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.
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
Do you have a story or a comment to share?
I’d be honoured to hear from you.
2020 update! The novel referred to in the article is now available
at Amazon in print & ebook format.
Sacrifice, betrayal, family secrets! A widower and young mother struggle to overcome their tragic pasts in a dying mill town. The Last Hoffman explores environmental issues, mental health & social isolation. This story will renew your belief in second chances.
May 25, 2015 at 3:31 pm
Such a short period of time has passed since these attitudes and practices were commonplace – it’s difficult to believe or understand these views now.
May 27, 2015 at 9:44 pm
Andrea, you are so right. The shame put upon women even 25 years ago is probably difficult for our young women to grasp today. Thank heavens!
April 10, 2016 at 10:13 am
Hi Gwen…interesting ready – as history always is! I wrote a paper as an undergrad once on working girls of the 1920s…as with views on unwed mothers – all tied to ideas and ideals about how would should be viewed and behave.
April 10, 2016 at 10:14 am
Oops..typo – should have read”interesting reading”!!
May 14, 2016 at 2:33 pm
Thanks so much for taking time to write. I’d love to read that paper. Is it available online anywhere? I’m sure some of the accounts are heart breaking but it certainly makes one grateful for our advances in attitude. Shaming is so damaging.
April 4, 2020 at 2:27 pm
wow I almost feel ashamed to be estranged from my mother given all that she must have endured being a 14yr old unwed mother. I’m extremely grateful for the strength it must have required to carryout my birth into this world.
April 6, 2020 at 7:29 pm
Hello Monique, thank you for the courage of your comment. Your willingness to be vulnerable is helping other readers in your situation to see that they are not alone in feeling this way too. I greatly appreciate that you’ve written and hope you are well. Whatever her circumstances, she must have required courage. So glad you’re here:)
April 21, 2017 at 7:40 am
Hi, just come across this posting. I live in UK but am trying to to trace my half sister who was born in about 1935. I think she was put in an orphanage in saskatoon, as her mum died during the birth. The father was ‘of no fixed abode’ at the time and was refused permission to even see the child. He had a breakdown, and was deported back to UK. Later he married and i was born. I’ve always wanted to know my half sister and i think she has probably needed me. Maybe she had children? Any idea how i could start to trace her? I don’t know her name but think she was a polish emigree. Or Ukrainian. I’ve written a prize winning account t of the story. My father’s name was Jim Neat, but they were not married. Hope you have a suggestion! Best wishes, Mary.
April 24, 2017 at 5:33 pm
Mary, I’m incredibly moved the story of your situation. I must tell you that this is not an area of expertise for me. That being said, I would like to offer some assistance. Could you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org? Perhaps you could share some info about the offices you’ve already contacted.
July 24, 2017 at 9:11 pm
My mother died when I was ten years old. In doing genealogy I found out that she was born out of wedlock in a small town in Pennsylvania. Her mothers maiden name listed on marriage license and death notice were different. This makes me think she made them up….thanks to your article. So my search continues ….
August 21, 2017 at 10:21 pm
Mary, thank you so much for writing. The challenge of your research must be frustrating. I hope your search brings you the answers you are seeking. Sending you a virtual hug and best wishes.
September 17, 2017 at 9:45 am
Thoughtful piece Gwen- as women we can be thankful we live in the less condemning times that we do
September 17, 2017 at 12:51 pm
Thank you expressing for this kind sentiment. Since writing this piece, I’ve received emails from lovely mature women who’ve shared their stories with me. I’ve been so touched each time.
November 5, 2017 at 3:45 pm
1964 at Humewood House…….a nightmare. Not enough food. I lost over 30 pounds in 4 months. Threats of ice cold bath. INo information on childbirth. One hospital trip in 4 months. Shame delivered daily.
November 6, 2017 at 8:04 pm
I’m heartbroken to hear that you experienced this. You must have been so frightened.
November 6, 2017 at 8:08 pm
I don’t know a lot about computers. Is there a fee for reading your blog? Would you explain how this works as if you are talking to a 4 year old? Help.
May 21, 2018 at 1:26 pm
I was born in an unwed mothers home in Milford Nebraska USA in 1951, a result of my mother’s rape on or about Hallowee’en 1950. I was taken from her in St. Louis Missouri at age 2, when I was sent away to be placed in an MK Ultra home in Kansas. Thousands of women and children in the 50s suffered through the same horrors my mother and I did, both in the USA and Canada. I could tell you such stories…
May 29, 2018 at 12:16 pm
First, let me say how privileged I feel that you chose to share this piece of your life history. I am so sorry that you and your mother suffered these experiences. So many women have reached out to me to share similar stories about their own experience and their search for the children who were taken from them. I’ve delayed responding because I’ve been searching for the right words. I’m so moved and impacted by your sharing that I’m beginning to think I’m meant to write about this painful part of so many women’s past in more detail.
Should you ever wish to write again, you can reach me at email@example.com. Thank you<3
December 16, 2018 at 7:13 pm
Thank you, Gwen. I would like someone to co author a book with me about my experiences. Believe me, I have more than enough to fill a book!
August 29, 2019 at 2:45 pm
Gwen, you still in here? I’m going to attempt sending you an email-it will be from an alternate email under a different name @gmail.com, so look for it, okay?
August 29, 2019 at 3:38 pm
I’m always here:)
July 30, 2018 at 1:33 pm
I was given up for adoption after my birth mother was forced to go “live with the nuns” in or near Santa Rosa, Ca. I searched for her for over 25 years and was recently reunited with 4 1/2 siblings via a DNA search. That reunion has been an amazing journey and am grateful we found each other. Sadly my birth mother had passed away in 1991 leaving me with many questions. I am trying to find out what maternity home or home for unwed mothers that she was sent to. I was adopted via Children’s Home Society. Any help anyone can provide to identify what unwed mothers homes were in the Santa Rosa area in the 1950s would be greatly appreciated.
August 4, 2018 at 6:19 pm
Hello Gina. I’m so grateful that you’ve chosen to share your story here and that you’ve left this request for information. It is my fondest wish that someone will read this and contact you with the information you desire. I’m glad for you that you are able to know a little bit about your birth mother through your newfound family connection. Genuinely, I wish you the best of luck in your search.
March 18, 2019 at 1:43 am
My mother was one of these young women who was coerced, shamed and belittled into giving up her baby. These girls were lied to about what would happen to their children. The nurses told my mother there were loving parents with lots of money waiting to give me a great life. Although I did end up having a good life with loving parents I spent 15 months in an overcrowded foster home in Moncton. These women were manipulated. Where were the children going? Who was benefitting from them? Why weren’t they given options. My mother was date raped by a neighbour, then traumatized again by the Salvation Army house staff. She still won’t talk about it much today as she felt that she somehow had no choice whatever about not only her situation but about the future of her baby. My mom was made to take me in a car to a government office and sign papers then simply hand over the infant that they were allowed to see and bond with for only a few hours but just long enough to add to the pain.. The women were belittled, separated from their families, alone they were mostly naive girls from mostly Catholic families, who ostracized them and if the girls returned to their families the birth was erased as if the girls trauma was somehow unimportant. The question of not having open adoption records is a difficult one however I believe that it is the right of children to know whom their parents are, the children as well as the mothers are being traumatized again. The unfortunate fact is that many people are using dna websites now a days anyway to connect them to their birth parents. If the mothers don’t wish to have a relationship with their children they will just have to decline contact. Heath records and family history should however be a priority. I have since reunited with my birth mother in a feel good tale right out of a Hallmark movie. My mothers pain and trauma has been eased with love and the knowledge that I am heathy and happy. We have a great relationship for over 20 years now. She wasn’t able to have any other children. She has two grandchildren and two great grandchilren that she never would have known had we not had access to the records. I believe a lot of the trauma she suffered still affects her today, and she still pushes back a lot of the regrets. Why wasn’t she given options? Why did families trust the home for girls was the best place for their daughters?
March 20, 2019 at 4:20 pm
First, I’d like to say thank you so much for writing and for sharing so candidly. This is such an important history for people to be aware of. I feel honoured that you chose to share here. I’m gutted by the tragic circumstances that befell your mother and like you, struggle to understand the lack of empathy for these young women. It’s so wonderful that you were able to access records that led you to your mother and that you share such a bond with her. I’m so glad for your entire family. Your comment about trauma resonates with me. Shaming is a deep injury and one that is difficult to be rid of, not to mention that wrenching away of a child. That unfinished story and the not knowing where you were or how you were must have been intolerable. Whatever the reasons for the choices of the responsible adults and authorities, they are inadequate in light of the suffering expressed by women who have shared your and your mother’s experience. Blessings to you Betty. I hope we will correspond again.
With warmest regards,
June 14, 2019 at 8:16 pm
Gwen I was one of them baby’s born in tuam im Desmond. Lally I’m 72 now I’m glad you letting everyone know what happened in tuam co Galway and other places in ire
L And it has been an night mare for me thinking what them creeps of nuns did to 796 baby’s trew them in Ceptic tanks try to hide the baby’s exzisted this what hurts more.
June 20, 2019 at 10:23 am
Desmond, thank you for the courage it must have taken to share here. It is so important that these stories are known widely and not forgotten. This horrendous and tragic event was unknown to me but I’ll exploring it further. I’m grateful that you’ve expanded my awareness and more importantly, I’m grateful that you’re still here. If there is anything you wish to share through email, please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, Desmond, I truly appreciate your reaching out.
October 11, 2019 at 9:01 am
Interesting read – In 1985 I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, my adoptive mother had me shipped off to a home for unwed mothers in Trenton NJ and the home did everything they could to try an convince me to give up my daughter…and then 11 months later I got pregnant again – I went to Chicago where my son’s father was and he was of no help – I went to another home for unwed mothers – Gehring Hall and I placed my son for adoption.
May 2, 2020 at 9:31 pm
Dear Gwen, My dear Mum endured pregnancy and childbirth in 1938 at age 16 in New Zealand at a home for unmarried mothers. She did not reveal this to us until 1988 when her son came looking for her after the adoption laws changed in NZ. She had kept this a secret from our father and everyone who knew her. Her parents did not contact her and never mentioned it later. Our brother is a lovely chap and seems surprisingly undamaged, perhaps partly due to the fact that she cared for him and breast fed for three months after the birth. I know she grieved all her life and that her self-esteem was badly damaged. I am also the mother of an adoptive son in 1977. It has been a difficult journey for us, ( his adoptive father and I separated), but we found his birth Mum when he was 16 and he has a happy life now. I have a strong interest in the subject, and like you am a novelist and am now writing a story about pregnancy and birth for unwed mothers. (Not my Mum’s story). The history of this is hard to believe from today’s standpoint and as you say, our young people today will have difficulty connecting with the realities of that time, as I do myself. I enjoyed your article and podcast. Regards Lyndsay
May 5, 2020 at 2:37 pm
Hello, Lyndsay. Thank you so much for writing to share details about your family’s experience. I’m moved by every word–your mother’s grief, the burden of secrecy, that your brother is well, and the journey you’ve experienced through your adopted son. Writing is so cathartic. It’s wonderful that can share your perspective through fiction to build that bridge of understanding for your readers, most of whom will not have experienced the likes of this. And thank you for the kind words. They always mean so much coming from a fellow writer. Stay well, Lyndsay. I hope our paths cross again I this virtual world.
November 19, 2020 at 4:48 pm
I spent from Sept 76-dec 76 in a unwed mother’s home in Calgary Alberta Canada. It was a horrible experience I felt I was being punished for being pregnant at 16 years old, so glad the govt no longer has these places. Instead of helping my experience it brings me sadness and hate toward everyone who was involved including the church who ran it. Lynn
November 20, 2020 at 4:02 pm
Lynn, thank you so much for sharing your experience. There are so many women with whom this will resonate. I continue to be beffuddled by a system designed in lay shame on young women as opposed to offering positive support through a time already fraught with worry. shame is a difficult feeling to get out from under. I wish you healing and peace.
March 19, 2023 at 4:24 am
I understand why your trying to romanticize of interest in your book but given our current political climate I think First mentioning that many states had LAWs similar to Ireland in which a child was forcibly taken from an unwed woman by a nun and later a nun and a social worker at the hospital or that once in a home they had absolutely no choice as to weather or not they kept their child!!
March 19, 2023 at 2:15 pm
I’d first like to thank you commenting and for pointing this information out to me. Since I posted what I’d learned, women’s reproductive rights have devolved in the United States. I strove to share factual information and am unclear about how I romanticized women’s experience. My intention was anything but.
I agree with your suggestion above and would like to revise the piece to reflect the information you’ve pointed out. At the time that I wrote this, I researched what was necessary to the story I was writing about a girl residing in northern Ontario.
Could you reply with a link to information about the states where it’s legal to forcibly remove a child from an unwed mother? And a link to another article that mentions Irish nuns doing the same? I’d be most appreciative.
Thank you again. I appreciate your investing the time.