Teenage Pregnancy a la 1956. My How Things Have Changed.

Author John J. Hohn with dog JessieIn 1956, terminating a pregnancy for any reason was not an option. So when a high school girl told her steady boy that she was pregnant, his life entered free fall. Until his parents intervened, he would have no idea what to do next. At 17 or younger, he was not equipped to take charge, finish his education, find a job, care for the mother, and setup household as head of a family. The immediate concern, however, was with the mother-to-be and the scandal that would be the buzz of the community as soon as her condition began to show.

The culture of the decade expected boys to be aggressive sexually. Making out meant that you got a little. A little touch. A little feel. It was a right of passage. Something to be proclaimed in the locker room.

Girls who put out, on the other hand, were considered sluts. How far a couple went was usually something the girl controlled. Things often progressed in proportion to how long a couple had been dating. And that was the question. “How far did you go?”

“All of the way,” was the answer, of course, a relative and gratefully ambiguous declaration to be doubted depending on the presumed level of experience of the boy making the claim. An unspoken vestige of the chivalric code demanded that the details of the encounter be suppressed out of respect for the girl—a most convenient custom as it delivered the male from any interrogation that might have disproved his boast. Any boy providing a detailed narrative of his conquest was spurned as a no-class loser.

There was nothing controversial about sex education in the 1950’s because it was never discussed. Schools were not involved. As for the kids, nature won out. Few ever sat down in the living room for a facts-of-life lecture from parents. Most couples progressed into the more intense body sharing and eventually discovered intercourse. Wow! Why would anyone want to keep that a secret?

If anything, parents were embarrassed about sexuality. “Watch yourself, son,” was the admonition I received from my father as I was going out the door on a date. I thought that he was talking about my driving.

One October afternoon while Dad and I were in a duck blind waiting for the mallards to glide into our decoys, he volunteered, “You see these young guys in town. They get a girl knocked up before they’re earning any money, and the rest of their lives are all spelled out for them. Going from one job to the next. Trying to make ends meet. More babies come along. It’s a hell of a way to start out.”

What I wanted to know, of course, was how the guys made a baby in the first place.

Mother made an awkward attempt to explain things couple of times, “You see the red thing that comes out on your dog Toby every now and then,” she began one day.

“You mean when he licks himself? I replied. Profound disgust spread across her face and she left the room.

One morning, I noticed my older sister had blood running down the inside of her thigh. “She’s a girl. She’s that age now. What do you expect?” was the only explanation mother gave me. My sister did not want to talk about it. Somehow I understood.

Mother once threw out a paperback book that I was using to research my high school senior year theme paper on the history of jazz. She was incensed over the silhouette of a nude woman bathing behind a frosted shower cabinet door. I wonder what her reaction would be to a current issue of Playboy.

When a girl became pregnant, the families’ first move was to keep everything a secret. She was hustled out of town. Denver was a popular choice; Omaha ran a good second. Usually an aunt, or perhaps a grandparent, was sick and needed someone to help around the house. Not a lot of creativity went into formulating a story. No need. No story held up for long anyway.

One girl was sent off to a town about 90 miles away. A job was set up for her at a Catholic hospital by the pastor of the father’s parish. Cut off from family and friends, coping with homesickness and the mysteries of her own body changing, she had to tough it out. “Those who play must pay,” was the prevailing attitude. Move over Hester Prynne. Great with child, someone recognized her one day and her secret was out. She endured the final trimester without loved ones near for support and it was all for nothing.

The president of one of the two banks in one girl’s small Midwestern hometown promoted a rumor to incontestable fact. He called the hospital where the girl was working and asked for her. When she answered, he shared that everyone wished her well. (It must have been a slow day at the bank.) No one else called to wish the young mother anything. Quite the opposite.

Upon returning to town, she was shunned. Local thugs shouted insults at her whenever she appeared on the streets. Speculation ran wild. Who was the father? Had there been more than one boy? (A vicious dig at the mother.) What about the boy? Was he going to own up? Was the child coming home with the girl or being put up for adoption?

Most of the time, the father of the child had no say in any decision.

Some families pretended that the infant suddenly on the scene was a mid-life baby of the parents. Bringing a child into the home of one of the parents was a “back to GO” card with their own lives and a sentence relive the 18 years that they thought they had left behind. “Why, I never would have guessed. You hardly showed at all, dear. And your age!” Gullibility or sarcasm motivated such observations; not charity. The shock came years later when the true identities of those playing their respective roles were made known. The sister emerged as the mother and the mother as the grandmother. How’s that for tangling up an identity crisis.

One way or the other, the saga drew to a close. A solution would be lived out. The community would tire of how dreadful everything was. It became more fashionable to be sympathetic. Newer prospects presented themselves. A town that graduated 100 kids every year could count on at least one pregnancy among the seniors.

Decades later, birth mothers would hunt down the children that were adopted out. Or the children would set out in search for their mothers. Not all reunions were welcomed. Shotgun marriages founded on love as only teenagers can create were entered into under social duress and  often ended in divorce. One or both partners realized they had forfeited away the years of early vital adulthood and lost out on the chances that youth had once held for them. They would be overtaken by resentment and take one last, sometimes angry and desperate, stab at having life on their own terms.

I am interested in hearing from others about their experiences on this subject. Please use the comment facility on this page to express your views or write me at johnjhohn@aim.com. I want to do more with this topic in coming weeks. I will gladly share my blog space with anyone who contributes.