This is a piece of writing completed in 2013 that explores the journey undertaken in attempting to find out about and make sense of, the beginning of my life. My writing has improved since then! My need to reference everything is now a given. But I didn’t want to alter this writing. Like a painting, it is from a moment in time; a life understood in that moment. Writing, like the way we make sense of the world around us, is forever changing…. forever unfinished business.
I arrived into this world in 1970 to an unmarried mother, pregnant at 20, living with her own mother who was a Widowed French Catholic. My mother had gone and done the inconceivable and got herself pregnant and brought utter shame to anyone who might have dared ask what the bump was under the big red cape. A boyfriend, a few drinks, an evening out in Wigan and boom. There’s a baby coming. It could have happened to anyone of course but if you were a woman at that time, society could not accept this and judgement hung over this ordinarily happy event like a dirty blanket.
‘The bastard, like the prostitute, thief and beggar, belongs to that motley crowd of disreputable social types which society has generally resented, always endured. He is a living symbol of social irregularity. ‘Kingsley Davis, ‘Illegitimacy and the social structure’ (reprinted 1964), p.21.
Beliefs about unmarried women having babies are hard to imagine in the context of today’s society, for while there are remnants of these views still present with us today, they are nothing compared to how they were back then. A woman getting pregnant out of marriage had made a terrible mistake. I must also add that she was deemed to have been ‘bad’ and was filled with shame about this terrible thing she had done (as if she had somehow managed to get pregnant all by herself).
The perceived wisdom for a long period of time was that a baby born into this circumstance would be better off adopted and the number of babies who were adopted peaked in the late 1960s reflecting this view. In this context, the solution, was to be a Catholic one and at eight months pregnant my mother took the journey from Southport in the northwest of England on what I imagine was a cold January day and arrived at Nazareth House in Wrexham; one of the last homes for unmarried mothers. Cold, judgemental, punishing and emotionless. I can only guess it was like this from research I have undertaken in writing this book. It may have been warm, welcoming, caring and open minded but I suspect not.
Homes like this for unmarried mothers were born under the guidance of The Salvation Army which was founded by William Booth, an Evangelical Christian. The organisation became involved in a number of social welfare activities alongside its’ religious crusading. Originally there had been workhouses for prostitutes, the poor, the homeless and the sexually abused that sat on the back of The Poor Relief Act of 1601 until in 1891 in Hackney, Ivy House was opened by the daughter in law of William Booth himself. This was the very first mother and baby home.
This explains why religion was a thread running through mother and baby homes. However, by 1968 58% of the Homes were run by the Church of England, 11.6% by Roman Catholics, 5.3% by Salvation Army, 3.5% by Methodists, and the remaining by other churches or local authorities.
The history of the workhouse and Mother and Baby homes is an interesting one that isn’t for any further exploration here but in highlighting the history, we are provided with an understanding of the underlying philosophy of the mother and baby home and a comprehension of what type of policy and belief system it was created from. This enables us to understand better what type of environment women were entering during this era even though it would have been far away from being like a workhouse, it would still have been grounded in the idea that this is a place of shame, of poor, of lack and of therefore not deserving to have your baby.
Societal beliefs in 1969/1970 around having a baby out of wedlock can best be described of as ‘shameful’. The words penance, shame and reformation are used a lot in the different articles and interviews that I have read on the subject. What is very interesting is that ‘shame’ is something that I talk about lot in so much of my writing about recovery. Babies like me are conceived into it, born into it and then live it out through the aftermath what happened to us once we born. I have spoken many times of the red cape that my grandmother proudly made to ‘hide the baby’. Hiding the baby was essential during this era and the fact that my grandmother could sew such a garment allowed a little reverse pride in dealing with this ‘shameful’ situation. I will always remember the red cape and I wasn’t even born during its existence.
Nazareth House, very early in 1970, was a large imposing house with little to say and much to do; light housework awaited the women who were predominately teenagers or in their early twenties. Feeling ashamed, doing housework and giving birth were the order of the day. Adoption was seen as ultimately the best option for all; best for the baby, best for society. It was expected. This was the environment my mother would be in to finish her pregnancy, to have her baby, to hand over her baby for adoption and leave after just a few weeks to return back to work very quickly after birth.
The women arrived understanding that they would be giving up their baby for adoption and that not doing so would be selfish. As I mentioned earlier, just before I was born, 1968 saw a peak in babies being adopted and 16,164 were adopted. It’s highly possible that had I been born just months before I was, that I would have been subject to what is often described of as ‘forced adoption’ but by 1970, mother and baby homes were starting to close. Society and relationships were changing.
In this setting, believing that your baby would be removed, taken away from you, that you were not worthy, that you had done something ‘bad’, it might be fair to suggest that attempting to dissociate from that baby would have to be tried. Already it is likely that the baby would have been denied, hidden, willed out of its’ own existence? Why would you partake in attaching to ‘something’ that was going to be taken away? Why would you dare to dream as mothers dream about what it will be like to look at your baby and gaze into their eyes after waiting nine months to meet them? Why would you do that? How painful would that be?
I have read in various places and accounts from women who have stayed in these homes that breastfeeding was not allowed, which is well researched and documented as way of attaching to your baby. Babies were also left for long periods in ‘nurseries’ without connection to other human beings. In terms of ensuring that a mother would not attach to her baby thereby attempting to make the adoption ‘easier’, the workers in these homes knew what they were doing. What they didn’t’ know, or didn’t want to know, was the long term damage that this forced separation would have not just on the mother when the child had been removed from them but on that baby.
I was that baby. I was that abandoned baby in the nursery even though I was not to be adopted in the end. But that trauma had happened to us.
I researched Nazareth House, curious as to whether there was a way I could find any paperwork kept on my mother and me. Any old scrap of information that might provide one of the many missing parts of my life would do. Yet all I could find was an unobtainable phone number and knowledge that Nazareth House was now a home for the elderly. What I also found, scattered across the internet, was the unspoken emotion of 1970 in the form of endless messages from children and mothers looking to be reunited after adoption.
I had typed 1970 into Google, my search engine, my friend, full of missing jigsaw pieces. I am certain if I had put any other number of years in, I would have found the same messages of despair pieced together with shards of hope. Snippets of information scattered desperately across page after page in the faint hope that the missing piece of their heart might be searching too. I felt an instant sadness and connection all at once.
Having assumed I would be adopted due to being unclear as to whether she would be able to keep me, I was removed from my mother soon after birth and placed into foster care where all my practical needs would be met.
Alongside arriving into shame and judgment, I had also arrived into an emotionless, disconnected human experience; I now understand that this would shape me as a person in the most profound of ways.