Can Sudocrem take Ireland’s baby shame with it to Bulgaria?

Forthcoming legislation will strip birth mothers of any protection if they do not wish to be known or contacted

In March 2021 social workers reported to the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes that more than 50 per cent of birth mothers contacted as part of a search by an adoptive person do not wish to engage. Photograph: iStock

In March 2021 social workers reported to the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes that more than 50 per cent of birth mothers contacted as part of a search by an adoptive person do not wish to engage. Photograph: iStock

 

For decades the aroma of Sudocrem was one of the smells of parenting in Ireland, including foster parenting. Today, as Teva prepares to move 100 jobs from Baldoyle to Bulgaria, the pending legislation on access to birth information will affect parents and children long after the lingering whiff of Sudocrem has gone.

My mum started fostering in 1980, when I was a curious, uppity 13 year old. The grey tubs arrived along with babies who were barely days old. Both were destined to stay in our in-between home for about 12 weeks.

Meantime, somewhere fairly local, an unmarried mother had precisely that long to decide whether or not to give up her child for adoption.

A stream of newborns moved through our kitchen and through my early teenage years. I quickly became an expert nappy changer. Instructions for the application of Sudocrem were specified to engineering levels – a good smather for a bum with a persistent angry red rash, a dollop for the tamed and receding rash, and always a bit of a dab for the (usually) white as snow bum, as you never knew what kind of rash might be trying to take hold.

I could have come from the Sudocrem factory myself as I smathered away in a no-nonsense, no-fuss manner, in harmony with the no-frills and nothing-too-fancy tubs. Sudocrem had no pretensions. It was brought to our kitchen by the community nurse in a plastic bag, along with its great partner in crime – Gripe water, and various other fostering necessities: cloth nappies, big pins, plastic nappy covers, yellow babygrows and shame.

Shame

Children have no idea how much shame can be associated with a medium-sized plastic bag. For a long time I failed to notice how much tyranny and contempt came attached to the new pram that arrived with the first baby, and stayed for all the rest. Easily distracted by an infant’s engaging smile, I was oblivious to the secrets resolutely stitched by others into the seams of the yellow babygrows.

I made up a rhyme to help me remember the names in the order that the babies arrived, and felt very proud of my baby-minding skills. I was blasé about my abilities with days old babies and fragility, thinking more about Fame and MTV than where these babies were coming from, and where they went.

Now, with legislation pending that will give adoptees access to birth certificates and other information whether the birth mother agrees or not, I think about the birth mothers who live in fear of being hauled out of the shadows by an adult child, seeking reconnection with the body that gave them life.

Roderick O’Gorman, Minister for Children, has placed the rights of adoptees at centre stage, but what of the birth mother whose pregnancy was the result of an assault, by someone she knew, someone who is still part of her extended family?

Protection

The recently published Heads of Bill make it clear the forthcoming legislation will strip birth mothers of any protection if they do not wish to be known or contacted.

I picture a woman in Mayo, not much older than me, looking across the room at her husband, who has no idea she gave birth before he met her. And who would not have married her if he did. In those days, no one would have married her, or employed her. No birth mothers ever visited their babies in our kitchen. No unmarried fathers were ever mentioned. How many of them never knew, and still don’t know, they had a child? And how many did, and left for England in the morning, sealing the mother’s fate?

Back then, my family was fully integrated into the hiding of pregnancies, the hiding of babies and the forcing of some women deep into silent dark shadows. That silence has reached so far that in March 2021 social workers reported to the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes that more than 50 per cent of birth mothers contacted as part of a search by an adoptive person do not wish to engage. I imagine a loving husband smiling at his wife of 40 years, wondering why she is frowning at a headline in the newspaper, which she folds and puts away without reading, as she returns his smile.

The birth mums of the babies we fostered are likely to be under the age of 60. I wonder how many of the babies who peed onto my school uniform as I administered Sudocrem have tried to reconnect and how many birth mothers felt compelled to stay in hiding.

Perhaps, to compensate for the loss of 100 jobs in Baldoyle, Teva could take all our past sexual shame with it to Bulgaria, along with Sudocrem production. Perhaps someday the sexual shame that continues to blight consenting Irish adults, preventing open playful sober discussion about what gives us pleasure with our partner, could get a smathering of a magical Sudocrem and recede like a defeated rash.

Fiona Neary is an independent consultant working for more than 25 years in gender-based violence prevention. She has recently completed her first book, a memoir of growing up in a family that fostered more than 50 children.

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