptive or reformative.

At one time, there were 60-80 maternity homes across Canada, but most of them closed by the early eighties when teen parenting centres began appearing.

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One Day at a Time was the first sitcom to feature a divorced single mother. The program aired from 1975 to 1984.

 “A report by the Canadian Welfare Council of 1957 estimated there were about thirty such homes across Canada. By the end of the 1960’s there were roughly fifty homes” – “Gone to an Aunts”,  Anne Petrie

By the late seventies, a single woman opting to keep her baby had lost the stigma assigned during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was believed that giving the child up meant that the girl could put her mistake behind her and move on.  Another social change lessened the sting of the term ‘single mother’ — divorce. As the divorce rate rose,  people could no longer assume by default that a single mother was an unwed mother.

While the moral judgement on teen mothers softened going into the 1980’s, the new call to judgment involved health and economic issues linked to their often interrupted education.

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News clipping shared via OriginsCanada (click to enlarge view)

Throughout my research, I did discover several disheartening accounts of women’s experiences: coerced adoption, failure to inform girls about social assistance, sterilization, verbal and emotional abuse by staff members, unattended labour and the list goes on. The following is a list website should you wish for further conversation.

Lead Photo credit: “Babies fill a nursery at Humewood House in an archival photo from the shelter’s collection. ” via  http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2012/04/09/humewood_house_100_years_of_support_to_unwed_mothers.html
Photo via hdl.loc.gov

Do you have a story or a comment to share?

I’d be honoured to hear from you.

 

 

Categories: Delving Deeper | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Curating Wonder — The Irish Road

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Photo 1: Meadovale Creamery, Charleville, County Cork, Ireland (photo credit: National Library of Ireland / Photo 2: North Quay, Drogheda (photo credit: National Library of Ireland)/ Photo 3:  Ruins of Olderfleet Castle, Larne  (photo credit: National Library of Ireland) / Photo 4: St. Patrick’s Hill, Cork (photo credit: National Library of Ireland)

“I wonder …”

How would you finish this sentence?

 

Categories: Curating Wonder | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Feeling Nostalgic — Slowing Down and Savouring the Moment

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Eddie Cantor said, “Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast. You also miss the sense of where you are going and why. ” I am usually mindful of his advice,  but life can become a runaway horse. Even when the source of busyness is something I enjoy, I sometimes I have to take life by the reins and call, “Whoah!”

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My favourite yoga studio — in the open air and sunshine.

My life has evolved into a yummy box of chocolates, chocked full of ideas and opportunities, both creative and social, that I want to make the most of.  When I go too fast for too long, I don’t feel like myself and I’m forced to halt for a few days.  My productivity grinds to a halt and I am visited by a sense of frustration. There is always a blessing in this forced hiatus, however. If I’m patient and slow my mind, I will recognize it.

Carl Honore’s TED Talk about the benefits of living slowly reminded me of what I already knew. Some things in life are best enjoyed at a slower speed so we can savour them.

Slowing down is not a bad thing. It doesn’t have to mean advancing at a snail’s pace, giving up on working or striving. It can mean being present and living in the moment instead of living in your head and mentally galloping ahead to the next item on the to-do list.

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Writing poolside in Bermuda, overlooking the bay.

For me, slowing down now means taking regular breaks during lengthy project. I might do fifteen minutes of yoga, a brief meditation, or read a few pages of a book for pleasure. A walk or a bike ride to the grocery store becomes a restorative time-out. I have to do it, so why not enjoy it? When I’m not in the car, I can hear birds sing or have a chance encounter with a friend or neighbour.  I try to think of preparing a meal as a creative endeavour, a combining of colours, textures and flavours.  Working in the garden or having a coffee with a friend nurtures my spirit and leaves me creatively recharged. For me, deep conversation is a must.

A beautiful day spent with friends on Amsterdam canals.

The net result of savouring the moments is that instead of accomplishing less, I actually become more productive and creative. I still remember my visit to the Netherlands, where quality of life and social time is paramount. When the sun shines, people come out in droves to the parks and canals. Friends might share bread, cheese and a bottle of wine as they cruise the canals or gather to play board games on a blanket spread on the grass of a public parks.

I’ll take a page from their book any day!

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Shopping with the bicycle, complete with Amsterdam paniers.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

How do you slow down?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

 

Categories: Feeling Nostalgic | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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