What would it be like to write the story of your mother’s life? Amy Beeson has done just that, co-writing a book with her mother Sarah, who was awarded an MBE for her services to children and families in her work as a health visitor, and she says it has brought the two closer.
The book, The New Arrival, is Amy and Sarah’s first and is at the top of the Amazon and other charts. It was published by HarperCollins at the end of March, but the publicity campaign began several weeks earlier with Twitter parties and quizzes organised, a Facebook page and liaison with supportive reading groups.
“It’s been amazing,” says Amy who blogs on the Workingmums.co.uk site. “When we were putting it together I did not know if people would get the different layers I was trying to put into it. I wanted to do justice to my mum and justice to the era.”
The book tells the story of Sarah’s first years in nursing in Hackney in the late 1960s and early 1970s and depicts the politics of the time, from the rise of feminism to the appalling housing conditions many of the local residents lived in.
In order to get that period accuracy, Amy visited archives, listened to 70s music and went to the V & A to look at the clothing, to get a feel for the time.
Her mum was very particular about getting the nursing details correct and she says nurses who have read it have said they have really enjoyed it. Those who were nurses in the 70s said it felt like they were returning to the era.
Sarah wrote down her memories and then emailed them to Amy. The pair then worked together to craft Sarah’s story, changing names and details and amalagamating certain characters to protect their identities.
“There was a lot of going back and forth,” she says, “with me teasing things out. There were things I knew that she had not put in her notes that I had overheard from listening to her and other nurses.
I would work on the chapters and get on Skype to her and send her a paragraph.”
Amy says she wanted to convey how tough nursing was. Sarah worked incredibly long hours for little pay and many of the other trainees nurses dropped out.
Those who remained built up a strong sense of sisterhood. Although she was very young and finding her way, Sarah comes across as very responsible and brave, speaking up as a trainee about what she saw as abuse of elderly patients on one ward.
Her warmth and vocation for looking after people, particularly children, is clear as is her interest in justice and supporting the underdog, but the book is also a realistic portrait, including when Sarah made mistakes and got overly involved in cases or, for instance, her teenage sulkiness towards her parents who were reluctant for her to go into nursing. “It was so lovely to think of her as a person and not just as a mum,” says Amy. “She didn’t want to be put on a pedestal.”
Amy says she has always wanted to write a book and feels she was very lucky to have her mother to write it with. “We supported each other,” she says, adding that there were parts of the book which were very special, such as her mum’s meeting with her father at the Dorchester in London which occurred not long before he died.
“My mum talked about him with such love and detail. When we wrote that part, my mum said it was like my dad had been brought back to life. That was lovely.”
Amy says her mother is a huge advocate of the NHS and of all the various staff who worked in the hospital, but she admits that the treatment of children at the time was poor.
They only got to see their parents one to two hours a day, even the babies. There was also a lot of judgmental attitudes towards young girls who got pregnant or had abortions.
The book covers everything from the top-down relationship between doctors and nurses and the role of matrons to racism and the harrowing impact on Sarah of the first time she witnessed a mother die after childbirth.
However, some of the violence and abuse Sarah experienced is not elaborated on. “We didn’t want to exploit the details,” says Amy.
The book ends with Sarah starting work as a health visitor, a job she went on to devote the best part of her life to. Sarah chose health visiting because she loves healing, says Amy.
“She is interested in preventive health and health visiting also allowed her to build up long-term relationships with families.” In the 70s, it was very unusual for nurses to go into health visiting unless they had no children or until their children had grown up. Sarah was one of the youngest health visitors at the time.
She had Amy when she was 29 in 1981. Because Amy was premature and maternity leave was very short at the time, Sarah did not feel she could go back to work when her baby was just days old. “It was hard for my parents financially. She did some other educational work at a women’s prison before she returned to health visiting and took me with her,” says Amy.
The family moved to Stafford later and Amy remembers never being able to go into town on a Saturday without one of her mother’s patients saying hello to her or talking to her about their children.
“I was really proud of her,” she says. “She used to tell me, though, that health visitors have to remember when they visit families that they are the least important person in the room. They are there to listen. She was very aware of the need to support mothers.”
Amy has co-written a second biographical book about her mother’s first years in health visiting, She’s Arrived, and has been working as a copy editor with Sarah on a book of parenting tips, entitled Your New Arrival: learning to trust yourself and enjoy your baby. ”She believes this generation of parents is the best there has been and that parents work more as a team now which helps support the mother more. But she thinks they need to learn to trust themselves and be more confident,” she says.
Amy, whose background is in communications, wrote the book while looking after her own young daughter. “It was written all over the place, in cafes, in the park. I would work when she slept or in the evenings,” she says.
“I was in a cafe when I wrote about the maternal death. My mum still gets upset talking about that and I had tears running down my face when I wrote it. I was determined to be very authentic to what my mum said.”
*The New Arrival is published by HarperCollins, price £3.50. For more information about Amy, click here. For more information on the book, click here. If you want to find out more and chat with Sarah and Amy, they are holding a Facebook bookclub session tonight from 8-10pm. For more information, click here.