Gone to an Aunt's:
Remembering Canada's Homes for Unwed Mothers

256 pages,
ISBN: 0771069715

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Losing Your Name
by Maureen Harris

"Unwed mothers". How quaint the term sounds now and how out-of-date. Like angora sweater sets in pastel colours. I remember when it wasn't quaint but, among adolescent girls at least, a largely unspoken term for the unspeakable. Petrie has it exactly right:
"In the 1950s and early 1960s, we all knew what it meant to be pregnant and unwed. The warnings were loud and clear: your life would be ruined; you would be kicked out of school, perhaps out of home, and branded a slut or a tramp. You would bring unbelievable shame on yourself and your family."
I hardly know where to begin writing about this book because its story is partly mine. "Partly" because, like Petrie herself, I was an unwed mother, but unlike Petrie I didn't go to a home. Instead I was sent to stay with family friends who lived in another city. Like Petrie I gave birth to a son and gave him up for adoption. Afterwards, again like her, I went back to university and got on with my life. I married, had children, and took up work which seemed possible but ignored my deepest aspirations and gifts. Petrie developed a successful career in broadcasting, and then, at forty-two without a partner or children, found herself in despair about her life:
"In an attempt to make a new life, I began to think about adoption and pursued it quite seriously for a while. But when I stopped to ask myself what I was really doing I was brought up short. I realized with a thud that I already had a child. I do not mean that I had forgotten. But I realized that I had not factored that past experience, however brief, of motherhood-the denial, the hiding, and the lost child-into the equation of my own loneliness and present despair."
"The denial, the hiding, and the lost child." Once again Petrie's got it exactly right. The experience of unwed motherhood is precisely this triad. Put this triad in the centre of a life and one guaranteed result is the kind of dissociation she describes.
In Gone to an Aunt's, Petrie comes out of hiding and faces her loss and denial. She returns to her experience and shows how the social assumptions of the time structured it to be nothing but denial, hiding, and a lost child. Or perhaps two lost children. This book is a true re-membering, assembling fragments of memory mixed with feelings, later discoveries, reflections, and commentary.
To broaden the compass of her book and to construct it as something more than memoir or confession, Petrie spoke with many others who had gone to homes for unwed mothers. She then focused on seven women, including herself, "from different parts of the country, from different backgrounds, and pregnant at different times during those two decades after the war." She weaves the threads of their individual and differing stories through the events of the pregnancy, from the horror of the missed period to the aftermath of having given birth "out of wedlock".
Not locked into marriage, these pregnancies had to be contained somewhere. Petrie introduces us to a world of hidden and anonymous buildings into which girls disappeared. There's an oddly gothic element to the descriptions of these homes, as there is to the succession of girls and young women fleeing family and friends to live sequestered within them. Indeed, Petrie tells us that her own first sight of the grounds of Maywood House sparked a brief fantasy of living like Jane Eyre. How odd it now seems that girls could vanish from their families and homes for a period of weeks or months and then reappear as if they had never been away. How very discreet we were in not asking about them.
We were a great deal too discreet about many things in the 1950s and 1960s. Pregnancy tests and birth control, for instance. Contraception was not removed from the Canadian Criminal Code until 1969. There were no twenty-four-hour drugstores offering quick and anonymous testing. When you could no longer hope or pretend you weren't pregnant, finding "where you went . so nobody would know you were pregnant" was also a problem. "Home for unwed mothers" wasn't a heading in the phone book. Though in a vague way we all knew they existed, "there was no network of girls who traded tips about the best homes, no consumer reports or manuals. You went to the first place you heard about" and felt lucky if you found a space there to take you in. There was no network of girls who could afford to admit to such knowledge.
When the door to a home opened you entered a secret world where your first requirement was to surrender your name.
"Wherever they were, everyone remembers losing their names. Where they were allowed to keep their first names, if there was more than one Cathy or Linda or Carol, they would be numbered.. Anonymity was always explained as being for the girls' protection.. The girls certainly needed protection from a judgmental society, but they hardly wanted to lose half their identity. If the strategy protected anyone it was not the girls, but the families that had banished them."
With the dissolution of your identity went your autonomy and whatever traces of adult status you might have achieved. In both your own mind and the eyes of society, you had shown your incapacity. The situation was unwittingly ironic.
"Not only were we always called girls, we were not allowed to be anything else but girls. Although we were all having babies, the most obvious marker of womanhood, because we were not pregnant in the sanctioned manner we could not enter that secret sisterhood. We were girls, and we would stay girls."
Petrie delineates quite acutely the confusion of ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that made the proliferation of these homes "one of the unheralded postwar growth industries." She traces their origin to nineteenth-century attempts to combat passive and active infanticide, and finds that the development of maternity homes led to the foundation across the country of the religiously based Grace and Misericordia Hospitals. She follows the changing social notions that bore on the development and practice of the homes. For instance, pregnant unmarried girls evolved from fallen women or sinners requiring rescue into female deviants, troubled girls who were either juvenile delinquents or deficient in ego strength. This change mirrored the surrounding society's shift from a religious to a secular outlook, where good works gave way to (professionalized) social work, and charity became social welfare, a government responsibility.
What remained constant in this evolution was the unspoken assumption that informed the homes and justified their practice: "The girls were in a home because they had forgotten, or perhaps had never learned, basic social and moral values." These girls had failed their society and they had to pay the price. Perhaps, with help, they could learn from their failure.
"...a girl could use her time in the home to find her way back to social acceptance and normalcy. By knowing and following the rules while she was there, she might either repent or come to understand the price of non-conformist individualism."
Go back to "the denial, the hiding, and the lost child." Denial is central to both the social and individual stories of unwed mothers. The society that created the maternity homes in response to growing numbers of pregnant teenagers was at best ambiguous about human sexuality, and unwilling to see the ways in which it promoted sexual activity. Once pregnant, girls were not counselled about sexuality or even informed about birth control, because it would have been illegal to do so. In their refusal to ask if their assumptions were accurate and their responses adequate, the homes and their supporting churches guaranteed that the problem wouldn't go away. The denial characteristic of the personal experience of unwed motherhood simply mirrors this larger social denial. Its cost in individual lives is enormous and seems never-ending. Consider that the women Petrie interviewed have surrendered their identity again, in this book, for the sake of family and friends.
I agree with Petrie that we run the risk of finding we haven't come a long way baby, as we watch cuts to funding for birth control organizations and an increase in teenage pregnancies. Though adoption is no longer the only socially mandated conclusion to unwed motherhood, more and more teenage mothers who keep their children live below the poverty line and are somehow guilty for their circumstances. I notice a growing nostalgia for those decades with their suburban dreams of space and new homes, their feeling of arrival, material comfort being at least on the horizon for everyone. But that dream was inadequate, not least in its conviction that it was everybody's dream.
Read this book to be reminded of just how awful those decades could be. Think about the cost of insisting we all live the same story. Think about its impossibility. Thanks, Anne. I'm a woman who often finds I'm still "in trouble". And I'm very grateful for this daring and caring book.

Maureen Harris is the author of A Possible Landscape (Brick).


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