A character in my novel, The Last Hoffman, is in trouble. She is pregnant, young and unmarried. Should she raise the baby? Should she give it up to a childless couple?
(Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of Unwed Mothers and Maternity Home History)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.