Gone to an Aunt’s: Remembering Canada’s Homes for Unwed Mothers – Part 3
At some point, the unwed mothers of Canada’s Baby Boom (1945 to the early 1970s) went to a local hospital to deliver their babies.
Going to the Hospital
Most of the women Anne Petrie interviewed, including some young girls, had no idea what was involved in giving birth. Part of the problem was that there was little education in general about giving birth at that time, and part was that little information was given to them in the homes. Plus, for various reasons, many of the young women didn’t want to even think about that aspect of their pregnancy.
So when the time came, the young women or girls were pretty much left on their own to face another new and often terrifying experience.
Some of them had a staff member from the home accompany them. Others were taken to the hospital by a staff member and left to go inside alone. A few were simply put in a taxi.
Anne, who was in Vancouver, says, “At Maywood, the [Salvation] Army prided itself on staying with every one of its charges through their labour… But the usual pattern when labour began—if the staff at the home believed it was the real thing—was to send a girl off in a taxi on her own to cope in an environment that was rarely welcoming. A few of the women I spoke with have memories of a good doctor or a thoughtful nurse. But mostly their stories are of loneliness, fear, excruciating pain, and, of course, loss.” P. 183-184
Marie, in Montreal, went into labour at seven months and had great difficulty convincing the nuns that she needed to get to the hospital. Once convinced, they accused her of inducing early labour even though she intended to try to keep her baby.
In the hospitals, the women and girls were usually put in a general women’s surgical ward instead of the maternity ward. Some of them were okay with that, not wanting to be surrounded by happy, excited mothers; others were angry because they felt they were being treated as if they weren’t worthy of being treated as mothers.
Many of the women Anne spoke with told her stories of extreme pain and fear.
In her book, she says, “I have tried to discover the positive aspects of being pregnant and unmarried because the contrary was so common and easy-to-find. As far as the homes were concerned, there were good homes—or at least not-so-bad ones—or good people in not-so-good homes, or good friends among the girls who made up for a lot. But when it comes to the birth experience for unwed mothers, I heard nothing good. It seems that there was little relief from either the psychic or physical pain.” p. 183
“What is it like to endure hours of labour with no baby at the end of it all? With no one to hold your hand? No one pacing outside the delivery-room doors? If first admitting the pregnancy was a terrifying moment for every unwed mother, finally giving birth was the most painful time, in every way.” P. 181-22
Anne continues, “No one I talked to remembers the needs of an unmarried mother being taken into account by the hospitals. Quite the contrary. Not only were these girls and young women study material for students, they were sometimes used to test new medical procedures or drugs. Jean D. told me about the way she was treated at the Vancouver General. ‘It was at the time when they were beginning to say that X-rays were not good for pregnant women. And I remember being X-rayed and X-rayed and X-rayed like we were real guinea pigs. I don’t remember having the baby, but the next day a doctor (or a man in a suit) came to my bed and asked me what I could remember. He told me that they had used an experimental drug for childbirth, to see how much you could remember after. I told him I remembered being scared, that I thought I was going to die…. All he wanted to know was what I remembered, and I didn’t remember anything.’” P. 193
Beth, in Newfoundland, ended up at a Catholic hospital, totally alone, with no idea how to cope. “All these old women in their black robes, they just let me suffer. It was a nightmare, and I’ve never gotten over it. I was there two days in labour. I mean really, really bad labour. The nuns were there, and I’ve always said to myself that they must’ve been trying to punish me because I was unmarried. I should never have had her on my own. She was ten pounds, two ounces. I should have had a C-section, but nobody explained anything. I had no idea what was happening to my body. I really thought God was punishing me. Honest to God, I did, to have that kind of labour for so long.”
After Beth’s baby was born, the nuns’ treatment of her was no better. “When I think back, it was their whole attitude. I wasn’t married. And they weren’t at all sensitive. They didn’t answer any questions that I had. I would cry for the baby because I was in for a week or so after she was born, but they said I wasn’t allowed to see her. I don’t think it was done for my protection. It was because I was giving her up for adoption, so I didn’t have the right to see her.” P. 195
I (N. J.) can totally relate to Beth’s story. I gave birth to my first child in Regina in 1976. I’d been to Lamaze classes and had my husband by my side for the whole time, but even so, both of us were pretty clueless. Like Beth, I had a long, painful labour, and at one point my husband had to threaten to call my obstetrician himself in order to get the resident on duty to call him. After 35 hours of labour, I had a C-section which saved both of our lives. Just thinking about being alone there without my husband to advocate for me makes me feel sick to my stomach.
This was back in the days when babies were kept in nurseries that had a glass window for viewing. Because her baby was premature, Marie wasn’t allowed to hold her. She had to go down and look through the glass of the nursery. She told Anne, “‘You would write your name, or at least your fake name, on a piece of paper and hold it up to the window for the nurse and show it to her, and she would bring a little crib. They would only leave the baby there for five minutes, at the very most. And you would hear some cries. It was the mothers. The birth mothers would be crying. They had been advised by social services not to go and see their babies because they had already signed the adoption papers. But they still wanted to see them, even though they knew the babies would be going. That was the most painful thing to hear. I knew that I was keeping my daughter. We weren’t going to be separated. But I could just feel their pain.’” P. 193
For most women, the pain of giving away their babies was even worse than the pain of giving birth. Yet there was little to no counselling for them. In fact, some people believed these mothers didn’t feel what normal mothers felt.
While doing her interviews, Anne spoke to a former worker in a Regina Salvation Army home. This woman said, “‘I used to tell them that if giving up the baby was their choice, perhaps they loved it more by giving it up than by trying to keep it when they didn’t have anything to keep it on. But that was only my way of thinking, of trying to help them.’”
In response, Anne says, “An unwed mother was encouraged to call on her highest maternal feelings in order to understand she should give up her child to another mother. What she was to do with all that love after her child was gone was not discussed.” P. 148
Life After the Birth
Meanwhile, many of the mothers left for home immediately after being released from the hospital, stopping only to pick up their possessions from the home.
Beth went back to Mary Breen’s home for a time to recover from the physical effects of her baby’s birth.
But other homes required the mothers to stay and care for their babies for three to six weeks.
Janet, who was at Bethel Pentecostal Home in Toronto, was one of the latter. But after those few weeks, the baby was taken away. Janet told Anne, “One morning… the baby was gone. I guess I signed papers when I first went in there. I know that the people came from out-of-town [sic]. I knew that, but that’s all I knew. The baby was gone. I withdrew then. I just clammed up. I didn’t talk about anything…. I left when I was told to leave and went to a friends house—her parents said I could come back there for a while—and we cried a lot. Eventually I went back to my aunt’s house.” After a moment, Janet added, “You missed your baby silently. You just grieved. You grieved silently, but it took much, much longer, much longer because you couldn’t talk about it. My aunt didn’t want anyone to know, so we never talked about it.” P. 205
I (N. J.) was born in Regina and my mother was required to stay with me for about six weeks. I know from what she’s said that being with me so long made it even harder for her, but my research (which I’ll share here another time) has taught me that being with her for those weeks was by far the best thing for me.
Many of the new girls in the Misericordia Home in Edmonton worked in the nursery. Anne says, “The third floor, above where the girls slept, was a nursery lined with dozens of baby cots. These were the children of the girls who had already left. The babies were kept in the nursery until they were adopted or send off to an orphanage. In long day and night shifts, the new girls took care of the babies of the girls who had preceded them.” P. 102
One woman, who gave birth to two children who were adopted, told Anne, “I protected myself by not getting emotionally involved with them…. Now, having worked with so many adopted people, to find so many of them who have never bonded, it breaks my heart, because I was a part of that.” P. 209
Many of the women Anne interviewed work in some aspect of helping others. “Today, she’s a counsellor in St. John’s at a crisis home for women between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five. Sometimes it’s herself she sees coming through the door.” P. 215