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.
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.