Few poems capture the primal and profound experience of being someone’s child, or growing one, than Marie Howe’s ‘My Mother’s Body’.

heart and her breathing, her voice, which I could dimly hear,

grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said.

Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing

the pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings,

rain, moonlight, snow fall, dogs.”

This week, when Social Democrats TD for West Cork Holly Cairns said “I think the Government is severely underestimating the strength of feeling on this issue and the support the survivors have from the general public”, she was on the money.

She was referring to the Government’s redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby institutions, currently passing through Dáil Éireann, which excludes approximately 24,000 people or 40% of survivors, including children who spent less than six months in one of these ‘homes’.

On this near century-long issue of mother and baby institutions, we have had revelations, reports, commissions, state apologies, remarks in the Dáil, statements from religious orders, films, plays on the school curriculum, inconclusive conclusions, radio and TV debates, legislation, and an incomplete redress scheme.

But most importantly, we have the experiences, feelings, and responses of survivors of these institutions — parents and children.

Social Democrats TD for Wicklow Jennifer Whitmore specifically queried in the Dáil last week how the six-month stipulation ever got signed off on.

“Will the Tánaiste explain why the six-month rule was put in place?” she asked. “Does he believe that whatever happens to a baby under six months old does not matter, or that the baby does not feel the trauma of what happened to him or her under six months old?”

Speaking at the Oireachtas committee on children, equality, disability, integration, and youth this week, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said the scheme was “designed to ensure that former residents do not have to bring forward evidence of trauma”.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O'Gorman TD.
Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O'Gorman TD.

“The best way we can do that is through proof of time spent,” he said.

In the current world of maternity care you hear so much about skin-to-skin contact, “the golden hour”, and the vital importance of connecting a newborn with the flesh of its parent once they’ve been delivered. The practice is actively promoted. 

The National Maternity Hospital, in its advice to partners, even suggests that they wear “front-opening shirts or tops” as they “are ideal for skin-to-skin contact with your baby”.

Another name for this practice is “kangaroo care”.

Scientifically, skin-to-skin contact does things such as regulate the baby’s heart rate, breathing, and temperature, helping them to better adapt to life outside the womb.

 It also “enables colonisation of the baby’s skin with the mother’s friendly bacteria, thus providing protection against infection”, according to Unicef.

If a tiny newborn is separated from its mother and is in neonatal intensive care, and the mum is allowed to hold her baby at any stage, the practice improves oxygen saturation, reduces cortisol levels, and assists with growth.

Vitals aside, there is attachment, where a baby’s main psychological goal in its first year of life is to hopefully develop a sense of trust: “I cry, or have a need, and my primary attachment figure responds to me in an attuned and predictable way.”

Not all the time, but enough of the time. Said simply, psychologists refer to it as an infant knowing which “side your bread is buttered on”.

There is always repair, but these are the vital and primal acts of our earliest days, and they start long before we reach six months of age.

Where babies and children cannot self-soothe or regulate their emotions, they look to us, an adult, to co-regulate. They hopefully can borrow our calm in their distress.

If this is regularly unavailable, these clever little beings will find their own adaptations.

In 2011, when former tánaiste Joan Burton recounted her own adoption at two years of age she said: “I reached out to Bridie from my cot with my bandaged fingers, and it was love at first sight on both our parts.”

The bandages, she said, “were to stop me sucking my thumbs and finger”.

Another thing, Ms Burton said, was a line from her adoptive mother, Bridie, that had always stuck in her head: “Children, she said, died like flies in those places.”

Financial cost

And now it’s about money — the cost of not discriminating against our people who were failed by our State at their most vulnerable time — at childbirth or in early life.

This week, €4bn was transferred into the National Reserve Fund by the exchequer.

On Wednesday, O’Gorman told an Oireachtas committee that it would cost an extra €300m to include all survivors of mother and baby institutions in the redress scheme — this was in response to the growing backlash to the exclusion of 24,000 people.

An extra €300m to go some way towards redressing an issue that began in 1925, when the first institution opened its doors.

“The Government is saying that this is basically some sort of charitable donation on their part, by saying ‘look, we have to balance the tax bill and sure we can’t give everybody money as a result of that,” Ms Cairns said on RTÉ’s Upfront with Katie Hannon on Monday night.

There’s a sense that this country and its people are not necessarily behind nor swayed by the Government’s apparent financial prudence on this particular occasion.

Perhaps it has something to do with the profound nature of the issue — that of the relationship between mother and child, or in this case, the disruption and severing of that primal bond.

It is a bond that transcends the balancing of books, debates in houses of parliaments and commissions of investigation.

“Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers, our voice in my throat speaking to you now,” concludes Marie Jose’s poem.

Let us please respect and show the utmost of care for the survivors of these institutions as they speak to us now, and on behalf of those no longer alive to do so.

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