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

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 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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Light in the Window

Esther Freud Why did I love 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. 

By June Goulding,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Light in the Window as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I promised that I would one day write a book and tell the world about the home for unmarried mothers. I have at last kept my promise.'

In Ireland, 1951, the young June Goulding took up a position as midwife in a home for unmarried mothers run by the Sacred Heart nuns. What she witnessed there was to haunt her for the next fifty years. It was a place of secrets, lies and cruelty. A place where women picked grass by hand and tarred roads whilst heavily pregnant. Where they were denied any contact with the outside world; denied basic…

Book cover of The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers

Esther Freud Why did I love 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.

By Angela Patrick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1963, Angela Brown was 19, enjoying her first job working in the City of London, when her life turned upside down. A brief fling with a charismatic charmer left her pregnant, unmarried and facing a stark future. Not yet 21, she was still under the governance of her parents, strict Catholics who insisted she have the baby in secret and then put it up for adoption.

Forced to leave her job and her family, Angela was sent to a convent in Essex for her 'confinement'. Run like a Victorian workhouse, she was vilified by the nuns for her 'wickedness'.…

Book cover of Small Things Like These

Esther Freud Why did I love 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.   

By Claire Keegan,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked Small Things Like These as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize

"A hypnotic and electrifying Irish tale that transcends country, transcends time." —Lily King, New York Times bestselling author of Writers & Lovers

Small Things Like These is award-winning author Claire Keegan's landmark new novel, a tale of one man's courage and a remarkable portrait of love and family

It is 1985 in a small Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man faces into his busiest season. Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery which forces him…

Book cover of The Heart's Invisible Furies

Esther Freud Why did I love 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. 

By John Boyne,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Heart's Invisible Furies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Compelling and satisfying... At times, incredibly funny, at others, heartrending' Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit

Forced to flee the scandal brewing in her hometown, Catherine Goggin finds herself pregnant and alone, in search of a new life at just sixteen. She knows she has no choice but to believe that the nun she entrusts her child to will find him a better life.

Cyril Avery is not a real Avery, or so his parents are constantly reminding him. Adopted as a baby, he's never quite felt at home with the family that treats him more as…

Book cover of The Millstone

Esther Freud Why did I love 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.

By Margaret Drabble,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Millstone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A celebration of the drama and intensity of the mother-child relationship, published as a Penguin Essential for the first time.

It is the Swinging Sixties, and Rosamund Stacey is young and inexperienced at a time when sexual liberation is well on its way. She conceals her ignorance beneath a show of independence, and becomes pregnant as a result of a one night stand. Although single parenthood is still not socially acceptable, she chooses to have the baby rather than to seek an illegal abortion, and finds her life transformed by motherhood.

'Rosamund is marvellous, a true Drabble heroine . .…

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The Emerald Necklace

By Linda Rosen,

Book cover of The Emerald Necklace

Linda Rosen Author Of The Emerald Necklace

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Novelist Swimmer Public Speaker Reader Lover of gardens

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

It’s 1969. Women are fighting for equality. Rosalee, an insecure sculptor, and Fran, a best-selling novelist, have their issues. Will their bitter envy of each other and long-held secrets destroy their tenuous friendship? Or will Jill, Rosalee’s granddaughter, and the story behind her emerald necklace bind them together?

A multi-generational novel of friendship and frenemies, envy, and long-held secrets that explores current issues through a historical lens. The Emerald Necklace sheds light on that inevitable time when lovers, family, friends, and circumstances change and force you to reinvent yourself whether you want to or not.

The Emerald Necklace

By Linda Rosen,

What is this book about?

"Engaging and mysterious, The Emerald Necklace sheds light on that inevitable time when lovers, family, friends and circumstances change and force you to reinvent yourself whether you want to or not." –Rebecca Rosenberg, award-winning Champagne Widows series

Three months after her husband's death in 1969, Rosalee Linoff is determined to jump back into life.

For her, that means returning to her art. She desperately wants to be accepted as a talented sculptor, but that requires she dig up the courage to submit her work again - and be judged. Her paralyzing insecurity mounts when she meets her new neighbor, best-selling…

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