Monday, 16 April 2012

A letter to my Great-Great-Grandmothers

Dear Great-Great-Grandmother Kate and Great-Great-Grandmother Margaret
You don’t know me.  You unfortunately didn’t live to the ripe old ages of 102 and 103 to see my birth.  Even if you had, I don’t suppose I would have made much of an impression as you would each have had over a hundred descendants by then and I would no doubt have been lost in the crowd of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.  Presumably, no matter how much you love your family, there comes a point when you entirely lose interest in any new arrivals. Probably around the time you run out of space on the mantelpiece for baby photos.

But let’s just imagine for a moment that you did notice me.  And that you read my blog.  What would you think? 
Great-Great-Granny Kate – you gave birth to fifteen children from thirteen pregnancies, twelve of whom survived infancy.  When your husband passed away, you had six children under the age of seven. 

Great-Great-Granny Margaret – you had sixteen children, including three sets of twins.  Ten of them survived infancy. 
By the age at which I had given birth to my first child, you had both given birth to nine.

I would like to ask you a single question. 
How did you do it? 

I have no idea how you did anything other than sit under the table, quietly rocking back and forwards.  Perhaps letting out the occasional whimper. 
You didn’t have washing machines.  You didn’t have disposable nappies.  You didn’t have online shopping or supermarket deliveries.  You didn’t have CBeebies, Jumperoos, shiny plastic toys. You didn’t even have fish fingers for goodness sake! 

I assume you were breastfeeding pretty much constantly for around two decades apiece.  Given the multiple births and small age gaps, you were probably nursing more than one child at various times.
I have precisely two children.  One of them isn’t even mobile.  And yet I have somehow spent nearly two hours running up and down the corridor between two bedrooms as it became increasingly obvious that my attempt to get both children to nap at the same time was inevitably going to end with neither of them remotely near sleep.  Seriously.  If sleep were at the south pole, then Thomas and Ben would be kicking around somewhere in the Arctic Circle.  Well maybe Scandinavia for Ben, but Thomas definitely in the Arctic.

Now there’s a thought….
Anyway.  You with twenty-two children between you.  Me with two.  And yet both of you lived long and healthy lives and were, by all accounts, much loved and respected by your offspring.  I have heard nothing to suggest that you had both been driven utterly demented by the end of your child-raising careers, or that you were suffering the parental equivalent of shell-shock, where the mere sound of a baby whimpering or a toddler whinging was enough to send you hurtling for the nearest cupboard to barricade yourselves in until the danger had passed.

Please.  Tell me how you did it.  Or at least reassure me that you too spent a fair proportion of your life yelling and waving your arms, or jumping up and down like a particularly angry grasshopper.  That the back streets of late nineteenth century Tyneside occasionally echoed with cries of “Ifyoudothatonemoretimethereisgoingtobetrouble!” or “Whatexactlydoyouthinkyouaredoing?"

 Please tell me that there were days when you issued so many empty threats that you even got bored with yourself.  Days when you answered every repetitive question, every utterance of “Whyyyyyyy?” with “If you ask that one more time my head is going to explode.”  Days when you replied to any random passing elderly lady’s comment of “Oh, isn’t he sweet,” with “Would you like him?  You can have him.  Right now.  Please.”
Please tell me that sometimes your husbands had only made it as far as the doormat when they had a child thrust at them with the words “Take him away.  Right.  Now.”

Please tell me that you didn’t have all the answers back then, in the days when it took a village to raise a child and when the village didn’t spare the rod, anymore than we do now in the age of parenting forums, Supernanny and the NCT.
Because that is how I want to imagine you both.  Not smiling and serene and surrounded by immaculate, impeccably-behaved offspring.  But only just stemmimg the chaos.  Constantly one explosive poo away from a nervous breakdown. 

But getting there. 
Occasionally waving, rather than drowning.  Seeing the funny side.  Exchanging a wry smile and a roll of the eyes when you passed each other in the street, dragging the screaming toddlers who were destined to become my great-grandparents (and cause a whole load more trouble of a different sort, but that is another story and shall be told another time) behind you.

Getting there.  One disaster at a time.
Love  and utmost respect from your just-about-surviving-the-carnage Great-Great-Grandaughter


  1. This made me laugh! I often wonder how women did it. In a world before antibiotics, painkillers, and hoovers, too. Respect.

  2. Oh yes, hoovers. I forgot about hoovers. But then again, they probably didn't have breakfast cereals that congealed to the floor if not immediately hoovered up...

  3. I have often wondered how I, mother of two, would have coped in my great grandmother's day, when most women were expected to just "get on with it." This was beautifully written and displayed. I love the pictures.

  4. Do you think they were made of sterner stuff than us, or was it just that they couldn't imagine any role other than homemaking and childraising?

  5. My great grandmother gave birth to 22, of which 10 survived infancy. Amazing women!

  6. How on earth did they do it? They can't have had a minute to themselves. We have a fraction of the number of kids and so much stuff to help us, yet there still don't seem to be enough hours in the day....Next time I feel like a moan I will think about your post!

  7. Well, posting this clearly hasn't given me much perspective. There has been a whole load of shouting this morning already!