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Opinion: 'I spent fewer than six months in a mother and baby home and I was traumatised'

Mother and baby home survivor Beth Wallace says no one can suggest those who spent fewer than six months there were not traumatised.

Beth Wallace

IN THE FUTURE, we will all be ancestors, names from the past on a family tree, no matter how sparse.

I wonder how we’ll be remembered then by the people of that time for how we responded to, took accountability for and ultimately treated every single survivor of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes?

Will our courage, compassion and clarity be celebrated or will we be criticised for our short-sightedness and lack of evidence-based approaches?

My story

I’m one of three siblings born in a Mother and Baby Home institution, each of us with a different conception, pregnancy, birth, life and, in one case so far, death story, but we all share one thing in common; none of the three of us spent more than six months in a mother and baby home and so, according to the redress proposals being debated in the Dáil, none of us was harmed sufficiently by our experience as to deserve, or even be considered, for redress.

I can’t speak for my brother Stephen, as he lies in an unmarked grave with people who aren’t connected to him in any way. It seems there’s no hope to have him remembered into the future with a sustainable memorial of substance.

I have always been and, I suspect always will be, deeply sad about that. He didn’t spend six months in a mother and baby home and isn’t acknowledged on any list or by any scheme – how many more are there like him?

I can’t speak for my sister in any way and for me, it’s not about money, it’s about having our earliest experiences acknowledged as harmful and damaging, regardless of how old we were at the time and whether we consciously remember them or not.

The daily after-effects of my first months and years, some of which you can read about in a previous article are something I live with on a daily basis. Those early months and years include a lot of insecurity and instability, months in and out of an orphanage, being kidnapped and more, all before my 2nd birthday at around which time I stopped talking; a clear indication of deep trauma. Adoption didn’t end the trauma of my first years, it compounded and deepened it through sexual abuse, fear and authoritarianism. 

The legacy of trauma

Some days those after-effects are debilitating, sometimes I forget them, at times they have threatened my life, health, relationships and most certainly my happiness.

We don’t recover from traumas that deep or that happen to us when our brain is at its most malleable. At best we learn how to live with and manage them, at worst they control and even destroy our lives as well as, sometimes, the lives of those around us.

I view the trauma I experienced like a disability, it’s something I manage, it’s something I need to face and deal with every day, it’s permanent and rooted in the neurology of my brain and nervous system.

I also know I’m very lucky to be able to see it this way and to have the tools to manage it as many others have not been so lucky. Studies have found that adoptees are four times more likely to take their own lives and are twice as likely to suffer from addiction as non-adoptees, as well as living with lifelong feelings of low self-esteem and fears of rejection and abandonment.

It can be a crippling and invisible disadvantage that is rarely seen as one, it’s called ‘the primal wound’ for good reason.

So, no, I didn’t spend more than six months in a mother and baby home, but I can assure the Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman that the first months and years of my life, as well as the subsequent years of childhood and early adulthood, were most certainly filled with trauma directly related to having been born in this institution, and all that entails, and I am far from alone in that.

The research shows the reality

From a professional perspective, as a psychotherapist and Applied Psychology graduate, we are, as clinicians, increasingly understanding that we are impacted by what happens when we are in-utero as well as how we are born.

We are also coming to understand that we are more impacted by what happens to us, or perhaps more importantly what doesn’t happen to us, in the first two months of life than at any other time in childhood.

A colleague, Jane Mulcahy PhD, Research Fellow at the School of Law at the University of Limerick, said to me recently:

While there is a growing acknowledgement of the prevalence and negative impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on health, relationships and behaviour in Ireland and beyond, there is very little public awareness about the primal wound that is caused by the lack of attunement and nurturant care in early infancy. The nature, timing and intensity of the trauma are crucial.
Relational and developmental trauma, for example, due to maternal deprivation in institutional settings like Mother and Baby Homes, especially within the first two months of life when the human brain is particularly malleable, has been found to be more harmful than accumulating adversities later in childhood.

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I would like to ask the Minister, and I’d like you to ask him too, what peer-reviewed robust research data were used to inform the decision to exclude those of us who remained in the mother and baby home for fewer than six months?

Where is the evidence that we are not harmed by that which we can’t remember? If the Minister cannot provide such evidence I am happy to share abundant evidence that disproves the concept that we cannot be harmed by that which we don’t remember.

Let us be the ancestors that the people of our future Ireland deserve, let us be ancestors that our descendants can be proud of, a people and a nation-state that, with humility and honesty, acknowledges its painful past, one that can take responsibility for healing the hurts of its people and treating our most vulnerable with compassion while at the same time having our actions firmly rooted in robust evidence-based science.

Beth Wallace is an Irish Psychotherapist & Applied Psychology graduate from Dublin currently living in Granada, Spain, with a thriving international online private practice focusing on relationships & sexuality as well as working with ex-members of cults & religions. www.bethwallace.org

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Beth Wallace

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