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Her name was Jean: International Women's Day 2021

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Hi, my name is Jamie, and I’m a 39 years old, care experienced counsellor / psychotherapist living in London. I'm moved to write this reflective piece to honor my birth mother Jean, and all care experienced women and birth parents who were harmed by failures in our society to support those who have experienced complex trauma. We should remember their names and tell their stories. Her name was Jean, and growing up in care no one shared her story with me.

At the age of 27 when I sought access to my care files, I somehow had the mind to ask if I could access Jean’s files too as I knew so little about her, or my birth family history. Jean had died some 15 years earlier and to my surprise my request to access her files was accepted. These were the files I received first as my own early records couldn’t be traced. I recall attending the social services office, and to my surprise Karen, the only warm and empathetic social worker I could remember from my childhood handed me a number of large files of paperwork about Jean. I could intuitively feel Karen’s kindness, but also a deep sadness as to what I was about to read about Jean. Karen sat with me briefly to explain how some info had been redacted, and offered to answer any questions I might have. A few pages in, I was left alone in that office room with the file, and I remained alone with her story for some years, no follow-up, no offer of support. Therapeutic work came some years later when I began my training as a therapist. I’m sharing this part of the story of accessing Jean's files because many who have grown up in care may have never been able to meet their birth parents, or know their story. My hope in sharing this might support other care experienced people to request access to files social services might have for a birth parent if they have died.

Before jumping back in time to the 1930s to Jean’s story I want to share the pathologising language used to describe her in the initial pages: “feckless”, “incapable”, “damaged personality” - I could go on. Only at the end of Jean’s file in the 1990s, did I find a specific diagnosis: schizophrenia. A few pages later was a typed letter from Jean asking to see my siblings and I who had been taken into care, naming our birthdays. The letter reflects warmth and hope. Jean's story, both of endless hope for love, and undeniable systemic trauma and exclusion was never shared with me or my siblings. Neither truly understood in the tragedy or reflected in the care she needed by the system that was supposed to be supporting her and us, her children. Her story would have been shunned, forgotten, and another statistic had I not pieced it together.

Jean grew up in 1930s wartime London, with a strict religious family who hid under the table when the attack sirens sounded. Her father was a pastor of what was a home based christian movement where congregation would take place in homes, and religious subservience followed. Her father was a strict disciplinarian with little expression of love, and worship expected. I met my uncle for the first time a few years ago. I could see both in his difficulty and expression as he struggled to talk about their childhood, more complex emotions and memories bubbled underneath his warmth and jollity.

Jean failed her 11+ exams which was a disappointment, and given what I see in her writing likely struggled due to specific learning difficulties, just as I’m dyslexic and dyspraxic. She went on to study at a polytechnic and qualified as a nursery nurse, keen to work with, and fond of children. Although this career choice never panned out, she went on to work successfully in retail and administrative roles. She moved out of the family home at around the age of 27 with a friend, and embraced independence. She had an on/off relationship with her father who was stubborn and mother, who didn’t understand her. They clashed often and fought as they tried to control her freedom.

Embracing independence Jean met, fell in love and got engaged to a naval officer. She became pregnant, and unusual for those times underwent an abortion. Soon he disappeared, and Jean was admitted to a psychiatric ward for the first time for seven months; a significant culmination of traumatic child loss and abandonment. After leaving hospital she was forced to move back with her parents, helping nurse her father as he died. Another significant loss. Her mother left to visit my uncle who had moved through work to Australia for a significant period. Jean was left alone to soothe her losses.

Subsequently Jean worked in a care home for the elderly, perhaps inspired by caring for her dying father and met the man she went on to marry, and live independently. Jean's first child, a boy, died at birth. A devastating loss, she became depressed and her mother moved away at a time when she would have been undeniably vulnerable. The following year Jean gave birth to my eldest sister. She found it increasingly difficult to cope with general housework alongside caring for a young baby, and was prescribed medication for depression. Without practical and emotional support she didn’t take her medication and was admitted for the second time to a psychiatric ward, social services became involved and her husband made arrangements for my sister to be privately fostered.

Discharging herself, Jean received social work support but experienced considerable difficulties coping and was admitted a number of times over the course of a year. Her marriage broke down as her husband could not understand or empathise with her difficulties, what we might today recognise as significant complex relational trauma. He left her, abandoned again. This was during the period of transition to care in the community that although visionary, was not well thought through and underfunded. It is clear that each time Jean went into hospital she was medicated, and quickly discharged into the community with some practical social work support that she was understandably wary of, and no evidence whatsoever of therapeutic intervention to understand and make sense of the losses and trauma she had experienced. This continued throughout Jean’s life as she had a further three children. Three of us long-term fostered and my brother adopted, as she struggled with her mental health in and out of psychiatric wards, medicated and with little evidence of therapeutic intervention. In one of the letters I read from Jean to my uncle, she described electroshock treatment. Both our eyes welled up as I read this imagining the extent of the harmful treatments she endured.

Understandably Jean hid my pregnancy from social services until the final stages because although excited, and with my father she recognised the likelihood of my being taken into care. I was placed into care following my birth at one week old and remained so until 18. Understandably, Jean fell into a deep and unresponsive depression and her mental health spiralled then onwards. The latest photo I have of Jean is one of a broken woman by excessive psychiatric treatment, not the vibrance of the picture above.

Jean spent her life wishing to see her children, but continuing to struggle with her mental health this was denied. What was I told of all of this? That she was unwell, damaged and couldn’t look after her children. I remember feeling angry and scared of the spectre of a mother who was sick, didn’t care, and fretted about my own mental health of which my struggles came to pass. My foster family and social services continued an intergenerational pattern of focusing on my symptoms, and my significantly difficult behaviours and not the underlying trauma I was oozing in my inability to regulate my emotions. My birth family history was shrouded in mystery, no meaningful life story work. I rejected this part of me and my care experience due to fear, shame, grief, lack of acknowledgement and a narrative inheritance given to me that there need not be an impact upon a baby taken into care so early. Yet our intertwined intergenerational losses were compounded when Jean died in my teenage years and I was given little to no emotional support, as though it wasn’t a significant loss. No one took me to the funeral. I learnt that if I had, I would have met my brother Noel who had been adopted. I had only just learnt about him, as he had begun looking for his story but struggling with schizophrenia took his own life two weeks later. Loss, upon loss, trauma upon trauma. It was through correspondence with his adoptive mum some years later that she wrote, "he would have loved a brother."

I do not wish to remember Jean as the person that interpersonal family struggles, patriarchal, systemic and psychiatric abuse reduced her to. I was lucky to have travelled to Australia to meet my uncle and family two years ago. I learnt that in her late 20s when truly able to be herself for a brief time she was interested in archaeological digs and went to Malta and to Cyprus to help the archaeologist’s with their work. She became interested in care, health and education and became a vegetarian much to the dismay of her parents. It’s these interests, qualities, acts of resistance and in never denying hope and love for her children that I recognise Jean in myself.

We should never remember care experienced women and birth parents harmed by systems by their symptoms or pathologised behaviours that result of their feeling threatened or unsafe. I’ve learnt from Jean’s story and of others of the need for greater empathy for unrecognised intergenerational stories of trauma and loss, and equally recognising the women they could have, and can become. Last year in February I was both privileged and overwhelmed to attend the Camden Council Relational Activism event where social care workers, care experienced people and birth parents shared a space that acknowledged love as a transformational force. The event's message 'to love is to act' is to change the way we orientate ourselves towards a responsibility of care for all, and recognition of experiences of trauma and loss as intrinsic to healing. I was overwhelmed meeting many inspiring women that day who could have been Jean. Some had been, or were almost abandoned by the system to lose their children as a result of unrecognised and unsupported trauma. Hearing of family group conferences where birth parents created supportive networks for other birth parents facing care proceedings was inspiring. I only wish Jean had been supported in such a empathetic and loving way. It was this experience of embodying mutuality and love in the care system that now inspires me as a founding member of RECLAIM to wish to build meaningful connection and healing amongst care experienced people to create change by building gentle relationships and community support. Change can come through leaning into the power of relationships.

To finish my reflection on Jean's story for international women's day, I’d like to give a shout-out to some important women who helped me on my journey. My drama teachers, who encouraged and inspired my hunger for knowledge and creativity. Tanya, my dyslexia tutor and friend for many years who believed in me, cared and fought with me when I fell down and lost all hope in myself. My tutors at the Minster Centre psychotherapy training Julia, Alyson, Anne-Marie, Shoshi and Roz who gently encouraged me to come out of my shell, show all the parts of me and stand in my power. Debbie my therapist for coming at me with a relentless love that in the end I couldn’t resist, and showing your vulnerability that meant I didn’t feel alone in the therapy room. Caroline, Alex, Joanna, Carla, Dee and Jackie M who inspire me, recognise and care for my vulnerabilities and show me what it means to love both as humans and as mothers. Rosie and Lisa for the most brilliant advice, inspiration and sheer amazingness. Shoshi Asheri, my supervisor for holding, encouraging and caring for all the parts of me alongside my clients. My RECLAIM teamies who are just the most inspiring of ladies who WILL transform the future. To ALL women, as we all know you keep love at the centre. And to finish with Jean who gave the parts of me that are paradoxically full of relentless love, empathy and hope and, equally a deep sadness, playfulness, defiance and fight!

I want to say to those Care Experienced adults who are reading this that I care about you, your stories and wellbeing. I'm currently, quietly working on a project with The Rees Foundation alongside Therapeutic Life Story Work practitioners to develop Therapeutic Life Story Work for adult Care Experienced people and I hope we'll be able to update and begin that work soon. Equally, I'll be picking up the project Untold stories of adults who have grown up in care: Understanding impact of disrupted childhoods that I began with Lisa in Feb 2020 to support therapists to better understand how to welcome and support Care Experienced adults by finishing my Masters dissertation and developing training for therapists alongside other Care Experienced people.

With 💞 Jamie

The blog was inspired by watching Ruth Dixon's poetry Madness Meds, that illustrates her mother Andrea's experience of the brutality of the psychiatric mental health system which is like a mirror to reading Jean's file. Thank you Ruth for sharing Andrea's story so viscerally.

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