Introduction

Birth Companions is a charity supporting pregnant women and new mothers experiencing inequality and disadvantage. In 2018, we formed a lived experience team and through our engagement work, seek to create platforms and opportunities for women to share lived experience. We approach this work in a trauma informed way. Engagement is meticulously planned, mindful, caring, and respectful. In 2022 we joined forces with Dr Laura Abbott and her team at Hertfordshire University to examine how women and professionals involved with the criminal justice system experience enforced separation of newborn babies.

The Lost Mothers team is a powerhouse of strong women with voluntary sector, academic and lived experience of the criminal justice system. It is vital to value everyone’s contributions to the research equally and here, we meet, no sense of hierarchy, a level ground. We are all passionate about improving women’s experiences, influencing policy and practice, and creating systemic change. We value one another and we value the time to come together here. The environment we meet in is important, with a strong emphasis on well-being, showing care and love for one another. For the next three days we will be nurtured through nature, good healthy sustenance, and each other’s company.

Monday 20th May 23, day one

We arrive at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park on a beautiful sunny day, full of expectations and excitement. We marvel at the magnificent house and countryside around us. The venue was chosen because it is relaxed and serene, the perfect location for a writing retreat. It offers room to breathe, a break from the everyday. As we come together, one of the group said she felt her shoulders drop and the weight lift, as she left London behind.

After a delicious lunch, followed by fresh fruit and cheese served on the lawn, we check into rooms and make our way to ‘The Hodgeson Room.’ This will be our creative space for the coming days. Today, we are joined by Beci Ward, live artist, who is going to capture our words and create illustrations from our conversations and experiences. We are keen to express ourselves in a variety of creative ways during the retreat and today we think about the artistic genre. After welcoming everyone to the retreat, we review our ‘working together agreement,’ talk about confidentiality, safe spaces, and respect. Throughout the afternoon we talk about the journey since the project began, and we draw out themes from the research. We think about lived experience, how we have worked together since the very beginning and how much this is valued. Birth Companions and the Lost Mothers project leads the way with this approach. Our values and ethos are based on the principles of a trauma informed approach, trust, safety, collaboration, choice, and empowerment being the key tenets. Women share experiences of poorly managed lived experience projects, leaving them feeling disempowered and their stories disrespected. We talk about how this project is different and how women feel empowered. We move from one topic to another, free to talk and share, with space for thinking and exploring a multitude of subjects, all related to pregnancy, motherhood, challenges, systems, and processes, exploring how we can create change and how we can change the narrative. As we close for the day, a group of us share a walk together in nature, trees, birds, fresh air. We chat, laugh and drink in the peace and tranquility.

We meet for dinner. At Birth Companions the giving and sharing of food is a way to express love and appreciation for each other and to foster bonds. After eating, we retire for the night exhausted, but with a sense of excitement about the days to come.

Tuesday 21st May, day two

This morning marks the first ever Lost Mothers podcast recording. We tentatively navigate the technology and share ideas, then we dive in, and just talk. We are good at talking! Women speak openly about the challenges of being mothers in prison, pregnancy, birth, separation, mother and baby units, difficult experiences shared openly and honestly, explored in a safe space. We trust one another. We explore questions like why did you join the project? What is important about the project? What are your hopes for the future? We finish with a cheer and celebrate a milestone. One podcast down, hopefully many more to come. Together we will share, learn, influence, inspire and give women hope. We review transcripts from research interviews, what have the research team found? What are women experiencing right now? We explore questions and solutions, what can we do? What needs to change?

In the afternoon we have free time for creativity and when we re-join, women share writing, poetry, a rap, and we celebrate the incredible talents of the group. We finish by reflecting on the day, sharing thoughts and opinions. Dinner tonight is lively, we feel motivated and united, a shared sense of purpose. Spending time together is enriching, and inspiring. We turn in for the night, keen for sleep, ready to rest ahead of the final day.

 Wednesday 22nd May, day three

We wake up to light rain, but it does not dampen our spirits! After a hearty breakfast we make our way to the Hodgeson room for our final morning. We share more creative efforts and reflect on our time together, what we have enjoyed and what we have achieved. We write things down and stick them on a thought board.

Love, connections, belonging, collaboration, no hierarchy, inclusivity, fun, laughter, conversation, food & bonding, lovely team, women being women together, what I call therapy, we have made some lovely memories.

Mid-morning members of the Clean Break Theatre Company arrive for the first reading of a play written by playwright Gurpreet Bhatti, entitled ‘Scenes from Lost Mothers.’ We were all interviewed by Gurpreet and shared lived experience, research and information about motherhood in prison. We wait with anticipation as the actors and director set up and briefly rehearse. A short time later, we arrived for the reading. It is an incredible performance, raw, real, emotional, and overwhelming. Afterwards we take some time to take a breath and gather ourselves, all visually impacted by the performance. We share feedback in a circle, which is heartfelt and affirming. The play delivers on the message we intended.

We enjoy lunch together, a larger group for our final meal, feeling the warmth of the company of so many wonderful women and then bid our farewells. As we journeyed home, lots of food for thought and a little sadness, that this time had come to an end. It has been an incredible three days. Next time, and we all hope there will be a next time, we would all love just a little longer….

Kate Chivers

Birth Companions