The best books about mother and baby homes and the unplanned babies that arrived

Esther Freud Author Of I Couldn't Love You More: A Novel
By Esther Freud

Who am I?

Aged eighteen and living in London my mother fell in love with an older man and was soon pregnant. Fearful of repercussions she kept the pregnancy secret from her Irish Catholic parents, and continued to keep this secret for many years. This was something I’d always known but it was only recently that I decided to investigate what happened to so many girls who went to the wrong people for help. What I found was devastating, and it gave me a greater understanding of the choices my mother made. I'm a writer who often draws on autobiographic material for my novels, plays, and stories. I like to feel a subject is truly mine.


I wrote...

I Couldn't Love You More: A Novel

By Esther Freud,

Book cover of I Couldn't Love You More: A Novel

What is my book about?

Aoife Kelly runs pubs with her brusque husband, Cash. Their courtship began in wartime London, before they returned to Ireland with their daughters. One daughter—fiery, independent-minded Rosaleen—moves back to London, where she meets and begins an affair with the famous sculptor Felix Lehmann, a German-Jewish refugee artist over twice her eighteen years. When Rosaleen finds herself pregnant, she's evicted from her flat, dismissed from her job, and desperate to hide the secret from her family. 

Meanwhile, Kate lives in present-day London with her young daughter and husband, an unsuccessful musician and destructive alcoholic. Adopted and floundering to find a sense of herself, Kate sets out to track down her birth mother, a search that leads her to a Magdalene Laundry in Ireland and the harrowing history that it holds.

The books I picked & why

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The Light in the Window

By June Goulding,

Book cover of The Light in the Window

Why this book?

I came across this memoir while researching Irish mother and baby homes for my own novel. June Goulding was a young midwife in the 1950s when she was hired by the Sacred Heart Convent in Cork.  Here she found girls,  some as young as 13, punished for the sin of being pregnant, forced to work, tarring roads, scrubbing floors, and rearing their children until they were handed over for adoption – in exchange for a donation to the church often without their consent. Thirty years later, haunted by what she was party to, Goulding tells the story of how she tried to relieve the suffering of these unfortunate women. 


The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers

By Angela Patrick,

Book cover of The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers

Why this book?

I was so struck by this candid memoir from Angela Patrick about what happened to her when she became pregnant in the early sixties at nineteen that it made me consider my mother’s lucky escape when the same thing happened to her. Both were Catholic and unmarried, but Patrick, unlike my mother, turned to her family for help and was exiled to a mother and baby home. It’s a tale of shame and sorrow, coldness and cruelty – and the scars that remain when a baby is given up.


Small Things Like These

By Claire Keegan,

Book cover of Small Things Like These

Why this book?

An exquisite, elegantly written book, I was moved by this story of a man whose illegitimacy was overlooked by his mother’s employer, allowing him to flourish and go on to have a thriving family of his own. Now it’s the night before Christmas and as the town prepares for the celebrations, he becomes aware that there are girls, hidden in plain sight, enduring agonies for the very ‘sin’ of which his own mother was ‘guilty.’ This is a book about community and our own individual responsibility. I read it only after I’d finished my own book on a similar subject and was inspired by its power and the lightness of its touch.   


The Heart's Invisible Furies

By John Boyne,

Book cover of The Heart's Invisible Furies

Why this book?

I listened to this book on Audible and was utterly captivated by the force and humour of the story. It’s written in a bravura style and starts with yet another pregnant teenage girl being denounced – this time by her priest, who strikes and kicks her and expels her from the parish. (We later learn he has fathered two children himself, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty.) But this is a story of survival and for the most part follows the life of her son, Cyril, and how he attempts to find his place in a country that refuses to accept there is such a thing as homosexuality. It’s funny, moving, and with a breadth of ambition that left me reeling. I particularly loved how, decades later, it shows how fundamentally Ireland has changed. 


The Millstone

By Margaret Drabble,

Book cover of The Millstone

Why this book?

I first read The Millstone as a teenager and was surprised by it, as I imagined the baby – illegitimate, unplanned – was the millstone of the title. But the book is in fact a pean to motherhood, how it sharpens and enriches life, how love, unimagined, can burst up and bring joy. I re-read this book as part of my recent research – and found it wittier, cleverer and more poignant than I’d remembered. A true feminist classic of its time, and ours.


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