Poverty in Ireland-Unmarried mothers
SHE IS 23. She suffers from acute anxiety and chronic depression. Her nerves are so bad that she cannot go out alone, cannot take a bus or go into a crowded shop. Intelligent and articulate she understands her condition, and understands too that it is aggravated by the frightening insecurity of her situation.
She talks hopefully of getting better, of leaving St. Brendan's, where she is a day-patient, and finding a job. But hope comes only in flashes-deeply depressed by the loss of the man she had loved and come to depend on, tormented by loneliness and fear for her child, with neither emotional nor financial security, the future is a nightmare.
For she is an unmarried mother. Clare was twenty when she came to Dublin from the small town where she grew up with her widowed mother. She worked as a secretary, made friends, and went to dances and parties. Shortly after her mother died she met the man who was to father her child. He was more than twenty years older than Clare. He was charming and plausible and Clare fell in love with him. "When I realised I was pregnant-and it took me nearly three months to admit it to myself-I was terrified. I thought he would know what to do, and of course, I hoped he would marry me. But then he said the child couldn't be his, and that anyway he was married. I was so stunned, I couldn't believe it. I thought he really loved me. But he wouldn't help at all: it was my problem, and he just didn't want to know." So Clare was left to face the situation alone.
Some unmarried fathers act responsibly and stand by the girls even if marriage is decided against. More do not. And there is little that legally a girl can do about it. Paternity suits are notoriously difficult to prove and most girls cannot face the strain and shame of court proceedings. Besides, it is hardly worth it: if the case is proved the most the father can be ordered to pay towards the maintenance of the child is £1 a week. Hardly surprising then that only a handful of such cases come before the District Courts every year.
Although he denied being the father of the child, he sent Clare £20 with a note advising her to contact Catholic Protection. But he would not give her
any further support and refused to see her again. Letters she wrote to him were returned marked "Unknown at this address." So the relationship which had become the most important thing in Clare's life was brutally cut off, and she was left to face the biggest crisis in her life alone.
"I went to pieces. I was completely shattered that he had just abandoned me like that. You would think that he had had nothing to do with it."
Already her pregnancy was beginning to show. She had no choice but to take the father's advice and contact Catholic Protection. She gave up her job and went into a home for unmarried mothers. There she was advised that when the time came it would be best for her to have the baby adopted, that in her circumstances she could not hope to keep it and bring it up alone.
Organisations to help the unmarried mother, such as the Catholic Rescue and Protection Society, the Church of Ireland Social Service, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the medical social workers in the big maternity hospitals, do not pressurise the unmarried mother in any way on the question of keeping her baby or giving it up for adoption.
"Each girl presents a different case," says Miss Miller of the Church of Ireland Social Service. "Circumstances vary-the attitude of the father, of the girl's family, her own maturity and personality, her income, if any, must all be taken into consideration. But while giving her emotional and practical support we try to get it over to her that it is she who must make the decision and, having considered the alternatives, make the choice herself." This is all very well but Miss Miller agrees that the alternatives are so bleak that a girl very often has no real choice. Unless her circumstances are very exceptional she is definitely encouraged to have the child adopted.
Adoption is often presented as the neat solution to the problem of the unmarried mother and her child. Best for the baby who will have security and love from an early age when he needs it most; best for the mother who generally cannot provide for the child as she would like, and whose own life will be circumscribed because of the child. Sadder and wiser, it is implied, she will sign over her baby and pick up her life again, not quite, but almost, as if nothing had happened. A tidy solution-if it worked.
In the home Clare watched the heartbreak of the mothers forced through circumstances to part with their babies. She says now that she can tell an unmarried mother by the desolate look on her face, the deadness in her eyes. She has lost what she loved most, and now, for her, life is over.
Few unmarried mothers actually want to part with their children. It is the rare mother who does not love her child, and this love is no less real because the mother is not married. The trauma of deciding on the baby's future, the heartbreak of giving him up, often prove too much for the girl. In the officialese of the Rotunda Hospital Annual Report: "Mothers who opted for adoption were beset by ambivalent feelings and needed constant support to help them to come to a wise and mature decision about their own and thier babies' future. . ." The need for after-care and followthrough with those mothers who opted for adoption is stressed by Miss Michelle Harte, a social worker with the ISPCC: "So often she has not really come to terms with her experience. She is tormented by guilt feelings, worries about the welfare of her lost child, and feels she has failed it. We frequently find her coming back to us, pregnant again in a subconscious attempt to resolve her situation, to do better by this child. We would like to follow up these mothers, to have a comprehensive system of after-care, but we simply haven't enough social workers to be able to do so."
Although the Adoption Acts have improved the situation there is still a sizeable gap between the numbers of illegitimate children born every year and the numbers of suitable adopters coming forward. In 1968 for example therc were 1,5557 illegitimate births and only 1,343 adoptions were finalised. And not all of those adopted are necessarily illegitimate infants.
Then there's the child who is not adopted because he's not 100°/0 perfect. As Michael Viney, in "No Birthright," pointed out :
"Although adoption has been widely accepted as the best solution for the baby's future, it is all too often a forced solution.There is often no
reason whatever why the mother should not take the baby home except the fear of 'What people will say.' And it should be remembered here that many babies, due to handicaps of some, often quite trivial degree, stand little chance of adoption."
Adoption is not the blanket solution it is sometimes presented to be. And for whatever reason-a more sympathetic attitude on the part of society or a more. spirited independence on the part of the girls-in the past two or three years there has been a definite rise in the numbers of mothers rejecting adoption.
Clare kept her baby.
"When he was born and I held him in my arms I realised for the first time what it means to love someone. I was determined not to lose him.I felt
very strong at the time. I was full of plans-I thought of going to London when I had a bit of money saved, and starting a new life there with my baby,."
\'Vhen he was two months old she left the home and returned to Dublin. She stayed with a friend until she could find a room for herself and the baby. In a city hit by a chronic housing shortage this was not easy. Too many young couples know the despairing search for accommodation where young children will be accepted. For a single woman with a baby the difficulties are enormous. "You can say you're a widow but they just look at you. They think you're a whore and turn you away."
Those who accept her can be worse. "It was obvious what he was after. In fact he made it very plain. . ."
Eventually Clare agreed to share a room with an English woman who had been deserted by her husband. She was neurotic and her own three yearold son was disturbed. It was a frightening picture for Clare-but she had little choice.
The English woman used to mind the two children while Clare went out to work and for this service Clare paid an extra £2 a week on top of the £2 10s. Od. rent. But she worried about the effect on her baby of days spent in the care of a neurotic woman and as soon as he was old enough
6 months-she started to leave him in Liberty Creche in Meath Street instead. The other publicly subsidised nursery centres take only older children, aged from two to five yearS. The average charge is 25s. a week but a sliding scale is operated in some cases, more being charged to better-off mothers and those in difficulties paying less. The numbers in these centres fluctuate all the time, and the authorities are reluctant to say how many children have unmarried mothers. They did say, however, that the numbers were not large, and that room can nearly always be found for such cases.
And so it was for Clare's child. But the loneliness, the strain of living with a neurotic woman and worry about the future became too much. Clare's depression became chronic and she found she was becoming terrified of crowds. In the end she could barely force herself to leave her room. She had a nervous breakdown and had to go into St. Brendan's Hospital for treatment. Frantic with worry about her child she tried to find foster-parents for him. Again this was not easy. Local authorities who are required to board out orphaned, deserted, and other needful children have great difficulty in finding foster-parents who, besides being suitable in other respects, are willing to forgo the satisfaction of feeling the child is theirs. And the allowance paid for fostering, so far from being an incentive, is often so low as to require a positive sacrifice from the foster-parents. In the Dublin area, for example, the maximum allowance is £100-140 a year plus clothing allowance.
Few unmarried mothers wish to make a formal arrangement with the local health authority but where they enter into private agreements they may be badly exploited. The Church of Ireland Social Service quotes a case of a girl who left her month-old baby with a nurse while she tried to find a room and a.job. She was charged £25 a week.
Clare had better luck. The Dublin Health Authority found foster-parents who charged £3 10s. Od. a week and her son is now with a large contented family where she too is accepted and welcomed on her visits almost as one of the family.
Financially she finds she is marginally better off than when she was working. As a secretary she had £9 a week takehome pay. Out of that she had to pay £2 10s. Od. a week rent plus £2 for the baby-sitter (25s. when he was in the Creche); lunches, bus fares and food for the weekend cost a further £3. That left 30s. for clothes for herself and the baby, for cigarettes and all other expenses.
Now she receives £4 16s. Od. a week disability allowance and £2 a week from the St. Vincent de Paul. She moved into a smaller room costing £2 a week, but her meals and medical treatment are provided free of charge. As a mother she is entitled to the Children's Allowance, but it scarcely enters into financial calculations-for her son she receives 10s. a month.
Her little boy is now nearly two years old. He is a docile, well-behaved child, shy with strangers. He runs to his mother when she visits. "Mommy, Mommy," he calls and follows her around the house. His foster-mother, too, is "Mommy" to him.
On one of her good days Clare went window-shopping in Grafton Street. A young man rattled a collection-box at her. "Help the old people", he said. "How about helping the unmarried mothers ?" she retorted. He was embarrassed, and backed away, apologising. She hasn't been down Grafton Street
since. The fear she knows is irrational prevents her from going out, from leading a normal life. It is a fear caused by insecurity and loneliness, by a future without hope.