The Stolen Child by Bernadette McBride

Thoughts on W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’ in the context of care experience, and a review of The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care by Maurice Fenton.

The Changeling, 1905 – Arthur Rackham

I had a coffee cup coaster once, emblazoned with the words “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild” – followed by the remaining lines from the first verse of W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’. It’s a poem I’ve always felt a deep connection to. The romantic changeling imagery; a child eloping hand in hand with a faery and escaping into a wilderness lit up by “moonlight glosses”. The biggest draw to the poem for me, however, was the line: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” which is repeated several times throughout. In Irish folklore changelings are traditionally understood as faeries who had been left in place of a human child or a baby who had been stolen by the faeries, often for one of three reasons; to act as a servant, for the faeries to receive the love of a human child, or for malice/revenge.[1]

Growing up in the 80s and 90s I was on the child protection register for over a decade and in and out of care on an often-weekly basis. My mother was suffering from chronic alcohol addiction and some days I would simply be left waiting at the school gates. The school secretary, would, after a certain amount of unacceptable time had passed and no one had come to collect me, ring social services to see if there was any emergency foster care available that night. If not, I would be sent to the local children’s home. I was often sent away for longer periods when things reached a crisis point, and in all honesty that was preferable to the not knowing, the instability, the crushing sense of rejection, and pitied looks from other mums at the school gates. I don’t think social services would have handled that situation the same way now, I hope not.

At such a young age, I did not understand the complexities of addiction, and struggled to cope living with such day to day uncertainty, my primary school finished at 3:10pm, a time on the clock which left an indelible mark on my physiology for many years into adulthood, as my body physically recalled the fear I had felt over whether I would be collected or not. Whenever the clock struck ten past three, I would often feel cold and anxious – trauma has its own circadian memory it would seem.

In the playground one day, I was wearing a ponytail, and some other children started pointing and laughing at my ears (they both have a slight point at the tip), and they said that I must be a pixie. I imagined that perhaps I myself was a changeling, separated from my real faery family – it would explain a lot – perhaps my mother had drunk because her human child had been snatched away from her and I had been left in its place. I dreamt about the mythical land I might belong to. At this point I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton as a form of escapism, and The Magic Faraway Tree was one of my favourites. In my head I developed a dream world – my own version of Blyton’s stories, where I was a faery child returned back to my rightful land, and I had a home of my own in an alternative faraway tree, which though faraway was always stable.

For me living within my imagination became a form of survival. Often answering a teacher whilst talking to an imaginary character in my head simultaneously. Today as a writer, even if I’m in an important meeting, I’m usually half in a dream world too, because it is how my brain developed throughout my formative years.

I believe my connection to the poem ‘The Stolen Child’ and my care experience stems from the line “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” as I related it to myself in two ways. Firstly, that I had been taken away by social services as I could not “understand” the sorrow, suffering and complexities of my mother’s addiction issues. Secondly, in a more dreamlike vision, I was the child in the poem, saved by the faeries, and taken away from a traumatic life, as quite understandably “the world’s more full of weeping” than I could understand.

Many years later I was doing some research for my self-help book Roots: The Eco-journal (pub. The Green Guild, 2018), when I came across a book by Maurice Fenton entitled The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care. I was stunned to see a book with the title of Yeats’s poem and children in care on the front page together. I immediately ordered a copy, and he kindly sent me an extra book to give to anyone else who might need it. Maurice, also a care experienced author, had felt a connection between the poem and care experience and made it the basis of his book.

In the dedication page Maurice includes a verse from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W. B. Yeats:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

On why he chose it, Maurice informs the reader that he is no “great aficionado of poetry” but that he believes the poem resonates with the sense of loss he has experienced for the young people he has known who died whilst still involved in the care system, or after leaving care.[2] Maurice points out, that the poem has often been understood as a metaphor for a “return to innocence” and childhood. A fantasy world and the real world depicted and sharply contrasted alongside each other throughout the poem, not dissimilar to the double-edged world inside my head as a young child.

In the first chapter – Belonging, Maurice analyses ‘The Stolen Child’ in several ways. Touching upon the role of the “cultural meaning-making” stories of faeries and “other world” entities, he examines how such lore is embedded in the psyche of Irish folk. My own family on my maternal side originate from Ireland, and care experience within the family goes back over one hundred years, dating back to a 1900 Irish workhouse and a presumed single mother. My mum’s mum was the youngest of a dozen plus children, some died in infanthood, some were removed into the care of The Christian Brothers or The Sisters of Mercy in Ireland due to financial hardship. When my nan became pregnant at sixteen with my mum, unmarried and alone, her parents guided her towards placing her child in the path of care experience also. She was pressured into going to a Mother and Baby home and to give my mum up for adoption, she changed her mind and escaped the home at the last minute. But after that life was very difficult for them, my nan was looked down on by her Irish Catholic parents and society for her decision.

The writer Sydney J. Harris said, “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.” Her tough start in life affected my mum and she started drinking at a young age as a coping mechanism, then she had us and the care experience cycle began again. In his first chapter on belonging, Maurice speaks of identity formation, and says “It is partly the personal narrative that connects us to each other and creates a sense of belonging.” It is this sense of a personal narrative – a story, a history I can clearly trace – which, in an absurd way still gives me a sense of belonging. As although my story is one of inherited trauma, I am connected to a thread of women who consistently carried on trying to survive their difficulties despite the many obstacles placed in their way.

For Maurice, he is drawn to Yeats’s poem for not just the folklore aspect, and its link to identity formation, but the sense of “pain, loss and sadness” it evokes. Maurice lost his father at the age of 12 and in his book describes how it took many years to come to terms with the loss. Maurice says, “He was stolen from me and also from the promise of his own life he had worked hard to create.” For me, the sense of loss in ‘The Stolen Child’ symbolises not only the loss of childhood, but the loss of stable relationships in infancy, and the loss of my mother who died in my 20s to a progressive illness, after finally getting sober years earlier. It was as though I had lost her twice in my life. When she died, I grieved too for the relationship which had been lost before, in childhood, which could now never be retrieved.

In Chapter 2 – Feelings, Emotions and Objectivity, Maurice discusses the link between a lack of “care” in the care sector, with children often being led to feel as though they themselves are just an object. In situations where there is often a lack of love, empathy and compassion offered by care givers or as some say, “corporate parents”. Factors such as political influence and language are key to how a child can be led to feel about themselves and the world around them and their part in it and sense of belonging, or not. Maurice refers to a potential connection between “the demotion of the relevance of feelings and emotions and the apparent ambivalence exhibited by many professionals with regard to child and adolescent mental health issues.”

In a growing climate of privatized care for vulnerable children and young people and outsourcing via agencies, I personally feel that the emotional safety of our young people in care is in great jeopardy. When money and funding has more of an attachment to an at-risk child than good, compassionate care, this becomes an urgent concern. As in Maurice’s own words it is relationshipswhich “are the currency and productof social care.”

Maurice writes as a person who has both lived experience of being in care and as a professional in social care in his native Ireland. His book offers unique insights into the importance of truecare for young people, and with an emphasis on the transformative power of relationships and interconnectedness. The use of the poem ‘The Stolen Child’ works well as a metaphor for a sensitive exploration of lives and opportunities “stolen” from the most vulnerable young people in society today and past. His aligning of the emotional and mental processes of care experienced folk alongside an exploration of the works of Jung, Nietzsche, and Kafka to name a few, makes for a nuanced and philosophical reading.

The book ends with a feeling of hope and resilience – and it is these two attributes that have carried me forward in my own life (both other-worldly and real) … I still believe there is a small chance I could have been a changeling…  but until the day I’m called back to the faery kingdom, I guess I’ll never know…

Maurice Fenton’s book The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care is available on Amazon. Related quotes throughout essay body taken directly from the book.

Bernadette McBride is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and the author of Roots: The Eco-journal(pub. The Green Guild, 2018). In 2019 she was awarded ‘The Biggest Impact on the City of Liverpool’ by the Liverpool Guild for her work in the community teaching creative writing linked to nature and wellbeing.

Follow Bernadette on Twitter: @b_mmcbride

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