Thursday, November 25, 2010

Three Generations of Mothers

On Monday, Bethany and I visited Ballarat's famous historic town theme park, Sovereign Hill.  Bethany's Aunt Steph works there as an Education Officer, which was handy because not only was there free entry, but we got a personalised behind-the-scenes tour with lots of cute photo ops:

Aunt Steph teaches Bethany her name in ladylike handwriting

Early left-wing tendencies

Mmm... tasty!

Rare 19th century colour portrait of Bethany and I

It was entirely too much fun.

And now for a clumsy segue from historic photos to a bit of real family history.  We are actually visiting Melbourne for Bethany's Great Nanna Rose's 90th birthday.  She is Bethany's mother's, mother's, mother, and it is pretty cool that we all have this opportunity to get together.

Me, Bethany, Nanna 'Rain, and Great Nanna Rose

I thought it would be a nice idea to ask my mum and nanna about their memories of early motherhood to see what's changed.  The answers were eye-opening and made me appreciate how easily I have it now.

My mum had me when she was 29, the same age I had Bethany.  Both she and my dad had only just finished uni, so they didn't have a lot of money.  My mum used terry cloth towelling nappies with safety pins, and she had to scrub them clean in the laundry sink before putting them in the washing machine.  They had a tiny one-bedroom house so there was really no question of where the baby would sleep.  Unfortunately for my mother, I was a difficult baby with breathing problems, and woke at least five times a night crying and distressed from when I was several months old, until about two and a half, when the problem was finally identified (overlarge adenoids) and I had surgery to remove it.  She remembers being desperately tired.

A baby me and my mum on the right.

From the moment I was born my mum did odd consultancy jobs researching historic buildings.  It wasn't so much a question of needing the money, as needing a chance to have some adult time, and the work bought her a chance to pay a babysitter to take me (and then my sister) for some time each week.  She had just moved to Geelong when she had me and didn't really know anyone apart from my father, so her experience of being a young mother was that it was very isolated.

My nanna, Rose, was born in 1920 and grew up during the depression.  Her mother died when she was  eight and Rose was raised by her oldest sister.  By the time she was 14, she had left school to work.  She walked 2 miles to the train station each morning then caught a train for an hour's journey to Richmond to work at a factory, then back home each day.  She met my grandfather just before the war, and was engaged to him when he was posted to Rottnest Island.  Their first child, Barbara, was born a couple of years after the war ended.  

Barbara, Cecil, Margaret, and Rose

When I asked my nanna about her memories of being a new mother, she laughs and says she doesn't remember a lot now.  But she does remember living in the front room of a small house provided by the army when she was pregnant, and sitting out on the porch and knitting and knitting so she would have enough baby clothes.  It was far too expensive to buy clothes.  Apparently, she did so much knitting that the army turned off the electricity to the porch light because they deemed her electricity consumption excessive.

She was also able to borrow a sewing machine to make nappies out of flannelette material.  When she had the babies she was lucky enough to be living with her husband's parents who had a 'copper' which you could light a fire under, so she had hot water each day to wash the nappies.  She breastfed all her children, but 'oh, the sore nipples!'  She had watched her older sister breastfeed her children, but 'each baby was different and it depended how they moved their mouths'.  With the first baby, they couldn't afford a pram so they just carried the baby everywhere.  With the second child they bought a motorbike with a sidecar to get around.

She found it challenging living with her mother in law, who would get upset at her if she hadn't cleaned out the fireplace each morning, but if Rose cleaned out the fireplace instead of tending to her babies, her mother in law would take offence at that too.  Her husband eventually agreed that they would borrow a caravan and move onto the block where they were building a house in Highett (total mortgage: £2000).

Margaret and Barbara outside the caravan on their block.

There was no telephone and no sewerage connected - the nightman came to take the sewerage once or twice a week and they used old telephone books for toilet paper.  (My mum recalls 'they weren't that absorbent'.)  It was an event of some significance a few years later when one of the houses in the street got a 'party telephone' connected that you could walk down to in order to make calls.  From when the house was completed, the children slept in cots in a separate room, and they had old orange crates as dressers.

My mum (Lorraine), Margaret, and Barbara

She was able to stay home with her children until the fourth was three or four years old, then she got work in a knitting factory, making little sweaters to sell for Coles.  She took the youngest with her and he had to sleep or play on a mattress on the floor nearby.  From then on she worked full time and did all the housework or delegated it to her children.

What I found interesting about my nanna's story was that she was raising her children during the now-idealised 1940s and 1950s, which some people believe was a time when mothers stayed home so they could look after their children.  But even setting aside a feminist critique of this image, that is a very rosy, middle-class view of how things were.  My nanna worked for a pittance doing basically sweatshop labour as well as took care of all the kids.  Apart from with the first child, she had very little time to enjoy or bond with her children.  Babies had to be left to cry till they gave up because there was too much to do and one person simply couldn't do everything.  

And even before she worked she was so busy with the time-consuming domestic labour that she had far less time than we do today to be taking care of the children.  Paid child care centres did not exist.   Rather, it the children (particularly the girls) were required to do far more of the household labour than most children would do today.  

This was just the way things were and my mum thought this was normal at the time but it was later something she tried to change with her own parenting.  My mother worked hard to put herself through night school and then university part-time over many years so that she would be able to have the money to give her own children the opportunities she never had.

It is a testament to both their efforts that I grew up oblivious to all the difficulties they had encountered.  I just thought the opportunities and the time and affection I got from them were normal.

It's a long way from our life today.  I am able to keep in touch with my family on Skype, we have all the mod-cons.  As for my nanna, she's still kicking on strong.  She enjoys playing billiards and surfing facebook on her ipad so she can check out what we're all up to.  The next time you see a post by Roseemma Huddle on my profile, you'll know that's my nan - an extremely impressive woman!


  1. Good post Caroline. Working at Sovereign Hill is a good way to constantly remind myself how luck I am to be a woman living in the 21st century, rather than the 19th (or 20th for that matter). Birthing stools, untrained doctors, no steralisation, and the absence of antibiotics... and no contraception if you actually wanted to avoid that.

    PS. Sovereign Hill is a Outdoor Museum (one must not speak the 'P' word).

  2. Oh come on... All Sovereign Hill needs is a mine the diggings roller coaster and a theme park it would be.

  3. How things have changed over the years! We were brought up in the Depression and we were fortunate really cause we had a good upbringing and always seemed to manage. But we never had any money for luxuries or ven to go swimming. It was only a penny to go swimming but that was too much.

    I had a strict upbringing but we were luckier than most because dad always had a job. I tried to bring up my kids, not strictly, but they all had to help out. But I think the way in was brought up and the way I brought up my kids, not strictly, but they all had to help out. But I think the way I was brought up and the way I brought up my kids was good because they all turned out well, and all worked to put themselves through Uni. I'm very proud of my family.

    The generations have changed. These days you can't discipline your children because they can sue you. But with a good understanding they will respect their parents and listen to them and hopefully not go off the rails. I wouldn't like to be bringing them up tidy myself. Although things were tough in our days, a lot of kudos now don't respect their parents and just do what they want, and there are things like drugs and drink, so the only things you can do is trust and hope for the best.

    I do like the schooling kids get these days. But kids have so much given to them now that they don't really appreciate it. I always wanted my kids to have nice marriages and good jobs and I wanted better jobs for my kids, like office jobs at least. An office job in those days was a good job. My kids have had their own ideas, which haven't always been my ideas, but if they're happy, that's the main thing.

  4. Wow Reading this blog made me feel warm and teary Caroline. I was very surprised as you said that in your Nansen era it wasn't idealistic at all. She had it really tough!! It did remind me though of my parents stories of their upbringing in the 1950s. The children in their household had to do so many of the domeestic tasks.

    Unfortunately for my mother she was one of two and her sibling was a brother. I can see why both parents ended up not fussed on housework and instead preferred to put time into us children. Your blog has made me realize how easy our generation has it lol. Here I was complaining about no aircon.......try no mod cons at all lol