Author reveals tough life as single mum in the 60s

Margaret Halliday, her son Sean and granddaughter Olivia. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Margaret Halliday, her son Sean and granddaughter Olivia. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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WORRIED and alone, teenager Margaret Halliday wandered along strange streets trying to find someone who could help her end the tiny new life growing inside of her.

Pregnant, single and acutely aware of how Sixties Scotland frowned upon young mothers like her, a backstreet abortion seemed one way out of her awful predicament.

As it happened, the very naivety that landed her pregnant in the first place would save her from what could have been the horrors of a grim and potentially dangerous encounter.

For Margaret, well-raised, innocent and far from streetwise, simply had no idea where to find someone who could do the dreaded deed.

Defeated, she had no choice but to give up and quietly accept her fate.

A complete lack of sex education, a boyfriend with a car and the Summer of Love was the powerful combination that landed her with an unplanned pregnancy just weeks into her college course.

It was 1967. And now, as she felt her baby grow inside her and her body shift into pregnancy, Margaret knew she had to figure out a way to not only cope with becoming a teenage mother, but with the awful disgrace of being single.

“There was huge stigma,” recalls Margaret, who has just recalled her experiences as a Sixties single mum in a new book, Good Vibrations: A Story of a Single 60s Mum. “I didn’t have a husband, my parents disowned me. I had no job, I had to leave my college course.

“People regarded single mothers like me as some kind of loose women.”

Just 17, Margaret would face prejudice and sneers. She’d find herself destitute with nowhere to live, fall prey to unscrupulous employers who regarded her status as unmarried mum as a sexual opportunity and have to scrape by with little money and even less support.

Certainly there was no help forthcoming from the father of her baby boy, the living, kicking and screaming result of a teenage fumble that would change all their lives.

Margaret, now 65 and living in Bellevue, was at college in Glasgow studying horticulture when she met a dashing young man on a night out at a disco.

“He had a job, he was two years older than me and he had a Ford Anglia,” she recalls. “We would go out for a drive outside Glasgow near to where he lived. He’d drive to the forest and, well, you can imagine what happened next.

“So naïve. I knew that there were things that men could use to protect against pregnancy. I know we should have been taking some kind of precautions but I was far too embarrassed to mention it and he didn’t either.”

The teenage relationship fizzled out. And weeks later a doctor would confirm what Margaret suspected. Now reeling from the confirmation that she was going to have a baby, the frantic teenager tried desperately to figure out how to deal with her situation.

“There was such a lot of stigma attached to being a single, teenage mother,” she reflects. “So I wandered about looking for someone who would carry out an abortion.

“This was before abortions became legal. Luckily I had no idea where to find someone who would do it.”

Indeed, for Margaret was around four months pregnant by that time – an illegal abortion would have been risky at any stage, even more so the further her pregnancy carried on.

With an abortion no longer an option, Margaret broke the shocking news to her family. “My sister was lovely and said I could go and stay with her in Inverness, but my mother and step-father in Hastings immediately disowned me.

“My mother was crying. I said I would get the baby adopted, go back to college and carry on. But they made it clear I was not to darken their door again.”

Shattered, Margaret convinced herself that adoption was the correct thing to do. “I was so young, I thought it would be better for the baby. So I distanced myself entirely from the pregnancy. I was in denial.”

Today, of course, teenagers in a similar situation would be offered support and guidance. Instead Margaret was dismissed from her college course and, as her delivery date approached, worried sick about what might happen next.

“I thought he’d be taken away the moment I had him. I didn’t want to see him at all. I knew if I saw him, that would be it,” she remembers.

“I had him at 4pm. By midnight the matron at the hospital came to me and said ‘You will have to look after this baby. My nurses don’t have time to look after him’.

“I didn’t know what to do with him. I had no idea,” she adds. “I was kept in hospital for ten days, during which I was feeding him and looking after him. So of course I bonded with him.”

Not surprisingly when she did hand him over to foster parents, Margaret was plunged into despair. “I was grieving, it was awful.

“I had to tell the authorities that I had changed my mind. I collected him from the foster parents and brought him home.”

It could have been a happy ending for the young mother and the baby boy she named Sean.

But it was just the start of a new chapter in their harrowing journey.

With no job and nowhere to live – “It was virtually impossible to find somewhere to rent,” she explains – mother and son faced a worrying future.

One option that many unmarried mums like her followed was to take work as a live in nanny with a family who didn’t mind a baby under their roof.

“Social workers put me in touch with a widower in Edinburgh with two sons who wanted a nanny. He suggested that I travel from Inverness to meet him and stay overnight, which seemed sensible.

“But that night he seduced me. I suppose you’d call it rape now, but this was a different era. He put me in a position where I felt I had to go to bed with him. It turned out that I was exactly why he wanted – a young, unmarried mother as a housekeeper.”

Despite the incident, Margaret was so desperate for work and a place to stay, she accepted his job. It would just be the first of a number of uncomfortable encounters of a similar kind, as, with baby in tow, she richocheted from one housekeeping role to another.

It took around a year for Sean’s father to accept any responsibility for his son. Eventually £900 arrived – along with documents confirming he wanted no more contact from them – which Margaret used to buy a small flat in the Leith colonies.

Having clawed her way from destitute young mum to homeowner, Margaret took on a day release course at Napier College. Eventually she met and married a fellow student and together they had a daughter, Sarah.

Married and “respectable”, Margaret no longer faced the stigma and sneers of others.

Her relationship with her parents softened and the difficulty journey into motherhood became a memory. Eventually she studied up to doctorate level, qualified as a teacher of biology and chemistry and taught in schools and colleges throughout Edinburgh.

Writing it all down now, says Margaret, has reminded her how challenging it all was – and how far society has come from the days when single parenthood was smeared with shame.

“I was so young and there was so much stigma. It was hard,” she reflects. “But it worked out.”

• Good Vibrations: A Story of a Single Sixties Mum by Margaret Halliday is available as an ebook, go to www.margarethalliday.moonfruit.com for details.

Sean’s siblings shock

As the years rolled by, Margaret Halliday’s son Sean would often ask about the man who was his father.

Margaret had lost touch with him decades earlier. And, sadly, by the time Sean traced him five years ago, it was too late.

Now aged 47 and living in Canada, Sean was disappointed to discover the father he never knew had died in 1982, when he was just 35.

It was a bitter blow, but with it came news that he had a half brother and half sister – incredibly they, too, lived in Canada.

His mother’s story has brought home to him the struggles and dilemmas she faced, he says.

“It must have been very hard for her,” he says. “I’ve always been impressed with my mother’s determination. To go on in the face of adverse societal judgment the way she did and without a lot of familial support is something to think about.

“As a parent now myself, I appreciate even more how hard it was.”