Instead of having faith in single mothers to raise their children alone, and providing the support to do it, authorities around the world still believe it’s better to separate children from family and confine them to loveless institutions. This is a practice with a long history, as Justine Cowan, an American lawyer and author of The New York Times Editors’ Pick The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames, knows only too well. Her book recounts the remarkable true story of her mother’s upbringing as a foundling at London’s Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children.
Here, Justine explains her personal experience of the generational consequences of denying women the chance to raise their children and denying children their mother’s love.
Every single day, I experience the effect of a government taking an infant from the arms of her mother. It is not a constant pain. The injustice of it is simply part of the fabric of our family, a tragedy woven through our daily lives.
The Foundling Hospital
“The disgrace of an unwanted pregnancy was so ruinous… dead babies were tossed carelessly into open sewers”
Our story began in a different era in England’s history, in the 1700s, when the disgrace of an unwanted pregnancy was so ruinous that women turned to infanticide, and dead babies were tossed carelessly into open sewers or atop piles of refuse then common on London’s streets. Those fortunate enough not to die at the hands of their desperate mothers were relegated to lives of begging, theft and prostitution. In response, the government opened the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children—or the ‘Foundling Hospital,’ as it was commonly called—established to rescue “bastard” children from the streets and turn them into servants to clean chamber pots for society’s burgeoning elite.
“Only men would decide the fate of thousands of mothers and their children—determining not only which children would be admitted but also how they would be raised and educated”
The institution was led by a committee of governors comprised of men of wealth and influence, many of them of noble birth. Notably missing from their ranks were any women, though women had been key to the hospital’s founding. A plan to allow them to formally participate in the governance of the institution was proposed, but ultimately rejected, since women were “excluded by Custom from the Management of publick Business”. Instead, only men would decide the fate of thousands of mothers and their children—determining not only which children would be admitted but also how they would be raised and educated, and even the methods used to punish them. For the next two centuries, these men would go on to opine as to the proper methods of child-rearing without soliciting female input, and would reject countless pleas for reunification, believing their care to be superior to that which could be provided by a child’s mother.
My family’s story
“Lena had no choice but to give up her daughter to the Foundling Hospital to protect the honour of her family.”
In 1931, little had changed for unwed mothers when Lena Weston, my grandmother, became pregnant. There were few repercussions for men who were simply “sowing wild oats” when they engaged in sex outside marriage. But a woman who dared to seek companionship in the arms of a lover would be labeled promiscuous and shunned from proper society. If pregnant, she could be forcibly separated from her child and institutionalised under the Mental Deficiency Act which considered her to be defective, grouping her with “idiots,” “imbeciles” and the “feeble-minded.” Lena had no choice but to give up her daughter to the Foundling Hospital to protect the honour of her family. “My mother would be raised without any tenderness, touched only for the purpose of punishment (and most likely with a leather strap or cane).”
Lena undoubtedly believed that her daughter would be well cared for at an institution founded with the blessing of a king, but a dark world existed behind the Hospital’s closed doors. The children were dressed in identical uniforms made of coarse brown serge to reflect their lowly station in society and marched from place to place in a manner reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale. Their training to become England’s future servants was strict, and often brutal. My mother would be raised without any tenderness, touched only for the purpose of punishment (and most likely with a leather strap or cane). She was beaten and belittled by a sadistic headmistress, locked in dark closets, and left alone to experience unimaginable terror as the skies above Britain erupted into battle against the Germans in World War II.
The British government took my mother from me, not physically—she was there every day, in her apron cooking over a hot stove or picking me up after school. But I never had a mother who could comfort me, love me—the damage inflicted upon her too deep, the wounds never healed. “The Curtis Report [which led to the closure of the Foundling Hospital] was severely critical of institutional care, concluding that such settings were destructive to the development of a child.”
What happened to the Foundling Hospital?
The Foundling Hospital was shuttered long ago, following a scathing report issued by a commission headed by Dame Myra Curtis, an educator and civil servant. Instead of being appointed by virtue of their social connections, members of the commission would be medical professionals, educators, civil servants, and clergy, more than half of them female. In other words, for the first time in two centuries, the practices of the Foundling Hospital would be scrutinised by women. The Curtis Report, as the commission’s findings were dubbed, was severely critical of institutional care, concluding that such settings were destructive to the development of a child. These findings were reinforced by British child psychiatrist John Bowlby, whose theories on attachment revolutionised our understanding of child development, warning of the dangers of interfering with childhood bonding.
The situation today
“While England no longer houses its most vulnerable children in large soulless facilities, millions of children around the world are still being raised in institutional care”
While England no longer houses its most vulnerable children in large soulless facilities, millions of children around the world are still being raised in institutional care, with an estimated 80 percent of those children having at least one living parent or relative who could look after them if they had the right support. Many of the same conditions that my mother experienced at the Foundling Hospital are commonly found in these institutions—inadequate staffing, depersonalisation, regimented routines, physical and verbal abuse. My mother is no longer alive, but if she were, I know that the images of children dulled by institutional life would invoke the most painful of memories.
“Children too often become reservoirs for the grief that came before them.”
I too mourn not just for the parents and children weeping at their cruel separation, but for those not yet born who won’t understand why their mother screams out into the night or doesn’t hold them when they cry. Just ask the descendants of the ‘fallen’ women and their offspring who endured the abuses of the Magdalene Laundries, or the Native American children forcibly sent to boarding schools in order to ‘assimilate’ them into Christian culture. Children too often become reservoirs for the grief that came before them.
The consequences of subjecting untold numbers of children to brutal institutional life are already destined to echo through future generations. That is why we must ensure that this practice truly ends–and never happens again.
The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan is published by Virago.
Too often, the voices and stories of women, especially those involved in the care of children, is marginalised and hidden. Throughout March, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate how the empowerment of women also helps to ensure children grow up with the love of a family and the safety of home.