Leontine Young, “Personality Patterns in Unmarried Mothers,” 1945-1947

Leontine 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 United States.

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?

Dominating Mothers
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. . . .

Dominating Fathers
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. . . .

Broken Homes
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. . . .

Some Inferences
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. . . .


Source: Leontine Young, “Personality Patterns in Unmarried Mothers,” in Understanding the Psychology of the Unmarried Mother (New York: Family Service Association of America, 1945-1947), 7-13.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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