Posted by: alexhickey | May 11, 2015

Born Together ©

Women and children walking along a gravel road.

Young Women with Children on a Sunday Stroll .
Photo courtesy of Louisa (Fudge) Healey.

Pregnancies in St. Jacques and probably other similar communities during the 1950’s and 60’s seemed to be a communal occurrence among the younger families. One can chart the children of any number of families of that era on a time grid and see considerable overlap from year to year. The marriages didn’t all have to begin at the same point in time. For instance, I am but a couple of months older than our neighbour’s second child and a few weeks younger than another neighbour’s fourth child.

This pattern of the children in larger families correlating by birth year is in many ways a product of the employment history of such communities where the men worked away from home for great stretches of time and returned home at predictable times of the year. One can examine birth records and see the relationship between month of birth and work histories in families.

In any given year there were numerous mothers whose pregnancies overlapped resulting in a cluster of births and a group of children who are able to identify with being born in the same year, some within weeks of one another. This is handy and valuable occurrence later in life when one is reminiscing or attempting to reconstruct family relationships and birth orders. One can imagine a conversation which goes something like this:

Clara: Now, how old do you suppose John is?

Julia: I allow he’s close to Bob’s age.

Clara: Yes, I allow he is. Come to think of it, they were both born the same year. John was born in the middle of June and Bob in the first part of July, that summer. I know that because that’s the year I was between my second and third one. Now, my second one is thirty-eight and the third is thirty-six. So John must be thirty-seven. Her other child Bernice was born the next year. She’s the same age as my third one, Trudy. And that was the same year Jane had her twin of girls. I remembers that as clear as day because old Mr. Browne was being waked in the church that night when we got the news that she’d had twins.

Julia: That’s right, he was born the same year Bessie had Blanche. She and John started school together. My goodness, how the time flies.

Clara: Yes my dear, they were all born together and they all left home together.

Not only were lateral age relationships noticeable among us, so too were the number of children in each family. The anomalies were families with merely two or three offspring. The norm in our neighbourhood was larger with some of us enjoying five siblings, others several more and a few families with thirteen children. Those are full term, surviving children, with unsuccessful pregnancies not being factored in. An old friend of mine observed to us during an afternoon visit several years ago that at one point in his lifetime as a parent, between the Barachoix Point and Cellar Hill there were 30 children. Today there are but two in the same area.

Larger families viewed from a distance seems a bit overwhelming to some for it is difficult using today’s measures to fathom how eight or more children could be raised in the one household in addition to the presence of one or more elderly grandparents under the same roof. It does seem daunting at first, however, as many people who survived such large numbers under a single roll will attest, we raised each other up. By the time the youngest was born some of the earlier born children were old enough to have left home in pursuit of post-secondary education or employment, thus removing some of the pressure. In fact, may large family members speak of ‘two families’ within one. The older siblings tend to be seen as a single cluster and the younger as another.

Often, the two describe upbringings which are distinctly different from one another. That difference of experience can be attributed to changing economic circumstances as one or more of the parents get better established in their careers/employment and are able to enjoy better income levels. A second factor is related to the maturation of parents who learn quite a bit of ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’ raise children from their early experiences with child rearing. It’s a testament to the old adage that you learn to be a parent by being a parent. Over a twenty to twenty-five year period of raising children many changes occur, including the departure of older siblings, leaving the younger ones to bond with a much smaller family group.

The fortunate families are those whose children are able to reach across age differences and coalesce a unit beyond the efforts of their parents. They are able to experience the highs and lows of aging as a group of adults, sometimes with an enormous degree of empathetic support. I have met people who’ve told me they have older brothers and sisters whom they’ve only seen once or twice in their lifetime. That is saddening yet reality for many.

Having friends, extended family members and acquaintances of the same age as you in your hometown makes for interesting get-together’s when quite divergent versions of the same events are shared from different perspectives. We grow to appreciate the complexities of our lives otherwise never known. It also heightens the sense of loss when one of that group passes on. It becomes, a ‘there but for the grace of god, go I’ type of scenario.

Community history is told and retold during gatherings when someone inquires about another person’s age. As relationships are unfolded and more names are tossed into the conversation an organic oral history lesson emerges complete with storytelling, reminiscences, and sometimes facts. Conversations like that ground us in our family histories, community histories and reinforce for us a sense of place and belonging. That is as true of urban neighbourhoods as in rural remote towns. Yet, being able to think through a roster of people who were born in or around the same year as you, whom you can not only call by name, but can call upon throughout your life as friends, speaks volumes about being born into close-knit communities of people.

We know each other by who we are, who our parents are and the order of our birth within those families. We identify people we know to others by establishing who else that person may know from the family across generations. Each time it happens the thread across time and space gets stronger, forging deeper respect and affection. That strength of knowing builds nations and if we as Newfoundlanders are not a nation, then who are we?
Strollers replaced baby carriages as our family grew. By the time the youngest of my siblings had arrived the brushed aluminum frame of the post-war’ ‘pram’ (short for perambulator) with its plastic waterproof lining, white rubber tires and its own suspension system of stretchy springs, had given way to a much simpler folding vehicle, the stroller. I can only assume that as space became a premium in the house the larger ‘pram’ was viewed with an eye to how much space it occupied. Another contributing factor to its demise was the extended use it received by friends and extended family members when not in use with one of my siblings. That old carriage must have been quite durable and built to last for I find it hard to imagine how many miles it travelled on the roads in St. Jacques until it finally shuddered and collapsed!

During its service it was often used to push one child while another was in gestation, waiting for its turn to enjoy the bumpy ride along those dusty gravel roads. Baby carriages were more plentiful than cars in those days and in some houses doubled as a bed during the night for one whose legs weren’t too long to fit inside.

There are two views of the world from a baby carriage; from the perspective of the person doing the pushing and from the inside looking out. From the latter, it seems now that most of the mothers in St. Jacques during the fifties and sixties were perpetually pregnant for as soon as a carriage occupant got old enough to appreciate being ‘ambulated’ it was time to relinquish the carriage to the next in line. As toddlers we found our friends of the same age and forged life-long relationships which today are still as vibrant and interesting as they were back then. Along the way a few have fallen out of the carriage and are missed by us all.

Mothers who are able to look back on those formative family years and filter life’s events through the lens of who else was born each year must share a collective ownership of the community, a shared knowing and means of documenting and measuring the passage of time deeply rooted in the spiritual and physical experiences of childbirth and parenting. I know that being able to see oneself as a lateral slice of time in the long heritage of a single community and its people is a comfort of belonging beyond mere words to capture and communicate.


A few related links for exploration:

The Baby Stroller: A Visual History

The Evolution of Baby Strollers Will Make You Appreciate Every Mom In History

The Pram

Million-dollar babies: The cost of raising a child

Two-child families becoming the norm in Canada

Parenthood, child-rearing and fertility in England, 1850 – 1914 by Siân Pooley, Pembroke College , Cambridge , UK. Published online: 29 May 2013

The Cost of Raising Children

The Changing Face of Motherhood


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