Pregnant—and Destitute

updated 02/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Bernadette Birkett avoids most requests to lend her name to causes and charities. After all, the actress—whose résumé includes roles in Mr. Mom, St. Elmo's Fire and on It's Garry Shandling's Show—has a family to look after as well as a career. (She and her husband, Cheers star George Wendt, have three children, ages 4 to 8.) But one request last spring proved irresistible: an invitation to cochair the annual benefit for the Infant Welfare Society, a Chicago-based organization that provides prenatal and obstetric care for poor and unwed mothers. Birkett accepted at once.

What she didn't explain at the time of her acceptance was that she herself had been a pregnant 19-year-old in need of help. Her salvation was the Chicago Maternity Center, a clinic for needy pregnant women that provided her with subsidized obstetric care. Today, Birkett, the mother of five children, including two sons from her first marriage, is passionate about the need for support systems for single pregnant women. She talked about her experience with Chicago bureau chief Giovanna Breu.

I WANTED TO BE AN ACTRESS FROM THE time I was 12 years old. After graduating from Siena High, a Catholic girls' school on the West Side of Chicago, I enrolled at the Goodman School of Drama. I was beginning my second year there when I met Michael, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We didn't really date or anything, we just hung around together. One day after school, I went to his apartment. It was the first lime I had sex. I'll never forget the date Dec. 16, 1967.

When I missed my period the next month, a friend recommended I see a gynecologist. I had never been to any doctor but a pediatrician. I went to an office downtown and paid $25 for a pregnancy test. It came back positive. When I told Michael I was pregnant, he freaked out.

I didn't want to tell my parents. My father, who owned his own metal-finishing business, and my mother, a housewife, were Catholic. I'm the oldest of 10 children. I had never discussed personal things with my mother. Also, my parents didn't want me to be involved with someone they thought was a hippie.

I didn't know how to deal with being pregnant. I never thought of having an abortion, even though I knew it was available. At the lime, I don't think I could have, even though I now think a woman has a right to decide what's appropriate. I became a basket case, weeping all the time. My parents asked if I would talk to a psychiatrist. When I said yes, they took me to Loretto Hospital. Before I knew it, I was in a white dress that fastened in the back. But it didn't take long for the doctors to figure out I wasn't suffering from chronic depression. A few days later, one of the nurses smuggled in a note from Michael. It said, "I love you and I'll stick by you." The note persuaded me I had to be with Michael. I was released after a week, on Valentine's Day 1968.

When I got home, I threw some clothes in a bag and told my parents I was leaving. We didn't have any lengthy discussions, and I never mentioned my condition. Michael's parents knew I was pregnant and helped us find an apartment. On Feb. 19 we got married at city hall.

Although Michael was working as a teaching assistant and selling his paintings, we didn't have enough money for regular doctors' visits. When I was four months pregnant, a friend told me about the Chicago Maternity Center, a free clinic on the South Side. It was in a big, dark, dingy building. One of the examining rooms had a bullet hole in the window. The doctors were residents from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I felt I was doing the right thing in getting medical care for my baby.

Chicago Maternity Center offered two alternatives for giving birth: you could have your baby at home for 899, or you could deliver in the hospital for $150. Michael's parents paid for me to go to Northwestern Hospital. Josh was born on Sept. 12, 1968. He weighed 10 lbs. I was so happy he was healthy. We sent my parents a telegram with the news. My father called to see if I needed anything. He didn't ask to see me or the baby. Eight weeks later he was killed in a boating accident. I never made peace with him.

The next few years were hard. We had a second child, Andy, in 1970. We weren't on welfare, but we were very poor. I took a job as a photographer's representative, but I wanted to go back to acting. Michael, who felt trapped, thought it was a waste of time. We were divorced in 1973, and I moved to a federally subsidized apartment.

I started taking some acting workshops at night while working at the Art Institute's museum shop. A year later I was accepted by Second City. That's when I met George, who was a member of the company. He was attractive, funny, calm, sweet. We had dates on Monday nights. The four of us, George, Josh, Andy and I, would go to foreign films, to restaurants, to concerts. He was wonderful to the boys, which made me fall even more in love with him.

I told George early on about getting pregnant and having to get married. He was warm and caring, and I was welcomed into his family. We got married about two years after we met, on my birthday, July 8, 1978.

When George and I moved to California in 1980, it was a struggle. Things improved slowly. In 1982, George won the role of Norm on Cheers. By 1986 I got the role of Jackie Schumacher on It's Garry Shandling's Show. Besides Josh and Andy, George and I have three more children, Hilary, 8, Joe, 6, Danny, 4.

When I agreed to work with the Infant Welfare Society, I told my mother that I was going to speak publicly about my first pregnancy. She didn't seem to mind. We had reconciled after my father's death, which shocked us into transcending our differences.

Visiting the Infant Welfare Society is always very moving for me. When I see young mothers sitting there with their babies, I see myself in that dingy Chicago Maternity Center 25 years ago. No one who sees me now can imagine that I was once in that kind of desperate shape. When people ask me how I got interested in the organization, I say, "Twenty-five years ago, I had to turn lo a clinic when I was pregnant." I am not embarrassed by it. I'm proud that I was able to survive. I appreciate the fact that I have my sons. They've given my life profound depth and meaning as well as a clear direction.

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