In December 2009 I went to a talk given by Germaine Greer entitled ‘Forty Years of Fun with Feminism’. At one point, reflecting on the little girls besotted with pink in her own family, she suggested, only half in jest, it seemed, that maybe their all-pink fashionable outfits were this new generation’s way of stating tribal allegiance: the latest expression, if you will, of Girl Power. I’m afraid I will not. There was an equally shocked frisson from the audience. The commonest interpretation of course, far removed from hers, is that all those over-pinked girls are victims of the consumerist machine.
Personally I never liked pink much as a child (although I sometimes wear it now). In fact, it’s a joke in my family – now comic because of its sheer tedious, reflexive repetition by one or other family member – that in spring I recoiled even at those lovely, prolific rainshades of cherryblossom. So, with hints of a rainbow spring burgeoning around me in the UK, my thoughts turn to their rosy tints again.
Even in babies, colour preferences are complicated. Dr Anna Franklin, latterly of the Surrey Baby Lab and now leading the equivalent set-up at the University of Sussex, is still investigating the thorny issue of gendered colour preferences. What she does already know is that these are not just about colour (‘hue’ is the technical term) but about its degree of saturation and lightness. Chloe Taylor, Karen Schloss, Stephen E. Palmer and Anna Franklin (Colour preferences in infants and adults are different, in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, February 2013) noted that ‘infants had a stronger “looking preference” [i.e. they looked for longer, more intently] for dark yellow, and a weaker preference for light blue than did adults’.
It seems that there are blue-yellow colour encoding channels in our eyes and red-green ‘cone opponents’ – and that infants look longest at reddish, and for least time at greenish, hues. Observing looking preferences in infants of both sexes, Dr Franklin backs this up. She’s discovered that they tend to look longest at blue, red, purple and orange and the shortest time at brown. Grey’s not popular, either.
Colour likes and dislikes seem to vary from baby to baby, though. And they don’t seem to be linked either to culture (e.g. Chinese children don’t automatically prefer red because in China it’s considered lucky) or to the learning of language (with children preferring colours whose names they can get their tongues round most easily).
Dr Nicola Pitchford of the Nottingham Toddler Lab has found that between three and five years old, children mention primary colours – red, blue, yellow, green – more often than secondary: pink, orange, purple. As for children’s dislike of browns and greys, she theorises that they may associate such shades, at least in white people, with sickly looking faces as opposed to healthy, rosy ones. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4474725.stm)
Taylor et al report some evidence that young infants have a strong looking preference for red, but it’s not conclusive; however, there is evidence that babies definitely like highly saturated blues – while, as I say, they’re not nearly so keen on lighter shades, apparently. Maybe the most fascinating finding is this:
‘The primary similarity that we found between infant and adult preferential-looking behavior was that both looked longer at light red (pink) than would be expected by chance….’
They hypothesise that this ‘could… arise from the privileged status of desaturated reddish colors in human perception.’ All a bit technical, but what it boils down to, it appears, is that we white folks, at least, are chromatically wired, and our eyes structured, to search out the reddish colours of skin and lips. Taylor et al recognise that newborns search out eyes, but that after a few months, as they go on to suggest,’[Maybe] … it is evolutionarily advantageous for infants to be drawn to the color of lips, in that attention to the mouth is important for detecting emotional expressions and language learning.’
Might I add that surely nipples, also often rosy, must be another evolutionarily useful target?
Children’s colour preferences evidently evolve and shift with age. Research as long ago as 1968 seemed to show that of the younger children tested who favoured cooler or lighter hues, many went on to prefer more saturated versions of those colours after the age of nine (Irvin L. Child, Jens A. Hansen and Frederick W. Hornbeck, Age and Sex Differences in Children’s Color Preferences, in Child Development, vol. 39, no. 1).
In adulthood, things are somewhat clearer. A 2003 study polling people from twenty-two different countries found blue to be the favourite colour of both men (57%) and women (35%).(http://www.joehallock.com/edu/COM498/preferences.html#favbygender) Interestingly, Hallock tells us that in his 1940s researches into eyes and sight, Eysenck maintained that blue for men ‘stands out far more’ than for women. Eysenck also points out that yellow is preferred to orange by women, and orange to yellow by men. So there are differences. Many women, apparently, really don’t rate orange.
Faber Birren’s 1952 book Your Color and Your Self: The significance of colour preferences in the study of human personality tells us that blue and red maintain a high preference throughout life for both sexes, while other colours drop down our favourites list and others come back up. So it’s a battle of the blues and reds, then – although I read here and there that some 8% of the male population has a red-green colour deficiency, so can’t see red at all.
In linguistic history, apparently ‘red’ is the first colour to have acquired its name after ‘black’ and ‘white’. According to http://www.color-wheel-artist.com/meanings-of-red.html, women seem to favour cool reds, leaning towards violet, and men to favour warm reds, tending towards orange.
In Japan, red is associated with female reproduction. It’s considered a life-giving colour; and as the researchers show above, babies seem to agree.
On 8 March, International Women’s Day, I’m going to the Southbank in London to participate in the Women of the World Festival. As you all know by now I’m childless, so am looking forward to the various talks revolving around the issue: ‘Fertility Myths’ and more. A whole bunch of childless women were hoping to march this year and make a visual statement, all dressed in red; but there have been logistical complications, so it’ll happen next year instead. Meanwhile, I’m wearing my flamboyant red coat and jaunty crimson hat anyway.
After all, red is also the colour of choice for numerous revolutionary movements; and I hope that that’s the way that the childless movement is heading: at least, towards a revolution in social understanding.
For my quote to round off this post, I’d like to thank Beth Fantaskey, author of Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side.
‘”I like pink.”
Lucius sniffed. “It’s just red’s, sorry, weak cousin.”‘
I’m 59 now, over those close-on six decades having mapped out in my mind an entire web of paths untaken. Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve. And for that reason, Chapter 7 of Jody Day’s book Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children chimes with me most. Entitled ‘Letting Go of your Burnt-out Dreams’, its first two sections are headed ‘The shadow of the life unlived’ and ‘The dark side of daydreams’.
In them, she shares her own experience with searing frankness:
‘I became acutely aware that for many years I’d been living two lives: one in which I was hoping for a baby and making the best of things till then, the other in which I had succeeded and had become a mother….
‘At no point in that time… did I fully and completely embrace the life I was actually living – that of a childless woman….
‘I think of the “shadow life” as the life you dreamt about while your “real” life was happening and to which you gave so much energy that it depleted the life you were actually living.’
We all have our path forks. Here’s a selection of the barred routes in my psyche:
- Somewhere in my childhood, I believed my family was encouraging me in the single, career-driven life, not a life of love and family. I absorbed the misguided idea that the two were in opposition, or at least, incompatible. In my head the possibility of a relationship and children began to recede from me.
- At university, my careers advisor looked helplessly at me and counselled that, given my degree subject, there were only three careers open to me: teaching, journalism and book publishing. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…: in my compliant brain, a million other doors slammed shut – but I can still see them, albeit greyed out.
- When a relationship with a man ruptured cataclysmically, I felt I couldn’t hang on to my Christian faith. Despite various attempts since then, my shadow-life-creating self sketches it somewhere distant, hovering always out of reach.
- Over the years a couple of men have proposed to me, both in jest, and friends laughed too when they heard about it. That and other factors prompted me to quarantine my self-image as wife.
- While in one important relationship, it became clear to me that my lover had serious issues about parenthood, so when the option came up for us, I knew I had to forgo it.
- I’ve already told the story here of how I failed to adopt five or six different children (Rita van Winkle and the Lost Boys – or, PC’s Dreams of Adoption). To me, those children are out there in the ether, frozen in age, still waiting for me.
- Neighbours and colleagues at work are grandmothers. But as time has slipped by, and not only children but grandchildren are no longer options for me, I’ve gravitated ever more closely towards friends who will also never be grandmothers, like me – and away from those who are, or who are going to be.
Now although of course they’ve caused me pain over the years, I don’t list these diversions-from-the-what-might-have-been to enlist your sympathy. These days, what fascinates me more is the way we persist in tracing and re-tracing these ghosts of roads untaken.
Day argues that that can hold us back. I wonder whether, once we surmount the pain, their rehearsal can bring us comfort.
Take the ‘science bit’: the theory of parallel universes.The so-called double-slit experiment shows that a quantum object, a tiny metal object known as a paddle capable of existing in one of two possible states, can suddenly jump into either one of those states at the instant it is being watched. In other words, any object seen in front of us may be capable of existing simultaneously in more than one universe.
In his book Grand Design, Stephen Hawking suggests that maybe there is ‘no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe’, but rather a ‘network’ of models, causing our notions of ‘reality’ to change and shift with every different mathematical proof. Some interpret this as his support for the position that every separate mathematical model designed to describe the nature of physics creates an alternative reality; some now argue that there an infinite number of such alternative realities.
(www.fredalanwolf.com/myarticles/leaders%20parallel%20u.pdf; http://www.quantumjumping.com/articles/parallel-universe/alternate-reality/; http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/04/05/freaky-physics-proves-parallel-universes/; http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/parallel-universe.htm)
These days, it doesn’t seem such a step for me from wacky, kooky, your-friends-will-avoid-you-if-you-voice-this-theory-dom to, ‘Why not trust that you’re living all your shadow lives somewhere else close by, if it helps?’
Maybe the psyche is instinctively drawn to the idea of alternative realities: even to luxuriating in them, fleshing them out. And if you’re a compulsive writer and reader like me, well, it’s unavoidable.
Everyone does it. Alternative realities are in the collective consciousness. In 1964, an iconic American TV soap called Another World started on NBC, set in the fictional town of Bay City and running for decades – till 1999, in fact. As the co-creator Irna Phillips explained, justifying the title and the premise, ‘We do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand other worlds.’ These, she explained, represented the difference between ‘the world of events we live in, and the world of feelings and dreams that we strive for’.
Then in English folk legend, there’s the twelfth-century story of the green children of Woolpit. This tells how two unusually tinted children appeared out of nowhere in this Suffolk village, speaking in an incomprehensible language and refusing to eat anything but beans. Soon after the children were baptised, one died. The surviving girl learned to speak English, eventually explaining that she and her brother had come from an underground world whose inhabitants were green.The story persists to this day.
Or in the US, there are the recurrent half-horrified, half-fascinated accounts of black-eyed children trying to gain entrance to people’s houses. (http://www.examiner.com/article/black-eyed-children-don-t-invite-them-into-your-home) Not to mention the obsession of some with visits to earth by alien creatures, and of alien abductions – a two-way traffic with other worlds.
Over in Japan, Dr Rachel Staum is studying the key features of otogizōshi, the country’s folktales, often illustrated, by unknown authors. She’s noticed that many are stories of women who originate from other worlds, and is trying to find out why. (http://weaicolumbia.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/rachel-staums-summer-research-women-from-otherworlds/) And Neil Gaiman has a memorable ‘Other Mother’, or Beldam, in his children’s novel – now film – Coraline, supposedly the source of the ‘Other World’ that exists side by side by the girl Coraline’s real world. In the book, she looks like a clone of Coraline’s own mother; in both book and film, she tries to tempt the child away.
So these days, I’m learning to live with my shadow lives, to let them be and wend their ways, sometimes even to enjoy them.
As for my lost life of motherhood in particular, while Jody Day suggests that we childless women call ourselves ‘NoMos’ (Not-Mothers), I think I’ll term myself an AMo: meaning ‘I love’ in Latin, it also represents me as a kind of Alternative Mother, somehow living both lives, the one I have and the one I didn’t, in harmony.
In this post I’d like to thank the singer Beth Orton. I love her lyric, ‘What are regrets?/ They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet’ (Sweet Decline.)
Do you have relatives, friends or neighbours with no children? I do: an ever more noticeable number.
It seems a counter-intuitive phenomenon, since in the UK we’re going through a baby boom: between June 2011 and June 2012, more babies were born than in any other annual period for forty years (http://news.sky.com/story/1126105/biggest-baby-boom-for-40-years-in-the-uk).
But among older women, the situation’s different. Of those born in the 1960s, some 1:5 women in the UK, North America and Australasia didn’t give birth before they reached the menopause – a ratio that they say may rise for the 1970s generation; and figures appearing now suggest that for the majority, that hasn’t been by choice. And despite the recent baby explosion, according to an OECD report women in the UK leave it later than those in any other OECD country to have their first child, trying for the first time at the average age of 30 – with all the difficulties and disappointments that delayed plans for a family may bring (http://www.oecd.org/els/soc/47701118.pdf). If growing numbers of women are childless not by preference but ‘by circumstance’, as it’s coming to be called, that’s bound to fuel a sense of division from the parental sisterhood.
Not surprising then that there are more and more online communities intended to be supportive – like Mumsnet, but catering for the childless. Gateway Women is the most known in the UK, with nonparents.com newly arrived on the scene; in the States, there’s The Not Mom, Life Without Baby, Childless Mothers Connect…. I could go on. There, safely and confidentially, women can pour out their woes, get advice and information, even arrange to meet up.
Many mums still confide in me that as mothers, they feel undervalued. But that tends to be true of those who don’t go to work. In the workplace, some childless women claim, the tables are reversed. After all, working mothers can take up to one year’s paid maternity leave before returning – without discrimination – to their old jobs; 20 days’ paid leave if they’re full-time; and tax credits for childcare: a situation not true in the US. Yet the non-mums often feel that when they have urgent caring responsibilities at home – for an ageing relative, for instance – they’re not treated with the same sympathy as the mother with a sick child; or that their leave requirements have to play second fiddle to the holiday preferences of colleagues who are parents.
Polly Dunbar covered this in the Daily Mail recently (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2380473/Why-SHOULD-childless-women-like-longer-hours-cover-working-mothers.html). But what struck me was the vitriol in some of the online feedback she received: ‘I love the “you-chose-to-have-children-why-am-I-being-penalised-for-it?” gang. If you’re not willing to do what you were put here to do and reproduce, that’s your choice… And yes, raising a child probably IS more important than your plans.’ …. ‘She should take it up with her employer rather than use her bad experience to make working mothers feel they are over-privileged.’ ‘Frankly I think [working mothers] should be penalised a lot more just for looking – and sounding – like sly, smug, deceitful idiots.’
Apart from the ignorance about women who didn’t choose to remain childless that some of these comments expose, I’m saddened by the rift that they can only widen.
Aren’t women supposed to be especially good at working together – in order to solve their problems and differences, beside anything else? Witness the movement towards women’s suffrage; witness so many other women’s organisations: against knife crime, and towards peace in Northern Ireland, to quote just two from the last few decades in the UK. And as various learned tomes and articles point out, society is still gendered, i.e. shaped more by and for men than women – many workplaces, for instance (See Women Working Together: Understanding Women’s Relationships at Work, briefing note no. 33, published by the Center for Gender in Organizations, Simmons School of Management, Boston). So shouldn’t we be acting, as a united sisterhood, to change that?
Looking even deeper, the history of women’s movements in itself throws up some interesting reasons for our tendency to divide. Women Working Together, a fantastic Australian website on the story of our collaborations, points out that there are three different traditions among women’s organisations.
• First, there have always been groups committed to the status quo, which of course includes the family, and often the family in its conventional nuclear sense: i.e. a conservative strand. Inevitably whatever your politics, once you have children, you tend to join that stream.
• Second, there have always been more radical groups, whose interests lie in questioning the status quo, in advocating ‘other’ ways to live; and with an equal inevitability, childless women, whatever their politics, on childlessness issues will tend to follow this path.
• If that wasn’t enough to prise us apart, the third category is reactionary: it dislikes the idea that the image of woman, and woman’s roles, may change, and does much to destroy any form of women’s movement.
So staying united isn’t as easy as all that.
To coin a phrase though, we must overcome. On 8 March, it’s International Women’s Day, a chance for us to stand shoulder to shoulder, mothers and childless as one, during the Women of the World Parade on London’s South Bank. Maybe we should also do some reading. Try Women against Women, an article in the Journal of Women’s History, vol. 13, no. 2, summer 2001; or for a lighter self-help read, When Women Work Together: Using our Strengths to Overcome Our Challenges by Carolyn S. Duff with Barbara Cohen.
And now the obvious, if you read my blog normally, but a confession to new readers at Mumsnet: I’m 59, and childless by circumstance. I blog about this, my longing for a boy child and more at http://boywoman.wordpress.com.
My novel about a woman gradually coming to terms with her childlessness through ‘social infertility’ (i.e. not for biological reasons) comes out in early May, entitled On the Far Side, There’s a Boy.
And yet I’m a Mumsnet blogger! Because I believe in healing rifts from the inside.
In Plato’s Symposium – which, of course, we all have bookmarked by our bedsides – the goddess Eros is not only the representative of love, sensuality and sexuality, but also creativity. And she’s depicted pregnant.
Jody Day’s book Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life Without Children defines creativity as ‘the power to make something in the world that wouldn’t have existed unless you’d been alive… It’s important for us as childless women’, Jody continues, ‘that we find another way to create,’ asserting that ‘There is a part of us that is a mother even though we don’t have a child of our own,’ ‘a nurturing part of us’. I too sense that anything ‘creative’ has a cycle, similar to birthing: from ‘conception’ to sending some ‘creative product’ out into the world. So I’m with Jody on all that.
Creativity is surely one way for us women who haven’t given birth, to give birth – although of course it’s not the same. When I started musing about this, I asked my friends on the online communities for childless women to let me know whether they felt there was a causal link, i.e. that the realisation that they wouldn’t be mothers led directly to the urge for some creative outlet – taking ‘creative’ in the widest sense.
One response was, ‘Since heading for childlessness my desire to create has increased massively…. I can’t stop creating.’ Another was, ‘I started writing more’; this woman and another had both begun to follow the steps in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which can be used for everything from jotting down and working out your thoughts and feelings to writing the next War and Peace. Another woman among us admitted that ‘I did find that I was able to channel a lot of my miscarriage into my creative writing courses and hope to use my experiences in my postgraduate course to create my art.’ Yet another said, ‘I think that if I had had children I might have subsumed [my creativity] into them like my mum did with me’ – a really insightful and brave admission, I thought.
Jody Day’s own book starts by encouraging the childless to write their personal stories of their childless journeys, i.e. to create their own narratives, and then to step back and perceive what those narratives say about them, their tellers. A few weeks ago, a fellow onliner posted a fascinating piece at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140103204428.htm entitled A Novel Look at How Stories May Change the Brain. This confirmed the importance to all of us of fabricating the stories of our lives in order to make sense of, and live with, the past and what has happened to us. In other words, childless or otherwise, we do this stuff unconsciously: we’re all creative, whether we admit it or not. But in my experience, most childless women, notably, are constantly in the act of moulding sense out of their childlessness, as if it were some malleable sculpture – just as we’d have liked to form, then help to shape, the life of a child.
One of the most revealing responses I had was from a sister who has clearly fought a noble fight against the absence of one special, satisfactory relationship, unemployment, mental health issues and illness. For her – though like many, she couldn’t see a causal link between her childlessness and creativity – she found reward and even joy in doing up her home, but in particular in gardening, which she became, she claimed, ‘passionate’ about. It struck me how, even when her health problems were so severe that she was more or less incapacitated, it was her involvement with plants and gardening that were, as it were, the ‘last form of creativity to go’.
Which brings me to the fabulous story of Saalumarada Thimakka, the inspirational Indian NoMo (motherless woman), now some 80+ years old, who lives in a village called Hulikal, and has stimulated the establishment of a whole environmental charity in the United States. After 25 years of married life, still childless, and goaded by the jibes of her neighbours about her NoMo state, she decided instead to ‘adopt’ 284 banyan trees, which she and her husband planted (the first ten from grafts) along a 3km stretch of local road, regarding them, as they grew, as her ‘children’.
It was a whole heap of toil. Every day she had to bring water from far to irrigate every sapling at the root, keeping constant vigil over them and nursing them against damage and disease, at the same time working in a quarry to keep body and soul together. Now they provide a dappled green canopy of shade, perches for birds’ nests and of course have prevented soil erosion. Today, the asset value of the trees is more than 1.5 million rupees. The trees have truly grown up and, like a family of youngsters, earned their keep.
Read and watch her story, and an account of her awards and accolades, at http://ibnlive.in.com/news/woman-plants-trees-village-thrives/35476-3.html and http://www.karnataka.com/personalities/saalumarada-thimakka/
Her basic philosophy, I read, is to ‘leave behind some asset for humanity’. That sounds like mothering to me.
So creativity can flourish out of childlessness. But that doesn’t prove that our creations are the effect, childlessness the cause. Jody Day says in print, ‘I’ve come to believe that creativity is one of the routes of recovery from involuntary childlessness.’ And, ‘I don’t know if there’s a causal link – but creativity really really helps to heal – and move on from childless grief.’
And as the online discussions around creativity have grown and blossomed, it seems that many other NoMos agree. One woman reminded me of Antony Storr’s book Solitude, pointing out that being alone sometimes, as many creatives need to be, is so important for mental health: ‘[You need something to] lose [yourself] in, which I find meditative and a great way to forget all the crap that is going on in my head.’
One sister memorably told me, ‘There is a massive connection between creative pursuit and mental health…. [Take] art as therapy. Outside Art and the chance to pursue creativity for everybody, equally…. If [the creative source] is tapped into when needed it can aid towards a more emotionally intelligent life. It can enable change on a variety of scales…. This source needs to be nurtured, which is exactly why those with strong nurturing instincts find creative activity so fulfilling. You create, nurture, and give to the world…. Childhood used to be hugely creative, and is a source a lot of artists go back to for their work… the idea of ‘play’, ‘wonder’, seeing the world with new eyes: in being creative we are simultaneously connecting with the child, as well as the mother within – good for us all, and good for everyone else.’
So, then, with heartfelt thanks to Liz W for the above insights, healing: maybe that’s what our creativity is for.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder: not just beauty, everything visual. Scientists may have proved it and countless art critics said it, but to me it’s self-evident anyway that we bring our own experiences, emotions, desires to what we see. It’s all a construct. Take this smiling boy.
His expression of happy mischief gives me pleasure – but disappointingly, then the feelings drop away. He seems to be all right, after all; so beyond curiosity about him, my responses aren’t prompted further.
When I mulled over the idea of looking at boys in art and photography this week, the first painting I thought of – maybe some of you would have done the same – was this one. The rich little English Royalist boy, his weeping sister held back behind him, isolated in a pool of light as he’s interrogated by his Parliamentarian captors and invaders of his home. It’s not a portrait as such, but his lonesome dignity has a more profound effect on me than the close-up photo, old sentimentalist that I am: pity; even, in some frustrated sense, a desire, pointless across time and space and another plane of reality, to help.
You can find this image on the internet under the same title as Eames’s painting. I love this photo, but confess it’s a bit of a cheat including it, as with this, for me, it wasn’t just a question of viewing: I read the backstory first (see caption), so couldn’t help but be affected. The Eames title is apt though, as for me, even without that knowledge, it would have much of the same mood: the subject is a boy framed and distant, unreachable in his state of human siege. And again, I want to put out a hand and help him.
On to other boys, other times and places.
The boy above, gazing slightly downwards and askance, is thoughtful, at the least; but I find myself superimposing sadness on him too, if not sullenness and rebellion. I like to imagine that he was grudging, reluctant to be captured in paint. I self-examine: why? The conclusion I draw is that if I see him as sad, I can imagine offering succour; and that if I see him as churlish, I can imagine engaging with him somehow, if only in lively argument. We should find grounds to interact.
I notice that it’s not any conventional, modern-day notion of beauty or handsomeness that attracts me. I don’t find The Guitarist good-looking: his lips are too plump and his eyes a bit bug-rounded for my tastes. And yet he does attract me. I think, as with the boys above, that it’s partly the air of separateness that goads me. He’s turned away, preoccupied with his music, remote and unconcerned with me, the viewer. And there’s another dimension that provokes me, his sense of ‘other’ – not sexually, but definitely in gender. Despite his looks, which we might consider feminine today, something about his face alone clearly says ‘boy’ not ‘girl’. I want, in some way that an other-worldly spectator – female at that – can of course never achieve, to make him turn, stop what he’s doing, maybe succumb to a smile.
With this boy, my urge to help or rescue returns to me with a vengeance. Despite his almost stern, patrician look – if a child can look patrician – I feel so strongly that he’s posed, and – with a 21st-century viewer’s prejudices – dressed in the ‘wrong’ fashions for a boy – that I turn him into a victim, maybe without any justification. I’ve got to do something about him: have a stern word with his parents or the photographer, at the least.
Of these twin images, the one that arouses the most intense feelings is the ‘before’. Knowing the context as I do, so again, slightly cheating, I can see that this boy was already damaged before he fought his fight. There’s a subtler reaction, too. If I examine him objectively, his face seems neutral, wiped of all emotion. But I want him to feel the force of what he’s doing to himself; I’m angry or something that – to my eye – he seems not to feel anything. These could be passport photos; he doesn’t seem to recognise his own self-exposure; he doesn’t seem to care how he appears. I want to rescue him not just from boxing but from himself.
As for Dan Uneken’s fantastic close-up, above, how could a boy with those limpid, haunting eyes not actually be feeling haunted? Again, something in me needs to see him as victim, whether he is or not.
What intrigues me about my responses to all these pictures – maybe with the exception of the first – is how I not only weave my own stories around their subjects but also yearn to change their outcomes. I want to be somehow involved. I’m building my own myths of myself-as-woman-and-boy.
And I’m not alone. Viewers of images do this. The image above has a whole host of ‘folk belief’ round it. Interestingly, this particular print was popular with women owners.
The stories about it started in 1985, when a fire in a council house in Rotherham engulfed everything except one of these framed images. Then the Sun newspaper began to report fires in other homes where this same boy was displayed – again, with no damage to the print. Somehow, as the rumours gained momentum, the boy’s survival turned from a feature into the cause of the blazes in the first place. He became unlucky: a curse. Although firemen speculated that the reason he didn’t burn was because he was printed on high-density hardboard, which has a high ignition point, the press began to report that nonetheless members of the Fire Service were reluctant to take charge of these copies.
Legends accreted around the Crying Boy over the years. One ran that those who were ‘kind’ to the print would get good luck; another that placing a print of a crying girl next to this would neutralise the danger (a theory with subtle connotations about attitudes to gender). A third hypothesis suggested that the spirit of the boy was trapped inside the picture, and was starting fires in an attempt to free himself. A fourth, which gained increasing currency, was that the original model had been badly treated by the artist.
Writer Tom Slemen claims to have researched this theory further in his book Haunted Liverpool (2000). According to him, the boy was a sorrowful, mute street urchin called Don Bonillo, found in Madrid, who was claimed to have run away from home after seeing his parents die in a fire. Despite warnings from a priest, Bragolin adopted the boy, but then his studio went up in flames and the boy, distraught, ran away. Various locations in Spain began to report unexplained blazes, maybe caused by the boy ‘Diablo’; then one day in 1976, a car exploded on the outskirts of Barcelona, and the charred remains identified from a driving licence as Don Bonillo. A decade later, the myths resurfaced in England.
More of this disconcerting tendency of the collective psyche to myth-make at http://drdavidclarke.co.uk/urban-legendary/the-curse-of-the-crying-boy. When it comes to pictures of sad children, it seems that people, including me, just can’t help but interpose themselves.
As I said earlier, there’s science behind my reactions to all these portraits. Christina M. Leclerc and Elizabeth A. Kensinger (both women, notice) explain it in their paper ‘Age-related differences in medial prefrontal activation in response to emotional images’, Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 2008, 8(2), pp.153-164. Apparently, women tend to react more than men to ‘emotive’ visual images. Apparently too, there are dual dimensions to our responses: ‘valence’ (whether we perceive a visual experience as positive or negative, and how much) and ‘arousal’ (whether we are excited/agitated by that experience, or more soothed and subdued). By their lights it would seem that, when viewing portraits of ‘sad’ boy children, I’m towards the high end of the calibration towards arousal. I want to act or react more, not less.
But that’s just ‘the science bit’.
One thing I know for myself and by myself is, I love the nuanced work of this female artist based in the west of Ireland. Egg tempera is a wonderfully sensitive medium anyway, redolent of centuries of great art; but, compounding all that, she tells me that ‘Francis’ is a cousin, and I sense that aspect powerfully: her affection. To me he’s happy and wistful and thoughtful, all at once. As a mature female viewer, I experience gladness at his contentment, but if I could, I’d like to cherish him as much.
This post is dedicated to Benita Stoney, whose award-winning work, to commission and on spec, deserves a long, self-scrutinising, appreciative look at http://www.benitastoney.com.
The number of sons relative to daughters within US families is increasing, I was startled to read recently: this according to Sons vs. Daughters: Sex Composition of Children and Maternal Views on Socialization by D.B. Downey, P.B. Jackson and B. Powell, Sociological Quarterly 35 (1): 33-50. This research was published in 1994, but once I started investigating, nothing more recent popped up to contradict the sense of an ongoing trend.
Yet trawling online through blogs and online communities on the theme of gender preference, I’m equally struck by the flavour of women’s output on the subject.
In the US there’s a MOB (Mothers of Boys) Society, for instance, at http://www.themobsociety.com, which aims to help mothers in the ‘journey of raising boys to be godly men’ through an online offering of ‘hope, … prayer’ and more, as if, in the case of boys, such things are badly needed. Books advertised on the site include I’m Outnumbered! by Laura Lee Groves; Raising Real Men: Surviving, Teaching and Appreciating Boys by Hal and Melanie Young; and Brooke McGlothlin’s fearsomely titled Praying for Boys – which, it turns out, far from asking for them, means, as her subtitle explains, Asking God for the Things they Need Most. This trio of tomes is redolent with a feeling of being beleaguered, even outright desperate, all at sea and somehow in danger of being defeminised by mothering the male.
Bethany Meyer, mother of four boys at http://bethanymeyer.com, implies that a woman needs a sense of humour to get her through boy parenting: ‘I love them most when they are sleeping’ and ‘The stupid factor increases exponentially when [your children] are equipped with penises’ are just two of her slogans. Ann’s Rants, written by a single mother of three boys, http://www.annsrants.com, laments, ‘As a young girl, I dreamed I’d someday be the mother of two demure daughters.’ http://boymomblog.com, in similar vein, displays telling comments from women such as the one with two sons who confesses, ‘I may have been open to more [children], but the thought of having three boys scares me.’
Then there’s the Toronto-based http://4mothers1blog.com with the byline, ‘4 opinions, 11 boys, 1000 questions’; http://www.momsofboys.org ‘for mothers of boys, … especially for those moms who are outnumbered by males in their own home’, started ‘because moms who have sons need support’; and http://amomamongmen.wordpress.com. The blogger at MomsofBoys has also published a book, House of Testosterone: One Mom’s Survival in a Household of Males; one photo of her three sons on her site is labelled with damning humour, ‘My sons, my captors’. I could go on….
Most of the sites, while airing maternal misgivings, go on to declare their devotion to boy children. And of course it’s always fun to make fun. But behind the social-media banter and sentimental gush there’s a sense that this love is ‘in spite of’ obstacles and prejudices. Huge numbers of mothers of boys seem at least bewildered at, and at worst terrified of, what they consider the unknown.
Back to the trend towards boy domination of families. In 2011, a Gallup poll in the US showed that the men surveyed, especially the younger age group, had a preference for boy children; and a survey of 2,129 American newlyweds in 2013 still showed that 47% of those who expressed a preference were hoping for a boy child first, on the grounds that a son might be ‘less hard work’, and ‘less stressful’. So what’s going on? Why are boy ratios in US families going up?
Sara Raley and Suzanne Bianchi of the Department of Sociology and Maryland Population Research Centre at the University of Maryland shed some fascinating light. Their article Sons, Daughters and Family Processes: Does Gender of Children Matter? in the Annual Review of Sociology vol. 32, 2006 revealed that while US parental pairs seem to prefer a child of each gender, they are more likely to try for a third child if they already have two children of the same sex – and that this is even more likely if they already have two girls. In other words, many continue trying because they’re holding out for a boy.
Raley and Bianchi too report the trends I noticed in Gallup Poll surveys. US men, they note, are more than twice as likely to report a preference for a son over a daughter if they could only have one child. None the less, women report a slight preference for a daughter – a preference that is apparently not translating itself into gender balance within US families.
An uncomfortable pair of conclusions might be that men are driving the increase in sons in American families, and that women in such child-producing relationships don’t hold equal sway in this decision-making process. Those I assumed were my own crude, knee-jerk thoughts – until I read G.B. Dahl and E. Moretti’s The Demand for Sons: Evidence from Divorce, Fertility, and Shotgun Marriage in Working Paper 10281, February 2004, produced by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA. They too deduce that the preference for sons is largely driven by fathers, with the men in couples reporting that they’d rather have a boy by more than a 2:1 margin. Moreover, interestingly women with only girls are substantially more likely never to have been married.
Raley and Bianchi report other findings that show subtle sexist attitudes. In many ways US parents treat their children similarly irrespective of gender, but the academic duo picks out the exceptions. Fathers spend more time with their sons than with their daughters. Fathers more often marry, and stay married, in families with sons. Mothers report more marital happiness in families with sons. Divorced fathers more often have custody of sons than daughters. Both adolescent boys and girls identify more closely with their same-sex parent than with their opposite-sex parent. Women are perhaps more verbally interactive with daughters than with sons. And daughters in families still do more housework than the boys. Of course, the researchers point out, whether parents are encouraging these gender differences or whether children’s gender-differentiated behaviours generate different parental treatment are harder to determine.
I wish there was similar research for the UK, but I can’t find it. Unless you can, kind readers, we can only use our own observations and experiences to speculate about whether we follow these US trends. But it interests me that the Scandinavian situation is not totally different from the US, even though Scandinavian countries pride themselves on greater gender equality than elsewhere in the world. However, the subtle sexisms there are mostly the other way round. While Finland follows the trends of the US, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are apparently developing a preference for having daughters: there, families are more likely to try for a third child if they already have two boys. (K. Hank, M. Rønsen and A. Vikat, Gendering the Family Composition: Sex Preferences for Children and Childbearing Behavior in the Nordic Countries, 2006, Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung, Rostock, Germany).
I’m afraid I rather imagine that UK follows the US in its gender preference tendencies. Assuming so for a moment, maybe we should take a good, hard look at ourselves. The UK, like the US, is quick to condemn the sexism of South and East Asian countries where the preference for sons is so marked that it’s common practice to abort female foetuses, invest more in the health and education of sons, and sometimes even to resort to female infanticide. But the findings I’ve described surely expose many of us as hypocrites, albeit in more subtle guise. To cap it all, confession time: if you don’t know it already, readers, although I’m a childless Englishwoman who calls herself a feminist, I’ve always wanted a boy myself.
Given what I’ve uncovered, it would be pure sophistry to argue that more women like me are actually needed – to counterweight the preference I think I see, in UK/US women, for having girls over boys.
Thanks to Catherine Rampell, Economics reporter for The New York Times, whose 2011 article nudged me on this important subject (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/preferring-boys-to-girls/?_r=0).
Although I’m childless-by-circumstance, I don’t want to be all ‘Bah humbug’ about Christmas, I really don’t. I don’t want to rain on the parade of the many who, at this time of year, are consumed not only by the adoration of a baby but by the Adoration of Baby, the fetishisation of motherhood. Nor do I want to ban the congregation of the young, overexcited and effervescent, around the older among my family and friends – including the older childless ones, like me.
But in this post, let’s bring a bit of fun to, and positivity outside of, all that blinkered, child-centred razzamatazz. Mark Ostereicher’s finds of nativity scenes other than humanoid are a good start. If these were presented to the baby-besotted, mightn’t some of those people be tickled into taking a long, hard look at themselves, into revising their eensy-teensy-human-worshipping world view? (There are more scenes: go to his website.)
On a more serious note, forget those boring old Bible accounts of Mary-Jesus-and-Joseph-in-a-stable: there’s a very different Biblical passage that I love.
‘”Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labour! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
‘”Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.
‘”Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced….”‘ (Isaiah 54:1-17)
I find that beautiful and uplifting, a celebration of the childless sisterhood.
Finally I offer this humble attempt at a new rendition of a well-known carol that I’ve always found rather tedious.
‘Away with the manger,
Soft crib and small bed:
For the lass without children,
Hopes of baby are dead.
The scars of her history
She is holding at bay,
Proud that she is still standing,
Fighting on day by day.’
I dedicate this piece to Christina Rossetti, who wrote the lovely carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Single and childless to her death, her great writing accomplishments weren’t at all impeded by her status.
Happy Christmas, all.