A lot of things were different in 1958. Dwight Eisenhower was president, the Cold War and segregation were facts of life, “I Love Lucy” had run much of its course and the Baltimore Colts won the NFL championship.
Also, a woman claiming date rape and having an out-of-wedlock pregnancy carried social stigma that dwarfed any such taboo existing today.
It was that last difference that largely shaped the life of a then-nursing student named Winifred “Winnie” Latham. It led her on a road that ultimately led her to Garner, where she now lives just a mile from a daughter who finally met her birth mother at 35.
“Back in the ’50s, women’s rights had not really been heard of,” Latham said. “If a young woman got pregnant it was generally considered consensual. There was no such thing as date rape back then.”
Latham, a Washington native, released her cathartic memoir in October: “Webbed Toes: A Birth Mother’s Story.” It tells of her journey: growing up in North Carolina, attending nursing school in Virginia, date rape at the hands of a doctor-to-be, the struggle of keeping her pregnancy and daughter a secret for 35 years, and reunion with her daughter after a 21-year career as a nurse in the Air Force that included duty during the Vietnam War.
The book, in large part, was aimed to tell her daughter as much of her past as possible – although as inseparable as they are, Latham’s probably inundated her with spoilers.
“Once we got together I wanted to be with her all the time, I just wanted to be with her,” her daughter Barbara Batchelor said. “I just wanted to absorb everything about her and her life.”
Latham spawned the idea of writing the book thanks to classes at the Garner Senior Center. She didn’t want to just write a book about date rape, and while the book includes a candid look at that undeniably pivotal time, it delves into all the pains and joys of various parts of a unique life.
“It brought up a lot of emotions all the way through, both the happy times and the sad times,” Latham said of writing the book.
Trapped by taboo
Born in 1936, Latham moved from Washington to Richmond, Va., to attend the Medical College of Virginia. She was a senior there when a senior medical student took advantage of her – and the ethos of the time.
She ultimately decided to have the child, but decided to give it up for adoption, both for her baby’s sake as well as her own.
“People didn’t keep their babies back then because of the social stigma. I didn’t keep Barbara for that reason, because I knew people would call her a bastard,” Latham said.
She also said getting a job could be difficult as employers could pry into your marital status, whether you had children, and who would take care of the baby.
“If you didn’t have the right answers, they wouldn’t hire you.”
She found out as much as she could about her baby after the adoption; privacy laws prevented her from learning much but her social worker indicated Barbara ended up in a good home. It would be decades before she found out much more, leaving a void that would gnaw at her. She didn’t even know the name Barbara Batchelor. She had named her daughter Catherine.
But ultimately, Batchelor would harbor no ill will. In fact, the two moved to Garner at the same time to be closer to each other in 2002 after each lost a mother (Batchelor’s adopted mother) within months of each other.
“I just thought she was really courageous and really brave,” Batchelor said. “The hardest part was giving away the pregnancy. I didn’t feel any shame. I just felt sorry that it had happened to her.”
Running from myself
Latham moved back to North Carolina after graduation, having kept her child a secret. But after three years at Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, she joined the Air Force in 1962.
“I think people were real surprised when I went into the Air Force and stayed as long as I did,” Latham said. “In a way I was kind of running away from myself.”
She ended up overseas twice, including a stint on Luzon Island in the Philippines from 1967-69, where she treated injured Vietnam soldiers.
Two stood out in her memory. A solider about 18 years old had been working with high-voltage wires when he was electrocuted and burned so bad both arms had been amputated.
“I couldn’t hardly go into his room without crying, trying to imagine what it would be like not to able to blow my nose or brush my teeth,” Latham said. “He had the best attitude. He would always smile and laugh. He said ‘I don‘t have any arms, but the accident didn’t hurt my brain.’”
Latham returned to Washington after retiring from the Air Force as Lt. Col. Latham. She had earned a master’s degree from UCLA and worked in the health care industry until 1998. Though close a couple times, she never married.
“It seems to be a trait in the family, the women tend to be independent and don’t get married very much,” Latham said. Batchelor is also single.
But in 1994, Latham had someone special introduced to her life anyway. Both Latham and Batchelor, who lived in North Raleigh, had put out fliers to genealogists and private investigators. Eventually, one had enough to put them in touch with a letter.
They spoke on the phone for the first time in a conversation lasting about an hour, telling each other about their lives. They had been pretty sure they’d found the right person when Latham asked her likely daughter: Do you have webbed toes? She said yes, and the slim doubt remaining in Latham’s mind evaporated.
Shortly after they met for the first time, the resemblance and intangible mother-daughter bond further confirmed what they already knew. Winnie was “looking at myself 20 years younger.”
“She came to the front door, and we just hugged for the first time. And it had that feeling we’ve been reconnected: this body feels like home,” Batchelor said. “There was no doubt she was my mother.”