Historical investigations like the Mother and Baby Homes Commission report are valuable contributions to our knowledge of the past and yet anyone who wants to know what it felt like to be an unmarried mother 50 years ago could well turn their attention to a classic novel about the situation.
Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone vividly describes the dilemma of a young woman who, after just one — almost absent-minded — sexual encounter with a boyfriend, finds herself pregnant.
This is the 1960s in allegedly “swinging” London, but there’s nothing very swinging about Rosamund’s plight, although she is fortunate enough to be a clever academic, living rent-free in her parents’ flat — they are overseas — and with some financial independence.
Those who know about the pregnancy immediately press her to “get rid of it” because of the stigma — her women friends, her platonic boyfriends even offering money for a termination.
She doesn’t tell her parents, or her brother. Neither does she tell George, the baby’s father (who she thinks is probably gay, because he’s so gentle, and she wants to spare him the anguish).
She has heard that “gin baths” bring a pregnancy to an end, so she buys a bottle of gin with that intention. But friends drink most of the gin when they call around and then the bathwater runs cold.
A legal abortion could be accessed in London in 1965 if the pregnancy threatened a woman’s physical or mental health and Rosamund visits a psychiatrist hoping to be declared mentally fragile. The shrink, however, pronounces her entirely sane and thus not a suitable case for this treatment.
So, the pregnancy proceeds and she comes to accept it, reflecting that even if accidental, it “seemed to have meaning”.
The experience is interesting, although when she is teaching, she sometimes wears a curtain-ring on her wedding finger, for the sake of respectability.
Once the bump starts to show, the pressure really begins for adoption. Her older sister, Beatrice, finds out and is appalled.
“This is the most dreadful mistake, for you and your child,” she writes. “Just think, if you had it adopted, you could forget about this whole business in six months and carry on exactly where you left off.”
It was wrong to foist the problem on a child: “Through no fault of its own, it would have the slur of illegitimacy all its life. It’s your duty to have it adopted by some couple who really want a child and who are probably in a far more favourable position for bringing one up.”
This attitude was absolutely typical of the time — even from the most enlightened quarters (Beatrice is an Oxford graduate).
An unmarried mother could put the past behind her and a childless couple could give an illegitimate child a family life. At one point, Rosamund is told “you won’t be allowed to keep it”.
In the maternity hospital, a big sign marked “U” (for “unmarried”) hangs on her bed. When she is in labour, the nurses all but ignore her — her unmarried status downgrades her.
At one point, a matron slaps Rosamund across the face when she seems hysterical. When her daughter is born and subsequently has to have an operation, Rosamund becomes aware that people would say it was a “blessing in disguise” if the baby died. Even though she is not religious, she fears “vengeance for my sin”.
But her little daughter, Octavia, turns out to be a delight and her love for the child is totally fulfilling. Friends and contemporaries become accepting, although the family remain ambivalent.
When Rosamund’s PhD thesis (on Elizabethan poets) is published, she is entitled to call herself “Dr”, which will cover the embarrassing point she is a “Miss”, not a “Mrs”.
But the author makes clear that only a young woman of social confidence, independent means, living in a five-room flat in Marylebone (“a good address”) could really have stood out against the pressures of the time to either “get rid of it” or place the baby for adoption. A woman without these advantages would have found single motherhood impossible.
A historic investigation sheds light on the past, but what’s so powerful about The Millstone is it was written at the time, and thus reflects, with unaffected honesty, the values of the time, including attitudes that are seldom admitted today: what Rosamund hates about pregnancy is that men in the street no longer wolf-whistle at her — she really liked the wolf-whistle.
It’s calculated that a quarter of a million unmarried mothers in Britain — between 1945 and 1975 — were more or less coerced to place their babies for adoption and, of course, the situation was the same — or even more exacting — in Ireland.
Yet, in a way, it may be some consolation, both to the mothers and the adoptees, to understand that it was wider society that enforced these norms, which, at the time, were often sincerely considered to be the best way to rescue an awkward situation.