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Sharon Wall on Space, the Maternity Home and Other Roads Taken

Space, the Maternity Home and Other Roads Taken

I find myself drawn to research where I can explore some aspect of the history of space. In museums I’ve always been drawn to those tiny scale models of buildings, towns, cityscapes and so on that give one that omniscient, Friendly Giant kind of feeling of surveying the world from a superior vantage point. The bird’s-eye-view perspective is always so compelling. Isn’t it ultimately what we want from social history, to rise above our limited individual points of reference to see “the bigger picture,” to give meaning to the chaos of experience? Personally, I also feel closer to the past (to that “foreign country”) when I think through its physical aspects, one reason I find the literature on the history of architecture, the body, and more recently, the senses so inspiring. 

My article in this volume, “Making Room(s) for Teenagers: Space and Place at Early Postwar Maternity Homes in Ontario and B.C.,” was one way to explore my interest in the expressions and meanings of space in the context of unmarried pregnancy in post-WWII Canada.

The source base for reconstituting a history of space is often fragmentary – some photos here, an architectural plan there, and the odd reference to spaces in the textual sources. Even though the physical world is all-important in our immediate experience, it seems to be the most taken for granted and one of the least documented aspects of historical experience. In childhood diaries (or adult ones, for that matter) does anyone think to describe the spaces of their home and neighborhood? No, you think you’ll always remember them.

Despite the fragmentary nature of evidence, I hope my article helps you picture in your mind’s eye a little of what it meant for teenagers to move into and through the spaces of the postwar maternity home: to drive up to their imposing Victorian exteriors, to be received in their somewhat cold and orderly sitting rooms [see photo], to be part of daily work routines in their freshly linoleumed kitchens [see photo], to share a smoke in their newly added “rec-rooms” and maybe a few secrets with a roommate in one of their cramped bedrooms. [See my article for more visuals.] 

One thing that troubles me slightly about publishing an article on maternity homes (an aspect of unmarried pregnancy that has been fairly well documented) is that my research suggests that maternity homes were really only the choice of a small minority of women, something I didn’t find the space to address in this article. It’s clear that, given the number and size of homes across Canada, they only ever served a small number of clients. Though teens certainly seem to have been overrepresented in these homes, the truth remains that the majority of women of all ages found other ways to cope. Maybe the oft-used explanation that a girl had “gone to an aunt’s” was less euphemistic than we assume. I do suspect that it was in the context of the family that many girls lived out their pregnancies. 

Some of the ways the family helped “solve” the problem of adolescent pregnancy are incredibly hard to document. One of these was the passing off of girls’ babies as their mothers,’ with kids growing up as the supposed siblings of their own biological mothers. This is not the sort of solution one is going to find listed in the annual bulletins of the Children’s Aid Society who carefully counted such things as adoptions and settlements with putative fathers. It was a solution hidden under the category of “kept with mother,” a categorization which likely included a wide variety of strategies. But, if official statistics aren’t going to shed any light on this issue, oral history may. In fact, every time I give a talk somewhere and mention the possibility of girls passing off babies as their mothers’, some audience member confirms that they “heard” this was what the “so-and-so’s” did from their hometown or region. Given the nature of the subject, maybe this is where a useful fleshing out of the history of gossip might take place.

Perhaps the truly untold story about the history of unmarried motherhood is that most women and girls dealt with their problems on their own, within their families, which, in some ways, may not have been so different than they did earlier in history (or, in some ways, much differently than they do today).

But, even there, a history of the spatial aspect of this would be fascinating. Did all girls “go to an aunts’” or some other place far from home or did some hide out at home, keeping themselves hidden away from neighbors or possible visitors? This option seems fairly challenging for urban girls; was this more of a rural phenomenon, where both mother and daughter might have stayed relatively unseen for some months at a time? Or, like maternity homes, maybe the key was simply to relocate, like one woman who grew up in small-town Saskatchewan but whose minister found her a family to live with during her pregnancy in big-city Toronto. 

In any case, these questions will have to await another article (and probably another historian). I’m very happy to have the opportunity to share my work in the context of SHCY’s Journal. Thanks to the editor, Jim Marten, and to external reviewers for the helpful feedback.

About the Author

Sharon Wall is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Winnipeg. Her areas of study include: Canadian social and cultural history, childhood and youth, gender and sexuality, education, urban history

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