Mother and baby home stories

A social history project

Sample chapter

An introduction to Locusts.

This chapter could have been titled ‘getting pregnant,’ or something similar, but Locusts better reflects the sorry truth about the appalling sex education we received at school in the mid seventies. Particularly pertinent in an all girls school!

Throughout my memoir Rattlechops – my nickname as a kid, I refer to my mother as Carole – it underscores her character and our rather sad relationship. Also I pepper my writing with the Potteries dialect, I think you can easily work out what’s being said?

Finally, a trigger warning, please be aware some content details coercive control.

4 Locusts

After leaving home and traipsing up the quiet country lane heading to the main road, to catch the bus to school, the journey to school should have felt like a terribly slow drag, but somehow that hour flipped by in a blink. Once seated, squashed against each other like matching pairs, we had ample time to catch up on our salacious gossip, and exchange titbits from our favourite soaps. Coronation Street and Emmerdale were our favourites. We could indulge in a little singing (always tuneless and too loud) and we had a last-minute opportunity to frantically scribble out homework, cribbed from some generous, more studious soul. We operated as an all-girls collective, bound together in our minutiae of mutual interests as we shuttled towards school, and jetted far too fast towards adult life.

Our journey slowly snaked, stop-starting, as we wound traffic-filled miles through the string of Pottery towns, spilling diesel fumes towards Stoke, and the start of our school day. By the time we got close to Saint Dominic’s, the top deck would be packed, dominated with raucous, braying, and often over-privileged girls. As we were told so often by Sister Mary Edward the headmistress,

“You girls are fortunate indeed to be offered a place in a grammar school.”

Boy did we know it.

Occasionally, having colonised the entire top deck, our exuberance would exceed tolerable levels for other passengers and warrant reigning in. The usually relaxed bus conductor would suddenly appear to admonish us, ‘What’s all this noise, I don’t want to shout at you young ladies, so please tone it down’. Being a Potter, what
he actually said was,

“Raight, abite this racket! I shudna av’t shite at you yung leedees. Plase shut eet!”

We’d belt up, but only until he was out of sight.

Then, as now, only a small percentage of students made it into grammar schools. Many of my fellow students, most in fact, were fee-paying, their mums and dads forking out a packet for what they hoped was a good education, a solid footing in life and a head start. Those of us from council estates and working-class backgrounds were automatically streamed together. Wealthier girls it seemed were automatically deemed to be cleverer and therefore placed in higher forms; St. Dominic’s wasn’t a meritocracy. We didn’t mind, because we didn’t know, only marvelling at the

I knew the other girls were monied, were from well-off families when they talked about their home or holidays. I got the feeling I was missing out on something, it was hard to say what. On damp, grey days discussions focused on summer holiday plans, and what outfits to wear in Cannes. They shared heartfelt concerns about the heat at the height of summer, and the perils of the long, hellish drive down to the south of France. I still hadn’t even been to Rhyl. The details of these wonderful sounding, warm, foreign holidays were regularly dissected, presumably for all to hear.

In the mid-seventies only the very wealthy flew anywhere, and very few, travelled far for the Potters’ fortnight the two weeks annual holiday, when Stoke industry stopped completely and abruptly, meaning everyone could, in theory, clock off at the same time and take a well deserved break.

If you were lucky, you’d get a drizzly damp week in a boarding house in Blackpool or Pwllhei (I was never lucky). Neither resort bore any resemblance to the Mediterranean, and coping with the heat was never a problem. Those girls I quickly realised had lives that bore no similarity to my own. Their privilege showed. They were the cherished daughters of lawyers, doctors, factory owners, the offspring of the great and the good from many miles around.

On arrival at our final stop, our routine was to tumble off the bus directly into a minuscule sweet shop. It smelled delightfully of toffee and sugar, and the wrappers zinged with neon appeal. Skilful light pilfering followed. We were good at it and utterly shameless, we knew we could always confess.

Then stomping up the hill towards St Dominic’s, to arrive in the nick time for the registration, we ambled through the grounds, past the soaring dirty brick church where Father Tolkien officiated (yes that one). We locked arms and strode past the austere convent, then the grey duck pond surrounded by tall trees and bobbing diving noisy ducks, past the tarmacked tennis courts, to finally arrive at school. A severe and solid building, long since demolished, perched a-top of the hill overlooking the smoking industry of Etruria, which was laid out, in a skeletal pattern below. Factory upon factory. Workplaces for others. We were told to prepare for different, better destinies.

We’d pack the narrow corridors, surging towards our classes in single file. The sisters of no mercy, swathed in black heads covered, clothed oppressively from skull cap to toe-tip, strategically stationed themselves in pairs to watch over us, frequently squawking like demented gulls.

“Gals, one way only.”

“Gals, quiet please!”

“Gals be quick!”

Commands, not requests. Other teachers would yank unsuspecting dawdlers into a classroom for a close uniform inspection. Made to kneel down, a steel ruler would measure how far above our knees our blue skirts were. Waistbands could not be rolled up. Legs must be kept decently covered and flesh below the knees only could be exposed. Armpits were sniffed. Earrings yanked out. Ties roughly adjusted. Make-up was always savagely wiped off. Our compliance was compulsory.

Break between lessons was either indoor or outdoor play. There was a great deal of friendly, carefree handclapping larking about. The school rang with raucous laughter. Girls congregated in amicable pairs or gregarious huddles. An old battered upright piano was provided in the indoor play hall, and most of us could competently pound Chopsticks after a couple of terms. Highly-strung girls were always allowed access to the art room, where they could paint quietly and calmly. The devout could head for the tiny church, housed in the heart of the school, where murmuring was permitted, so secrets and blushing confessions could be exchanged. Opportunity for prayer always an option at St. Dominic’s.

There was extra-curricular chess, pottery and poetry lessons. Even elocution lessons, which Carole insisted on paying for – such was our working-class aspiration. I made scant progress, never comfortable mangling my Midlands drawl and hard As to suit southern ears. Try as I might I couldn’t say look instead of luuk, or book instead of buuk. My efforts at speaking properly eroded what little confidence I had. Nonetheless I competed vigorously in public speaking competitions. My well- rehearsed recital piece, Timothy Winters by Charles Causley, about childhood poverty, He licks the pattern off his plate. And he’s never heard of the Welfare State… was projected with great feeling. The words mattered then. Decades later they still do.

A good student, largely invisible I was only hauled up for a misdemeanour once, in the middle of a packed summer playground, I was balled out, put on centre stage for a public dressing down. Mrs Byron, our terrifying history teacher built like a barrel bellowed at me, challenging my heinous crime, girls stopped and stood stock still. Everyone turned to gawp.

“Lovatt! Stop! Get over here now. What are you wearing? What on earth have you got on your legs? Take those non-uniform white tights off. Now!”

My bafflement curdled into utter humiliation. My cheeks burnt bright red, I stammered out the only answer I could.

“Please miss, sorry miss. Miss these are my legs. Sorry miss!”

My pins were pasty, pudgy and pure fluorescent white. We were the generation after gravy browning and before self-tan.

We were at that age when we were going to receive sex education, our parents had given their consent and we waited eagerly. It couldn’t come soon enough. What a let-down those lessons were, what sex education we all grumbled? A school full of fecund, anxious, and often eager young women. A thousand of us. There was no mention of a penis. No reference to a vagina. No acknowledgment of egg let alone sperm. We were trapped in the Middle Ages. Human reproduction happened by accident. We lived in a world of misinformation, devoid of the sensual, in sexual denial, wallowing in lack of knowledge and utter ignorance of our own physicality.

At St Dominic’s, sex education sessions, delivered by Sister Mary Henry, consisted of lessons demurely given on the life cycle of the locust. We moaned to each other that it wouldn’t be much help and we were right! It was the mid-seventies and we were meant to infer an understanding and control of our biology from the study of insects.

The hand-outs provided graphically featured the four key stages. Egg, the fertilisation stage, nymph, the newly hatched, fledgling, where the ecto skeleton hardens and adult, where the real locust action takes place.

In reality my sex education actually comprised two parts. Wasn’t I lucky? The Catholic nuns’ curriculum input was strictly limited to the anthropoid. I assumed the Sisters recognised this might not cover all our curious questions, as there was an anonymous question box in our form room, into which we could all place our deepest, most meaningful requests, to elicit enlightenment. No kidding. You had to be joking! Did anybody seriously think that those nuns who regularly marked our homework couldn’t recognise our frigging handwriting? I guess the curriculum failed to understand the psychology of thirteen-year-old girls. We were positively bursting with questions. We were fizzing with enquiry. We were sexual beings. The question box was regularly emptied of the sexier, bolder, and more-to-the-point, pertinent questions.

“Miss, how does a boy come?”

“Miss, can I get pregnant if we do it standing up?”

“Miss, can oral sex give you a baby?”

“Miss, how do I stop pregnancy?”

Our questions were vital, endless and unanswered, our stupidity thus guaranteed.

One bright morning, as we sat in our form room nudging each other sniggering, we had a good question in the box.

“Do nuns wear frilly knickers?” Sister Mary Henry read the question aloud, draped in black as usual, perched above us in her high chair, reading the question out in her creamy high-pitched queen’s pronunciation, she faltered, but only very slightly. She peered over the top of her plain stainless-steel glasses. Ice blue eyes, scanning the room for the culprit. I knew that she knew, that we knew, that she knew, we were watching her like a boil of hawks. This was our most daring question to date.

No matter that flame-haired Sarah had recently duped her parents into believing she was staying overnight with a friend. When she had in fact gone off for a weekend away with a much older man. No concern that Janet had already appeared, breasts proudly displayed across page three of the Sun. Several of the girls, were hanging out with what passed for Hells Angels in Stoke, were they being willingly passed around… But the big question of the day was do nuns wear frilly knickers?

Sister Mary Henry’s cheeks coloured ever so slightly, and I saw her swallow before she launched in with her answer. We all knew she’d swerve it, and we didn’t give a damn what nuns wore under their habits. We knew the answer would of course reference her marriage to God, and the spiritual dimension of their nuptials. The problem was God didn’t have a penis and it was the penis that we were concerned about. The penis was a mystery, a wonder and a worry. We needed more on the penis, Sister!

My second round of sex education came from home. A dollop of advice dispensed by Carole. During one of those rare moments of mother-daughter intimacy, she took an opportunity to help me understand sex and relationships.

“Karen, you’re growing up now, you’re becoming a young woman, and you must be very careful. Especially downstairs. Look after your tuppence. I’ve got some contraceptive advice, and it does work if you follow it.”

“Eh?” I was listening.

These words were accompanied by a slight nod towards my groin. Downstairs
meaning vagina, and tuppence our family term. I’m all ears I thought. Actually, I really was. I was going-steady – with Steve, and coming under increasing pressure to have it off, to do it with him.

“Have you done it yet?”

“Have you had it off?”

“Are you still a virgin?”

Everyone was asking everyone everything.

The doing it, having it off countdown clock that all teenage girls had was ticking away like a bomb, so my ears pricked up. Carole smirked at me, enjoying her own joke.

“What you need to do to prevent pregnancy is to use aspirin. It’s the best contraceptive.”


Aspirin! Where was this going?

“You don’t swallow the aspirin, you squeeze it between your knees, and you keep it there, that way you can’t get pregnant!” Carole explained in a confident tone.

Way-to-go. What bloody brilliant advice. All I needed was an aspirin and to keep it firmly between my knees! Meanwhile every Friday night at Bruno Brookes’ disco, as Billy Ocean crooned, Red light spells danger, can’t hold out very much longer… I know I wasn’t the only one who believed you couldn’t make boyfriends wait. And certainly not if you wanted to keep one. They couldn’t be left with a hard on – it was dangerous for them. You had to be sexy, but not a prick tease. Sex was everywhere I turned. Everybody I knew seemed to be reporting that they were having sex. We were all talking about sex, thinking about sex, the thing was missing was real grown-up advice about sex. And not just sex. But consensual sex. Pleasurable sex. Saying no to sex. Issues that locusts didn’t have to grapple with.

I had become subject to an unrelenting pressure. A ceaseless pestering, a persistent pawing, a never-ending battle with his wandering hands, me curbing his desire, and protecting my boundaries. Respect didn’t feature. At fourteen I had no sexual urges or desires whatsoever. I didn’t mind a bit of snogging. I loved dancing at the disco and dates. But certainly, there was nothing approximating the desire I would experience as I matured. Sex interested me, but only abstractly – I wasn’t ready for the reality. Maybe other girls had better experiences? More choice? More agency? I don’t know.

We invented a ‘when-should-you-go-all-the way’ scale, which we all talked about all the time. We were good Catholic girls. Not slags or sluts. We had a sense that we, somehow, had to hold boys back – we knew we should hold on and hold out. It was agreed that sex on the first date, without a doubt made you a slag. You’d deserve that slur if you gave in straightaway. We imagined in our naïveté that our first boyfriend would be the last. That marriage would surely follow… We practiced writing our new surnames in our jotter, and conjured baby names. There was no comprehension of the idea of having several or indeed many partners, because that made you a slut. We were ungoverned and keen to label those who stepped out of line. We were the gaolers of our own and each other’s morality. Less understanding still, of the idea of pleasure, no understanding of our anatomy, and no mention ever, ever, ever of lesbians, they simply didn’t exist. It was another decade before I even heard the word clitoris. Let alone found it. And please, don’t mention the G spot!

Our tariff was based on a rudimentary point system. The hypothesis was endlessly calculated. You totted up points for the number of dates you’d been on, the number of months you’d been going out together, the meals he’d taken you out for, a gift or two that you might have gratefully received. Once these milestones were achieved, only then, might you allow him into your knickers. Permit him to do what he wanted – to go all the way, because after the milestones he deserved to. He’d earned. And afterwards? You had to pretend you had of course really enjoyed it and that it had been absolutely mind blowing. The. Best. Sex. Ever. You weren’t allowed confusion, sorrow, disappointment, regret or any other misgivings. Not after you’d done it. And I’d never heard of rape.

In reality, although we never spoke honestly about sex until years later, many of my school friends were experiencing harassment and sexual assault that would now lead the perpetrator directly to a Police cell.

Sally, a gorgeous creature with sparkling green cat-like eyes, and flowing hair flicked out just like Farah Fawcett’s in Charlie’s Angels had a Saturday job in a local greasy spoon. Working for an old, balding, fat – predatory boss, she was quickly introduced to his special room above the caff. It was equipped with a double bed, ready for his use as he worked his way through the steady stream of eager-to-please easily impressed minimum wage teens that worked there. She wasn’t the first to be made to feel special, and she wasn’t the last. She cried buckets when he sacked her and moved on to a fresher girl.

Sex was tricky. Sex was difficult. We all knew the truth. At some point you knew you ‘had to’. Give in, ‘do it’. So, on balance, once the tariff was reached, and the points accumulated, what options did you have? After the set number of dates, the meals, the gifts there was very little a girl could do to stop the inevitable happening. Choice and desire didn’t feature. Points meant prizes, for boys. As the score crept inexorably, from having to allow a timid tit grope, to allowing him to wank – without coming, to fingering you through your knickers, to a coming-in-your-hand-wank, from blowjobs to penetration. Once your first line of defence was breached, it was like open season for the groping, sucking, squeezing, boys. No. Reason. To. Say. No.

My time was up. I don’t know if what happened to me is what happened to other girls? Were they lying when they claimed it was amazing, that they didn’t mind, and even enjoyed it? Was their willingness and enjoyment fabricated? At fourteen I concluded further resistance was futile and that it must be time to give in.

One Friday night I was led, pulled, or possibly dragged out of the disco against my will, and pressed against a dark wall. By that I mean, I was still dancing, disco music ringing in my ears, rhythm moving through me, tingling down to my toes, I felt alive with excitement. The music was loud, I was brushing hands with the girl dancing next to me, twirling to the tune, leaning in and shouting above the noise.

“Oh god, I really love this, its ace, it’s my favourite.” Donna Summer thrummed, I feel love… love… I feel love… In bright cornflower blue eye shadow, high-waisted brown-buttoned corduroy skirt, my love-Is t-shirt, cork wedges, and Christmas gift Aqua Manda perfume. With the Tavares harmonising, Heaven must have sent an Angel…. I really believed it. The music blared. I had never felt freer. I was an angel. I was Pans People. My boyfriend demanded to have his way. He wanted sex, and his behaviour brooked no comprise. It wasn’t only physical persuasion, it was psychological.

There was a cajoling,

“Come on duck!” Steve demanded, a strong-arming, a mafia type contract, pleading and a straightforward bargaining. If. You. Really. Do. Love. Me. You. Will. A deal was struck. I was going to have too give in and put out. My boyfriend, girlfriend niceness, bled into a transactional nastiness. In the face of the relentless campaign to wear down my resolve, I can hear myself saying.

Wearily, repeatedly.

                         “No Steve. Stop.”

                                                      “No don’t.”

                                                                       “Please. No. Not here.”

Mortified, pressed against a wall in the dark.

“Stop please. No.”

                             “No, I don’t want to. It’s too cold. I don’t want to do it outside.”

Horrified and embarrassed.

                                             “Not outside.”

Embattled and pleading.

“Let me dance. Let’s go back inside and dance. Come on it’s KC and the Sunshine Band.”

His strength.

                “Let me go.”

                                  “Yeah, I do love you. Yeah I do.”

I’d promise him next time.

                                          “No, I will. Do you love me?”

Earnestly, trying to extricate myself.

                                          “We haven’t got the time now. No. Not now.”

Pushing his hands off.

                                                                     “No, Steve, Stop.”


Feeling fazed, downtrodden, tired of the pressure, desperate for an end to it.

“Next time. Next time I will definitely sleep with you. Next week.” I conceded.

It was a contract I couldn’t renege on. Wouldn’t be allowed to break. No lawyer could save me. No prayer was powerful enough.

I pushed him away, but not too hard. I didn’t want this, nor I did I want to lose him. Everybody else was doing it, right? Weren’t they? We’d sloped back into the disco. The stale sweat and smoke hitting us. His shoulder’s were straight and his head high as his mates congregated in the entrance, a team sport, they’d all been waiting for our return, slapping him on the back, cheering.

“Ay up, Steve’s gorra raight boner on im,” and loudly,

“Go on Steve, marrer, ow’er son!”

Like he’d actually accomplished something outstanding.

The following Friday we crept out of the disco and he took me to the old railway track, on a patch of derelict land. Off the beaten track, quiet and isolated. We were in a dip, a dank, grassy hollow. Dark, damp, cold, strange, unpleasant. Cunt stinging. Really sore. Tights balled up in my pocket. Skirt up around my waist. Knickers wet afterwards. Shame. Relief. That was the first time. I didn’t like it, certainly couldn’t understand the fuss about it. There was no pleasure. I worried – she’ll see straight away, she’ll know. Carole will know. Was it written across my face? She could read me like a book.

In the months that followed I slowly dissolved to a dull nothing. Life felt drab as I went through the motions of pretending excitement, feigning affection, faking enjoyment. Each connection with Steve became about penetration. I was his vessel. My mind went to a different place, my body remained. At least I was going steady.

Steve was a few years older than me and worked in a garage on the main road fixing hydraulic lorry brakes. My school bus would pass by; I’d sit upstairs on the right so we could wave to each other. I liked him. His unruly blond hair, those appealing blue eyes, his cheeky wide smile. At least I had a boyfriend. I didn’t want to be the last to get one.

On a day trip to Blackpool, his works outing, the coach pulled into the bus station and emptied. Everybody else, excited to arrive, headed off towards the iconic tower, or the beach or a pub. We headed to the top of a multi-storey car park. It was windswept, desolate and deserted. I was again impelled by forces other than physical, to drop my knickers lie on my back and be shagged. As I gazed upward, my mind floating, soaring, ignoring the grunts, scrapings, and battering rhythm. I knew the whole world could see me. Shame. Shame. Shame. It continued. He continued. Steve took any and every opportunity.

“We need to be careful!” I urged.

“Please Steve?” I pleaded.

“Precautions!” he muttered, “bluudy rubber johnnies. Like aving a showoer in
a raincoat! No wey, duck.”

I realised I didn’t need an aspirin – I needed a whole bloody branch of Boots.

It was to be very many years before I fully understood that I had been coerced into having unwanted sexual intercourse. Would you call it rape? That gradual wearing down, the endless threats of being dumped, as other girls were apparently willing. Does it still happen today? I imagine it does, I’d really like to believe it’s a slightly more even playing field.

My progress at school was average, not bad, I was a solid plodder. As a consequence I was put in for a solid selection of O Levels. English language and literature were my favourite subjects. Keats, Chaucer, and Sassoon. I did well in what was euphemistically home economics, It turned out I had a flair for cookery and couplets! Despite my chaotic home life, or maybe because of it, I kept it together at school. I was doing ok. I had a sense that I could perhaps progress, towards what? I wasn’t sure. I knew to keep moving forward. Teachers were encouraging us all to think about our futures. To focus on our potential. I was peering into a world I’d knew nothing about. But university could be a distinct possibility I was told. My grandmother Mack had been to University – but only to clean. I neither planned nor anticipated what came next. I hadn’t heard of anyone getting pregnant. It happened that I was the first.

Word must’ve got around briskly. I arrived at school one autumn day and was suddenly and simply shunned. Whispers and rumours went corridor to classroom. I caught people looking sideways at me. Hushed murmurs and nods from girls and teachers alike.

“Karen Lovatt is pregger’s – did you know?”

“She’s up the duff.”

“She’s a slut.”

I was a scandal. I was also a slut. The school slag.

One lunchtime a few weeks later, I strolled with Sister Mary Joseph down to the duck pond, at her invitation. Everyone else was gathered around a Bunsen burner in double science. As ever, our little oasis of nature was beautiful and tranquil. The graceful trees scratching at the soft, putty Stoke sky, reflected in the moss green waters, leaves subtly changing colour. Season of mellow fruitfulnesses… I thought as we threw the crusts Sister had brought along. The ducks obliged energetically, cheerfully quacking and flapping.

That was that. Some decision was made. I didn’t go back to school for a year. I didn’t know if I would, or even could go back. Nor did I realise how much school had been my sanctuary. When I did go back, the following September the whispering resumed. People still squinted sideways at me, I was still a scandal, but something within me shifted. I left a schoolgirl. I returned a young woman. My maternity shaping me in a way that chalk and talk never could. I lost a lot that year yet gained so much.

After my pregnancy was known about, the school rallied to support me, I received home tuition. A succession of teachers trooped in and out of our home, organised with military precision to continue instruction in History, Geography, English, R.E., and even Home Economics. In truth I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those teachers. This was definitely over and above the commitment expected of them, I’m sure. It’s also an indication of how rare it was in the seventies for a girl of my age, barely fifteen, to become pregnant.

In the decades that followed the gymslip mum became a widespread U.K. problem as many young women, despite the increasing availability of contraception, the morning-after pill and access to abortion had babies. The UK elected its first female prime minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher – self styled Iron lady. She didn’t believe in society, nor in giving people hand up when they slipped, she lacked compassion for ordinary women. A female running the country didn’t make any difference to working-class women like me. As the UK was rocked by riots, unchecked poverty, and skyrocketing unemployment the numbers of teen mothers rose rapidly. Keith Joseph MP, one of the key architects of an economic and social policy that became widely known as Thatcherism, which the general population called recession, egregiously described unmarried mothers as a scourge on society. My blood boiled and my nascent political allegiance set itself in favour of collectivism and shared responsibility in opposition to his denigration and labelling. I feverently believed babies and children are everyone’s responsibility. I still do.

Like so many people I can identify one single member of the teaching profession who changed my life. My energetic, eccentric, English teacher, Mrs McLaughlin, lit a fire under me.

“What do you want to be Karen, what do you want to do?”

“A journalist Miss, a writer Miss.” Speaking from my heart,

In our one-to-one sessions in my pokey bedroom, she made me read aloud,

Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori…” over and over until I could say it with confidence. No one in our family ever dabbled in Latin. I had the feeling Mrs McLaughlin might have believed in me, it spurred me on. That feeling never left me.

During our time together she recounted energetic barely believable stories in between bouts of Keats, Donne, Golding and Shaw. Tales of thrilling expeditions to faraway places. Of private planes chartered to exotic locations. Of interesting people. She was sharing insights into her life – or so I thought – it turned out not to be her life at all, but her daughter’s. Beyond teaching, her life was lonely and mundane. However, I was fortunately schooled into believing that there was more to be had, much more, and that I could have it!