Topic: Before the Act by Mary Bell Thornton

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition 2013.

Archived version here.

Robert Muldoon, MP for Tamaki opposed the 1986 Adult Adoption Information Act citing the case of a birthmother who became a prostitute after serving a prison sentence.  He said she was typical of birthmothers and asked who would want that sort of person’s child to find them. 


I arrived home in Wellington unannounced from Otago University in March 1966 and told my mother I thought I was going have a baby. I was already seven months pregnant.

Marriage wasn’t an option.  My parents despised my Victoria University student boyfriend.  I had done well at college - been a prefect and deputy games captain and was a Queen’s Guide.  I was a competitive gymnast with ambitions to go to the Mexico Olympics. My father was a high profile public servant who moved in diplomatic circles.

I didn’t get my period until I was fifteen. I had never been told anything about sex or babies and their connection with periods.  I don’t remember ever seeing anyone who was pregnant.  There were whispers about a girl in the fifth form when she disappeared from college but incredible though it may seem, I didn’t know what pregnant meant.

In February 1966 and already six months gone, I returned to varsity.  My more worldly flatmates persuaded me to see the Dean of the Physical Education School about my predicament. Professor Smithells was unfazed and said I could spend first term on the Central Otago farm of his friends who took in unmarried pregnant girls.  The baby could be adopted out and I could rejoin my course in the second term.  My parents need never know. 

All very fine, except that my artist parents were coming south at Easter to paint the autumn colours of Central Otago.  My due date was in May.

My parents decreed that we would travel a path of secrecy.  From the day I arrived home, I was hidden from view.  None of my school peers had gone to Otago and everyone thought I was there.  One friend of the family, a retired spinster schoolteacher, was included in the family secret.  My mother didn’t even tell her own sister.

We lived in a two-storey house in Houghton Valley.  The main entrance was on a mezzanine floor that comprised the lounge, dining and kitchen areas.  If we knew visitors were coming I would stay upstairs until they’d gone. Unannounced visitors were ushered into the lounge and the door was shut while I made my escape through the kitchen and upstairs.

We dyed my hair blonde.  When I had to go to the doctor I left home under the cloak of darkness, stayed overnight with the retired school teacher in Petone, returned incognito to the doctor’s in Newtown, went back to Petone until it was dark and snuck home again.

Nobody ever talked to me about my pregnant state.  The doctor gave me no enlightenment. I had no knowledge of the birth process.  There was no other option suggested to me but that of adoption.

“The best way,” they said, “then you can get on with your life.”

I can’t remember my labour.  I have no recall of the journey to the Alexander Hospital in John Street.  I learned afterwards that I’d been in labour for two and a half days.  I was in complete denial. I was not pregnant. This was not happening to me.

I was assigned a single room and had a wedding ring on my finger just like the other mothers in the hospital.  I was horrified at the flabby mess my gymnast’s stomach had become and my throbbing unmilked breasts.

Nobody spoke of the baby as a living being. I could not own it as mine. There was a brick wall 20 feet thick between it and my mind.  I discovered that showing emotion was inappropriate.

I don’t know whether it was hospital policy or whether it was to make my situation seem normal but I was given the baby and a bottle and expected to feed and change him.  I fought, without understanding, the strange yearning that filled my breast.  The next day I was told to come down to the nursery to bathe him.  I walked there in a daze. Terror pinned me against the wall until I fled to my room.  Afterwards I confided in a married mother who called the matron a sadistic bitch. With her encouragement I refused to go the nursery again.

One day, when I was feeling a little stronger I wandered out of my room and along the corridor to another part of the hospital.  I found a lounge full of pregnant girls.  They invited me in and carried on openly talking about their impending labours while displaying their bulging bellies.  One girl who was having twins proudly showed me her huge belly. 

Another girl had given birth to a daughter that morning and they talked about her adoption and their own situations.  One of the girls told me she was keeping her baby but before I could close my gaping jaw and ask how, the matron turned up and ordered me back to my room with a dressing down.

“Nice girls don’t mix with the likes of them.”

Having a son posed a problem.  On one of my mother’s rare visits to the hospital the matron told her that everybody wanted to adopt blue-eyed, blonde-haired girls but added that it might be an advantage that the father and I were university students.

I was shocked at having to fill in a birth certificate naming the child and its father – I can’t remember whether I named the father or not - there seemed to be some over-riding feeling that he should be protected.  The visit to the lawyers in the city, involved climbing up the fire escape at the back of the building into his office so as not to be seen.   All I remember is the bright light on the desk and signing a very white piece of paper.  Done deal.

As I left the hospital the matron said she didn’t want to see me back again.

“You would be surprised how many times it happens.”

Not to me, I thought.

The next year I returned to Otago armed with a suitable lie (nervous breakdown) as to my absence the previous year and kept my telltale stretch marks hidden from sight in the changing rooms.

Without my boyfriend’s support I turned elsewhere for comfort and many student doctors who would now be in their mid-sixties whose names I probably never knew nor they mine, were more than willing to make the most of the opportunity offered to them.  Fortunately there were few STDs and no HIV but neither was the pill available.  Prof. Smithells got me an appointment with a psychiatrist - the only way single women could get on the pill.

I eventually became engaged to a boy in my class and thought my life had finally turned the corner.  However my prescription for the pill ran out and by February 1968 I was pregnant again.  This time I married.  My father didn’t come to the wedding. I spent the pregnancy ashamed of my condition.  I completed my final year and sat finals in the hospital the week my second son was born.

Somehow my husband and I struggled on.  We both attended the secondary division of Christchurch teachers training college the following year.

Our marriage was doomed from the start – too young, too many unresolved issues and no life skills.    My father died in 1973 and two years later with my three children aged three, five and seven, I left my husband.  I could never have gone home had Dad still been alive. 

We moved into a friend’s run-off farm in the Wairarapa. For the first time since my birthson was born I had time to reflect independently on the ramifications of his adoption. I asked Social Welfare in Masterton if I could find out if he was all right.  It really upset them.

“Why now?  Why after ten years?”

I said I didn’t want to interfere in his life; I just wanted to know if he was all right and if he wasn’t, I was more than willing to have him back.

I received the non-identifying information that had become standard issue for birthmothers and adoptive parents in the ‘70s.  The only thing I had been told at the time of my son’s relinquishment in 1966 was that he would go to a home where he would be offered a tertiary education if he wanted it.  Now I knew his adoptive parent’s occupations, their hobbies and interests.

When the 1986 Adult Adoption Act was passed, my son was 20. My mother was horrified when I told her I was trying to find him and that I wanted to meet him.  From the day I left hospital up until that day we had never mentioned his existence. Her response?

“What am I going to tell my friends?”



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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Before the Act by Mary Bell Thornton

Note:About the Author: Mary Bell Thornton lives in retirement with her husband Peter in Kenepuru Sound in Marlborough. She writes poetry, short stories, shopping lists and has a novel gathering dust in the bottom drawer. She is a 5th degree black belt in Seido Karate and completed New Zealand’s Coast to Coast multisport race as an individual in 1993. Her first published book was Get into Multisports! which she co-wrote with Peter. She has been published in The Listener, The Press, Takahe and several anthologies. Thanks to the 1986 Adult Adoption Act she and her son reunited.
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand License
Before the Act by Mary Bell Thornton by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand License