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'There were couples waiting in the wings for my baby to be born.'

In 1966, after being abandoned by her mother as a baby and then by ‘Mamma’, her volatile grandmother, Kate Howarth found herself pregnant when she was just 15. She was sent to St Margaret’s home for unwed mothers in Sydney. In the months before the birth, and the days after, she resisted intense pressure to give up her son for adoption.  In this moving extract from her memoir, Ten Hail Marys, Kate describes in vivid detail her fight to keep her baby.

Many of the girls I had known before I was sent to Miss Sinclair’s had already had their babies and left the home by the time I got back. That was the nature of the program. They came and went and there was never a shortage of replacements to take their place in the laundry and kitchens.

Fortunately, I managed once more to get a room with a window. It was probably only vacant because it faced the pub across the road. For a feeling of more space and a glimpse of the moon I could put up with the night noises. Miss Sinclair must have put in a good word for me because when I returned I was assigned permanently to laundry duty, the most dreaded job of all. Being in my last trimester wasn’t a pass to get off working in the stifling heat. My shifts had been reduced but not by much; I got the weekends off.

There were no prenatal classes, so we had no idea how to deal with the changes our bodies were going through. My nipples were so dry and split I looked like a snake shedding its skin. It was agonising taking showers and wearing a bra. My nosebleeds were happening more frequently and my hair started falling out in clumps, probably a combination of stress and malnutrition. The lack of fibre in my diet kept me sick with constipation. The discomfort was immense. Added to that, I had chewed my fingernails to the cuticles and they bled.

The only description that fitted was misery. After each work shift I was utterly exhausted. It took all my strength to get back to the house and up the two flights of stairs to my cell. I was often too drained to think about food or couldn’t deal with the filth of the kitchen, which didn’t improve as girls came and went.

The constant anguish of how I could stop the nuns taking my baby increased as my due date drew closer. As exhausted as I was both mentally and physically, sleep didn’t come easily. Lying in my bed, I prayed every night. Over and over I repeated the Hail Mary like some bizarre ritual hoping someone ‘up there’ would hear me. Having been conditioned to never ask for anything and be grateful for what I was given, it didn’t feel right praying for me. My unborn child didn’t have a voice, but I felt that he wouldn’t want me to give him away to a stranger, so when I prayed I said, ‘Please help us.’

One night, after I had finally passed out, I was suddenly awoken by a bright light shining into my face and swore I could hear Sister Anne’s voice mingling with the sounds from the street. I struggled to sit up. ‘Stop being difficult and sign these papers,’ she hissed, shoving the document and a pen at me. ‘I am not going to give up my baby,’ I said, squinting against the glare and swiping the document off the bed onto the floor, nearly knocking the torch out of her hand in the process. My defiance infuriated her. ‘You evil girl, you will go to hell.’ She bent down to pick up the document and pen and abruptly left my room.

Author Kate Howarth as a teenager

Sister Anne’s nightly raids at my bedside became a regular torment. With each visit her tone and manner grew more menacing. Every now and then she would change tack and try to convince me how much better off my child would be with wealthy parents who could give him all the things I couldn’t. It was as if she already knew the couple she was talking about, who were waiting in the wings for my baby to be born.

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By the second week in December, when I had still not signed the adoption papers, Sister Anne seemed to be personally supervising my punishment. I was sent to the general outpatients waiting room to see the doctor for my first and only check-up in the four months since my admission. The other women glanced at my ring finger and gave me disapproving, damning looks before burying their heads behind the covers of their magazines.

It was coming up to Christmas and I was looking forward to it so much. Peter would be on leave and he was coming to visit me. This was going to be very risky but we had to see each other, if only for a few minutes. There was a waiting room with frosted glass windows near the front entrance. I told Peter to meet me there and that under no circumstances was he to tell anyone that he was there to see me.

Christmas Day arrived and Peter was already there when I got to the waiting room. It took my breath away to see him in his smart uniform with shiny brass buttons, razor sharp creases in his trousers, and shoes that looked like he’d spent hours spit-polishing. He tried to kiss me, but he couldn’t reach my lips over my enormous belly. We laughed. ‘Look at you, kid,’ he said, running a hand over my bulge. The baby kicked hard. ‘Did you feel that?’ ‘Yes.’ I laughed. ‘I think he’s broken one of my ribs.’

‘So you know it’s a boy?’ Peter asked with some surprise. ‘Not for sure. I just feel it is. He’s so active – he’ll certainly play football.’ I could feel the tiny hands and feet inside me pushing the front of my dress forward. To be talking about my baby as if it were a real person for the first time since conception filled me with emotion. I lay my head on Peter’s shoulder and cried. He was silent for a long time. Eventually he spoke. ‘Kay, you’re not thinking about keeping the baby, are you?’

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I pulled away and stared into those deep brown eyes looking for some compassion. Peter looked uneasy as he took my hand. ‘I want to be with you more than anything,’ he said. ‘But I don’t want another man’s child.’ For several moments I just stared at him, unable to speak. It seemed that everyone wanted me to give my baby away.

What shocked me most was their blasé manner. As if it were something I could simply do. ‘Peter, this is not another man’s child. This is my child and I can’t give him away. Please don’t ask me to choose,’ I begged, squeezing his hand. The pressure in my head was building. If I tried to hold back the tears, I knew my nose would explode. I buried my face in my hands and sobbed, the echo bouncing off the walls in the waiting room. Sensing someone at the doorway I turned to see Sister Anne glaring back at me.

‘Go back to the home immediately!’ she snapped. Peter kissed me goodbye and pressed a small gift into my hand. It was the pearl earrings I had admired in the window of Angus & Coote when Peter, Deanie and I had gone to Parramatta station in August. Pearls are for tears, I thought, recalling one of Mamma’s silly superstitions.

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All afternoon I waited to be summoned. I had broken one of the big rules by having a male visitor who wasn’t related to me. I expected the worst, without knowing what that would be. I was relieved when the rest of the day was peaceful. They even had a bit of a Christmas party, which was also a farewell to Karen, who’d had her baby and was now going home. She was very unhappy.

‘I wish I hadn’t given my baby away, but it’s too late now,’ she cried. ‘I wish I’d had your courage not to sign the consent.’ Was my refusal to give consent for adoption courage or, as Sister Anne said, was it selfishness? I had no idea how I was going to raise my baby; we didn’t even have anywhere to go after he was born. It was clear that Peter didn’t want me and the baby, so that seemed to be my only hope gone. Uncle Stan and Aunty Shirley lived in a tiny garage on their block of land while they saved enough money to build a house. Mamma hadn’t written to me, and neither had John McNorton, who knew where I was and that I was having his child. We were totally on our own.

On Boxing Day I was called to Sister Anne’s office and was surprised to see Uncle Stan and Aunty Shirley huddled together, looking very distressed. Robbie’s been killed, was my first thought. Uncle Stan came over and took my hand. ‘What have you done, darlin’?’ he asked with tears in his eyes. ‘I know Peter shouldn’t have been here,’ I said. ‘But it’s Christmas, and we just –’ ‘That is not why you are here,’ Sister Anne said sharply, cutting me off mid-sentence. ‘You were seen over at the hotel buying alcohol and cigarettes and that is strictly against the house rules.’

She was smirking as she fixed her gaze on me. What a relief! I almost laughed out loud. I looked at Uncle Stan, expecting a reaction to this ridiculous accusation. He didn’t respond. ‘Uncle Stan, you know how ridiculous that is. Sister Anne has me confused with someone else.’ My aversion to alcohol and, particularly, smoking was well known in our family. But until he’d started visiting me at St Margaret’s I hadn’t seen Uncle Stan for three years.

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Perhaps he thought I’d changed. I stood there dumbfounded, waiting for him to say something. ‘It was you,’ Sister Anne insisted, breaking the silence in the room. Turning to face her, I looked Sister Anne right in the eyes. ‘It wasn’t me, Sister. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol.’ ‘I saw you myself coming back across the road smoking a cigarette,’ she said adamantly. ‘That’s a lie!’ I replied. ‘Oh dear,’ Uncle Stan gasped, bringing his hand to his mouth. I knew that accusing a nun of lying would be close to sacrilege in Uncle Stan’s mind. Or was he shocked, finally having realised that Sister Anne had accused me of something so outrageous? In those days Darlinghurst was a skid row area.

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The pub on Bourke Street opposite St Margaret’s Hospital was a slop-shop frequented by the lowest forms of life society could dredge up. Every night through my open window, I could hear the drunken brawls and sounds of women being gang-banged in the alley. For Sister Anne to say that she had seen me coming back from such a place was laughable at best, but at eight months pregnant, even she must have realised how ludicrous her accusation sounded. ‘We can forget the whole incident if you sign these papers, child.’ Her voice had become more conciliatory. ‘But if you don’t, you are going to be discharged immediately.’ She pushed the now tattered documents across the desk towards me.

Kate and her son Adam in 1983

So that’s what this is all about. Sister Anne clearly had no limits to the extent she was prepared to go to secure the consent to adopt my baby. Even if it meant lies and extortion. My mind was racing, trying to think ahead to where this was all going. She can’t take the baby without your signature. I heard the words in my head as if someone, unseen, had spoken to me. It felt like I had been given some kind of strength injection. For the first time, ever, I had power over my own life. This gave me the confidence to speak back.

‘I’ve worked like a slave in this hospital for four months and you are throwing me out because I won’t give you my baby.’ ‘Worked? You haven’t worked. Miss Sinclair sent you back here because you refused to work. You are a lazy girl.’ There was nothing more to say. I wasn’t going to sign the consent for adoption, no matter what she threatened me with. I glared at her. You’ll go to hell! I screamed inside my head. Her eyes widened, as if she’d read my mind. Uncle Stan and Aunty Shirley were unable to speak or move. I left the room without saying another word and went back to the dormitory to pack my things.

In my rage I nearly pulled the wardrobe over as I retrieved the baby clothes I’d stuck to the back. Several girls saw me leaving with my suitcase. ‘Where are you going?’ a girl I hardly knew asked me. ‘I’m leaving because I will not sign the adoption papers.’ ‘I thought we had to sign the papers to be able to have the baby here,’ she said, sounding surprised. ‘You do. That’s why I’m leaving. These bastards are not getting my baby.’

It was the season for peace on earth and goodwill to all and I was being tossed onto the street in one of Sydney’s red light districts because I refused to relinquish my baby. I was eight months pregnant and two weeks away from my sixteenth birthday, so legally I was still a child. With twenty pounds to my name and everything I owned still fitting into one small suitcase, I left St Margaret’s with Mamma’s words ringing in my ears.

‘You’ll go onto the streets and hawk your fork just like your mother.’

If that’s what it was going to take to look after my baby, then so be it. The only thing that mattered to me at that moment was that I had not signed away the rights to my unborn child. For the first time in my life I had something no one could take from me.


This is an extract from Ten Hail Marys: A Memoir by Kate Howarth published by UQP, RRP $34.95.

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