Wednesday 27 June 2018

Light AND shade in a story of motherhood and mothering | some reflections on The Light Between Oceans

My academic (and personal) interests in (non)motherhood and grief has always been intertwined. As I have written before it was a personal experience of loss – a miscarriage – that brought me to sociology, to academia, and I believe that sociology has affected the way I do grief:
I have written too about how for many, including me, identities are complex, not static and precarious, not certain:

Having spent more than 30 years researching and writing about motherhood/mothering, (non)motherhood/mothering and other motherhood/ing (i.e. motherhood/ing that does not take place in socially expected and accepted circumstances) I find myself drawn to cultural representations of these identities and experiences (I’ve written about this too e.g.:

Recently, a close friend gave me a copy of The Light Between Oceans by L. M. Stedman. Published by Black Swan in 2013 the book is Stedman’s debut novel. Here is an overview (not really a spoiler) curtesy of ‘Good Reads’:

A captivating, beautiful, and stunningly accomplished debut novel that opens in 1918 Australia - the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who make one devastating choice that forever changes two worlds. 

Australia, 1926. After four harrowing years fighting on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns home to take a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby's cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom's judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them. . .

Looking at readers’ reviews online it seems folk either love or hate the book. For me, although there was some slippage into stereotypes, the attention given to the different ways to be a mother and the different types of mother loss was rare for a novel. Issues covered include (but are not restricted to):

Perinatal loss/child death

Violet had seen her daughter three years before, still grieving at her second miscarriage, on the couple's first shore leave. Then Isabel had sat with her head on her mother's lap weeping.

'It's just nature's way,' Violet had said. 'You have to take a breadth, and get up again. Children will come along, if that's what God wants for you: just be patient. ....

She did not tell Isabel the whole truth of it, though. She did not say how often she had seen a child carried to term ... Only to be lost to scarlet fever or diphtheria, their clothes folded away neatly until they might fit the next one down. Nor did she touch on the awkwardness of replying to a causal enquiries as to the number of children one had. (p166) 

Child death is less common than it was (until recently it was very common for parents to bury many of their children) although now as previously, perinatal loss or the death of a child often causes profound grief, yet society often minimises/ignores the loss and associated grief (e.g. Letherby 1993, Frost et al 2007). A common response is 'never mind, better luck next time' or even 'well, it's all for the best' if the mother or the baby are seen as less than 'perfect' in any way. Arguably, formal support following the loss of an infant has improved immensely in the late 20th Century not least in terms of the griefwork in which professionals participate (Davidson 2008). 

Coming back last time to the house she grew up in, Isabel had been reminded of the darkness that had descended with her brothers' deaths, how loss had leaked all over her mother's life like a stain. As a fourteen-year-old, Isabel had searched the dictionary, she knew that if a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent lost as child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or daughter. That seemed odd. As to her own status, she wondered whether she was still technically a sister, now that her adored brothers had died. (p171)

Additionally, of course, there are no ways to describe a person who does not have children other than with reference to what is ‘missing’ from their lives: childless, childfree, non(not)mother/father. . .

The different ways to be a mother

Septimus was the seventh and last child of a Bermondsey iron monger who had waited only three days after the baby's birth before departing this world under the hives of a runaway horse. His mother had done her best to keep the family together, but after a few years, as consumption burrowed away at her, she knew she had to secure her children's future. She dispatched as many of them as she could to relatives around and about London, where they could be free help to the people who took, them in. But her last orb was too young to be anything but a drain on scarce resources, and one of his mother's last acts was to secure passage to Western Australia for him, alone. (p198) 

This reminds me of the book Empty Cradles (Oranges and Sunshine) written by Margaret Humphreys, published in 2011 by Corgi. The book focuses on social worker Humphrey's experience of attempting to get justice for thousands of children, many of them forcibly taken away from their parents, who were sent to Australia by the British government for a 'new and better' life. For many it was anything but: 

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Britain sent an estimated 10,000 children to Australia to help populate its former colony with "good white stock". The children were promised new lives in an exotic land of plenty; instead they suffered hunger, privation and abuse in government and religious institutions. 

In The Light Between Oceans there is also (and this is the main focus of the book) much consideration of the differences and similarities between biological and social motherhood (and mothering). I don’t want to give too much away so will leave you to read this for yourselves. 

To end I include an extract from a Blog entry I wrote last year which highlights some of the problems with the classification of some types of motherhood and fatherhood as appropriate and others as not and further some choices and practices as normal and natural or not: 

Defining some human conceptions as natural and particular births as normal means that others (often those enabled by low level or more significant technology of some sort) are considered unnatural and abnormal. Similarly, some ‘instincts’ to parent are considered natural, even inevitable, whilst others are not. Those who do not have the desire to mother or father may be considered to be denying and defying the natural individuals whereas those that parent outside of expected social, economic and sexual circumstances are viewed by some to be living in abnormal (or pretend) as opposed to real families (remember Section 28, Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 (England, Wales and Scotland) which stated that the ‘acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ should not be ‘promoted’ through the education system). And how many times have you read a newspaper or magazine article or watched a TV programme focusing on a man or women searching for their real mother and/or father? Social (adoptive, foster, step) parents, like all parents, may or may not parent well, but whatever their qualities or not, those that wash, clothe, feed, care for, socialise, 'bring up' children are just as real as those that provide gametes towards the creation of, or carry and give birth to them. Technological advances and social agreements concerning such things as sperm and egg donation and surrogacy add to the need to take care when describing the status - as normal or not, as real or not - of those that parent and those that do not. 


Davidson, D. (2008) A Technology of care: caregiver response to perinatal loss. Women’s Studies International Forum 31(4): 278-284.
Letherby, G. (1993) The meanings of miscarriage. Women’s Studies International Forum 16(2): 165-180.
Frost, J. Bradley, H. Levitas, R. Smith, L. and Garcia, J. (2007) The loss of possibility: scientisation of death and the special case of early miscarriage. Sociology of Health & Illness 29(7): 1003-1022.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Suffer little children, and their mothers and fathers ...

Last week I read an article entitled: 'MPs demand apology for unmarried mothers who gave up children': 

More than half a million children were given up for adoption at a time when “unmarried mothers” were often rejected by their families and ostracised by society. Adoptions were generally handled through agencies run by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic church and the Salvation Army. Many of the women who have since gone public with their stories say they were pressured to give away their babies. These women suffered a terrible injustice and it should not be forgotten or ignored . . .

Jill Killington, 68, told the Observer: “I was never asked whether I wanted to go ahead with the adoption. It was a fait accompli. “Nobody gave me any information about support or benefits, even though these would have been available at the time.”

Veronica Smith, 77, said: “No one ever said I could keep [my baby].”

In the last few days, like many others, I have been horrified and distressed, by the reports of children being separated from their parents (and then held in cages) at the US border:

On Sunday, a day we as a nation set aside to honor fathers and the bonds of family, I was among the millions of Americans who watched images of children who have been torn from their parents. In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care. More than 100 of these children are younger than 4 years old. The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders. . . .

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. . . .

Recently, Colleen Kraft, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a shelter run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. She reported that while there were beds, toys, crayons, a playground and diaper changes, the people working at the shelter had been instructed not to pick up or touch the children to comfort them. . . (Laura Bush, writing for the Washington Post)

If that’s not enough listen to this:

Children thought to be aged between four and 10, and recently separated from their undocumented immigrant parents, can be heard crying as an agent jokes, "We have an orchestra here."

Not surprisingly all of this has led to, the already strong opposition, to President Trump’s July UK visit -

Jeremy Corbyn MP tweeted earlier today:

@jeremycorbyn:  It’s tragic and shocking to see innocent children caged like animals at US migrant camps and to hear their cries of anguish after being forcibly separated from their parents.

It’s immoral and goes again fundamental human rights we must always respect, no matter the situation.

Likewise, the journalist George Monbiot:

@GeorgeMonbiot: The man who broke these children’s hearts is not welcome here. @theresa_may show some spine and withdraw his invitation. Or you become complicit in their grief.

When you shake hands with someone who commits atrocities, you lend him your support, and he lends you his ill-repute.
Trump is not welcome here.

The strength of feeling in support of these views, coupled with the cross-party support for acknowledging the injustice done to mothers in the 1950/60s (as reported above), might suggest a human rights focused government response. And yet if the following (from a Blog by John Hopgood on behalf of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), an independent charity that exists to challenge immigration detention in the UK) is any indication we will likely be waiting a long time:

Last year [2016] the UK detained more than 32,000 people under immigration powers. In the last 12 months alone, BID provided legal advice and assistance to 137 parents who had been separated from their young children by immigration detention. . . .

Fighting an immigration case – with the power of the state against you – has never been simple. Yet successive government reforms have been directed at making that task even more challenging. The right to a family and private life is enshrined within the European Convention of Human Rights under Article 8. But UK governments have sought – with some success – to erode that right by imposing increasingly hard – ‘hostile’, in the words of the then Home Secretary Theresa May – conditions on immigrants.

And more recently with reference to her recent visit to Yarls’ Wood, and in response to Carole Nokes MPs’ determination (as Immigration Minister) to “look at what the alternatives to detention are”, Caroline Lucus:

@CarolineLucas: Based on my harrowing visit to #YarlsWood detention centre yesterday, during which I spoke to over 100 women detainees, I would say the alternative is pretty obvious, @carolinenokes: treat people as human beings, and don’t detain them. #SetHerFree

The UK is the only country in Europe where people can be detained indefinitely on the say so of an immigration officer. If other countries can do without such a draconian system of arbitrary detention, why can’t we, @carolinenokes? #SetHerFree

Yet more evidence of the government’s #HostileEnvironment in action.

For more examples see:

Friday 1 June 2018

Night Dream Believer | #foodpoverty #periodpoverty #funeralpoverty #politicalausterity (and more)

At the beginning of this year I wrote a short piece about a vivid dream I had. Here is an extract:

On arrival at the unknown village I got off the coach, only then realising that I knew some of my fellow passengers. ‘Are you here for the rally?’ one asked me. I wasn’t of course and felt both disappointed and guilty that I wasn’t staying to support my comrades. Walking towards the pub I turned to see musicians and dancers arriving to join the assembling crowd; the rain and the mud clearly not putting anyone off or dampening the mood. The planned event clearly a celebration as well as campaign activity.

Anyone kind enough to read my work – including memoir, fiction and other more opinion focused pieces – will be aware of my concerns about and criticism of our current government. I have written previously, many times, about, what I, and I know many others, believe to be, rising levels of inequality and injustice in our society and about some of the attacks on those who are working hard to make things better.  All this makes me anxious as does my own, strongly felt, inadequacy. My ego is not so big that I think that I can change the world. But knowing that I can’t doesn’t stop me wanting to, or stop me feeling the need to.

More recently I’ve been dreaming again and although not overtly connected to politics in any way I think, as I did about my dream in January, that these dreams are linked to my (and others’) anxieties about the state of the UK (and indeed the wider world) and my responsibilities within and to our society and the world more generally. Lately an increasing number of my dreams have been emotionally and physically violent. In them I (and sometimes others close to me) are experiencing attack – most often verbal, but occasionally physical – sometimes by unknown others, sometimes by people I know (folk who would never, ever treat me this way in ‘real’ life). In one particularly horrid dream I was both peed on and shouted at. Upsetting as these have been the most recent in the series was perhaps the most disturbing to me. It is I was heavily pregnant (eight months at least). I’m 59 years old and my one and only (to my knowledge) pregnancy ended in miscarriage over 30 years ago. And yet the pregnancy was no surprise to my sleeping self. The dream was complicated with lots going on with the pregnancy being just one aspect, rather than the focal point, of it. Towards the end the pregnancy became more significant and just before I woke I realised that the baby in my womb had stopped moving and the anxiety I experienced was intense.

There’s no need, I suggest, for dream analysis here. If pregnancy in a dream represents (I did look this up, I admit, but it’s obvious I think) looking forward to, or worrying about, new beginnings of some kind (a new project, a new relationship and such like) concern over the status of a pregnancy/pregnancy loss must surely indicate fear that what one desires will not happen. So as I said, it feels appropriate to reflect on the political significance of these dreams. The need for change, the fear of it not happening, leads to much anxiety in my day-time hours as well as when I’m sleeping.

Earlier in the week I retweeted a number of articles focusing on the impacts of poverty and deprivation. Thus:  

First this article on #foodpoverty

The UK’s largest food redistribution charity is helping to feed a record 772,000 people a week – 60% more than the previous year – with food that would otherwise be wasted, new figures reveal. One in eight people in the UK go hungry every day – with the most needy increasingly dependent on food banks - yet perfectly good food is wasted every day through the food production supply chain. FareShare said it was now redistributing food that otherwise would have been wasted with an annual value of £28.7m, up from £22.4m last year. “Three years ago we were helping to feed 211,000 people a week – today it’s three-quarters of a million,” said FareShare’s chief executive, Lindsay Boswell. “We reported in 2015 that we provided food across 320 towns and cities – now it’s 1,500. It’s not rocket science to see there has been a massive hike in demand for food from frontline charities.”

I’ve written about food poverty previously; most recently here: 
My own life is, I know, very privileged but I remember sometimes being hungry when I was  a child I am ashamed to live in a society where this is becoming more, rather than less, of a problem. 

Second this Blog for Huffington Post written by Kate Osamor MP on #periodpoverty

Right now, around 282 million women and girls around the world are menstruating. This time of the month can be annoying and uncomfortable at the best of times. But for those who struggle to access water, a decent toilet and sanitary towels, it is a monthly exercise in anxiety and humiliation. This is true for those suffering from period poverty both here in the UK and around the world. One in ten girls in the UK don’t have access to sanitary products. One in three girls across the globe don’t have access to a toilet during their period.
I know that Ken Loach’s film I Daniel Blake highlighted the need to donate, when we can, not just food but also toiletries, sanitary wear and nappies. Osamor’s Blog reminded me again of the importance of this. It’s a while now since I last bled but I remember the distress I felt when the arrival of my period took me by surprise and I had no tampons or pads to hand. I remember the discomfort on hot days and/or during a particularly heavy bleed when I was unable to get to a toilet just when I needed to. Nothing more to say here.
And a third focusing on #deathpoverty

Some of the UK’s poorest people are being barred from attending the funerals of loved ones as part of council cost-cutting, it has been claimed. Families who must reportedly rely on publicly-funded funerals are told they cannot be at the service. An official at Bracknell Forest Council, in Berkshire, was recorded telling undercover reporters that relatives would not even be told when the burial or cremation was taking place . . . .

The average funeral costs £4,078 pricing out increasing numbers of families. Councils offer a public health funeral – the modern equivalent of a Victorian pauper’s funeral – for those who cannot afford. About 4,000 people are buried or cremated this way every year, costing local authorities an estimated £4 million. The refusal to allow people to attend seems to be a way of keeping costs down and discouraging families from using the option except where financially unavoidable.

Having been through a number of significant bereavements myself, and from my experience as an (occasional) funeral celebrant -  - I very much appreciate the importance of a ‘ceremony’ as part of the grieving process. Excluding the bereaved in this way is beyond cruel; inhumane.  

The final piece in my short twitter fest was an article from The New York Times
#politicalausterity in the UK the focus here.

PRESCOT, England — A walk through this modest town in the northwest of England amounts to a tour of the casualties of Britain’s age of austerity. The old library building has been sold and refashioned into a glass-fronted luxury home. The leisure center has been razed, eliminating the public swimming pool. The local museum has receded into town history. The police station has been shuttered. Now, as the local government desperately seeks to turn assets into cash, Browns Field, a lush park in the center of town, may be doomed, too. At a meeting in November, the council included it on a list of 17 parks to sell to developers. . . .

“The government has created destitution,” says Barry Kushner, a Labour Party councilman in Liverpool and the cabinet member for children’s services. “Austerity has had nothing to do with economics. It was about getting out from under welfare. It’s about politics abandoning vulnerable people.” . . .

Britain’s turn from its welfare state in the face of yawning budget deficits is a conspicuous indicator that the world has been refashioned by the crisis [following the global financial panic of 2008]. As the global economy now negotiates a wrenching transition — with itinerant jobs replacing full-time positions and robots substituting for human labor — Britain’s experience provokes doubts about the durability of the traditional welfare model. . . .

. . . .  At public libraries, volunteers now outnumber paid staff. In struggling communities, residents have formed food banks while distributing hand-me-down school uniforms. But to many in Britain, this is akin to setting your house on fire and then reveling in the community spirit as neighbors come running to help extinguish the blaze. [The piece goes on, it’s a long sobering read].

Close to home this one. I spend the first seven years of my life in Prescot. I now live in the beautiful, vibrant town of Falmouth, Cornwall which recently appearing in The Guardian's: 'ten of the UK's best seaside towns 
But, and this is a BIG but, it’s important to remember that Cornwall is the second poorest region in Northern Europe so living here is far from a holiday for many. 

In the meantime:

The Conservative Party, yet again, prove their hypocrisy, when it comes to where they get their money from: 

The Labour Party has accused Theresa May of breaking her promises and continuing “business as usual” with Russia after the Conservative Party accepted another £100,000 donation from the wife of a former minister in Vladimir Putin’s government. Lubov Chernukhin, whose ex-deputy finance minister husband Vladimir has been described in the past as a “Putin crony”, donated £112,500 to the Conservative Party during the past three months, bringing the total amount to £626,500 since 2012.

There is more evidence of how the governments ‘hostile environment’ impacts on the lives of many people as we find out that: The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been colluding with Sainsbury’s to spy on welfare claimants and disabled people.’ 

All whilst Jacob Rees-Mogg MP’s biggest worry seems to be that he has been ‘priced out’ of Mayfair and has to ‘settle’ for a house in Westminster

All the greater need then for rest of us to keep challenging, to keep talking, and importantly, not to give up hope. Following my recent dreams I’m reminding, admonishing, myself here as much as anyone else. As I wrote nearly a year ago:

I read recently that the average person thinks about politics for four minutes a week. This, alongside the 'don't politicise' arguments (ironically encouraged by those attempting to score political points themselves …[*]) disheartens and enrages me. YET, YET the scores of people joining the Labour Party since 2017, the continued discussions between friends and amongst strangers (that I overhear on trains, in cafes, on the streets), the increase in social networking and political learning, the tweet from a mother reporting her eight year old's desire to watch the news to 'see how Jeremy Corbyn is doing' are the things to focus us..... 

* Just see the latest from James Cleverly MP which I 'had' to respond to. For example: 

Thanks for the advice - my sweet little head is obviously so full of all things pink and fluffy I am unable (as are my sisters) to think or speak for myself on reproductive and human rights

Given the long history of silencing girl's and women's voices we should all - but men especially - think carefully before telling women what they can and should think and say; what they 'really' mean. Time for YOU to be quiet now Mr C.


Like others who enjoy writing, and feel the need to do it, I’m always thinking of what to work on next. The other day I wrote a short piece of poetry prose after the idea came to me whilst I was half sleeping the night before. It begins:

Stand Up.

Stand Up for what matters.

Stand Up to the plate.

Stand Up and be counted.

Stand Up for yourself, and for others whenever you can.

OK, that’s it, for now.

Wishing for sweeter dreams for all of us.