Staying mum on the pain of adoption

Peter Kirkwood, April 17/4/10

Ten Hail Marys By Kate Howarth; UQP, 302pp, $34.95
Peter Kirkwood is a former producer in the religion and ethics unit of ABC television and the author of several books on religion.

L. P. Hartley’s aphorism that “the past is a foreign country” is amply illustrated by this memoir. It’s the harrowing tale of a teenage pregnancy in the 1960s, the pressures on the mother to give up her baby for adoption — the norm then for single girls in her position — and the psychological trauma of the experience. In December 2000, the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Adoption Practices 1950-1998 put out its final report, and it provides a broader context for Kate Howarth’s compelling story.

The Australian, No Internet Text
Entitled Releasing the Past, the report recommended that the government should acknowledge “past adoption practices were misguided, and that on occasions unethical or unlawful practices may have occurred causing lasting suffering for many mothers, fathers, adoptees and their families”.
During that period in NSW there were just more than 75,000 registered adoptions, many from single unwed mothers.
The peak period for adoptions was the 60s and 70s, reaching its height in 1972 when 4564 babies were relinquished by their birth mothers.
The practice tapered off drastically in the 80s and 90s, and in 1998, there were only 192 adoptions.
Howarth’s candid story puts flesh and bones on these statistics, and shows the human dynamics behind this widespread practice. Along the way it shines an uncomfortable spotlight on a host of underlying social problems: discrimination against Aborigines and dysfunctional Aboriginal families, unemployment and poverty, alcoholism, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Kate was just five when she asked about a family photo of a good-looking young woman named Phyllis. She was shocked to be told that Phyllis — and not Mamma who had brought her up — was her real mother.
“Phyllis was Mamma’s daughter, and at this age I was still too young to work out that this meant Mamma was my grandmother and that her youngest sons were not my brothers, as I had thought, but my uncles,” she writes.
She never learned the identity of her father and a few years later, when Mamma wanted to remarry, she was abandoned again.
She became a state ward and was shunted between various Aboriginal relatives, all of them poor and ill-equipped to deal with the increasingly headstrong and rebellious Kate.
She had occasional stints living in rural NSW, but mostly she was put up in houses in Sydney’s west, around Parramatta.
Somehow she managed to attend school regularly, get a rudimentary education and develop aspirations to make something of her life.
Kate matured early and became sexually active at 13. She explains well how, living in
poverty and neglect, this was a misdirected grasping for security, love and acceptance. She became pregnant at 16 and decided early on that, no matter what, she would keep the baby.
Without anyone willing to support her, she was sent to St Margaret’s Home for Unwed Mothers run by the Josephite nuns in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
Family members had warned her about the ferocity of the nuns, so she had no illusions about finding solace at St Margaret’s.
“We pregnant girls from the home were considered by the nuns to hold no moral or social values,” she writes. “We were the children of the damned and had to be not only shunned but punished for our sins.”
The 40 or so heavily pregnant residents at the home had to do backbreaking unpaid work in the laundry, kitchens and sewing room of the adjoining hospital.
Most had signed over their children for adoption on arrival, but Kate flatly refused. This marked her as a trouble-maker, and she was regularly badgered and intimidated by the head nun, Sister Anne, to sign the papers authorising adoption.
Though not religious, she found comfort at this time in saying the Catholic prayer, the Hail Mary, which she had learned earlier in her life. Hence, the title of book.
“Lying in my bed, I prayed every night.
Over and over I repeated the Hail Mary like some bizarre ritual, hoping someone up there would hear me,” she writes. Maybe this helped because, against the odds, she managed to keep her son.
This book is direct in its language, unsentimental and plain in its storytelling. While no literary masterpiece, it is very readable and, despite its dark themes, is laced with humour and optimism.
It sheds valuable light on troubling aspects of Australian society, on the problems of our indigenous population and the ongoing cost of bungled adoption policy.
It helps explain why in a short time there has been an almost total reversal in community attitudes towards adoption and why it is now relatively rare.
As some recent tragic cases have shown, maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of keeping together mothers and babies, with drastic consequences for the children.
This book shows, however, that it would be a mistake to go back to the days when coercive adoption for single mothers was the norm.