My mum was twenty eight when she had her first baby. That was quite late for a first baby in those days, especially as she had been married for a whole five years at that point, but she and my dad wanted to wait till they could afford a baby and had their own home to live in first. Finally they got a mortgage on a narrow two-up two-down terraced house with damp on the walls, silverfish in the fireplace and a toilet in the back yard, and then they started their family.
My sister took a whole day to be born, she was a big baby, and my mum had to have stitches after the birth. However, that didn’t prevent her from getting pregnant again within a few months. It has to be remembered that rape within marriage was not a crime in those days, and although I am not casting aspersions on my dad, I do think that those ideas, that a wife owed her husband regular sex whenever he wanted it, were strong enough at that time to ensure that most women would see sex as their duty (and most men would see it as their right). Even after a difficult and painful birth.
So: eleven months after the first baby, and worried about the extra costs of this new (unplanned) baby, my mum was ready to give birth again. Only this time it was twins. A full ten days before the due date, during a regular health check, it was discovered that there were two babies in there. There were no scans in those days so my mum had assumed by her size that she was just going to have another big baby. Although she’d had a previous home birth (because everybody did back then) she was rushed into hospital to prepare for the birth of twins. It was a Friday night and she was expecting to be looked after for at least a week before any chance of the birth happening. She therefore had little preparation for the two babies that arrived early, at about seven o’clock the following morning.
My parents had no phone and no car. They were poor, but my dad still went to the football every week, so on this particular Saturday morning he went off to Anfield to watch Liverpool as usual, completely unaware of what had happened in the hospital. He left my older sister with an aunt for the day. My mum doesn’t remember when he first met his new twin daughters, but she does remember being discharged from hospital a week later, only to find on her return home that my dad had contracted the flu and was bed-ridden, with my older sister beside him in the bed because he was too ill to look after her. My mum had a sick husband and three babies under the age of one to look after, a week after giving birth to twins.
Things were quite difficult. At five weeks old I was rushed into hospital with an abscess in my groin. The hospital was on the other side of town, a walk and a bus ride away, which was difficult to do with two babies and a big pram. My mum managed to visit the hospital a couple of times in the week that I was there, but at that time parents were not allowed to stay the night, so on both occasions she had the stress of first, arriving to see a crying baby, and second, leaving to the sound of a crying baby. At home the childcare was very definitely her job and her job alone. My dad worked five days a week and then expected a rest at the weekend, and his football on a Saturday.
My mum did her best, with little support. All her family still lived on the estate where she had grown up, too far away to visit easily with three young children. Her mother in law, my dad’s mum, would visit from time to time and criticise her housekeeping. Eventually she went to the doctor feeling stressed and anxious and the doctor prescribed her some medication for her nerves.
Then, one evening when she had just finished putting us all to bed and was walking back down the stairs, she began to feel very unwell with agonising stomach pains. She felt something leaking down below and she rushed into the kitchen to get outside to the toilet, but she didn’t make it. She had a miscarriage at the back door. She didn’t even know she was pregnant. My dad was out that evening, he was decorating his mum’s front room with the help of one of my uncles, so my mum cleared up the mess on the back step as best she could, packed herself up with as much padding as she could manage, and went and lay down on the settee for several hours on her own, in pain. She couldn’t go out to get help because she had three young children asleep in bed upstairs.
Finally my dad arrived home, in my uncle’s car, and finding my mum in that state, got my uncle to drive him to the nearest phone box to call for an ambulance. My mum was in hospital for a week, and the most upsetting part of the experience for her was hearing the nurses refer to what had happened to her as a ‘spontaneous abortion’. That was difficult for her to hear. Almost as difficult to take in were the numerous news stories that began to come to light shortly after that time, about the number of babies being born with unusual deformities. It took some time and investigation but eventually the blame was laid on the drug Thalidomide, which some women had been prescribed whilst they were pregnant. Thalidomide was the drug my mum had been taking for her anxiety.
I think she felt very guilty about her miscarriage. She didn’t know whether to be upset about losing a baby or relieved that she hadn’t had a baby with physical defects. She didn’t know whether the miscarriage was her fault or whether it had actually been caused by the Thalidomide. As time went by she found it more and more difficult to cope with her three pre-school children, effectively on her own. And then one morning it all came to a head. When she walked into our bedroom to get us all up for the day she realised with a shock that she was disappointed by the fact that we were all still alive. She hadn’t consciously wished us dead, but she noticed her disappointment and was scared. She was worried about what she might do. So she walked out and had a breakdown.
I still don’t know how long she was away for, but I know that she was offered a place in the local psychiatric hospital (which she refused) and that she endured two bouts of electric shock therapy, which, to this day, she regrets having agreed to. She was patched up enough to come back to us, but she always said that my dad never trusted her again: would never allow that she had competence in anything from that day forward.
So, did I appreciate all my mum had been through in order to raise me? Of course I didn’t! As a teenager I despised my mum for being ‘weak’ because my dad was always in charge and always had to have his own way. It took me a long, long time to see exactly how much strength it took for my mum to keep going, and how belittled and undermined she was by the attitudes of the time and the lack of understanding and support she had. Today I cannot imagine going through what she went through, and I can only see her strength in surviving it all.
I’m glad that in this country our view of maternal care has evolved since those days, and that the technology is better, and that some men are somewhat more enlightened as to how to support their partners when they are being pregnant and giving birth, and that it is no longer legal to rape your wife. I still wish there was more recognition of the labour women endure when they go through the process of bringing new life into the world (as much fuss as is given to the men who go and fight and take life away would be nice).
This is just my mum’s story. There are a million and one different stories about pregnancy and childbirth from all around the world which can be terrifying and inspiring in equal measure, including the stories of women unable or disinclined to get pregnant in the first place. The ability to get pregnant and give birth and nurture a baby does not define us as women but it does inform something of our psychology and our experience of life and our notion of ourselves. I like to think that Mother’s Day is not there to celebrate just the women who have actually given birth, but women as a class. After all, we all came into this world in the first place through the body of a woman.
And, thank you, Mum.
And, sorry, Mum.
Happy Mother’s Day.