Mar 1, 2012

Stories from the mothers who had their babies taken away

Here is a selection of women explaining just what it was like for a young Australian girl or woman in the 1950s-mid 1970s facing pregnancy as an unwed mother.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

About 150,000 babies were put up for adoption in Australia during 1951-1975, the large majority from single, unwed girls and women. The practice of "forced adoptions"  involving coercion and institutional policies that encouraged babies to be taken away from their mothers, has been the focus for a Senate committee for the past 18 months. Yesterday the Community Affairs committee tabled it's final report, Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices, to the Senate yesterday. The committee calls for a formal apology to given by the federal government that identifies that actions and policies that encouraged forced adoptions. The report is largely based on the 418 submissions received from individuals and organisations explaining their own personal experiences of having their babies removed from them. Here is a selection of some of those submissions, which explain just what it was like for a young Australian girl or woman in the 1950s-mid 1970s facing pregnancy as an unwed mother: What happened when they found out they were pregnant? Colleen Ewen:
[My father] took me to Windang police station and told them what was going on, I think he was hoping I would tell them who the father was. In those days carnal knowledge was a crime. My father got angrier and angrier he punched me in the face in front of the police who did nothing, about an hour later a lady came to the police station and took me home and told me to pack a bag.
Name withheld:
I went to the Salvation Army in Sydney and was placed into a home for old women where I and several other unmarried pregnant girls did most of the work there under the orders of the matron, some Salvation Army women, and a cook. I worked in the kitchen and it was hot, hard work. One of my tasks was to scrub the floor until one day the cook told me to use a mop as I was having difficulty getting down to do it. I had almost finished when Matron came in and said "What is she doing with a mop? I want to see her on her hands and knees before our precious lord!" Matron came in as I was scrubbing it and said "That's better; down on her hands and knees where she belongs."
Kate Howarth, author of the memoir Ten Hail Marys. She was one of the few girls to leave Sydney's St Margaret's Home for unwed mothers with her baby in the mid-1960s:
For the next four months I was put to work in the hospital kitchen and laundry, for six and a half days a week, working an eight hour split shift. There was no payment for the work I did; it was said to cover my ‘keep’ while I was confined and awaiting the birth of my child. The accommodation provided by the hospital was overcrowded and squalid. The food supplied was inadequate for the needs of a pregnant girl and resulted in malnutrition that resulted in considerable hair loss and dental problems due to a lack of calcium in the diet.
The pressure placed on young unmarried girls to consent for their babies to be adopted Barbara Maison:
The hospital files of single pregnant girls files were often marked "BFA" [baby for adoption] assuming that the child of an unmarried mother would be adopted long before consent was taken and even if the mother had advised that she was keeping her child.
Linda Eve:
My medical records have 'BFA' stamped on them...even though I had said from the start I wanted to keep my baby. So it's clear to me they had the adoption of my child as their intention all along.
Name withheld:
I was 18 years old but I think my emotional maturity level was about 14 years old. I did what all the other girls did in my situation. I will feel forever sad and sorry that I didn’t have the gumption or strength of character to be able to stand up for myself and my daughter. This is how you felt. You were so bad, so troublesome, so undeserving. What would a frightened, downtrodden and shamed young girl have to offer her child, where would she start? I could not fight my family or the society’s values at  that time. I was also emotionally distressed that my relationship had also broken up in such awful circumstances.
Kate Howarth:
On the day of my admission I was given a document to sign which I realised was to relinquish my son for adoption. At no time before I was given this document to sign was I told alternatives to adoption or any of the financial and material assistance which I now know was available to me and which was my entitlement at law to be told about before any document was produced ... The treatment that I was subjected to before, during and after the birth of my son was tantamount to torture while the hospital administrator tried to get my consent for adoption. This included threats, intimidation and sleep deprivation. On 26 December 1965 I was discharged from the hospital because I refused to sign the consent. I was 15 years old, eight months pregnant, homeless and with less than £20 to my name.
Name withheld:
We were given a tour of the labour ward, and our tour guide told us we had been chosen by God to provide babies for childless couples. After being told we were worthless for so long, I think it was small comfort. We were set to work in the laundries and other areas. I had to sit in the autoclave room rolling up cotton balls into swabs from a long roll of cotton. Some  girls got the job of erasing the names from the paper bags put over the feeding bottles for the babies in the nursery so they would be used again. The girls recognised the names of some of the babies as being from their friends who had already delivered.
Name withheld:
I don't have any complaints about the day to day treatment we received at the home; however we were subjected to intense propaganda, aimed at having us relinquish our babies. The most common line being: if we really loved our babies we would give them away, to a proper two parent family.
Name withheld:
I'd lie in bed every night with my arms wrapped around my baby inside of me knowing that I would never hold him after birth. I'd feel his feet and hands through my own stomach as he moved around, knowing that I wasn't ever going to feel them after he was born. I'd talk to him and tell him that I would find him again one day and that I and his father loved him and always would. I'd pray to God every night for him to send [someone] to get me out of there and show me a way to keep my baby, but no one did. I'd think of running away, but where would I run to, who would I run to. It was clear to me that no one in my family was going to help me.
Lizzy Brew:
I went into a maternity home on 2 April 1975. Someone marked my child for adoption on 3 April 1975, the very next day. I did not see a social worker for four months. My records will substantiate that. We were solicited, basically. I did not ask to have my child placed for adoption. We were solicited for our babies. They went out after us, and that was forbidden by law. They were not allowed to do that. So to mark someone's file secretly like that was illegal. Who marked my child for adoption? I still do not know, but someone looked at  me and said, 'That will be good. We will have that baby for the Smiths.'
Examples of doctors and other professionals mistreating the young pregnant mothers in their care
Judith Burkin:
I had many medical tests during my pregnancy and couldn't help but feel that I was there for the training of student doctors and nurses. I was pushed and prodded and found my stomach covered in bruises and from one examination was left bleeding from my vagina. I tried to resist upon one examination, but was forcibly pushed back onto the table, being told, "this is your punishment for what you have done! You have to endure this so that the doctors can practice and be experienced for a real life situation!" One nurse even told me, 'You don't care about your baby, if you had, you wouldn't have fallen pregnant and ended up here annoying all of us. You will do as you are told!'.
Rosemary Harbison:
During my two days of labour I was isolated and left in pain for long periods of time. Nurses glared at me with cold contempt when I asked for help, and laughed together in front of me making derogatory comments about my “unwed status.”
Therese Margaret Pearson:
I was treated very badly by the doctor who was supposed to be looking after us at Waitara. As a matter of fact, I was raped six weeks before Peter was born by the doctor who was supposed to be looking after me. I was informed by the doctor himself that I was a nice, good Catholic girl and that I would have maybe 11 more kids and I would be back at Waitara the following year to give them another one.
Name withheld:
After this disastrous visit the Social Worker sent me to a psychiatrist. I don’t remember discussing my pregnancy or my plight with him. I told him that I was eight months pregnant and alone in Sydney and confused about  what I should do. I was astonished by his response, which was, 'What are your s-xual fantasies?' It was probably in the first week after the birth that a tall distinguished looking doctor wearing a very expensive kind of suit was ushered into my room by a midwife (she left the room) and stood opposite me whilst I was sitting on the edge of the bed. After I told my story very briefly, and I asked him 'what was wrong with me, where had I gone so wrong' the psychiatrist made the following remarks, 'You must have enjoyed the fucking that created your baby, all those sperm exploding against the walls of your vagina!' He then concluded his visit by saying that I was 'emotionally immature' ... I have never disclosed this experience to anyone in past 43 years up until recently, as it was too painful, confronting and unbelievable.
Margaret McGrath:
On every occasion that I went to see him [her doctor], he told me to take off all my clothes no matter if it was for an internal examination or simply to take my blood pressure. I didn’t understand why it was necessary to undress for this but didn’t question any of it, thinking that perhaps it was what every pregnant woman had to do. I remember being very embarrassed by it and really didn’t know how to broach the subject with my mother or anyone else. On two occasions when taking my blood pressure, he sat beside the examination table and positioned my arm so that the back of my hand rested in his crotch. On the second occasion he did this, I raised my arm but he casually pressed it downwards until it was again resting in his groin. I blush even now at the memory of it and am angry that he took advantage of my inexperience and angry at myself for not having said something to him about it or told anyone.
Christen Coralive:
I was already under duress, frightened and alone. At that time, I was not advised by the social worker that there was financial assistance available to me. This information was kept from me, and therefore there was no other option for me at that time. To follow-up on the money issue, I approached the Council of Single Mothers and Their Children, which had just got started, I think, and I was told that there was money available from them. But when I approached Centrelink, or whatever they called themselves in those days, I was told that there was no money for six months. So then I had to approach the state welfare department for money, and that was one of the most humiliating experiences that I have ever had. I remember that there were very specific questions as to the s-xual nature of my relationship with my baby's father, including how many times we had had s-xual relations, where and when. I refused to fill in those questions. I was mortified and left the office penniless. Luckily, I had worked through my pregnancy, so I did have some savings.
Post-birth experiences  Linda Ngata:
My son was born shortly after and whilst being stitched up the baby was placed across the room with the two midwives moving from side to side to taunt me from seeing my baby. I asked to have my baby and was told "that was not possible" as I was classified as BFA "baby for adoption". I told them I was keeping my son [and was] told "we will see"... I went to the nursery to get my baby and was told I was not to have admittance to the nursery. After lunch I returned to the nursery and proceeded to walk straight to my baby, I was physically held back, the nursery door was locked and a social worker called. I was told not to make any trouble, you have no right to be here and to return to my bed, I made several unsuccessful attempts to get into the nursery to be with my baby.
Judith Henrikson:
My second request to see my baby is the most vivid memory I have from my time there after giving birth. We were in the bathroom where the toilets and showers were. ‘It’s not your baby,’ the nun told me. It’s not my baby?  Well, this was interesting. While I was standing there milk was leaking from my breasts...[t]hen she proceeded barbarically to tightly wrap the binding around my breasts. My third and last attempt asking to see my baby was in the morning before my father came to take me home. A nun told me yet again, ‘It’s not your baby. You have your whole life in front of you. Just get on with your life and forget it.’ Three times on three different days I asked to see my little daughter before I left St Anne’s. Three times I was denied, for it had been calculated my precious baby, that I carried there in my womb, was for the joy of others. ...  I have spoken to hundreds over the years and I have never met one natural mother who lost a child through adoption who was given any alternative other than adoption or who mentioned the financial support.
Susan Treweek:
The midwife came to me while I was being stitched up and handed me papers. They knew that I could not read. They handed me the papers and said I must sign the registration of birth.
Christen Coralive:
On the fifth day, I needed to sign a piece of paper giving permission for a blood test for my daughter. The paper was folded and underneath two signatures were required. The underneath piece of paper was a relinquishment form.
The final report tabled to the Senate yesterday has 337 pages, full of quotes such as these. Read it here.

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16 thoughts on “Stories from the mothers who had their babies taken away

  1. Whistleblower

    In this day and age where upward social mobility for the bogan class is getting “banged up” and getting on the social welfare gravy train with three or four kids for the next 20 or so years, it is difficult to go back 60 or so years to where girls were expected to keep their legs together before being married, and the breadwinner of the family social unit was expected to look after his wife and children without bucket-loads of community assistance.

    As cruel as this adoption process might seem, it was seen as being just in a situation where unmarried mothers were stigmatised, their offspring were considered to be bastards of with low social standing, and an unwanted pregnancy attracted enormous social stigma for the family as a whole. There was a social purpose to this ostracisation, and that was discipline, a characteristic often lacking in today’s community.Rightly or wrongly it was considered in the best interest of the child to be put up adoption.

    Furthermore the process of separation at birth, whilst emotionally cruel, was seen by many at the time as being the best solution so that the mother did not bond with the child. The social stigma associated with bonding and then retaining the child was substantial, and the responsibility for maintenance of the mother and child then rested with her own family. Also the discrimination associated with being a fallen woman was such that such women were not allowed to be married as brides in a church.

    This in no way however defends the so-called Christians operating homes for “fallen women, doctors, nurses and “the overall community attitude to vilify these poor girls who had made a simple mistake, and in many instances the fathers of these children would often disappear without trace or deny any knowledge, again because of social stigma. There was also the expectation that the father of an unmarried mother would be involved in a “shotgun marriage”, and immediately have to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining a family.

    Finally in addition to the cruel punishment on separation, this poor women had no opportunity to discuss their feelings because of the social stigma associated with the situation, and it is difficult in our modern social structures to appreciate the pain of such separation.

  2. Liz45

    As a woman who was very young in the 1960’s I’m thankful that I didn’t have to give up my baby – I got married, but sadly lost that baby within a month. The attitude to women during those years was too appalling for words. Even the women who were pregnant as a result of the perpetrator “using force” were made out to be worthless, like prostitutes(which is what my father alluded to) and there was never any hint of castigating those males involved. Even today, that sort of misogyny remains.

    My father was so awful that I left home, and my future in laws took me in, of which I was always grateful. My father waited until the night before said wedding before signing the relevant authority – I was 17 and 8 months. My eldest brother didn’t come to the wedding, my youngest sister called me names(encouraged by our father) and both she and another sister were banned from visiting me. Interesting to note, that my family were catholics, my in-laws were not. They weren’t religious at all, but said that I was family and they would care for me.

    When I suffered the miscarriage, my mother waited until the 10th day before she came and visited me – on her own! I’d been taken care of by my mother in law and family. I can still remember the distress and abandonment I felt as that very young, vulnerable and IGNORANT young person. I can relate to the trauma and feelings of alonement experienced by too many young women over too many years. It is a huge black mark for this country – and others around the world who introduced the same awful policies.

    When my next baby was born 11 months later, I did not see him for 30 hours, except for a few minutes after he was born – then he was taken away for his ‘bath’. Nobody would tell me the truth, only that he “was tired”? During the publicity of this overdue investigation of these criminal acts, I now wonder if they were checking up whether or not I was married. I was only 18 and 7 months. If single, I probably would’ve lost that baby like thousands of others did. My god fearing/loving family would probably have let that happen!

    My three babies were born in the 1960’s. I’ve found this current situation very upsetting, and offer those brave women my every support and praise their courage. I don’t believe that there’d be any compensation that could make up for all those wonderful years denied to them, and of course to the babies stolen. Some women experienced this horror more than once! They should at least be entitled to FREE counselling if they feel the need – even if it’s only to confide their pain and loss to another person – who will support and validate their agony. I can’t even start to think of my life without my babies! How barbaric!

  3. Sprocket

    Barbaric, senseless, flabbergasting.

  4. Clytie

    I suppose it comes down to whether women ate baby-making machines or real people.

    We’re still fighting this battle with the Catholic Church and other nutters who decide on our behalf that contraception is immoral. Choice – to have/keep a baby or not – seems to scare the old men who run things.

  5. Clytie

    Sorry, “are”, not “ate”. Not tasty, anyway.

  6. Liz45

    @CLYTIE – They have a misoynist policy that leaves women to believe, that we’re just baby factories. Part of the mind set for the horrific policy over decades was the removal of a mother’s love for her child. Women were depicted as such persons of second class, that her humanity was ignored. That as they were viewed contemptuously, they’d get over having no contact with their baby – and move on. Coupled with this was the fact that a man could not rape his wife. In most States of Australia this didn’t become a crime until the 1970’s/80’s. This is just one more area that clearly shows how women were viewed, and in the eyes of the catholic church, still are.

    There were no processes until the Whitlam Govt that allowed women to believe, that if they ‘dug in’ they could keep their babies – even those who were raped! There was some financial assistance; nowhere near enough, but there was hope. Thankfully, the support for sole parents, particularly mothers is much better today – it could be better, but it’s heaps better than back then!

    I was stunned to learn that even up until the late 1970’s, babies were still being stolen from their mothers. It’s almost beyond belief that such blatant abuses were taking place.

    I think that all those people on the Senate Inquiry should be congratulated for their dedication, their sense of justice, respect and awareness which assisted those women and their now adult children in telling their awful stories. I thank them!

  7. paddy

    All those small paragraphs. All that unbearable pain.
    Weeping as I type.

  8. JamesH

    Why do we do these things to each other?
    What’s going on now that will only come out in 30 years time?

  9. Glen

    The past is another country. It can be tough to understand.

    My 80 year old mother, herself an adoptee, worked as a nurse in the hospitals of the time and tells harrowing stories, including about how even she was treated with her first (legitimate) child. All largely thanks, once again, to the ugly side of the christian church … this time mostly protestant (borderline calvinist) virtue.

  10. Liz45

    @WHISTLBLOWER – I BONDED with my babies BEFORE they were born. I felt that all I needed to know was what they looked like. When I saw their dear little faces if was a case of, ‘hello, I know you’? Many of these women, who knew they’d be giving up their babies would hug their bellies, knowing that they wouldn’t hug them in the flesh. Their grieving process started before their babies were born.

    The need for a child to be with their mother has been recognised for a long time. It is bull shit to give the excuse of ‘better not to see them etc’? The practice of the policy of ‘skin to skin’ is just another example of how important it is for BABIES and mothers to have that intimate contact.

    Our understanding in more recent times recognises the need for mothers whose baby is dead when born, to nurse her baby, to dress her baby and to then relinquish her baby at the funeral. It is vital and recognises the need to not use patronising words and/or deeds.

    Perhaps if men had babies back then, these Laws would NOT have been broken, and women would NOT have had to feel and be repeatedly told that they were ‘bad girls who needed punishing’?

    The fact is that it was CRIMINAL behaviour. Those involved in this broke the Law. They broke the unwritten Law of compassion, understanding and basic ‘christianity'(even though the god botherers were the worst?) but they broke the Laws of the land.

    The Law that stated that the Mother is the legal guardian of her baby, and has the right to keep her child. The Law that stated that a mother had 30 days to change her mind. Parents, as illustrated by one woman’s story here, committed the awful crime of physical assault. My father didn’t hit me (that time) but his emotional abuse cut deeper than any hand.

    The fact is now, as was then, that women don’t make themselves pregnant! The males involved were and still are being”let off the hook’. The insinuation that young women get themselves pregnant for financial gain makes me boil. While this may be a small percentage of young women’s attitude, I bet she has to wake up with a jolt once the baby arrives. I’m 100% behind the benefits women receive these days. If these were available in my day, I’d have been able to leave my abusive husband, sooner than 20 years! Too many women would NOT have been forced to live in poverty while raising the next generation of Australians!

    I made sure that my sons got the message, that with every right or desire comes responsibility. Just because they were physically able or wanted to have a sexual encounter, they didn’t have an automatic right – without being responsible! That if they were responsible for an unwanted baby, they could always walk away(even though I told them that was gutless) – the young woman would never be the same again, no matter what decision she made. That women were not put on this earth for man’s use and benefit, and that being a man meant being compassionate and decent! Or words to that effect!

    There’s something very wrong in the way young people, particularly too many young men, in their attitude to women and girls, and their lack of respect and/or responsibility for THEIR behaviour. If every male who fathered an unwanted child had a permanent ‘mark’ on his forehead, and society took such behaviours as irresponsible and indecent, then we’d have less unwanted pregnancies and every child would be loved and wanted at conception!

    Instead, we allow programmes like Today Tonight and ACA to demonise young women, and infer that all of them are after money. Some are just ignorant of pregnancy etc, some are too scared or don’t have someone to go to for advice and protection, and some parents don’t live up to their responsibilities and stay in touch with their kids. Some refuse to advise about contraception, which I think is a terrible thing to do. Some just get caught! Many young people are homeless or have mental or physical illnesses with no help or support.

    My grand daughter is pregnant at this time – not planned, but now wanted. She made the decision to keep her baby. I’d support her regardless of her decision. She has a lovely Mum and Dad, and even though we were all a bit stunned at first, everyone has quickly got to a supportive ‘place’. I intend helping her in every practical, emotional and supportive way I can. She is surrounded by loving parents and extended family. We will look after her and share hers and her baby’s journey. I’ve even forgiven her for making me a great grandmother – too soon? I have to admit, that I’m enjoying sewing and buying goodies for her and her daughter! I’ve been with her to the doctor, and heard the baby’s heart beat – it was awesome, and I felt quite teary. With our support, she’ll be a lovely Mum!

    That’s the sort of future these women should’ve had when they were young, scared and pregnant! ‘It takes a community to raise a child’. Indeed!

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