Lending a Voice: Website Launched

A distinguished oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, noted that one of the great values of oral history is its ability to amplify the voices of communities, movements or individuals by taking them outside, by breaking their sense of isolation and powerlessness by allowing their discourse to reach other people and communities. This achievement is my greatest goal in developing the project on mother and baby homes, and what brings me such joy in announcing that my project website is now live! You can visit it at www.motherandbabyhomes.com and I hope you will take a moment to comment in the social forum on your impression of the site and its content.

 Mother and Baby at a Home

Women share their stories of time in the Homes

This project began with an oral history assignment, an assignment which suddenly married my passion for learning women’s stories…particularly their marginalized histories, with a new love for oral history methods. Methods which allow women to speak, in their own words to recount their histories, and then to bring those histories alive by joining them with others who had similar experiences. Suddenly a single, intimate, painful memory becomes part of a collective voice demanding attention. Just as this subject matter demanded my attention. I sought out a single woman to interview, to fulfil an assignment, to quench a curiosity. But the stories were too rich, too alive with a history not yet fully in the past, that I couldn’t bear stopping with just one interview. Instead the subject haunted me, women emailed me with their willingness to participate, charity shops I would pop into suddenly filled their bookshelves with stories of unmarried motherhood and these homes. Old friends began recounting their own experiences of illegitimacy and relinquishment. News articles, television shows, books, films…suddenly the topic was embedded in everything I saw and my only recourse was to relent and pay attention. To reciprocate by making my own contribution to this history which still lives in the everyday thoughts and actions of women and their children today.

Mother and infant at a Home

History alive today in the women and children impacted

The website, the culmination of this research to date, has been live just a few days. And yet I have been receiving visitors and comments from people around the world. People who find resonance in the content, who have spent time in these homes, who have sisters and mothers and daughters who spent time in these homes, people who were adopted and have found or are seeking their birth relatives, academics and authors who have studied similar topics, and individuals who have never known such a history existed. Their words literally brought tears to my eyes, and I suddenly realized I am neck deep in this research and have no desire to escape it. I am moved each time I listen to the words of these interviews, when I hear the joy, the struggle, the pain, the humour, the healing that has taken place. I hope this is an issue I can continue to pursue, to research, and to find ways to give a voice to.

But for now, at this moment, I hope you will explore the website and share it with anyone you feel might appreciate its content. Until next time, my very best and my gratitude for your continued reading of this blog.

http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com

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The Limitations of an Historian

If there is one thing I’ve learned as an historian it is this: history is not some singular experience, some faded snapshot, or morality tale which we can reach our dusty paws back and draw out. History does not exist as a ‘thing,’ it is rather the many millions and billions of experiences of every individual that took place before this moment. There are large arcs in history which give us common markers to share: battles and wars, movements and leaders, WWII or The Beatles. But how each and every one of us experienced (or not) these individual moments from the past will be different. They may share similar markers, like watching the television reporting JFK being shot or reading about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on the cover of the daily newspaper. But what those moments meant, who those individuals or politics were to you, whether you were ironing your uniform for work or standing on the sidelines watching it happen. Or perhaps you were one of the “history makers,” individuals creating change. Pulling at the bricks of the Berlin Wall, riding that bus through Alabama, or sheltering the evacuated children of London during the war. Whatever you were doing, wherever you were, whoever you are, your history is a unique one. And that, dear readers, is the simple point I’ve taken far too long to make.

 Child Evacuees        Kennedy assassinated Guardian front page 23 Nov 1963        Berlin Wall tumbles

Moments in history – where were you? How did you experience these moments? 

As you read this blog in the coming days and weeks and months, as I hope you will, you may discover pieces of history that you experienced quite differently. To that I beg your kindness, for this very reason: much of my research is drawn from interviews with women sent to mother and baby homes in the 1960s in England. While many have shared qualities (the ubiquitous staircase!) there are also every possible kind of variation depending on the uniqueness of each woman with whom I spoke. The second reason I beg your kindness is this: I was not there. I did not live through the 1960s, I didn’t experience the evolution of courtship norms from a Victorian past clashing with the sexual revolution. I have studied, read, researched, interviewed. And what I am more clear about after all of this is not that I have some amazing insight into this decade I did not experience, but rather that no amount of research will ever allow me to truly understand what it was to be there. What I know is the 1960s were revolutionary, in big ways and small, and for many they were the best era to have ever lived through.

books research books research 2
A small sampling of the tools of my trade

I ask each of you, current readers and future followers, to give me the freedom to share with you my discoveries with these understandings. And, if you find a point very different from your own, or very similar, or just something that peaks your curiosity, by all means send me a message (oralherstorian@gmail.com) or leave me a comment below. I welcome your input, your insight, your questions or feedback. Just be kind…and keep following the journey as it unfolds.

Researching Homes for Unmarried Mothers

Standing on the doorstep of another home I’ve never before seen, meeting another woman I’ve never before met, I wait with anticipation for the stories to come. More than stories, HIStories, HERstories…the recounting of past loves, passions, sorrows, of a different era and a different way of communicating with our parents, our lovers, our friends. This gathering of stories is more than sheer curiosity, this is research for my MA Public History dissertation which explores the Mother and Baby Homes of 20th Century England and the women who spent time in them.

Falloden Nursing Home in Leeds Yorkshire from leodis.net

Falloden Nursing Home, Leeds, UK.

Mother and Baby Homes existed in England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, America…these residences for unmarried mothers were humanitarian, but experienced by the women in the homes as many different things. For some it was refuge, others imprisonment, an only hope or a last resort. They are remembered with fondness, with horror, with pain, with distance. They were run by voluntary organizations, local authorities, and a range of religious groups including  the Salvation Army, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and more. Most were large converted estates, some purpose built. They peaked in 1966 with 172 known homes sprinkled throughout England, and were said to serve between 11,000-12,000 of the nations 70,000 unmarried mothers each year. Most frequently the women who resided in these homes arrived around six-weeks before their due date and remained about six-weeks after. Leaving after their babies had been adopted, whether or not they personally desired such a permanent separation.

I am drawn by these stories for the raw emotion, the sense of another time, the choices offered or made during a difficult time. In my own family I’ve had siblings lost, both through adoption and divorce, which I sought out many years later to reunite with our tribe. I am the child of a single mother, and watched earnestly as she struggled to provide for myself and my siblings. I have friends who have spent time in a home for unwed mothers, giving up their children for adoption and being reunited decades letter. I am passionate about exploring the experiences of women faced with these difficult decisions, and curious about the institutions that sought to help in a way they believed to be appropriate given the social restrictions of the day. I am endlessly honored to bear witness to these very personal histories and am eternally grateful to the women willing to share their pasts with me.

Join me as I journey through these histories, and follow this blog to stay tuned as I prepare a website unveiling the fruits of my academic labours. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and please, share this blog with others you may know that have lost a child to adoption, are searching for or have been reunited with their birth family, have spent time in a mother and baby home, or are interested in the stories of these homes, the women and children who were in them.