The Case of Miss M, 1944-1945

Source: Photograph by Lewis Hine, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-nclc-00228

This 1913 photograph shows the Virginia K. Johnson Home, also known as A House of Refuge for Unmarried Mothers, in Dallas, Texas. Many adolescents and young women found themselves “confined” during their unplanned pregnancies in maternity homes like this one. By 1960, approximately 200 licensed maternity homes operated in 44 states, the majority under the auspices of the Florence Crittenton Association of America, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army.

These case notes follow the struggle of one birth mother trying to decide whether or not to place her baby for adoption in the face of shame and stigma. They illustrate the spread of Freudian concepts (unconscious motivations, repression, etc.) and therapeutic approaches to nonmarital pregnancy in the social work profession during World War II, when geographic mobility and new employment opportunities were creating new sexual possibilities and problems for many women. This narrative also offers evidence that many adoption professionals had changed their minds about the risks of separating babies from their birth parents. Instead of seriously considering M’s various ideas about keeping her baby, the social worker in this case believed that family preservation was unrealistic. From “a reality standpoint,” adoption was the only viable option.

Miss M in my office. She is not a very attractive girl, has light brown hair, gray eyes, medium build. As she sat on the edge of her chair, she looked more like a scared little girl than a young woman of 26. I tried to put her at ease but she continued to be very scared and couldn’t seem to relax in her chair. I told her that we had not known anything about her before she came and therefore, didn’t know just how we could help her. We knew that she wanted shelter but that was all. She was surprised, she thought Dr. B must have told us some things. I assured her that he hadn’t and then she became more frightened than ever. Where should she start? I wondered if she wouldn’t like to start by telling me something about herself. She talked fairly fluently after that, although somewhat jerkily. Her voice trembled at times and her hands shook. When I wondered if the trip down here was pleasant, she said that she had never been to New York before and that was why the mother insisted the neighbor come with her. Since the neighbor knew nothing about Miss M’s pregnancy, this made it difficult. She told the neighbor that she was coming here to work. She didn’t think the neighbor suspected anything even though there was [a] girl obviously pregnant sitting in the waiting room. Miss M quickly said that she noticed her, however, but then she was conscious of such things. I wondered how she had kept her small town from knowing about this but she assured me that nobody but her mother knew. She didn’t tell her mother even until she was getting ready to leave. She had told everybody that she was being transferred to a new job with the OPA but her mother told her that she had guessed what the real reason for her coming here was. When she spoke of her mother, her lips trembled and tears came to her eyes. She said that she and her mother had been like sisters and she could have told her mother, only she was afraid it would hurt her. Her father must never know because he is a “victorian.” She expressed some scorn at this point. I tried to get a little more feeling from her what home had been like. She had grown up and lived up to two years ago in a small country village outside of R, New York. Her father is a painter and decorator and runs a small farm on the side. She has just one brother, W. . . . I noticed that every time she mentioned her mother, she started to cry.

Miss M could talk more easily and readily about the father of her baby. He is a man almost twice her age, who is on the Rationing Board in the office where she was working. She didn’t think anyone in the small town of R knew of their relationship, at least she hoped they didn’t. She thought they had been very discreet. Of course, they walked to work every day and usually walked home to her boarding house together but after dark, they met in out of the way places. He is a Catholic, married unhappily. His wife “holds the purse-strings.” She knows that nothing further can come of this relationship but she knows, too, that she can never go back there again and work with him or “it will start all over again.” She is crazy about him, she said. She should not be but she is. . . .

She gave me the picture of a girl who had grown up in a small town, been kept very close to home by a father who did not approve of dances, and kindred activities. Even when she went down to R to work two years ago, her father insisted that she come home every week-end. She gave me no picture of having any special interest in life or any special things that she enjoyed She just stayed around home helped her mother with the housework, was very shy and afraid to mingle with other young people, especially boys. At one point, she spoke of herself as being her father’s favorite which surprised me after the bitterness she had expressed toward her father and I wondered whether this was the way she had wished it had been. She apparently has been craving affection from him that she didn’t receive. . . .

. . . . We discussed her plans for her baby more fully. She had discussed them a little bit in her first interview, saying then that Dr. B had told her she should “put it out for adoption,” but she had been thinking of possible ways she could keep it. She had asked me, however, to put it on the L agency waiting list in case she made up her mind to place it so I knew she was pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. I found that she had not made up her mind yet by any means. She wants the baby and she doesn’t want it. She cannot talk about it without her voice trembling. She has thought of all kinds of unrealistic schemes of placing it in the village nearby her home, of taking a job here in New York and having it with her and mother has even suggested that they might place it with a cousin of theirs. I tried to discuss with her not only her feelings about this baby and her needs in the situation but the baby’s needs. Her attention, however, was centered only on her needs and it is almost impossible to keep her on any discussion of the baby’s needs. She did say she (as she left my office this time) that she knew she must make up her mind soon but my feeling is that this girl is going to find it very difficult to come to any decision herself.

11-2 to 11-16-44
During this period M in my office about every other day. Said she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep all she could do was sit and think. Her voice trembled and her hands shook as she talked. Each time she brought up new plans for keeping the baby. To each plan she proposed I pointed out as clearly as I could the different factors involved from a reality standpoint. She herself began to reject plans she at first proposed such as boarding the baby in a nearby town. In our first interview she had been very sure she could do this without any one knowing, now, she was able to admit that this wouldn’t be possible in a small rural community. The baby might even look like its father and that would start all kinds of talk she thought. She had another plan of boarding the baby in Connecticut but she discarded this since she knew people from the town of Connecticut who came to her town in the summer time. Her plan of keeping the baby and living in New York she admitted couldn’t work out because father would never accept the baby and that would cut her off from her own home. She couldn’t stand that. In all of these plans her own need for security was paramount; any suggestions of rejection by her own family or ostracism by her community was a threat to her future security.

M asked me if she could see me about something important. When she came in instead of proposing new plans she said directly, “I have now decided; I am placing the baby for adoption.” There was less indecision in her voice than formerly and I felt that she was relieved by her decision. I accepted it matter of factly without further discussion, then asked if she would like me to talk with the L agency worker now about an appointment to discuss adoption procedure with her. She said any time and left the room without any further discussion. . . .

11-30 to 12-20-44
. . . . Doubtless underneath she has considerable ambivalence about her decision to give up the baby but I felt she was too neurotic a girl to ever completely make up her mind, but the definite release her decision has given her seems indicative of its rightness to her. . . .

M went to the clinic and was kept there, as she was definitely in labor. Her baby, a boy, was born about 3:00 P.M. that afternoon. The hospital social worker said that M was one of the most stoical girls in labor that she had seen.

Notified the L agency and they will definitely take the baby when it is ready for discharge as it weighed at birth 6 lbs. 14 oz. and is described as a “bouncing boy.”

Mrs. H, hospital social worker, telephoned that M was much disturbed. Some one had brought around a paper asking M’s consent for circumcision which had upset her greatly. . . .

. . . . My feeling is that the circumcision request stirred up in M all her unconscious feeling about this whole thing and was a great threat to her. I took her letters from her mother, some spring flowers and stayed with her almost half an hour. She was like a little girl wanting her mother to calm her fears. When I left I talked with the head nurse whom I think was feeling a little guilty about having upset M. . . . I explained to her that M was a very neurotic girl, who had a good many fears about this whole thing that she was not conscious of. . . .

. . . . Telephoned L agency worker, Miss B. They will take the baby directly from the hospital on 1/12. Told her that M is again exhibiting some indecisiveness and thinking of unrealistic schemes whereby she may keep her baby.

Baby taken to L agency foster home by their worker.

M taken from the hospital to W House. . . .

. . . . During her last week at W House she was as happy as I ever saw her. She seemed almost reluctant to leave the girls. She looked well, always insisted she felt well and was only staying because the doctor advised her. All of the unconscious anxiety and guilt she must be feeling was completely repressed again. In her interviews with me and with the L agency worker she talked very little. She did say her mother might help her with possible plans for keeping the baby but I felt this was said without real conviction. It was more as if she felt she ought to say it.

M was a very unhappy girl inside herself. Whether she is able to hide all her feelings and become more repressed as time goes on or whether she goes to pieces depends I think upon how she is received back in her family and her community. If she continues to feel that no one knows but her mother and the doctor she may function adequately in a limited way as she did before, but if she finds that her father or the community knows I wouldn’t be surprised to see her become very depressed and perhaps in the end take her own life. As one talked with M it seemed very clear that her trouble lay in her familial relationships—a stern, unloving father, a mother who was more of a sister than a mother, a younger brother who appeared to be, prior to going into the service, a more normal outgoing person than M. Unconsciously I feel that M was working out a love relationship with a man her father’s age who represented her father to her but of all this she was totally unaware.

Case Closed.


Source: Dorothy Hutchinson Papers, Box 1, Folder 3, Dorothy Hutchinson Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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