Dr Delyth Edwards

Understanding Life Story Work as Family Practice

Sociologist, Dr Delyth Edwards, shares insights from her research with women who grew up in a children’s home in Belfast between the 1940s and 1960s, and how Life Story Work becomes something shared with friends, family and children.

The Photograph: Life Story and Familial Memories

In late 2008, I set out on a journey to study for a PhD in Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast. The aim of my research was to explore the life histories of women who had grown up in a children’s home in Belfast, during the 1940s-1960s. I used the (auto)biographical interview to speak with 12 care-experienced women and to hear and learn about their lives.

But my journey into understanding care experience had begun long before. It was a journey that started in my childhood. You see, unlike most people, my mum doesn’t have much to offer in terms of visual resources to help tell stories about her younger self. She has just one photograph. This is because she is care-experienced. She grew up in a children’s home in Belfast, called Nazareth House. Below is the photograph, which was taken on the steps of the home, with her three older sisters.

Nazareth House was the children’s home I was researching for my PhD and I was interviewing women who had grown up there with my mum. For as long as I can remember, my mum always told us stories about her childhood, and what she always refers to as the “home”. I found such recollections intriguing as a child, largely because I was unable to associate it with my own childhood. It was this intrigue that led me to my research and eventually to my career as a Sociologist of Care Experience.

The importance of memories when there is absence

When I asked the participants of my doctoral research “so, tell me your life story”, some were able to construct a narrative about their lives, and others struggled. This can be down to problems with the method (as I’ve discussed elsewhere: Edwards 2017). But what I found was that some had previously worked on writing their stories and had conducted their own Life Story Work as adults, by accessing their care files and finding out about the parts of their story that they didn’t know. Others, including my mum, hadn’t done any sort of research and found this question difficult, largely because of the absences, the gaps and the unknowns of their stories.

When people have absences in their stories, they tend to borrow from wider, cultural or social memories or representations to help fill those gaps. This is what I found my participants doing. In the process of ‘storying’ their lives, they started to construct their memories and form their identities from wider cultural narratives of care experience. They would draw on wider discourses of tragedy or use characters from works of fiction, like, Little Orphan Annie:

I remember I used to stand at them gates every Thursday waiting for me
mother to come. You know like, like little Orphan Annie, you know.
(Linda Quoted in Edwards 2012 p.170)

 

The key thing about care experience, is that it is both a national heritage, but also a very personal story that a care-experienced person tells about themselves. Telling a story of care was very messy and complicated for my participants. Some of my participants had to do their own Life Story Work, to find out who they are, in unsupported ways that put them at risk of experiencing trauma. This should never be the case for any care-experienced person.

What my research shows is that it is important that young people in care today, are supported in finding out and knowing their stories, through Life Story Work in a trauma-informed way. Research suggests that having an ‘understanding of our history and the events that shaped, and continue to shape, our lives, is important to us all’ (Shotton 2010, p.62). But what is often forgotten in discussions around Life Story Work for young people in care is that stories are intergenerational. Life stories are passed on to others. My own inheritance demonstrates this and the views of young care-experienced participants who discussed their experiences of Life Story Work in Holland and Willis’ (2009) research also proves that young people in care who are engaged in Life Story Work think about the future use and purpose of it.

You actually get into it like when you want to tell your children and
it’s not from memory. As I say, you’ve got it written down. So if
you’re like 50 odd and you can’t remember and your son asks, ‘Ah,
where did we come from?’ you can say, ‘Oh there’s a book here,
there you go, blah, blah, blah, there’s some pictures, where I was
born.’
(Harry (15) Holland and Willis, 2009 p. 47)

 

Having stories to tell and photos or objects from childhood to show are significant for inheritance. This is why Life Story work for young people in care is important.

Life Story Work as a right

The stories that get told and re-told and inherited within families can be seen as a ‘family practice’. Sociologist, David Morgan, (2004, 2011) argued that a ‘family practice’ is a way of understanding families as what people do rather than as a static structure. Seeing family as a practice allows us to foreground the mundane routines and habits through which we make sense of and produce and reproduce family as a set of relationships (bathing our children, making and eating dinner, celebrating Christmas are examples of such practices). In a forthcoming chapter, Rosie Canning and I argue that storytelling is part of this way of ‘doing’ and ‘making’ family, and that telling life stories is an intergenerational practice. We argue that inheritance, including narrative inheritance for care-experienced people should be a right.

Memory and storytelling in the lives of children and young people in care is severely overlooked by the supposed ‘corporate parent’. One day, these children and young people, like my mum and my research participants, are going to grow up and construct a story about themselves from their memories of being in care and their inherited/absent memories. By looking at the experiences of older generations of care-experienced people, it is important to remember that the Life Story Work a child or young person in care does, will be something that they take with them into adulthood, that they will share with their friends, family and children and it will become part of their ‘family practice’. Life Story Work is not just about or connected to the young person’s past, it is entrenched in their present and future.

Find out how Creative Life Story Work can help care-experienced children and young people better understand their own stories: www.creativelifestorywork.com/about/what-is-creative-life-story-work

Edwards, D. (2012). Remembering the Home: The intricate effects of narrative inheritance and absent memory on the biographical construction of orphanhood. In Boesen, E.; Lentz, F.; Margue, M; Scuto, D. and Wagener, R. (eds). Peripheral Memories: Public and Private Forms of Experiencing and Narrating the Past. Transcript: Bielefeld

Edwards, D. (2013) The girls of Nazareth House, 1940-1960 : (auto)biographical understandings of care experiences and identities. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Queen’s University, Belfast.

Edwards, D. (2017). Cultural, Autobiographical and Absent Memories of Orphanhood: The Girls of Nazareth House Remember. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Edwards, D. and Canning, R. (forthcoming). The Story of the Pink Cat: How Care Experienced People navigate inheritance.

Morgan, D. (2004) Everyday life and family practices. In: E. B. Silva and T. Bennett (eds.) Contemporary Culture and Everyday Life. Durham: Sociology Press. p. 37-51.

Morgan, D. (2011) Rethinking Family Practices. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shotton, G. (2010). Telling Different Stories: The Experience of Foster/Adoptive Carers in Carrying Out Collaborative Memory Work with Children. Adoption & Fostering34(4), 61–68

Willis, R., & Holland, S. (2009). Life Story Work: Reflections on the Experience by Looked after Young People. Adoption & Fostering33(4), 44–52