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When unmarried mothers were vilified: heartbreaking letter from Mary, 72, will break your heart...

PUBLISHED: 10:57 21 January 2020 | UPDATED: 10:57 21 January 2020

There was a time when unmarried mothers did not dare to show their face PHOTO: GETTY

There was a time when unmarried mothers did not dare to show their face PHOTO: GETTY

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James Marston’s mother is rarely wrong. But there was a time, as reader, Mary, reminds him, when mothers who weren’t considered ‘the right sort’ were vilified. Read her heartbreaking letter here...

It's never much fun being told something one doesn't want to hear, is it?

I don't know anyone who readily accepts critique and most of us dismiss out of hand those who point out to us our failings or make us question our view of ourselves. I know I don't much like, as we call it in my family, "being told".

Yet listen we sometimes must, if not for our own good but for the good of those around us. My mother - who is still reminding me, quite often in front of people even though I'm 44, to try not to swear and to put my coat on when it's cold- doesn't ever stop being a mother. This week she upbraided me on my shoes.

"You can tell a lot about someone by looking at their shoes," she said. "And yours are scruffy and look dreadful. I wish you'd wear some smarter ones. I think people expect a bit better, you're a clergyman now. But you won't listen…"

Despite my protestations at how comfortable they were and that no one looks at shoes these days, deep down I think I knew she was right as without thinking I dug out a smarter, lace up pair, which were shiny and tidy, and put them on the next morning.

I recounted this story to a friend who said to me the other day "You're mother's right, those shoes were horrid, your column should be called James' mother knows best". Turns out people do look at shoes after all - perception matters.

It does intrigue me, however, that the ways we evaluate people change over time. As someone cleverer and more erudite than I once put it. "All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth."

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Which brings me to a letter I received about the topic of how we once treated unmarried mothers. It moved me and I thought I ought to share it with you, not least because this letter, it seems to me, tells us something we don't want to hear about how judgements of moral turpitude can be so terribly cruel. It made me think anyway.

Dear James,

I read your article as I sat in the hospital waiting area today. It hit a chord with me.

I'm 72 this week. I have first-hand experience of the unmarried mothers' home of the early 60s. I was 17 at the time. I was a 'fallen woman' and bore the brunt of the hypocrisy of the times. I was packed off on a train to London all by myself at the tender age of 17. I had no idea what to expect or where I was going.  

Times were so different then. Village folk were far more isolated and usually lived in the same place all their lives. Everyone knew everyone so therefore they knew each other's business.  

What the neighbours thought in those days mattered. That's what I try to tell myself as I try to make excuses for past behaviours.

Moral guidelines were rigid, and crossing them was a mortal sin.

For the girl who, 'got herself into trouble', there was no sympathy, no empathy, just ridicule. The shame was unbearable, the penalty would be even more unbearable. We were social outcasts and were never allowed to forget it, often not even by our own families.

So many broken spirits, so many broken hearts, so many regrets, so many secrets never to be told, hidden, out of sight but never out of  mind.

Out there in this crazy world are beautiful women entering the autumn of their years knowing that they will never see or hold the baby that they parted with so long ago.

Keeping a child was nigh impossible. Why you might ask? Well, firstly financial. Women didn't work or earn as the men did. It was practically unknown for a woman to be independent. A woman living on her own would have been seen as wrong. An unmarried mother would not be treated well by her peers or the authorities, her child even less so. The word bastard or illegitimate was in common use.

Thousands of babies were adopted during the 50, 60s, and 70s. The unfortunate women of these times did only one thing wrong. They put their trust and faith in someone who didn't deserve it. The outcome of this trust was a lifetime of sadness, regret, fear, secrecy, social outcast with a large piece of each and every heart missing.

Sincerely, Mary


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