I’ve just finished my memoir Chasing Ghosts describing my adoption and search for my birth family, so it was with pleasure I picked up Jane Robinson’s In the Family Way. Subtitled Illegitimacy Between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties, it’s a history of society’s attitude to illegitimacy, its aim being to break the silence surrounding this taboo topic. Yes, I thought. This is a book I want to read, full of stories like mine perhaps. I was born just after the second World War, the product not only of unmarried parents, but of miscegenation too: my father was Indian, my mother Swiss. Two taboos, which should have made me full of shame, except that my adoptive parents were an interracial couple themselves and certainly enlightened when it came to explaining my background to me. I never saw illegitimacy, or being ‘slightly coloured’ as shameful, although the adoption workers at the time surely did: ‘Ms Z is aware of the wrong she has done,’ wrote one worker of my birth mother. And of my sister, also adopted: ‘This child is “slightly coloured” and impossible to adopt.’
In the Family Way consists of themed chapters rather than a chronology of changing attitudes through time, perhaps because attitudes did not change much and illegitimacy was still a taboo right up to the sixties. Pregnancy, confinement, growing up without one’s birth parents, and staying together are just a few of the themes.
Jane Robinson talks about the secrecy that enshrouded illegitimate children who were usually left to fester in children’s homes or, if they were ‘lucky’, whipped away from their mother and put up for adoption. Single mothers could not stay in a mother and baby home for more than a few weeks. But some mothers did choose to keep their babies, mainly with support from their families, and a chapter is devoted to them. Robinson covers the establishment of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Child in 1918, founded by the activist Lettice Fisher to provide practical and emotional support to unmarried mothers. Later, in the sixties, it was to set up Hopedene, providing self-contained flats for ten single parent families, along with an on-site nursery.
Unmarried fathers get a chapter of their own. Fathers were officially absent on birth certificates – including my own. Not all rogues, some fathers felt closely connected to their children and Robinson gives examples of those who wanted to care for them. However, before 1959 fathers had no legal rights over their own illegitimate offspring.
Part of the UK’s shameful history is described – the forced migration of thousands of white children to Australia, Canada and South Africa, a migration that lasted from the eighteenth century until as late as 1967. This shocking story was first made public by Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker who investigated a case of a woman who had been transported to Australia and later found that as many as 150,000 children – mostly illegitimate and all of them white – had been rounded up and exported to Australia, Canada and South Africa. Robinson brings their experiences to life, including some heart-rending stories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Robinson peppers her text with stories culled from some of the hundred interviews she held with single parents and their children. I found that, although they illustrate a point and give a voice to hitherto unheard people, there are too many of them to remember. I can’t help feeling that fewer but deeper stories would have been more compelling.
The final chapter, entitled Shame and Pride, is a reflective piece pulling together the feeling of Robinson’s interviewees. She points out that, for those involved in illegitimacy, a genealogical search assumes ‘an urgency altogether lacking for those of use simply curious about that particular past belonging uniquely to us. Never mind finding out about long-lost great-uncles and cousins twice-removed; what if I have a full or half-sibling I know nothing about? Are my parents still alive? Is it my child?’ Indeed!
In the Family Way is a good read – both informative and engaging. I recommend it.