Sad time to be a midwife

The last year of the swinging sixties, 1969, was the end of an era of change. For a trainee midwife it was a sad time when one in four births were to unmarried mothers, a boom time for the adoption industry. Mothers delivering and having their babies “whisked away”, without ever seeing their little faces.[1]

Yvonne started her midwifery training in 1969 at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Carlton. She’d spent the previous four years studying nursing at the Royal Melbourne Hospital next door. Three years of on the job training combined with lectures and exams at Melbourne University followed by a year as a staff nurse. Nursing training in the 1960s was still run in a very regimented fashion. Uniforms were enforced with military precision and the students lived on the premises under tight supervision including curfews and visitor regulation.[2]

When Yvonne started at the Royal Women’s the institution itself was going through a time of change. The hospital was established in 1856 as the ‘Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for Diseases of Women and Children’. Originally located in Eastern Hill it was founded to provide the underprivileged women of the emerging city of Melbourne with a safe place to give birth and receive proper medical care and attention.[3]Within two years the hospital had moved out to Carlton. As Yvonne started her training in 1969 the hospital moved again from the old building to new premises still in Grattan Street, Carlton. From dark and dingy delivery rooms and long wards to bright and airy wards with shiny new bathrooms.[4]

While the hospital was modernising, societies attitudes to unwed mothers was not. Financial support for single mothers was still four years away which meant for those women without family support their options were limited.[5]In the suburbs surrounding the hospital you could find a number of homes for unwed mothers – many run by religious institutions.[6]Perhaps the most well-known of these was St Joseph’s Receiving Home which was located across from the hospital in Grattan Street.[7]

These homes took in young pregnant women and provided board while pregnant and adoption processes for when the baby was born, often in conjunction with the hospital.[8]In turn the women often had to perform manual labour – doing laundry and kitchen work and other menial tasks to earn their keep.[9]Often women were forcibly handed over to these homes by their families, given no other choice and facing social shame and ruin.[10]Statistics show that adoptions to non-relative members was at its peak in the early seventies, just as Yvonne finished her training.

One story Yvonne related was about a young girl of Greek background. She had been engaged to a young man also from a Greek family whom she fell pregnant to. With family pressure he cancelled the engagement. According to his family she was no longer a suitable bride.

Yvonne remembers “It was sad, really. She was engaged to the bloke. She got pregnant through him, had the baby, but he wouldn’t marry her because they don’t marry bad girls and so the baby was given up for adoption. She cried, I think, from the time she came in to the time she left. She lost her baby and she was no longer worthy to be married.”[11]

These adoptions were usually closed meaning the relinquishing mother was given no details of the adoptive family and was not given the opportunity to spend any time with her infant.[12]From the 1950s it was considered best for the mothers mental health to not allow them to see babies marked for adoption and the midwifes were clearly told to follow this practice. The birth certificates were to be sealed for life on the basis that it gave the mother a clean break.[13]Yvonne tells that the women were given thirty days to change their mind but were “strongly discouraged from it.”[14]Considering the lack of options to raise an infant as a single parent it was unlikely that even if she wanted to a relinquishing mother could change her mind.

In the late sixties and early seventies these young women who had their children removed had no voice. It wasn’t until 2010 that the government realised that research needed to be undertaken into the impact these forced adoptions had – both on the relinquishing parents as well as the children given up. This project interviewed numerous individuals who had been affected by the practice of forced adoption.[15]

The research found that the practices were unjust and the consequences lifelong for all involved.[16]Evidence seemed to show that while the mothers consented to the adoptions it was due to “coercive societal forces” – in other words they were given no other choice.[17]Some practices went even further to forged consents. Many women they felt their babies were taken not given, that they were unworthy and unfit to be mothers. Naughty girls who needed to be punished. For them it wasn’t like giving birth more like an instant loss and many grieved their entire lives for this lost child.

The Royal Women’s Hospital also undertook their own research into the practice of forced adoption at their institution. This, in conjunction with the senate inquiry, led to the issue of an official apology in 2012. They acknowledged the pain they may have caused but stated they found no evidence of forced adoption or special practices for single mothers. For many of these families it was too little too late.[18]

This investigation and oral history support Yvonne’s recollections of her time at the hospital. The individual accounts of incredibly sad stories of relinquishing mothers point to how emotionally devastating these practices were. What also comes through in the research is the remorse and empathy the medical professionals feel, but also the helplessness. For many staff they were trained that this was best for mother and baby.

For Yvonne as a young midwife still in training she was required to follow orders, regardless of how harsh. It’s clear as she talks of this time how distressing she found the practice and how this “sad sort of time” has stuck with her fifty years on.[19]

 

 

Bibliography

ABC AM, ‘Vic hospital apologises over forced adoptions’,  https://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2012/s3414164.htm, Accessed 25 May 2019.

ABC Four Corners, ‘Given or Taken?’, https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/given-or-taken/3860552, Accessed 25 May 2019.

The Age, ‘Hospital Sorry for forced adoptions’, 24 January 2012, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/hospital-sorry-for-forced-adoptions-20120123-1qe21.html, Accessed 25 May 2019.

Australian Government Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Past Adoption Experiences National Research study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices’, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/past-adoption-experiences/5-mothers-separated-children-adoption, Accessed 24 May 2019.

Australian Government Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Unfit mothers…unjust practices?’, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-87/unfit-mothers-unjust-practices, Accessed 24 May 2019.

Australian Government Department of Social Services, ‘Impact of past adoption practices Summary of key issues from Australian research Final Report, A report to the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Dr Daryl Higgins General Manager (Research), Australian Institute of Family Studies, March 2010 (amended 30 April 2010)’, https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/pastadoptionreport.pdf, Accessed 24 May 2010.

The Conversation, ‘Re-writing Australia’s history of forced adoption’, https://theconversation.com/re-writing-australias-history-of-forced-adoption-5142, Accessed 24 May 2019.

Find & Connect, ‘St Joseph’s Receiving Home (1902  – 1985)’, https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/vic/biogs/E000207b.htm, Accessed 24 May 2019.

Finding Records, The Royal Women’s Hospital (1856 – current)’, https://findingrecords.dhhs.vic.gov.au/CollectionResultsPage/The-Royal-Womens-Hospital, Accessed 25 May 2019.

King Yvonne, interviewed by Kathryn Harris, digital recording, Kilmore, 30 April 2019, in author’s possession.

MacKillop Family Services, ‘St Joseph’s Receiving Home’, https://www.mackillop.org.au/about-mackillop/our-history/st-josephs-receiving-home, Accessed 25 May 2019.

National Archives of Australia,’ Forced Adoptions History Project Institutions’, http://forcedadoptions.naa.gov.au/resources/institutions, Accessed 24 May 2019.

Parliament of Australia, ‘Chapter 3 – The Experience of Forced Adoption’, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2010-13/commcontribformerforcedadoption/report/c03, Accessed 24 May 2019.

Quirk, Christin Anne. Separated at birth – Adoption practices in relation to single women confined at the Royal Women’s Hospital 1945-1975, Australian Catholic University, 18 January 2012, https://researchbank.acu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1410&context=theses, Accessed 24 May 2019.

The Women’s, ‘Our history’, https://www.thewomens.org.au/about/our-history, Accessed 24 May 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Yvonne King, interviewed by Kathryn Harris, digital recording, Kilmore, 30 April 2019, in author’s possession.

[2]Yvonne King, interviewed by Kathryn Harris.

[3]The Women’s, ‘Our history’, https://www.thewomens.org.au/about/our-history, Accessed 24 May 2019.

[4]Yvonne King, interviewed by Kathryn Harris.

[5]Australian Government Department of Social Services, ‘Impact of past adoption practices Summary of key issues from Australian research Final Report, A report to the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Dr Daryl Higgins General Manager (Research), Australian Institute of Family Studies, March 2010 (amended 30 April 2010)’, https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/pastadoptionreport.pdf, Accessed 24 May 2010.

[6]National Archives of Australia,’ Forced Adoptions History Project Institutions’, http://forcedadoptions.naa.gov.au/resources/institutions, Accessed 24 May 2019.

[7]MacKillop Family Services, ‘St Joseph’s Receiving Home’, https://www.mackillop.org.au/about-mackillop/our-history/st-josephs-receiving-home, Accessed 25 May 2019.

[8]ABC Four Corners, ‘Given or Taken?’, https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/given-or-taken/3860552, Accessed 25 May 2019.

[9]Parliament of Australia, ‘Chapter 3 – The Experience of Forced Adoption’, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2010-13/commcontribformerforcedadoption/report/c03, Accessed 24 May 2019.

[10]Parliament of Australia, ‘Chapter 3 – The Experience of Forced Adoption’.

[11]Yvonne King, interviewed by Kathryn Harris.

[12]Australian Government Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Unfit mothers…unjust practices?’, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-87/unfit-mothers-unjust-practices, Accessed 24 May 2019.

[13]Australian Government Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Unfit mothers…unjust practices?’.

[14]Yvonne King, interviewed by Kathryn Harris.

[15]Parliament of Australia, ‘Chapter 3 – The Experience of Forced Adoption’.

[16]Australian Government Department of Social Services, ‘Impact of past adoption practices Summary of key issues from Australian research Final Report, A report to the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Dr Daryl Higgins General Manager (Research), Australian Institute of Family Studies, March 2010 (amended 30 April 2010)’.

[17]Australian Government Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Unfit mothers…unjust practices?’.

[18]The Age, ‘Hospital Sorry for forced adoptions’, 24 January 2012, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/hospital-sorry-for-forced-adoptions-20120123-1qe21.html, Accessed 25 May 2019.

[19]Yvonne King, interviewed by Kathryn Harris.