Joining the Tribe

I have recently undergone a transformation, and have been debating whether to share it here. But it has given me such new perspective on so much of my research that I’ve decided it fits here, it makes sense here, and I hope you will indulge my desire to share. I’ve joined the tribe of motherhood. My son, Dashiell, is just four-months-old now. His presence – from the moment his life took shape inside my womb, through those nine-months of constant awareness that I was carrying this little person around in me, to the moment he entered the world, and every day in between – his presence, has changed how I see everything. Relationships I’ve had a lifetime take on new light. Interactions with friends and strangers, have a different hue. My sense of self, of being in this world, has a completely new tenor. And my research, this research that is so close to my heart, now has a new lens with which to be viewed.

Every woman that I interviewed for this project is a mother. Those that kept their children, those that lost their children, those that had other children later in life, those that didn’t. They all are mothers. I am so glad I had the opportunity to interview them before my own transition into this tribe. Because I could approach the subject with wonder, with the untainted curiosity of someone from a different tribe. Details of pregnancy, of childbirth, of separation – all of these were a foreign land that I could delve into with no experience of my own to impact my perspective.

Now, I have been on this journey. A different journey, a unique journey – as we all have had. One of privilege, the privilege of choosing to get pregnant, the privilege of being ‘older’ and therefore have a better understanding of what the process looked like, and most exceptionally in this context, the privilege of keeping my child. Of holding him to my chest and watching him grow from the moment he entered this world. And that privilege, has given me a deeper understanding of the hardship of each of the women who endured an unexpected pregnancy, a (sometimes forced) confinement, the childbirth practices of the 1960s for unmarried women, and the unimaginable hurt of losing a child.  This new perspective on my research is still something I’m teasing out, exploring in the quiet moments as I look at my son and think of the many women and children impacted by the history of mother and baby homes. But for now, what I can say, is that my respect for the difficult decision each of these women made has grown deeper, my empathy for their journey has grown richer, and I wish only to continue honouring this often hidden history by revealing it to the larger public.

For the moment, I will simply introduce you to my new favorite person – Dashiell Elon Bell, born on March 19th, 2016.

Dash bw

He has reintroduced me to all of you in new and unexpected ways.

Thank you, again, for entrusting me with your stories. With your histories. With the intimate hurts and loves you have endured. I honour you.

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Researching of Mother and Baby Homes Continues

I have been woefully absent from these pages for some time. For that, I apologize. The subject matter has been no less present in my thoughts, merely my availability to give it energy has been tapped by the day-to-day demands of life. I have moved back to California. I have been working full time. Moving. Living. But I am still here. I continue to get messages, and emails from women who have been impacted by Mother and Baby Homes. From curious researchers, inspired production companies, interested students. This thread between myself and the women who were impacted by Mother and Baby Homes has not disappeared. We are still linked, I have just been on something of a sabbatical. But I can feel that sabbatical drawing to a close, and my energy slowly turning back towards the topic at hand. Back towards the Homes. Back towards the women. Their babies. Their grown children. Out in the world, needing to know more. Needing to connect to each other. Needing to connect to their own experiences. To contextualize and contemplate what the impact of these Homes has been to themselves, their children, and the world around them.

I have a few ideas on where I want to go with the research. What I want to pursue next. What I’m curious to know, and share, and uncover. I would like to accumulate more imagery from the homes, the women and their children. I would like to flesh out the stories of some of the individual homes. I would like to highlight the experiences of some specific women. I would like to consider the lives of their children.

However, I would also like to hear from you. What are you curious to know? What would you like to read more about? See more of? Who would you like to hear from? Please leave a comment below to let me know so that this can be a dialog, not a lecture. That is my goal. That is the goal of oral history. To create a dialogue. With you.

Unwanted Pregnancies and the Alternatives

Invariably, the women who participated in this study were surprised by their pregnancies and dismayed at what this meant for them. The fathers could largely avoid any of the responsibility or stigma associated with unmarried parenthood, yet the women were physically marked by their premarital infidelities and plunged into a painful situation where they had to consider what would happen to them, their babies, and the relationships with those close to them. Many of their parents responded with anger, hurt, shame, or disappointment. Women lost friends and boyfriends, jobs and schooling opportunities, all because they were unlucky enough to fall pregnant. It is therefore unsurprising that along with a healthy dose of denial many considered ‘alternatives’ to escape pregnancy. Perhaps more surprising is how many people offered up these helpful suggestions, including their doctors.

Gin bath

Most frequent suggestion: Gin and a Hot Bath (admittedly, Hendricks was unlikely to be the available gin option)

The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot.  One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, “have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.” Falling down the stairs was also mentioned by others. One woman knew that quinine could bring about a miscarriage and unable to buy it in its pure form consumed ample amounts of it that was sold as a flu remedy. She failed to miscarry, instead becoming dreadfully ill thus forcing her to tell her parents she was pregnant. The one thing she was trying to avoid by taking the quinine in the first place.

Quinine Ad

Quinine found in cold remedies

Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe. A woman from Kate Fisher’s research in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 recounts “My one friend used to take gin with, um something, and they used to put it in the oven and when it used to go down they used to drink it. It was like a sedative to make you go to the toilet and – to get rid of it that way. Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.”

Folding Feminine Syringe

Feminine Syringe for Douching

One desperate young woman in my study tried gin and a hot bath, douching, repeatedly jumping off the high dive, and finally took herself to a back alley abortionist she had heard of. Arriving at his shabby door she discovered he was out, but she was invited to come in and wait for him. After sitting in the grungy residence for about an hour she decided it wasn’t a good idea, made her apologies and left. England has a mixed history with access to abortion, where it was legal for the most part to induce a miscarriage up until ‘quickening’ (i.e. when movement is felt at 16-20 weeks, once believed to be the point when the soul was entering the fetus). However the 1861 Offences Against the Person act made all abortions illegal, and while those guidelines varied over the next century, it wasn’t until 1967 that abortions were again made legal in England. This change is largely due to the number of maternal deaths occurring from illegal and self induced abortions in the interwar and postwar periods. As a result legal abortion was not an option for the majority of the women in this study, instead they relied upon wives tales and rumors to help them escape the mantle of shame cloaking them as soon as their pregnancies were discovered.

Lysol advertisement Zonite ad 2 Douche powder ad 1969

 Lysol, Koromex and Zonite all advertised as germicides to be used when douching for ‘Feminine Hygiene’

 

Keep following the journey of these unmarried mothers as I recount their stories of telling their parents in my next update.

 

Further reading for the curious:

http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/index.php/media-and-resource-centre/abortion-law/275

Fisher, Kate.  Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Szreter, Simon and Fisher, Kate. Sex Before the Sexual Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility and Contraception during the Demographic Transition: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 34, No. 2. Pp. 141-154