Eventos Académicos, 39 ISCHE. Educación y emancipación

Tamaño de fuente: 
In the Interest of the Child: Psychiatry, Adoption, and the Emancipation of te Single Mother and her Child - The Case of the Netherlands (1945-1970)
Petronella Bakker

Última modificación: 2017-07-17


This paper discusses the discourse on illegitimacy and single motherhood of the post Second World War era in the Netherlands, from the perspective of what was considered to be in the interest of the child. It focuses particularly on the impact of psychiatric expertise and the new practice of legal adoption (since 1956) on the emancipation of the single mother and her child. Their liberation from stigmata is usually conceived as a linear process driven by progressive secularization, feminism, and an increasing acceptance of non-traditional family life in the West.

Historical studies have focused on the beginnings of this process in the early decades of the 20th century, when philanthropic societies and maternalist feminist reformers, mostly protestants, formed a broad coalition of support for the “pitied” unwed mothers and their illegitimate children. They created welfare provisions based on what was conceived as the needs of the child, like enabling full-time motherhood for women who chose to take care of their child themselves. At the same time, first of all in Roman Catholic countries, pregnant single women continued to be admitted to mother and baby homes, most of which were run by religious organizations. As a rule, these “sinful” women were forced to give up their child for, legal or illegal, adoption. These practices have disappeared only gradually, especially from the 1970s, when the emancipation process was reinforced by secularizing and individualizing tendencies in Western societies. Today, in retrospect, the mother and baby homes attract attention because of accusations of abusive child-raising practices and their unwillingness to open up sealed records that could reveal the identities of former clients, which prevents grown-up adoptees from getting to know their birth mothers.

This paper argues that the release of single motherhood and illegitimacy from the moral-religious stigmata of a “sinful fallen woman” and a “damned” child and from the “pitied” condition of poverty and having to live on charity has not proceeded as a linear process. It discusses the way the emancipation process stagnated in the 1950s and 1960s in the Netherlands because, precisely at the time when adoption was legalized, illegitimacy became an issue over which psychiatrists gained the power of expert control. Guided by dynamic psychology and what they conceived of as the best interest of the child, psychiatrists declared single mothers to be victims of socio- or psychopathy and, consequently, unfit for motherhood. Established practices of philanthropic and feminist societies, supporting single mothers who took care of their babies themselves, came under attack and adoption of the children by a “decent” childless couple became the preferred option. This medicalization of lone motherhood continued until the reawakening of feminism of the 1970s made it a respectable choice.

The argument of the paper is based on primary sources, like expert and conference reports, surveys, and debates in professional journals on social work, child care, and mental health.