Keeping my baby: the single-parent choice
Documentary tells of isolation and hatred faced by unmarried Irish women in the not-too-distant past
As soon as the “little tot” was put in her arms the feeling of all- consuming love took her breath away. “The overwhelming outpouring of love was something I wasn’t prepared for. I suppose my emotions had just been frozen for nine months. It was overpowering.”
It was 1967, and Annette Hunter-Evans, then 25, from Co Sligo was in St Kevin’s Hospital, Dublin (now St James’s). She was unmarried and a Church of Ireland primary school teacher. She had been sent to St Kevin’s as she would have “anonymity” there. She had been sent to Dublin by her family to stay with a family while she had her baby.
Annette had been in a relationship with an older man, and says she “naively thought” they would marry when she got pregnant. He made it clear they wouldn’t.
“The plan was that I was going to give the baby up for adoption. And I did try. But he was sick, and they kept him in hospital for a few weeks, so I was able to go and visit him every day. Then I left him in the Cottage Home – a Church of Ireland children’s home in Dún Laoghaire. The lady running it was quite flexible, and she felt it was important that the mothers could get to know their child while they figured out what to do. So I visited Peter there too.”
Annette taught in Athy, Co Kildare, at the time. She tells now how she would live for the weekends when she could go up to Dublin and take her little boy out. “I took him out every day, all the time wondering if it could be possible to keep him. Even best friends were telling me how difficult it would be to keep him. ‘A child needs his father.’ That kind of thing.”
Adoption in London
Evelyn Forde was 27 in 1972. She was an office worker for a semi-state body when she became pregnant and found out the father was married. She got sick leave when six months pregnant, telling her employer she had “pernicious anaemia”, and went to London to have her baby and give it up for adoption.
Again, she speaks of having this “bundle” put in her arms in a London maternity hospital and of a sensation of “maternal love” engulfing her. She left Robert with a foster family in London and returned to Ireland “to take up the threads of her life”, but she was “in bits” and returned to London to see her baby several times, before eventually “going to collect him”.
“Financial independence was the key,” says Annette. “Most women in our situation didn’t have that. They could never have kept a baby. It meant we could – even though it seemed impossible – keep our babies.”
She didn’t know any other single mothers. Her decision to keep Peter was “the most difficult I’ve ever made”. Before she even faced society, she had to accept herself. This took almost a year.
“I remember sitting back one day, thinking ‘Gosh, I’m a teacher. I’m 26. I could be a widow at my age with children on my own and it would be quite acceptable for me to rear them on my own. At that moment I decided: I can do this and I am going to fight tooth and nail to keep him.”
Annette and Evelyn are two of several brave, pioneering women included in a radio documentary, Cherish All the Children, produced by Hilary Fennell, which will be broadcast on Today FM later this month, about the founding of Cherish (now called One Family), an organisation for single parents, 40 years ago. It tells the listener of the intolerance, isolation and hatred faced by these unmarried women who had the financial wherewithal to keep their babies at the time.
There was no maternity leave – any woman having a baby in the late 1960s or early 1970s was assumed to be married and therefore to have left her job. There was no lone parent’s allowance, and any woman seeking child maintenance from the father had to do so within six months of the baby’s birth. The most they could expect was £5 a week.
And then there was the shame. It was a time when Irish society’s disdain for women was openly and institutionally expressed. Women could not keep their job in the public service once married, could not sit on a jury, couldn’t collect their children’s allowance without their husbands’ permission; couldn’t refuse sex with their husbands; couldn’t get a barring order against a violent husband; couldn’t buy a pint in a pub; and had no ownership rights over the family home.
The censure that applied to “deviant” women who had sex outside marriage, or worse still, got pregnant, could ruin not only their lives but their babies’ too. Many faced Magdalene laundries, their babies being adopted in England, Canada and the United States.
Children born outside marriage were “illegitimate” or “bastards” with no legal right to inherit their parents’ estate after they died.
The start of Cherish
In 1972, when her son was about four, Annette read a tiny newspaper ad about a new organisation being set up by an unmarried mother. Maura O’Dea was inviting other unmarried mothers to her house on Kimmage Road, Dublin.
“It was the first time in my life,” says Annette, “that I was meeting people who had had a child outside marriage and were dealing with the social issues, with not being accepted and having huge difficulties with accommodation.”
Evelyn says Cherish changed her life. When she first brought Robert home, the two girls she had shared a house with in Inchicore moved out for fear of being associated with her. The professional she approached to help her get maintenance from Robert’s father patted her on her hand and told her: “My advice now would be to have the little fella adopted.”
“At every turn you were being told you were doing the wrong thing keeping your baby,” she says.
At Cherish she was supported. The name had been drawn from the 1916 Proclamation, which speaks of “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.
O’Dea, in the documentary, explains its purpose. “We started it because of solidarity, loneliness, the need to be accepted on our own terms. We wanted constitutional change, social change, and acceptance. There was discrimination on every front.”
They first campaigned for a single- parent’s allowance, seeing this as important not only economically but also symbolically. Explains O’Dea: “We were determined official recognition of our existence would come through money.” In 1973 an unmarried mother’s allowance of £8.50 per week was introduced.
The ‘illegitimate’ label
The big issue for O’Dea was illegitimacy – the labelling of their children as “illegitimate” and the legal implications of that. So, in 1973, she did something shocking: she gave an interview on national television.
She told the interviewer: “We want succession rights for our children. Until this comes about, our children are second-class citizens before the law and this is not acceptable. A society which makes innocent children pay for the sins of their fathers ad infinitum – it’s totally unjust. There are no illegitimate children. Perhaps there are illegitimate parents, I don’t know.”
It would take 15 years before the Status of Children Act 1987 gave children born outside marriage succession rights.
Cherish’s first president was a young, radical barrister, Mary Robinson, and its patron was Bishop Eamon Casey. The radio documentary outlines how the women begged and borrowed to secure the premises it still owns on Pembroke Street, Dublin, and how, by refusing to be seen as charity cases and demanding to come in from the margins of society, they challenged society’s stigmatisation of single parents and their children.
Things have undoubtedly improved for unmarried parents, economically and socially, though as Karen Kieran, chief executive of One Family (Cherish’s name since 2003), points out, society still judges single parents harshly.
It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that as recently as 2005, Kevin Myers wrote in this newspaper about “mothers of bastards”, and that “from such warped timber true masts are seldom hewn”.
The article outraged public opinion, but, as Evelyn believes, perhaps Myers was expressing a view that is still held in places, but rarely publicly expressed. This single mother has more than once been told she has “made things very hard” for herself.
Children from single-parent families are four times more likely to live in consistent poverty than children in two-parent households, accounting for 65 per cent of all poor children in Ireland. As was the case 40 years ago, the vast majority – more than 90 per cent – of lone parents are women.
Cherish all the Children will be broadcast on Today FM at 9am on Sunday, December 29