She was described as ‘mentally difficult’, a description that could apply to parts of my own life and maybe yours too? But, was she already mentally difficult or did she become that way because they wouldn’t return her children?
I first read the phrase ‘mentally difficult’ on my grandfather’s 1924 Victorian State Ward Card only a few weeks ago, and it’s taken root in my brain, bouncing about and demanding to be recognised. This was part of a description of his mother and, I think, a polite way for the describer to say, ‘I’m finding relations with this person challenging’.
I like this better than the labels we slap on mentally difficult people these days, accusing the wearer of being or having one thing or another. It places the onus back on the describer rather than the described.
In Australia in 1924, my great-grandmother was in trouble because she was mentally difficult, a woman, pregnant, caring for many children, homeless and penniless. Add to this an abusive drunkard jailed husband and there was no help for her, but the children wouldn’t be destitute.
The Neglected Children’s Act 1915 (and subsequent amendments) meant the Victorian Government was on the job. Or at least, our civilisation recognised the need for a central body to oversee the care of ‘neglected’ children. In theory this is fantastic, of course. In practice in 1924, it was an arduous task to oversee the vast number of neglected children. Any help that alleviated that burden was considered a blessing.
Frankly if I wasn’t already mentally difficult, I soon would be if my children were kept from me.
But what does ‘mentally difficult’ mean in 1924?
Knowing the answer to this could provide answers to other questions thrown up by my family history research. One of them is the big mystery of my great-grandmother and her actions that affected so many people, and still do today.
The mystery is still unfolding; that’s the nature of family research. Once upon a time, my grandfather was an orphan, and then he wasn’t. We didn’t know his name or his parents, and then we did. His six siblings were lost and then we found them, and then we found more; seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
His mother was married before his father and after too, and many suitors came calling when she was young; yes we discovered much colour in her life.
My great-grandmother, who we’ll call Esme for the purposes of this blog, changed her name many times through marriage, on birth certificates and seemingly willy nilly. I’ve always thought her actions were deliberate, until now; I thought, that’s how you survive in 1924 as a mother protecting her young.
However, what if ‘mentally difficult’ means more than struck by grief or post-natal depression? These two conditions can change, I know from first hand experience, but what if ‘mentally difficult’ was a permanent condition? Today Esme would’ve had swathes of options, support and help, and from people she didn’t even know. But back then, Esme was abandoned too.
The ‘mentally difficult’ phrase has caused me to rethink the first section of my book, ‘Abandoned’. One whole chapter, at least, needs to change – heck the whole flavour of the book needs to change. The villainous abandonment of the children and subsequent lives they had may well lay at the feet of the ‘system’ and not the parents at all.
This is what happens when you write and research at the same time. However, you must still write and research (at the same time) because if you stop writing, you might get it wrong and if you stop researching, you might not get it at all.
Cliche time – back to the drawing board.
To search for Victorian state ward or adoption records, please visit Family Information Networks and Discovery, Human Services.
For information and history of Australian orphanages, children’s homes and other institutions, please visit Find & Connect (please note, some people may be distressed by information found on this website).