Courage in grim times: tale of a young unwed mother

Review by Carol Major; 5/4/10,

Ten Hail Marys; Kate Howarth
We often assume that young women gave up their babies for adoption in the 1960s because of the social stigma surrounding single motherhood and a lack of welfare options. But Kate Howarth reveals a more sinister scenario in her compelling memoir, Ten Hail Marys.
The story takes in her experiences as a child growing up in Sydney’s slums and the events that led to her confinement in St Margaret’s Home for Unwed Mothers. She exposes, without bitterness, society’s callous sacrifice of young women to notions of morality — notions that were little more than a smokescreen for entrenched misogyny and prejudice at that time. The subject matter is grim but this is not a depressing book. Howarth uses the sometimes tough, sometimes vulnerable voice of the teenager that she was then.

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It is a frank account filled with dark humour owing much of its power to an honest compulsion to finally reveal her tale. Her objective is not to malign those involved but to set the record
straight for adoptees who may feel that their birth mothers abandoned them as a matter of convenience.
The effect is similar to listening to a young teenager who sees little advantage in explaining herself at the time but now, in the face of seeing others suffer, decides to blurt out the facts. This unadorned voice demands a response from the reader, because it is not up to Howarth, the teenager, to make sense of her story but for readers to enter the spaces where her misery remains unexplored.
A pretty, seemingly white girl with a mixed white and indigenous heritage, Howarth is abandoned first by her mother and then again by her grandmother. While not stated
explicitly, poverty, racism and intergenerational shaming appear to contribute to their erratic behaviour.
“Mama” is fierce in defending her granddaughter against a teacher who expects half-castes to sit at the back of the class but equally intent on shaming the little girl at every turn, telling her repeatedly that she will end up a slut like her mother.
Yet Howarth has little interest in sex. Twice abandoned and shunted among her Aboriginal relatives, she is only desperate for love, a desire that makes her prey for men.
Too soon she is pregnant and taken to St Margaret’s where, in return for minimal food and shelter, she becomes part of an unpaid workforce serving the hospital complex next door. The scenes are reminiscent of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. Pregnant women feed scalding sheets
through pressing machines without protective clothing and one is ordered to keep working until her labour progresses.
Residents are presented with an adoption form on arrival, unaware that under the Child Welfare Act any final decision to relinquish a baby must be made after the birth, not before, and not until the full impact of surrendering a child has been explained.
Adopting agencies are also required to provide advice on money available for single mothers. Although the supporting mother’s benefit is not yet in effect, a widow’s benefit covers much the same purpose. Young mothers remain ignorant of these facts.
Howarth refuses to sign despite intense pressure. She is thrown out of the home but must return to the hospital when her baby falls due. After the birth she is warned that if she doesn’t surrender her child for adoption, the Child Welfare Department will make the infant a state ward. But Howarth hangs on.
This is one piece of family that truly belongs to her.
Her experience is extreme but she is not alone. In 1998 a parliamentary inquiry heard evidence from many women who suffered similar circumstances.
The inquiry concluded that in the race to locate babies for infertile couples, those involved in the adoption process had left single mothers open to exploitation.
Ten Hail Marys makes an interesting juxtaposition to the recently published Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran Xue, which documents the treatment of mothers and female babies under China’s communist regime.
An interview with the author in Spectrum on February 13 contained a comment by Yiyan Wang, chair of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney, who feels that books about crying women in China are popular but construct an image of a culture frozen in time.
While this view is open for debate, I might add that it is likely that Western audiences find it easier to be outraged over oppression in foreign lands than to look in our own backyard. You don’t need to go to China to encounter cruelty to women and young girls.
In turn, Howarth’s story should not be considered simply an artefact of our history.
The silence surrounding the treatment of unwed mothers is visited on their children today, many who are unaware that their mother’s choice to surrender them was no choice at all.
Australia, Aboriginal, Human Rights, Womens Rights