Painful lost years for unmarried mothers


When I was a sweet innocent of 19 I went, with countless others, to see a revival of the film Blossoms in the Dust.

This 1941 work, which starred the famous Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, was a real weepie. Handkerchiefs became even more sodden when audiences realised that the film was based on solid fact, for Garson and Pigeon played the parts of a Texan couple whose son had been killed when he was just a child. 

The bereaved mother, Edna Gladney, spent the rest of her active life in a sustained effort to find good homes for orphaned and foundling children at a time when unwed mothers and their innocent babies were almost equally condemned by polite and conservative members of society.

But Gladney maintained that there were no illegitimate babies, only illegitimate parents, and she fought the Texas legislature until it removed the stigma of illegitimacy from the State records.

In the film, Garson/Gladney maintains that it is the good girls who bear their babies. In my youth, the pre-pill and illegal abortion era, girls lived in dread of enforced marriage, the so-called shotgun wedding. We all knew couples who had to get married because a baby was on the way; often the prospective parents were little more than babies themselves.

But far worse was the plight of the pregnant girl whose lover abandoned her. My mother used to wax indignant on the subject of ‘those poor girls’ and the matter of the double standard. ‘Nobody ever mentions unmarried fathers,’ she would say. And how right she was.

Forty years ago I was close to one of those abandoned girls. Let’s call her Jane. Jane’s parents supported her to a degree, and certainly did not banish her from the family, but there was absolutely no encouragement for her to keep her baby, and certainly no offer to raise him/her as their grandchild.

Jane had to give up a promising career as well as her baby. She was unlucky in that she became pregnant before Gough Whitlam’s Single Parent’s Benefit became law.

I visited Jane occasionally. For the duration of her pregnancy she lived in a gloomy Victorian mansion run by the Presbyterian Church. I used to feel very uncomfortable during these visits, God help me.

I was married but childless, and know now that part of the discomfort was a failure of my imagination. Another factor was my collusion in the secrecy. I knew that I had to ask for Jane by her second name; surnames were not to be used. The first time I rang the bell, the door was opened by a uniformed matron who was polite but distant. I was ushered into a sitting-room and there Jane and I sat and talked about all sorts of things. No other girl was ever seen.

Jane had her baby, a boy. And she was permitted to look after him and feed him for five days, after which she gave him up for adoption: the matron assured her he was going to a good and loving home. It was only later, when I gave birth to my first child that I came close to understanding the raw pain of this particular loss: the thought of having to give my son up was one of sheer impossibility. Even now I think of Jane and the agony of having her baby for five days, and those days spent without conventional celebration: no presents, very few visitors, no showing off the baby to the outside world. Followed by goodbye.

The phrase enforced adoption conjures up visions of babies being wrenched from a wailing mother’s arms, or babies being spirited away in the dead of night. Of course it wasn’t like that: girls such as Jane signed the requisite consent forms.

But the idea of force is there, because the notion of choice rarely was, and girls were routinely persuaded that adoption was the best course of action to take for the sake of both mother and child. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu’s recent apology to all these deprived mothers, numbering in tens of thousands in Victoria alone, can never bring back lost years or compensate for raw and primal pain, but it is an acknowledgement of that pain. And that’s important. Very.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, forced adoption, Ted Bailleau, pregnancy, abortion, social welfare



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for your article. But I must strongly challenge you on your statement, It wasn't like that! I thin you have used a long bow based on one personal story. What does your comment say to all the other mothers to whom it did happen? We each have our own unique story. What right do we have to dismiss their pain, their grief, their years of longing to know who their child has evoked with one blanket statement?

Denise Naish | 06 November 2012  

Following recent moves relating to apology I have been thinking about my own late teenage years and early twenties after I married - early 1960s.
The social disdain shown towards young women who "got into trouble" was palpable - by the older generation as well as among people in my own age group. I am now ashamed of my own behaviour and way of thinking. A university friend got pregnant and at the time we thought she was "lucky" that the baby's father married her.
When I had my first two babies, in a Salvation Army home situated close to my obstetrician's rooms, the married women were upstairs, the unmarried ones downstairs. We were encouraged not to speak to them. Having just had my own babies and looking forward to taking them home, I tried to comprehend how different the birth situation was for "the girls downstairs".
Looking back, I realise we were all complicit in one way or another: social and religious mores had a strong influence on how we behaved back in those times.

Paddy | 06 November 2012  

I am reminded of Gresham's Law every time a politician, or Pope for that matter, isues a 'heartfelt apology'.

These are the new coinage of power, cheap, tinny, worthless but sufficiently PR to appease the idiot masses, who can then feel able to 'move on', that horrible empty expression akin to the 'loved one' we hear more and more.

Look around at the work of our political elites of today and you can see a brand new crop of 'oh, we never knew' apologies already lining up to go.

Just wait for the 'apology' next week from St. Johns College.

But will they ever apologise for the result of all that entrenched institutional bullying?


janice wallace | 06 November 2012  

It is very sad indeed. If there is a 'world wide web' surely a large part of it would be the grief of mothers who have lost children, through forced adoption or abortion. Sometimes the latter is not a 'choice' at all as all impel the mother to do the 'sensible' thing, ie do away with the child. And lifelong grief ensues. It is one of the saddest things in this world that better support could not and cannot be given to mothers facing difficult situations.

Skye | 06 November 2012  

God love Gough! My hero! I was lucky to be born at the time when Gough had introduced the Supporting Parent Benefit or I would have been one of those wailing women for sure!

Val | 06 November 2012  

This article highlights some of the more covert systemic abuses of many thousands of women in Australia. There is now an abundance of evidence of forced adoptions which did in fact involve the removal of babies from their parents without consent and physical, emotional and legal abuses occurring throughout the processes of consent-taking which has been formally acknowledged through the recent release of two important pieces of work in this area: The Senate Inquiry into the Commonwealth's Contribution to Former Forced Adoptions (Feb 2012) and the Australian Institute of Family Studies research into Past Adoption Experiences (July 2012) which is available on the AIFS website at
Pauline Kenny
Research Fellow
Australian Institute of Family Studies

Pauline Kenny | 06 November 2012  

Very simply - those women and all women who choose/chose to have their children at great cost without choosing abortion are good women, very good women. If only a fragment an apology must count for something.

Rosa McManamey | 06 November 2012  

A good article on the dreadful moral ambiguity and hypocrisy of the "good old days" Gillian. Having known Ted Baillieu I feel sure his unreserved apology would be sincere. Like Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generation I think it will have a positive long-term effect. I am reminded of the old adage: "It takes absolutely no brains to father a child". Having worked in Mt Druitt, NSW - a rather bleak housing commission area in Western Sydney - it used to depress me to see how many teenage girls there were pregnant. Some of them were the third generation of their family on a benefit. The long-term social consequences of this were and are quite serious unless the family was not quite the norm for the area and encouraged both them and their child to do something with their lives rather than be passive welfare recipients. Having worked as an administrator in a department which was supposed to assist people out of welfare I now think the system itself creates and reinforces many problems. I have no problem with welfare systems and payments - in fact I think we could improve and increase them along the lines of Scandinavia or the Netherlands - but I think our current system debilitates rather than encourages. Our Job Network and training programs are a joke compared with those countries. I think the Supporting Parent's Pension was a much needed reform. However, I think, as is often the case, we have not "solved" a problem but merely changed the way we deal with it. A better, kinder way but still not ideal.

Edward F | 06 November 2012  

Thankfully the Catholic Church isn't a corporate brand like Apple or IBM with a CEO at the top who runs everything - like Janice Wallace suggests the Pope is - or that ST John's COllege at Sydn Uni is some type of franchise. I'm a Catholic - and I have nothing to do with any of this - apart from my own humanity.

AURELIUS | 06 November 2012  

We married young and after we produced 2 children, with the prospect of no more, we adopted 2. We had mixed experiences when we collected each baby. Before and after this process, we attended many meetings to hear the views from a big cross section of all involved in the process. I have spent a long lifetime living with this experience. Besides this, there are 11 babies adopted in our extended families. I well understand the mothers' trouma in giving up their baby after one of our natural mothers took a month to make up her mind. With all our ups and downs not once did we regret our decision to adopt. Our observations and experiences have shown many positives along with the recognised negatives.

Anonymous (childrens' wish) | 06 November 2012  

It is good that laws have been changed and societal empathy encouraged. Although I share with some degree the cynicism of Janice Wallace re the "Oh we never knew brigade" It could also be said here that many, even in a situation such as Nazi Germany, were unaware of what was really happening to the Jews, so not knowing is often a truism. I believe an apology is always better than none. It is an official recognition, and often a tool to enable further change and reparation.

John Whitehead | 06 November 2012  

Thank you Gillian for your article. This is an issue from which there must be thousands of people still suffering. I had several of my children during the first half of the sixties and well remember the girls 'at the end of the corridor' whom we were forbidden to visit or speak to. At that time there were forced adoptions as I remember that some made a'terrible fuss' because they were not 'allowed' to see their babies and had to sign the papers before leaving the hospital. Maybe some agreed to releasing them especially when told there was no support for them and their families would not accept them with a baby. I did think it was extremely sad for those young Mums but in the absence of welfare what could they do? I still feel uncomfortable about those times, but admit I have done nothing to repent my inaction. My sympathy to the mothers and their babies.

Michelle | 06 November 2012  

Sad to say AURELIUS but the Roman Catholic Church is not only a brand but also an industry. You may well have nothing to do with St. John's College, and who would want anything at all to do with that vile and gormless place right now, but I am afraid it is as much a part of the Roman Catholic Church as are those sexual abusers are. There is no escape from the tar brush just by wishing it away.

janice wallace | 06 November 2012  

I feel this article takes the conversation regarding the impact of past adoption practices a long way backwards. The author's use of the term 'enforced adoption' indicates to me a lack of research into the origins of the various apologies being offered throughout the nation - the actual term used in the Senate Inquiry was 'forced adoptions'. Perhaps a similar lack of understanding of what really went on in so many instances, led the author to infer also that the 'social mores of the time' were enough to justify acts which were not only unethical and immoral, but completely unlawful. She should have taken the time to read the findings of the Inquiry, or if she has done so, to do so more thoroughly. Stating that 'girls...signed the requisite consent forms' is a bit like accepting as gospel, the confession of a prisoner which was signed under coercion. These girls endured sometimes physical, and always psychological and emotional duress - any wonder they 'signed'.

Pedro | 07 November 2012  

Why are you demonising Mothers who were knocked out in the labourward we have shown a Senate inquiry the proof of our claims because you saw Jane feed her baby does not ensure she was fully informed and she was warned of dire future regret and that her baby would suffer for a lifetime yet they knew this in 1945 They also knew there was fiscal assistance and that a father was obliged to fullfill his financial obligations to his child if that failed there was a widows pension and work was plentiful and many christians cared for young children in their homes I just wonder why wyou would write this and hurt and as I said before demonize mothers who have suffered agony for a lifetime and have requested God take them down from the cross of adoption

Elizabeth Edwards | 07 November 2012  

"Entrenched institutional bullying"? Yes, certainly. In those days social workers, medical staff, carers of all kinds were often firmly convinced that there was no alternative to adoption and that it was cruel to allow the mothers to see their children before signing the papers. The mothers signed because they could see no alternative either. As a young woman, I knew others this had happened to. A few years later, after the introduction of the parenting payment for single parents, the scene changed dramatically. I worked in a Catholic organization that had a residential and educational facility for 'unmarried mothers'. Information about alternatives was a vital ongoing part of the program there. Very few women subsequently relinquished their new babies. They had alternatives and they knew about them. Women today have alternatives, too - but my observation seems to be that 'entrenched institutional bullying' takes the form of and assumption bu social workers etc that termination is the right and obvious answer to a 'problem' pregnancy. Will our leaders be apologizing, in future years, to women who were gently and kindly and inexorably pushed towards this 'answer'?

Joan Seymour | 07 November 2012  

It is clear to me that some respondants are missing the theme of this article by their reactions, such as amongst other things, citing forced adoption verses enforced adoption (it means the same thing). The writer is adequately poignant in relating the situation and she has obviously researched, and sole searched, the subject well. I do not believe as Pedro indicates, that the author believes or is inferring that the social mores of the time were enough to justify the acts that occurred. For goodness sake be able to read the article for what it is actually saying, rather than skewing it through ones own haze of emotional baggage. Her theme is well summed up in her end statement, "Ted Baillieu's apology to all these deprived mothers, numbering in tens of thousands in Victoria alone, can never bring back lost years or compensate for raw and primal pain, but it is an acknowledgement of that pain. And that's important. Very." I realize more could be said about further recompence for past injustice, but this does not invalidate by one jot the Author's theme of expressing the painful loss of years for unmarried mothers.

John Whitehead | 07 November 2012  

An interesting article yet I must point out that adoptions were not just like Jane's. In fact my mother had to be drugged and tied to a bed to coerce her into signing papers. I was ripped from her behind a veil of pillows and she heard me crying. There are thousands of women ie young girls who were treated in this

louise | 08 November 2012  

It is probably stating the obvious to note that along with the lifelong sense of loss that must ensue from relinquishing a child one has borne, there is an inescapable sense of disempowerment. The most empowering thing I have done in my life was to refuse to relinquish my daughter, even though the pressures on me to do so were overwhelming, and I was made to feel I had done the child a disservice by not allowing her to go to a better home than I could provide. I cannot begin to express my sadness for women who were made to feel they had no moral right to keep the child they would never otherwise have relinquished.

Jena Woodhouse | 09 November 2012  

Jena I have a similiar story and I thank God often (and Gough Whitlam more often) for the courage I found within to fight all I had to fight to keep my baby. At the same time, I had a friend who adopted out her son, as she was not in the fortunate position I was, to have the support of other young women to keep a roof over my head after being cut out of the family in an effort to coerse me into agreeing to adoption. Yup... the good ol days!

Val | 09 November 2012  

Dear Gillian, Thanks for your compassionate article. It rings true to my own experience as one of those who was "forced" by the unwillingness of parents and the lack of available finance, to give my child up for adoption. He found me 29 years later, is still upset with me at times for what I did. But I really believed I was doing the best thing for him and felt I had no choice in the matter. Knowing what I do now about how things turned out for him I could not make the same decision again.

Jean SIetzema-Dickson | 20 November 2012  

Very moving.

Anna Roins | 24 November 2012  

Many moons ago, my old Dad taught a very useful subject called Clear Thinking, part of a now defunct subject called English Expression. And I was in his classes. But alas, I do not always practise what he preached: recently I wrote about the troubling topic of forced/enforced adoption. In this piece I broke a cardinal rule in that I based an argument on only one example, and rashly asserted that the young mothers signed consent forms after they had been persuaded that this was the only course open to them. I should have known better, but then I was aware of only one example close to me.

You can always rely on readers, thank goodness, to keep writers up to the mark, so that I was promptly informed of real-life horror stories: one mother never saw her baby, but could hear her crying from behind a screen, while another refused so vehemently to give her baby up that she was tied to the bed while the deed was done. These were not the only examples: I was chastened by these accounts, to say the least. Ignorance is no excuse, however, and I am well punished for my heedlessness, while still considering that such stories seem to spring from mediaeval Spain rather than from the Australia of the last century.

Since writing that piece, I have discussed Mr Baillieu’s recent apology with some of my friends, and one woman said she found it extraordinary that ‘authority’ was apologising. ‘Where were the families?’ was her very pertinent question. Where, indeed? But we have learned that the families were often ‘missing’ in the sense that they did not give support, and not just in the case of illegitimate babies: in many cases of child abuse, the families, mothers in particular, just did not want to know about the atrocious behaviour being conducted in churches, schools, scout camps, or under their own roofs. Shocking to relate, children have often appealed to their ‘protector’ parents in vain.

It can be argued that families are all we have; it can equally be argued that ‘family’ is an extremely complex construct, a microcosm that has the potentiality to cause much pain and suffering. The concept of family honour has a very long history, as Muslim girls in the diaspora often learn to their great cost. Fathers in traditional Greek villages made sure their daughters were married young to husbands the fathers themselves had chosen: virginity was valued as a bargaining point, and potentially unruly girls had to be controlled before they brought shame on their families.

Western women who were growing up as late as in the 1960s were somewhere on the same continuum. Shame and disgrace were powerful concepts, as was the question common to many societies: What will people think? A friend of mine was not permitted to visit her friend who had ‘got into trouble.’ The girl’s family would not allow her to have visitors. Many girls were literally thrown out of the house, and in extreme cases never saw their families again.

Women of my generation were taught that it was the girl ‘who set the standard,’ and that she would pay a dreadful price if she did not observe this rule: Biblical Eve was to blame in the first place, and was deemed to have brought suffering to the world. There was much talk of sin, and loose women: my grandmothers used phrases such as that girl’s a high-stepper and will soon be in the family way, mark my words, while girls of my generation were exhorted to beware of brief delight and lasting shame. My mother used to remark in matter-of-fact fashion that this (sex was an unmentionable three-letter word) was not drawing-room behaviour and would have consequences. And of course it often did.

I have recently learned of an Irish proverb. It is in the shelter of each other that people live. This is self-evidently true, and yet? And yet so many children have had and still have no emotional shelter. I did not need to learn of my luck in having ‘sheltering’ parents and grandparents, who were, of course, products of their times and concomitant values. But the older I become the more I am reminded of my great good fortune. And I am deeply thankful for it.


Similar Articles

Quadriplegic sex and dignity

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 15 November 2012

A quadriplegic and a virgin, Mark hears from others how disability hinders or enhances their sexual activity, and recalls the humiliation of ejaculating involuntarily while being bathed. It is a human dignity issue for him, but what of the dignity of the 'sex surrogate' whose specialised services he employs?


Feminist mothers' domestic dilemmas

  • Madeleine Hamilton
  • 13 November 2012

When I'm scrabbling around wiping up cereal under the baby's highchair and she's twisting her milky fingers into my hair, what good is it to recall that it is due to the privileging of men's professional work and their superior earning power that it is me, not my husband, who is being subjected to this assault?



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up