[Trigger warning for discussion of rape.]
My mom was raped by a friend when she was a twenty-year-old college student. A month or so later, she discovered she was pregnant.
My mom was from a very small town, and a very Christian family. The man who raped her was from the same town, he also claimed to be a Christian, but he was never charged or arrested for hurting my mom, because no one believed her. My mom lived with the consequences of his crime for the rest of her life.
This was the early 1960s, a full decade before Roe v. Wade, but it was possible to get an abortion. Not a safe abortion, but there were places her fellow nursing students knew of to obtain one. My mom made it as far as the waiting room, but she couldn’t go through with it. When she told me about the place she went, she left out many of the details, but she told me it was filthy, and run by a doctor who had lost his license. My dad, who she was dating at the time, offered to marry her, but my mom said no and broke up with him, on orders from her mother.
When she couldn’t hide it anymore, she was kicked out of college for being immoral. When she arrived home, her mother refused to look at her, and arranged for my mom to go to a maternity home. My mom didn’t talk much about that, either, but my research in the years since I found out tells me it was probably a pretty terrible experience.
When her daughter was born, my mom didn’t get to see her, other than a glimpse of the back of her head. Maternity home rules forbid my mom from using her real name, so there is no record, anywhere, that my mom gave birth to a little girl in the summer of 1962.
After the birth, my mom returned home, with strict instructions from her mother to never tell anyone about the pregnancy. Mom wanted to go back to school, but since she had been expelled she had to take a semester of remedial classes to prove she wouldn’t make any more “immoral” decisions. In an uncanny coincidence, my dad was in her remedial English class, and they slowly made their way back to each other. My mom finished her nursing degree, and they got married when they were ready. Her story had as happy an ending as it could, but I’m sure for every story like my mom’s, there are several other women whose lives never got back on track after they went through the same thing.
She never tried to contact her daughter, on top of the Gordian knot of paperwork that would need to be untangled, if it was even possible, she didn’t want to tell her child how she was conceived. Chances are good my older half-sister never knew she was adopted. Her birth certificate would have only the names of her adopted parents, and many adoptive parents in the ’60s never told their adopted children where they came from.
After my mom died, I considered searching for my half-sister. I wonder if she has my mom’s face, like I do, or her patience, like I don’t. In a recurring daydream, she’s creative, super smart and has a great sense of humor. I want her to know that our mom was an amazing woman. I want her to know that my mom loved her, even as she hated the man who raped her and everything that happened to her afterwards. I know I can’t try to find her, my mom wouldn’t have wanted me to, for one, and because I know my desire stems mostly from the grief of losing my mom.
If the faction of the Republican party who demand that “Life begins at conception, no exceptions” get their way, and we return to the halcyon days before abortions were safe and legal, before the miracle of hormonal birth control, what’s to stop them from making other young women, like my mom, give up everything they worked for because they’re raped and get pregnant? Or because they have consensual sex, and get pregnant? What’s to stop the folks who put crisis pregnancy centers on every street corner from opening up a string of maternity homes?
It’s only been within the past decade or so that women who gave birth in maternity homes have begun speaking about their experiences. We can’t let what happened to them happen again. Not to us, not to our daughters, not to our granddaughters, both real and figurative. As women, and as feminists, we owe it to the mothers who had to give birth in secret to make sure we don’t repeat that horrible history.