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Shocking scenes from a teen pregnancy


One Born Every MinuteFor a significant portion of the 20th century, the Sisters of St Joseph operated a home for unmarried mothers in Grattan Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton.

Located opposite the old Royal Women's Hospital, it admitted young pregnant girls (often sent from small country towns by their ashamed families), looked after them for the duration of the 'lying in' period, then hastily arranged the adoption of the girls' babies by infertile Catholic married couples.

Only since the 1980s has the calamitous impact this process had on the relinquishing mothers (and often the lives of their children) been recognised. Those involved in the separation of babies and mothers were also haunted by their role. One elderly nun I interviewed ten years ago was stricken by the trauma she had inflicted at the home between the 1940s and 1960s.

Once the single mothers pension was introduced by the Whitlam Government in 1973, the adoption rate plummeted and the function of such institutions as the St Joseph's home became obsolete.

But societal attitudes towards young mothers are, if anything, hardening. Given the liberalisation of abortion laws, pregnant teens are accused of deliberately ruining their own lives, being emotionally and mentally unstable, and ripping off the public purse if they choose to continue their pregnancies.

A friend had her first baby at the same time I had mine. She was 18 and I was 30. The comments and looks she received throughout her pregnancy were shocking. Her neighbour asked her if there was not an easier way she could earn $5000 than by becoming eligible for the baby bonus.

My friend is about to complete a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in psychology, and has received high distinctions throughout. Contrary to the unfair stereotype of the incapable teen mother, she is kicking goals in all aspects of her life. Also, she is still with the father of her child.

Which leads me to the curious response by writer Kerri Sackville on Twitter to a recent episode of the SBS television series One Born Every Minute, which follows the hospital birthing journey of two or three couples each episode. I am usually amused by Sackville's Twitter stream but was a little shocked by the comments she made about one expecting couple: the woman was 18 and the man 33.

Both were open about his past heroin addiction and daily methadone requirements. Sackville tweeted 'she's a child and he is a disaster. If she was older and wiser she'd run a mile' and 'that poor little 18 year old with her loser partner'.

When your confidence is already sapped by sneering, sideways glances and unhelpful observations of your youthfulness, such proclamations would be very unhelpful, indeed.

I was, conversely, impressed by the non-judgemental attitude of the hospital midwives to this couple, which departed significantly from the treatment meted out to young unmarried residents of St Joseph's when they were giving birth. If you had no wedding ring, you were treated like trash.

For many of these teenage girls, giving birth was the loneliest experience of their lives. And if they were single, they didn't even have the shoulder of a partner to weep on when their babies were summarily removed from their care.

The man in the OBEM episode exhibited a great level of attention and love to his young partner — and she to him. He was able to communicate with great sensitivity to the midwives the source of his partner's anxiety when she became upset throughout labour, and he was attentive and encouraging during the subsequent caesarean section.

He wasn't a 'loser' but a bloke who had stuck with his girl, was doing the utmost to change his life, and sought to give his daughter a childhood different from his own underprivileged one. He may have had to have his bus fare doled out by his highly organised young 'Mrs', but he was present and supportive throughout her complicated four-day labour.

Who's to say they would not both continue to be excellent parents to the scrumptious daughter they produced? And, if they in fact do separate, that they won't handle the experience any worse than their older, educated, financially 'secure' counterparts?

I don't want to preach from the PC soapbox, but young mothers — single or otherwise — should not be automatically judged according to stereotypes. Nor should the fathers. A more nuanced, sensitive approach to individual cases is required. Only then will we have truly moved on from the bad old days when young mothers were habitually separated from their babies.

Madeleine HamiltonDr Madeleine Hamilton is an historian and the co-author of Sh*t On My Hands: A down and dirty companion to early parenthood

Topic tags: Madeleine Hamilton, baby bonus, One Born Every Minute, parenting



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Existing comments

Wow! what a brillaint article in every way.

Martine | 15 December 2011  

Loved reading this, and love the spirit with which it is written. Thank you.

Moira Byrne Garton | 15 December 2011  

Thank you for this article, it really touched home for me. I was, and still am a young mum. I got married at 18, first son (Arthur) at 19, seccond son (Charles) at 20, bought my first house at 21 and then bought my own business at 22 (Curves, an all women's gym franchise). I am now just 23! I struggled to find a Playgroup in my local town. If they weren't judgmental on my age they were on my 'smaller than theirs income'. I have now found the perfect Playgroup (I have to be there in 45 minutes and I am still in my pj's!). I consider myself to be successful and happy and to me that is all I need (although riches would be nice). I wouldn't have achieved these things without my wonderful family who all help me out in different ways.

Madeleine Keaton | 15 December 2011  

This is a both great and well overdue article. As a white Australian from the 'middle class', I never thought I would experience discrimination. Well, that is exactly what happened when my partner (then 18) and I (then 19) decided to continue with her pregnancy. A simple trip to the local supermarket would be met with filthy stares (mainly by middle aged white women). Whilst most new parents are celebrated and supported, young parents are expected to fail. Yet despite our age, we managed to give our child all the love, attention, safety and comfort a child could have wanted. In fact many of the older parents, who were so quick to cast judgement, seemed far less capable in being present for their children. Yet despite out capabilities, we were still met with suspicion, since many could not shift their ignorance enough to see that young parent does not automatically equate with bad parent. Our boy, now 8 is a beautiful caring brother to his 3 year old sister and thrives in all facets of his life. My wife and I are still madly in love with one another, own our own home and I am completing a Master’s degree whilst working full time. Judging young parents as flawed, is simple and utter discrimination based on age. We don’t tolerate racism or sexism, and we certainly are quick to fight ageist stereotypes of the elderly, so why do we feel so ok about not extending this to our youth? Those young people who chose to go through with their pregnancies are showing a level of love and commitment that many of their detractors would simply have been incapable of when they themselves were the age of these young parents.

James Fry | 15 December 2011  

Thank you for a sensitive article. St Joseph's Receiving Home was established in Barkly Street, Carlton in 1902. In 1905 it moved to Grattan Street, Carlton, under the management of the Sisters of St Joseph. An aunt of mine was sent there in 1937 at the ripe old age of 17 and as soon as she had her baby - which was taken from her - she was sent to St Joseph's in Broadmeadows and then the Oakleigh Convent (now Chadstone Shopping Centre car-park) and finally was sent to the country to be a housemaid/servant. She has not been heard of since. Nor has the baby who would be in her 70s if she is still alive. No nuanced, sensitive approach in those days. Tell me things have changed for the better!

Frank Golding | 15 December 2011  

Thanks for a good article Madeline. It should be clearly acknowledged, however, that religious institutions, chief amongst them the Catholic Church, have been, and continue to be a major and original source of the prurient, punitive, hypocritical and misogynist attitudes towards single mothers. Institutions such as St Joseph's are notorious for the punishment and degradation meted out to the overwhelmingly young, disadvantaged and often exploited women and girls condemned to their "care". Women who were deliberately reduced to nothing more than sinful, immoral, tarnished vessels for the child they carried, which was categorically wrenched from them, to be passed on to worthy, more deserving, "good Catholics". It is fitting that those "involved in" this process of systematic abuse should be haunted by their conscious, deliberate actions. As a 43 year old from the stoic Catholic stock of that era, I am aware that I have a cousin, somewhere out there, whom I have been denied the opportunity to know, and an elderly, intellectually disabled aunt who still grieves the loss of her baby, and her concurrent, everlasting mortal sinfulness in the creation of that life. My aunt was a vulnerable, disabled, unworldly Catholic teenage girl at the time, who had no idea what had happened to her. Her fear, uncomprehending shame, pain and distress can only be imagined.

Michelle Goldsmith | 15 December 2011  

Thanks for the sensitive clarity - who are we to judge, but to show care and support for a mother giving birth to her baby, and congratulate the father for being there? My two grandmothers both had 'bastards' in 1936 and 1941 and 1944. Not having access to abortion or contraception meant giving up their babies and keeping them a secret. That trauma has had repercussions.From the top down, everyone expected life to be neat and tidy - and the Mother was blamed and punished (even if she had been raped). Mostly these young soldiers or married bosses were protected from the shame and responsibility. As a mother I showed my daughters where to go for contraception and advice on STD's when they had decided they were ready for a sex life. Very simple and effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. I wouldn't have forced them to stay pregnant, and I would have loved if they did - it was always about their choice as it has always been mine!!! We have to lead by example.

Julie McNeill | 15 December 2011  

If the critic had watched the whole program she would have seen the young Mum handling her baby very capably at 3 months post delivery and announcing that she "loved" being a Mum.!! This program is very informative and can teach us all a thing or two about caring and Christian charity.

Rosemary Keenan | 15 December 2011  

It's inspirational to read all these wonderful success stories. Congrats to all the young couples and as well, you are the 'right-to-life' supporters of the future. God bless your little families.

KP | 15 December 2011  

Madeleine no one should be judged for having a baby its the most natural thing in the world. Sadly though abortion has taken over from the "bad old days" If today its recognised that separating the mother from her infant was traumatic, imagine the feeling and trauma when she really realises what abortion has meant.the intentional death of her baby. And this usually happens when she is pregnant with a wanted child and she looks up magazines, and looks pictures to see what stage her now baby is at, and guess what? she remembers, thats why post abortion grief/syndrome is terrible because it lies gestating waiting for a trigger and a wanted pregnancy or even the loss of a wanted pregnancy is a trigger to remembering. Today "lost generations" are acknowledged yet women suffering post abortion grief are told it does not exist. "Get a Life you made your choice." This by the sisterhood. Today at least we have improvements that both governments and others can help but sadly over 100,000 times a year the help is not wanted.

Anne Lastman | 15 December 2011  

On public transport I see the young parents who cannot afford a car. I have been impressed with them, and their babies who look content and well cared for. It is good to see very young men and women showing such tenderness.

Janet | 16 December 2011  

Thank you all for your moving and insightful responses

Madeleine Hamilton | 16 December 2011  

I think it only fair to make mention of St Vincents when it had an extension made onto the maternity ward for women in situations "created by clergy", put on public record by respected journalist, Peter Costigan, many not accounted for and mother's who once a year, cannot but help reflect they were the scapegoats of the hierarchy to preserve the priesthood and avoid scandal.
Still utilized into the 1980's.

L Newington | 18 December 2011  

Thank you all for these contributions. But on a different but related matter - I believe then-Treasurer Peter Costello should not have encouraged girls to have 3 children - one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country. Not "one for the country" -The world population is already beyond its capacity and beyond its ability to feed everybody. And not before she turns 22.

Geoff | 18 December 2011  

Good on you Doc. More compassion and less judgement. You are a wise woman.

Anna | 20 December 2011  

always bn interested my aunt was in one of these awful places. i have read books. Are there any films>

Roseleen Stewart | 25 January 2012  

I stayed at St Josephs Dec 1980 - Feb 1981, where I was encouraged to keep my beautiful daughter Christine. I am now the proud mother of two, both in their 30's & Nanna to 8. I am 49, a successful businesswoman but more so a very successful mum. I was frowned upon, but those same people that once frowned upon me know have children that didn't fare as well as mine. My children are amazing strong, caring, intelligent people, who work hard & love their families as I love them. My first relationship lasted 20 years and I have recently married the kindest man. My life has been hard at times, but if I change one thing and do not end up where we all are today, then I would gladly do it all again. A child doesn't know about the age of its mother, it knows that he/she is loved, nurtured & protected.

Julei Graham | 19 May 2013  

Thank you for your article. I wanted to note however that it wasn't just young mums in this institution who were treated so poorly - older pregnant unmarried mothers (ie. those 40 years Plus) had these things happen as well.

Maggie | 03 February 2014  

I was a Grattan st girl of 16 sent by my ashamed parents to have my first born child in December 1976. It was the loneliest time of my life and the most terrifying labour . Thing is I kept Adam who is now 38 and the bond from this experience is amazing , I ate chocolate day abd night when I was there and now we both have this crazy little fet tush that we don't share with my 2 other grown up children. Adam is grown up successful and often in magazines with stories of his success and the memories from that place will always be with me

Christine King | 06 February 2014  

Hi I was an unwed mother in GRattan St Carlton on the 70"s I experienced a Lonely stay and fed the homeless on weekends. A lonely birth and no support , I have lots of stories to tell .

Chris King | 15 February 2014  

I was at Grattan Street pregnant and just turned 17, I didn't know it was called St Josephs at the time. There were only nuns living in a section of the building and at least 9 other girls from country and other states, I came from my parents house in a suburb of Melbourne. We had a little cubicle each, there was always crying and sadness, if a girl decided to keep the baby she had, we were not allowed visit her in hospital. There was a lady councillor we had to visit each week which I hated as she used to tell mum everything I said, even though she said she wouldn't. We had to use all the scraps from meals to make soup for the homeless and serve it to them in cups out a slot in the wall. This was the worst time of my life and a secret I had to keep. No one has a right to make any judgement unless you lived it, how abortion and coverup seemed more acceptable than having a baby for some good catholic girls I went to school with. We we were told constantly we had to give up our babies as we could give them no life. So much more to this story....

Sam | 24 May 2014  

Hi where can I see the interview with the elderly nun who was at st Joseph's ?

Sam | 24 May 2014  

I'm sure my mother was in there in the 1940's where she gave birth to a baby boy, he contacted my brother about 10 years ago, my brother has only just told me. I am now looking for information of my half brother. My mother passed away in the 1980's I'm really sad he didn't get to meet her.

Susan | 30 May 2016  

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