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Triumph over forced adoption practice


Cover of Kate Howarth 'Settling Day'

My career focus from a very early age was to become a writer. The first blow to this ambition came when I was taken out of school when I was just fourteen years old, one week before I’d sit the intermediate certificate.

Being a junior with no skills I took the first job that came along which was stacking shelves in Woolworths at Ermington in Sydney. When I was fifteen and working in a factory at Ryde I was approached by the management with regard to a trainee laboratory assistant position.

The thought of getting off the production line and looking all important walking around the factory in a white coat with a clipboard, had a lot of appeal.

I knew that it would only be a year before the gig would be up and I’d have to produce the Intermediate Certificate to enrol at Granville Tech. But I thought what the heck. The way my life went anything could happen in a year. Six months later I found that I was pregnant.

I was sent to St Margaret’s Home for Unwed Girls, with the expectation of all around me that I would surrender my son for adoption. For four months I worked in the hospital laundries and kitchen, without pay or even adequate food, withstanding pressure that was tantamount to torture from the hospital administrator as she tried to wear me down and obtain my consent for adoption.

On Boxing Day 1965, two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, when I still hadn’t buckled, I was tossed onto the street with very little money and no idea where I was, or where I was going. Help finally came and I was able to keep my son.

Two years later, I was back where I started. Homeless, penniless, abandoned by my family and I’d lost the son I fought so hard to prevent being taken for adoption.

In order to survive I had to create a new identity. Having had my education cut short, I had to make up ground if I was going to make something of myself, and be someone my son would be proud of when we were eventually reunited. Having to get up and face every day, without my son, was a pain that can only be understood by someone who has lost a child. Every step I took over the next fourteen years was calculated to bring me one step closer to him.

Due to a combination of pure front and good luck, by the time I was 25, I’d worked my way into a senior executive position, unusual for a female at the time and probably unheard of for an Aboriginal woman. One could say I smashed through the glass ceiling before I even knew it existed.

At 27 I found my niche in the personnel industry, and became the co-owner and director of a company that would become a leader in the industry. It was a time when men felt it was their perfect right to ‘touch-up’ the secretary, and a time when if a woman announced she was pregnant, she was looking for another job. In my company at least I had the power to level the playing field. But being married to the other director, who really did believe women should earn less than their male counterparts, my work and home life became a constant battlefield, which eventually brought everything undone.

In more recent years, following the publication of Ten Hail Marys, my name was mentioned in a scathing attack by a Melbourne journalist, among a group of successful Aboriginal women, as having used our ‘Aboriginality’ to get ahead. In my experience, being a female in this world has never put me at any particular advantage, except for childbirth. And I don’t recall any free passes being handed to me because I am an Aboriginal woman. Because none of us mentioned are dark skinned Aboriginal women, it was insinuated that we were frauds and that somehow claiming to be Aboriginal gave us some kind of edge.

I went from rock bottom to rise to the top of my field, only to have everything I had worked for pulled from underneath me. It felt like I was under attack by the ‘boys club’ and they were determined that I would not win. But in the end, I did win. Not in the way they expected, but in a way that no amount of money can compensate for.

After being taken down as far as I could go, I managed to get back up again, with my dignity intact, never having resorted to tactics that caused me to put aside my principles. I came away poorer financially for the experience but with a renewed sense of self-worth. This enabled me to go forward and realise my childhood dream of one day becoming a writer and, in doing so, lend a voice to tens of thousands of young women who lost their children in what is now known as ‘forced adoption’ practices.

Not long afterward I opened my phone messages to receive a text from my son, thanking me, and telling me what a great role model I am to his daughter, and that I taught him the true meaning of unconditional love. How could I not feel victorious?

Kate HowarthKate Howarth's first book Ten Hail Marys won the Age Book of the Year (Non-Fiction) and exposed her experience of forced adoption practices. The sequel – Settling Day – will be published in April by UQP.



Topic tags: Kate Howarth, forced adoption, autobiography, social welfare, Aboriginies



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Existing comments

So excited to read your sequel it is certainly a vivid tale of survival Kate ....well done x

simone blake | 27 March 2015  

Dear Kate, You are an inspiration not only to your son, but to countless women who have walked in your shoes. Thank you for this moving testimony to a mother's love and courage.

Jena Woodhouse | 30 March 2015  

What a wonderful and inspiring story! Thank you Kate for sharing it with us

Peter M | 30 March 2015  

I've read Ten Hail Marys and am now looking forward to reading Settling Day. Kate Howarth is an accomplished and inspirational writer.

Patricia Jennings | 30 March 2015  

Thank you for that vibrant article. I, too, have suffered from having to give up a child, my first born, but we are in contact now and I feel as though the circle is complete. I, too, wanted to be a writer, but because of financial constraints have made a slow journey, becoming a publisher on the way!

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 30 March 2015  

I look forward to reading your book Kate. I think women are strong, resilient creatures and you should be so proud of what you have achieved. I would love to see men stand up and be counted when they are unmarried fathers. Yes there are many good men out there, but so many do not share the responsibilities of parenthood equally.

Cate | 31 March 2015  

Kate, I heard your interview with Richard Fidler. You brought me to tears and I am no cry baby. I was moved by your story and the dignity and resilience that you displayed. May life be good to you.

Carni Carlus | 31 March 2015  

I knew a young professional woman who became pregnant to a man who forced himself upon her. He was incredulous that she was not taking contraceptive measures. He was even more unbelieving that she would not have an abortion. To avoid the disapproval of her parents she took herself inter-state to St Margaret's to have the baby. Under the pressure of warnings that she would never be able to practise in her profession again, that she would never be able to cope as an un-married mother and the blandishment that her child would have a privileged life she would never be able to afford if he was put up for adoption she consented. 40 years later when access to adoptees was made more available this now mature lady and professionally successful made an application to see her son. As was his right the son refused. Every year when his birthday comes around that woman grieves. That man will never know what an opportunity he missed to meet someone who loves him almost to breaking point.

Uncle Pat | 01 April 2015  

If Kate's story of her later life touches my soul anything like her story of her early life (which she shared in her first book) - it will be another incredibly satisfying emotional journey of survival of the human spirit - through exceptional life struggles that most of us could scarcely imagine without Kate's rare gift to convey brutally honest raw experience - leaving the reader to fill-in the attending emotions (as though they were experiencing it themselves). I look forward to wringing out my emotions once again - as her incredible life experiences become mine.

Dave W | 02 April 2015  

There is no doubt that many unmarried mothers were badly treated 50 years or so ago. To apply current moral values into the past is ludicrous. Regardless of religion or social status,illegitimate pregnancies were regarded as sinful and embarrassing; to the extent that most parents of the girl either sent her away to give birth or insisted on adoption. For a young mother with an illegitimate child to exist without family or state support was well-nigh impossible. Blaming people for the values that were commonly held in the past is any easy out. Instead we should be glad that lessons have been learned.

William Player | 02 April 2015  

I am blessed to know you dear Kate. I am truly humbled by your words and life you have lived. I can't wait to read your second book knowing I will be forever touched by it. Blessings to you my precious friend.

Suzanne O'Rourke | 20 April 2015  

Thank you all for taking the time to express your thoughts. You have touched my heart. Recalling the words of C.S.Lewis, 'we read to know we are not alone'. I am mindful of that quote as I write and if my work reaches out and touches another person and let's them know they are not alone. I feel blessed.

Kate Howarth | 21 April 2015  

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