Why Did My Mother Keep Me a Secret?

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I was a toddler, my mother’s relationship with my father already unravelling, when the existence of my sister and I was finally discovered by the wider family. All communication, limited as it had been, was severed, and not long after she set off with a group of friends for Morocco. It was only on our return that I first met my grandparents. I was six by now, and there must have been a thawing, because there we were in the formal lounge of a hotel in London, the five of us, all staring at each other. My mother’s nervousness was palpable, so was her need for us to behave, and unable to withstand the tension, I shrugged off my usual, watchful self, and began to pad around on the floor, woofing and growling. 

All the same, our grandparents opened their hearts to us, their illegitimate offspring, and from then on our holidays were often spent on their farm in County Cork, bringing in the harvest, bottle-feeding lambs, changing into our best clothes to attend Mass. My mother would drop us there and collect us after several weeks. Although I could feel the shift in atmosphere whenever she arrived, I did begin to wonder what she had feared? Surely they would always have accepted us, our kindly Grandpa and Nana?

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Many years later, she told me how truly terrified she’d been. If her pregnancies had been discovered, her family might have involved the Church, and she could have found herself incarcerated in one of the many mother and baby homes scattered across both England and Ireland—institutions where young women were steered, with promises of safety, and where they were then stripped of their possessions, made to change their names, and forced to work for up to three years to repay the nuns for their care before their babies were taken.

It was only after her death in 2011 that I began to research the fate of so many girls who were taken to a local priest for guidance when finding themselves pregnant, only to end up in these homes, scrubbing floors, toiling in the infamous laundries. In an account written by a midwife who worked at Bessborough, a home on the outskirts of Cork run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, she described how the nun in charge of births refused to hand out painkillers or administer stitches, taunting her patients—even when there was evidence that these girls, some as young as twelve, were victims of assault or incest—that they’d not be suffering now if nine months earlier they’d kept their legs together. Many of the girls and women who ended up at these places didn’t know that they would not be allowed to keep their babies. However hard they worked, however piteously they begged, their children would be sold into adoption to married Catholic couples from England or America.

I’d always hoped to talk to my mother about those years in her early twenties, to ask how she’d managed with two children, estranged both from Lucian and her parents, but quite suddenly, before I’d found a way to broach what was still a difficult topic, she died. It’s been ten years now since I lost her. She’d been at a dance workshop in the English countryside when she began to feel unwell, and after driving herself to hospital was diagnosed with cancer. Advanced. Untreatable. There was nothing left to do but hold her hand.

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At my father’s funeral—by chance they died four days apart—a fox slinked by and sat on the gatepost of the cemetery, watching, sharp-eyed, as we trailed away from the grave. After the memorial for my mother, held in a historic chapel, chosen for its non-denominational status, an owl swooped low above our heads—her children, grandchildren, and the many friends who’d joined together to celebrate her life.

Esther Freud is the author of the new novel I Couldn’t Love You More.

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