‘Maternity Homes’ Still Exist––Then vs. Now

Spending all day on the internet - mostly for work - means I stumble across a lot of personal stories. Not all of them are memorable, but the story of Denny and Karen Vinar was and it led me down a rabbit hole. In 1961, Denny and Karen were teenage favorites; They were in love and lived their best teenage lives until the two had a child. Karen's parents sent Karen to a home for unmarried mothers known as the maternity hospital, where Karen stayed until their baby was born and put up for adoption. Denny was able to visit a few times and met her daughter on the day she was born. Shortly thereafter, Denny joined the military; When he came back he suggested Karen, who said yes, but her parents disagreed. Denny and Karen went their separate ways (and Karen's parents can fuck off).
Fifty-three years later, Denny and Karen got back together, married, and found their daughter through Lutheran Social Services. Why this hasn't been made into a podcast yet is a mystery to me, but the part of the story that kept bugging me was the fact that mothers and children were hidden from society and forcibly separated from each other. 1961 wasn't that long ago. How often was that? Do these houses still exist today?
In her heartbreaking book, The Girls Who Went Away, author Ann Fessler tells stories of mostly bourgeois, white teenagers and women who were shamed in maternity homes. In the 20 years before abortion became legal, nearly 1.5 million unmarried mothers had to have their babies and then put them up for adoption. Families were ashamed of their “morally corrupt” and “sinful” daughters who became pregnant out of wedlock - despite the fact that men were not punished for their part in the pregnancy - but medical professionals claimed in the 1950s that unmarried mothers were psychologically unsuitable for raising children, so their children should be taken away.
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In the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of women entering maternity homes put their babies up for adoption after being brainwashed by social workers, parents, and court judgments that it was best for both them and their child. And because our systems were (and still are) racist AF, unmarried black mothers were not sent away because they were expected to be more "promiscuous" and perceived to be more maternal. In addition, social workers told both black and white unmarried mothers that no one wanted to adopt black babies. All mothers were fucked for various reasons.
Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash
Nowadays, more places recognize all gender identities of people who have a womb and can get pregnant, but most of the talk about cisgender women is at the center of reproductive rights. The focus here has been on cis women, but transgender men and non-binary people face similar issues. Even with Roe V. Wade's decision, a woman's ability to make decisions about birth control, pregnancy, abortion, and everything her body has to do is either determined or stigmatized by someone else (usually a cisgender man). Instead of being supported, women are often embarrassed and forced to make decisions that are not based on their real needs and wants.
Maternity homes still exist, but thankfully they are now used more as a refuge and alternative to unsafe or undesirable homes. Maternity homes across the country provide shelter, food, and support for teenagers and women who may or may not want to keep their babies, but the choice is theirs. However, because many of these houses are based on faith, the decision to have an abortion is often off the table. These homes are designed to protect, inform, and guide women through the process of either raising their child or finding the best home for them through adoption. Homes like LifeHouse of Houston offer labor and maternity courses, financial planning, and professional training. The daily structure can be rigid and often includes religious foundations, but women who choose to go to these houses at least know what they are signing up for. There are 20 maternity homes in Texas and about 350 across the country, and many have long waiting lists.
While women may have more autonomy today than they did in the 1960s, the fact that there are waiting lists at home for pregnant women is evidence that society is still failing women and adolescents. Sex education is a joke in the United States. Only 30 states plus the District of Columbia mandate set in schools and the information given to students leaves much to be desired compared to what they should be taught. Abstinence is often emphasized, consent is not discussed in much or no nuance, and only 11 states offer sex that is LGBTQIA + inclusive. The CDC reports that teen pregnancy rates are falling in the United States but are still significantly higher when compared to other developed countries. Racial and economic differences in teen birth rates persist.
No expectant parent should feel helpless, ashamed, or compelled to make a decision about their child because they lack family support or social systems that provide fair opportunities. Maternity homes should never have existed for their original purpose, and it is just as frustrating that those homes are still being used for charitable reasons. Stigma, religion and racism still hold wombs hostage.
I'm glad the Denny and Karen's story had a happy ending, including seeing their daughter again. But so much pain and trauma could have been avoided if Karen's body and autonomy had been respected. A pregnant person should make clear and safe choices in choosing the best path to parenting. The same is true when becoming a parent isn't what a person wants. These decisions are personal and should not be an issue.
See the original article on ScaryMommy.com
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