Young was considered one of the country’s foremost authorities
on unmarried mothers in the early postwar era. She contends here
that non-marital pregnancy expressed deep neuroses and required
sophisticated psychological interpretation and adjustment. Illegitimacy,
Young believed, was the result of emotional conflicts rooted in
predictable, negative patterns of childhood development and family
life. The study on which this conclusion was based deliberately
excluded “girls coming from a cultural background where illegitimacy
is more or less socially acceptable.” This was an indirect
reference to African-Americans and other minority communities whose
supposed toleration of nonmarital pregnancy frequently justified
racial discrimination in the delivery of adoption services. The
perception that illegitimacy
was most problematic among white Americans was widely shared, by
professionals and laypeople alike, at a time when Freudianism—and
therapeutic culture generally—had reached its zenith in the
The psychology of the unmarried mother—what she is like and
why she becomes an unmarried mother—is an infinitely complex
question. Its roots are deeply embedded in those powerful emotions
of early childhood which form the basic pattern and structure of
the individual’s total life. Far more than most, this specific
problem represents a direct expression of early fantasies and emotional
conflicts. Perhaps this very directly has contributed to confusion
about the unmarried mother. Clearly, she is a human being who like
all other human beings responds dynamically to her particular life
situation, but, also clearly, she chooses one common and specific
response, having an out-of-wedlock child.
Unless we are to assume that illegitimacy may spring from any haphazard
combination of motives and circumstances, there must be certain
defined emotional patterns that lead to the creation of this problem.
Anyone who has observed a considerable number of unmarried mothers
can testify to the fact that there is nothing haphazard or accidental
in the causation that brought about this specific situation with
these specific girls. On the contrary, there is an inevitability
about the chain of emotions climaxing in this action which rivals
the old Greek tragedies. . . .
This leads logically to the question of what combination of factors
and circumstances, what personality pattern underlie this problem.
Are there common elements in the backgrounds of these girls? Are
there common trends and tendencies in their personality structures
despite the individual variations, the unique quality of any single
human being? What of particular significance in their family situations
or their life histories casts light upon the development and direction
of these personality patterns? . . . Obviously, only
a careful and detailed study of a large number of cases could gave
any final answer to such questions but even a limited survey can
elicit the broad outlines, can highlight consistencies and inconsistencies,
can define probabilities.
For this purpose a random sample of 100 cases from an unmarried
mother agency has been studied. . . . It was immediately
apparent that almost all the girls had come from two or three general
types of family patterns and that this family pattern determined
to a very large extent the pattern of her personality and the direction
of her life experiences. What were the kinds of family situations
in which the early lives of these 100 girls had been molded?
Thirty-six of them came from homes where the mother was definitely
the dominant personality and the father either was a weaker person
or was emotionally cut off from the children to a greater or lesser
degree. To the girls of this group the father was all too often
a stranger, the man who paid the bills but was not allowed, or did
not attempt, to share intimately in the lives and feelings of his
children. The mother on the other hand, dominated her daughter’s
life to an unhealthy degree, was usually possessive and often rejecting
and sadistic. While there were 36 variations on this pattern, they
were variations of degree not of kind, variations in expression
not in essential quality. This family situation had left its indelible
mark upon the girl. . . .
There is a striking similarity between the girl’s relationship
to her own father and her relationship to the father of her baby.
One cannot escape the conclusion that she is in one sense seeking
her own father and that the father of her baby is truly a kind of
biological tool, unimportant to her as a person in his own right. . . .
What better revenge could she devise against a rejecting mother
than to bear an illegitimate child and place the responsibility
for him upon her mother’s shoulders? And in what more complete
way could she express her love for and her dependency upon her mother,
and assuage her guilt toward her mother, than to give the mother
the baby, a tangible evidence of her deep, unconscious tie as well
as a symbol of her own desire to be again an infant cared for by
the mother? . . .
When it was clear that a girl’s mother would not accept the
baby, she nearly always planned to place the child for adoption.
Nor did she show any great conflict about this decision; the conflict
did not lie primarily in this area at all. . . .
In contrast to the family background of these 36 girls, 15 others
came from homes where the father was the dominating personality
and the mother was the weaker or less aggressive person. . . .
When one considers the nature of their relationship to their own
fathers, it is scarcely surprising to discover that their experiences
with the fathers of their babies were not happy. None of them knew
the man well or had known him for any considerable period of time. . . .
Observing them one got the impression that they were trying unconsciously
either to deny their own fathers by picking a virtual stranger or
to re-experience with a lover much the same kind of masochistic
relationship they had had with their fathers. . . .
These girls had a more difficult time coming to a decision about
the baby than those in the first group. . . . They
did not show the strong need. . .to give their babies
to their mothers. . . . Of these 15 girls, 11 placed
their babies for adoption. . . .
Not surprisingly, the largest group of girls, 43, came from broken
homes. . . . Closer study of the individual situations
reveals that in 22 of the cases the father was gone, either through
death, separation, or divorce, and the mother had become the dominant
influence and authority. Twelve of those mothers had clearly been
dominating, sadistic, and openly rejecting, and all of them had
been to some extent rejecting of their daughters. In 8 cases the
mother was gone and the father was the parent taking responsibility
for the children. Five of these fathers had been definitely rejecting,
had been openly abusive or coldly indifferent, and had taken little
responsibility for their daughters as they grew older. None of the
8 girls had had a close or happy relationship with their fathers.
In 11 cases both parents were gone, and the girl had been brought
up by relatives or in foster homes. . . .
Certainly there are common elements in the backgrounds of these
girls. Most conspicuous is the fact that none of them had happy,
healthy relationships with their parents. Whatever the particular
family situation, the conflicting feelings of love and hate remained
a basic and potent source of unhappiness and trouble. Almost equally
noticeable was the dominance of the mother, the strength and the
pervasiveness of the role she played in this complex drama. . . .
The more dominating, the more sadistic, the more rejecting the mother,
the sicker and more hopeless was the girl. . . .
All these girls, unhappy and driven by unconscious needs, had blindly
sought a way out of their emotional dilemma by having an out-of-wedlock
child. . . . None of these violent neurotic conflicts
are helpful ingredients in creating a good mother. . . .