The mother I can’t forget

“I had twins, didn’t I?” she said. Her voice was no more than a whisper as we waited for her train to Bowen. It is late 1964. The question surprised me.

“Yes.” I said. “Two identical little boys with red hair like yours.”

Her brown eyes searched my face for more clues. It was the first time she’d made eye contact since her admission to Maternity a week prior.

“Your babies weighed four and a half pounds each. They’re in an isolette together and they’re doing fine,” I said. “We call them Peter and Paul.”

“What will happen to them?”

“They’ll be adopted” I said.  “A nice couple without any children have already been in to see them.”

“Thanks,” she said. 

She climbed into the train and was gone from my life, but not from my memory.

I do not remember her first name, only her surname. I clearly remember that brief exchange so long ago, just before noon at Townsville station because as a student midwife, I’d “accidentally” delivered her first twin.

It was 1.30pm on a warm Wednesday afternoon when I came on duty for my shift in the labour ward.

There were three delivery rooms in a row. All of the senior medical and nursing staff were busy with a breech delivery in the middle room and the one on the left was occupied by a woman in early labour.

Breech babies were not automatic caesarian sections back then.

Sister James told me to admit the new patient into the room on the right.  While I prepared her for delivery I tried to obtain a history of her pregnancy.

Like many young unmarried women in those days, she’d received no ante natal care and had done her best to hide her shame from the prying eyes in her home town. 

She’d fled from Bowen to Townsville several months before, when she began to “show”. The most I could extract from her was a soft “yes” or “no” as she avoided my eyes.

Shy, embarrassed and withdrawn, she’d waited until her contractions were strong before coming into the hospital.

She lay on her back with her eyes tightly closed while the junior Resident Medical Officer (RMO) palpated her abdomen to discover the position of her baby. 

Her tummy was not particularly large and this was in the days before ultrasound and electronic foetal heart monitors were used in north Queensland.

The doctor was satisfied that the baby’s head was fixed in its mother’s pelvis and that the labour was progressing normally.

He made a small cross in blue biro on the girl’s skin above where he’d located the baby’s heartbeat then left the room asking me to call him when she was ready to push.

I monitored her contractions and listened to the baby’s heart sounds every 10 minutes. The contractions were strong and frequent but she didn’t make a sound.

She was in her late teens, her face was pale, her dark red hair lay damp and limp on the pillow and her eyes remained tightly closed.

My attempts to talk to her were met with silence, although she co-operated with position changes when I asked her.

I suppose that’s why I can’t remember her first name. I never got to know her. None of us got to know her. 

Within an hour she was needing to push. I called the RMO and we positioned her on her back. He asked me to scrub for the delivery.

The baby was born surprisingly fast for a firstborn. I stood near the foot of the bed holding a pale, limp, baby boy by his ankles so mucous could drain from his nose and mouth.

“Gosh, he is so small,” I thought as I looked down and saw a tiny blue hand protruding from the mother’s birth canal.

I let out an exclamation and the doctor also saw it. Pandemonium ensued.

Senior staff rushed in from the breech room and the RMO scrubbed hastily to deliver the second baby (student midwives were not supposed to deliver twins).

“My” twin was taking a long time to breathe and another doctor grabbed him from me and commenced resuscitation.

The second twin was born quite easily in spite of having his hand in front of his head. He was blue and still.

The doctors worked frantically on both babies and eventually had both of them pink and crying after what seemed to me like forever. They were whisked away to the nursery in an isolette while their mother lay, virtually forgotten, staring at the ceiling.

I washed her after everyone had gone. She didn’t speak; neither did I. We both had eyes full of tears; neither of us knew what to say.

The babies were tube fed for a few weeks until they were strong enough to take bottles. They thrived and became the darlings of the nursery.

I had a special proprietary feeling about “my twins”. I’d hurry into the nursery at the start of each shift to say hello to them and check on their progress.

Their mother was placed in the corner bed near a window in a room with five other women who had their babies with them … perhaps a policy of silent rebuke?

She was given an injection, male hormone tablets and a tight breast binder to dry up her milk.

Each time we approached her she’d turn her face to the window. We were young and inexperienced, not much older than she, and nurses were not educated about the emotional care of their patients in those days.

We felt uncomfortable by the wall of silence she built around herself, so we left her alone. Her heart must’ve been breaking. 

I don’t remember seeing social workers or any other counsellors in that hospital, but somebody must have arranged the adoption – presumably without the mother’s consent; otherwise, why would she have asked me that question on the station?

Several weeks after the young woman went home, a well-dressed couple, twice her age, came in to collect their twins. I was relieved when I heard they were taking both babies. There was no guarantee that twins would go to the same home back then.

I’ve thought about that young woman many times over the years, especially after I, myself, became a mother.

As societal attitudes have changed I’ve had to acknowledge that I unwittingly participated in one of our society’s cruelest punishments for women who gave birth outside of marriage.

I have wished many times that I could tell her how sorry I am.


Call 3358 6666 or Jigsaw’s Forced Adoption Support Service 1800 21 03 13

 Jigsaw Queensland (post Adoption Resource Centre) is a non-profit, member-based organisation providing free professional and peer support and advocacy for people affected by past adoptions.

Experience shows that information and support changes everything. “We work with and for everyone affected by adoption, regardless of where or when the adoption took place,” says Dr Jo-Ann Sparrow. “Our priority is to give our attention to each person’s unique needs, no matter who they are.”