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Childlessness in art? It’s all around us, Paula Coston finds

The oldest known image of the Madonna and Child, Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome, c. 3rd century AD

We childless women are a messed-up lot at times. (I speak for myself here, really.) We can see our childlessness in everything around us.

Take art. I’m passionate about it, but when I study any piece from the long, rich line of Christian art featuring the Madonna and Babe like the one above, the first thing I see is what I have not, namely a child. The viewer can’t help but be at least a little self-referential. Truism, sorry, and one I’ve voiced here before: art, how we interpret it, is a social, cultural, emotional/spiritual construct.

The good thing about that, though, is that it makes art different every time, every moment, that we look. Looking at this fresco, first I see the absence of my own motherhood, then I see patriarchy and separation, man from woman, in the defined space between them and the male, authoritarian-looking raised finger. Then I feel empathy for a mother, not my own distance of experience from her. Unlike so many versions of this trope, the child seems to be wriggling, or certainly lively, in her lap. I sympathise with her as well. He’s going to be a handful.

Maybe all childless art-lovers none the less can’t help but feel cool air in the overhanging shadow of this sacred tradition of reminders of our state. From art galleries and picture books, when we’re feeling vulnerable, it gloats at us a bit. But although the Holy Duo persist into modern art, there are some interesting twists. Here’s Klimt:

Mother and child by Gustav Klimt, c 1905

Mother and child by Gustav Klimt, c. 1905

Yes, I get the same chill at first – I’ll never experience the intimacy of sleeping, naked and innocent, with someone small; but then I zoom back on this detail to Klimt’s wider, more inclusive visual statement:

Older woman, other part of the same painting: The Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt, 1905.

Older woman, other part of the same painting: The Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt, 1905.

Admittedly the older woman could be the mother to the girl. Despite her flab of stomach, interestingly my brain is keen to reject that possibility at once. Actually, initially I’m just pathetically gladdened that Klimt has given me, a mature female, a place – until, almost instantly, I absorb the details: how bony and shrunken and unhappy she looks; how squeezed she is to one side of the painting, back to a barren space, in an artistic marginalisation. She’s a husk of a woman, seemingly now useless (if she ever was of use): the visual equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything’.

Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife or betrothed, by Jan van Eyck, 1434.

Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife or betrothed, by Jan van Eyck, 1434.

More scenes than those of the Sacred Family stick the gallery goer inescapably, like a magnet, to their habit of elevating maternity: vaguely smock-like fashions captured in paint also invariably suggest pregnancy and childbirth. There was for years much eyebrow-raising and knowing winkage at the image above: an unwed mum! Viewers just assumed that this painting belonged to the ‘baby bump’ tradition – which continues today, drawing in so many female subjects from Eve to Picasso’s Pregnant Woman to Lucian Freud’s picture of a preggers Jerry Hall and Daniel Edwards’ sculpture of Britney Spears gripping an animal rug, pushing out a baby. (Turns out in the case of Arnolfini’s betrothed, the researchers now believe that her bulk of opulent fabric aforeships was merely a trendy fifteenth-century indicator of wealth and status.)

There are other child-laden artistic traditions that can be alienating at first.

Family group on a terrace in a garden, by Arthur Devis, 1749.

Family group on a terrace in a garden, by Arthur Devis, 1749.

Art commissions by wealthy patrons from the Renaissance onwards often meant depictions like the above, showing off not just splendid house, garden and estate but also wife and numerous children, their clothes, even their playthings, as equally elegant and desirable possessions. An unthinkable image without the perfectly presented mother and offspring.

But if those are the art lineages that can seem excluding, where, then, are ours? What does a pictorial lack of something, or the assertion of our positive attributes, look like?

Sadly in art the lack, or more commonly, the loss of children is often saccharin, over-sentimentalised.

The empty cradle, by W.B. Mcinnes, 1908.

The empty cradle, by W.B. Mcinnes, 1908.

Mcinnes’ effort above just about squeaks through, prompting in me a heartstring-tug, not a diabetic rush of wincing. Still, his empty cradle tells of an event, not the people caught up in it. Their bereavement is recent but past, and the gaping receptacle, hollow and now unoccupied, seems a negative symbol. Mothers in art are on the whole portrayed as people, in terms of themselves, not their landmark maternal events (being impregnated, popping a baby): heaven forbid. I want the equivalent for us childless: art that expresses not so much our losses, but who we are.

Even today, many artists – such as Samantha Bennett (‘PainterSam’) of Maryland, who herself lost a child, resort to the symbolism of hope in their statements about childlessness. PainterSam paints butterflies, in art and mythology known as emblems of transformation, for parents who have lost children – sometimes, in combination with portraits of the children lost. The digital artist Cunene introduces the dragonfly, another symbol of change, into her portrait of a Childless Mother holding a fragile egg delicately in a cat’s cradle between her fingers.

For me, Frida Kahlo says more about who we are, in both our sufferings and our strengths.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital: The flying bed, 1932.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital: The flying bed, 1932.

In the painting above, representing her second miscarriage and a dawning realisation that she might never carry a pregnancy to term, Kahlo shows herself prostrate like a martyr or an offering in some votive painting against a barren backdrop, including the ugly skyline of Detroit with its Henry Ford plant. It’s a horrific work, her body – badly damaged in a car accident years before, endangering her childbearing prospects for ever – tied to symbols of her maternal hopes, love for her husband (the orchid, which he gave her) and the lost foetus. Yet there’s something assertive about it: it’s a self-confronting, almost defiant reminder of her physicality and life force.

Frida Kahlo, Roots, 1943.

Frida Kahlo, Roots, 1943.

The message is graphic but more affirmative and accepting in Roots, above. Kahlo acknowledges all she’s been through as an aspiring mother but magically, finds a way here of reconciling herself with the biological world that has made her the way she is. However childless she may stay, it seems to me that the painting tells us, she’s capable of creating and flowering out of the visceral, out of pain, of giving something back.

Which brings me to Louise Ann Wilson, who’s also turning to nature (right now) for her Walking-Art Project in Cumbria, England. She’s busy mapping out a prototype interactive walk for the public ‘made with women for whom having a biological child is not possible’. As they clamber and stride these beautiful, seemingly desolate highlands, they’ll be asked to seek out emblems of their own backgrounds – an untaken path, a limestone cairn on a layer of scree, a nodding flower reflected in standing water – that might help ‘to effect positive transitions in the lives of participants’. The resultant geographical, biological and emotional/spiritual experience will open to the public as a self-guided walk from spring 2015.

The art of childlessness, like all art, must surely always allow for our individuality, for our personal interpretations in positive as well as negative ways.

Limestone cairn on the top of Farleton Knott, Cumbria.

Limestone cairn on the top of Farleton Knott, Cumbria.

For this post, a big thank you to Adele Armstrong, radio producer, who brought up the topic (I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered it already!). You can hear Sangita Myska interviewing me, and two other women childless by circumstance, on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 15 August 2014 at 11.00 am, in a major documentary provisionally entitled Mother without a Child. Do listen, and let me know what you think!

Post-menopausal, single and/or celibate? Feeling redundant or inferior? PC talks to the animals about it

If we don't Do It, just like pandas don't, should we singles be unsurprised if people don't really see us, and expect us to die out?

If we don’t Do It, much as pandas don’t, should we singles be surprised if people don’t really see us, and expect us to die out?

As everyone knows, pandas don’t Do It much. As a result they have few young, even in the wild. What’s more, researchers have discovered recently that while the males roam anywhere that bamboo grows, the females are more choosy, favouring certain high altitude forests on steep slopes. So scarcely the twain will meet. Of the scant number of female pandas surviving on this planet many could be regarded, then, as celibate singles, much like me. In this human world, too, we singles – male and female – often feel like species set, lost and wandering, apart.

Why are we even here? What purpose are we serving? If we feel overlooked and disregarded, should we even exist?

Let’s cheer ourselves up by peering at more animals.

‘Asexuality does not always result in the rapid extinction of a lineage,’ says Dr Tanja Schwander of Simon Fraser University, Canada, evidencing this with her studies of the Timema tahoe and Timema genevievae species of stick insect, whose habitat is the shrublands around the west coast of the US. These females reproduce through ‘virgin births’, genetically cloning themselves. Schwander’s team even discovered five asexual individuals that dated back 500,000 years-plus. Their facelift bills must have mounted up. (

The Timema Tahoe and Timema genevievae stick insects have persisted for over one million years without sex. Hurrah.

The Timema tahoe and Timema genevievae stick insects have persisted for over one million years without sex. Hurrah.

There are other species that propagate themselves asexually (‘parthenogenesis’) – admittedly, puzzling scientists that they can do that without becoming overly vulnerable to disease or damaging genetic samey-ness. There’s the all-female whiptail lizard, genus Aspigoscelis, from Mexico and the North American Southwest. Komodo dragons and hammerhead sharks can also do it partner-less if needed. The whiptail lizard, though, has no choice, apparently. And it seems that, having evolved in the first place from the hybridisation of various sexual species, they’re gifted with an abnormal load of genetic diversity, and twice the number of chromosomes possessed by other, sexually reproducing, lizards. This helps them to maintain genetic individuality, to avoid unhealthy mutations, to survive. And to reproduce only with yourself has its benefits: after all, you can take over new habitats more easily if it takes only one of you, and grow your population bigtime. Go, celibate girls.

Still, it would be nice if we single celibates felt more visible in the public consciousness. Maybe we should take tips from the naked mole rat. It looks a bit like a wrinkled sausage with teeth – so no beauty tips from her, thanks – but does manage a wide geographical coverage (Mediterranean North Africa, southeastern Europe and the Middle East), with only one female – the queen – breeding and bearing young. The others are busy-busy digging burrows with their snouts and those retainer-needy teeth and tending to the queen. These celibates mayn’t be beauty pageant candidates, but must feel essential to their society, at least.

The (celibate) worker bees are all-female. Operating as a team, they clean out the queen bee’s cell; clean and polish all the cells in the hive; remove and ‘undertake for’ bees that have died; nurse their baby sisters; attend to the queen; receive nectar and pollen from the foraging field bees, and pack the pollen into cells; carry pollen back from the field themselves; fan, controlling the temperature and humidity of the hive; and communicate with each other all the time. They may not ever Do It, but they’re so essential that they’re bound to feel good about themselves.

I’m not only single and celibate: I’ve also crossed the River Styx from bleeding. So what of women like me?

We must stick together, me and the killer whale and the pilot whale. We’re the three species on the planet conclusively proven to have adapted to stop breeding part-way through our life spans. Other animals become less fertile – elephants; and female chimpanzees, whose fertility rates decline from their early 30s, and whose chances of reproducing shrink to nil around the age of 45 – but the whales and I are perhaps unique. While primates rarely survive long after their eggs run out, our Post-Menopausal Club thrives on.

Killer whales like this one, pilot whales and us humans are the only three species on the planet whose females have been conclusively proven routinely to stop breeding years before their life's end.

The killer whale and me are two of only three species who’ve stopped breeding years before their life’s end.

Female killer whales can enjoy themselves for another 50 years after their breeding lives. But then, why wouldn’t they? They’re valued by their swimmers’ community, retaining important functions, passing down skills and know-how to the younger generation and acting as leaders within their schools. Scientists even believe that their presence may dramatically improve the young males’ chances of survival, perhaps by supporting them during potentially hostile meetings with other whales and helping them to find food. Of course, I’m cheating here somewhat in my phraseology: most of these large mammal women are mothers, unlike me. And we don’t know yet if they have to suffer hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms, like us (they’re quite large, evasive animals to test).(

There’s one whale-sized difference between me and that mammal, though. While she becomes more genetically related to her group as she ages (since she stays with them), like many women these days I float about in my social and familial groupings, especially as I’m single, and so do not. I’ve written here before about the grandmother hypothesis: the notion that animals like us have maybe been designed to cease reproductive function relatively early in order to help the upcoming generation rear their offspring. There’s another thesis, too: that women’s menopause coincides with the age at which younger females are ready to give birth in order to allow for scarce resources: food and, in more modern times, money and the rest. Some researchers dub this the ‘Father of the Bride 2‘ theory, inspired by Steve Martin’s problems in that 1995 film, when he has to cope with both his wife and daughter pregnant at the same time.(

But I’m single, childless and, sadly, don’t live a marine life with whales. For you and me, single/celibate, post-menopausal lady, we’re probably sadly lacking in close-knit ‘family groups’ that we feel we can belong to and permanently live with (including new-style, progressively structured ‘families’ of friends and/or relations). If we can’t belong to one, are not embraced by one, then we’ve limited means of making a community contribution.

Single women all, let’s stay inspired by the whales, though. After all, over 29% of households now have only one person living in them. One day, the press and wider public may notice; and maybe this sense of alienation and isolation will all change one day….

Paula Coston reclaims Midsummer for the single, childless or older woman

Midsummer maidens, picking herbs in Latvia

Midsummer maidens, picking herbs in Latvia

I warmly invite any older, single and/or childless women in the London area to my Midsummer Gladness party. Details as follows:

Where Upstairs at Bar Titania, 75 Charing Cross Road, central London, WC2H 0NE (nearest tube: Leicester Square)
When Wednesday 25 June, from 7.00 pm
Format and dress code Drinks, nibbles, and meet a lot of people like you – plus some female members of the press, there to mingle with us in a friendly way and to hear about my novel, out this coming week ( Dress any way you like, from bold and daring to vaguely evening-y.
Do you really mean it? I don’t know you! Yes, yes, I say. You’ll genuinely be welcome.

Why a Midsummer Gladness party?, you may well ask.

It’s Midsummer’s Eve today (so next Wednesday is close enough, in my book). Outside my window a syrupy light is still warming the rooftops and the trees under a wispy blue sky, even though it’ll be midnight in a few scant hours. I live in the depths of rural England, and somehow, on Midsummer’s Eve, whether I like it or not, my thoughts have turned pagan – stoked by a near-neighbour who said I could visit tonight but has just fobbed me off with the cry, ‘Don’t come round now! We’re just about to start our summer solstice supper!’

This, in 21st century England.

In Latvia, summer solstice is almost more important than Christmas. Women pick flowers to crown their heads, and men are expected to strip naked and jump into a nearby stretch of water. In Lithuania, pairs of lovers delve into the forest at night ‘to seek the magic fern blossom’ (is that what they’re calling it now?); young girls cast flower wreaths onto a river or lake (in Ukraine and Russia, they tell their amorous fortunes from the blossoms’ sinuous movements in the water). The country people of Western Norway arrange mock weddings, the ‘marital pairs’ – adults or children – being garlanded in flowers. Traditionally, Spanish women collect specific plants on what is also known as St John’s Eve. The number of species is often 7 – or if not, 9. In various countries, herbs and flowers are often placed under unmarried girls’ pillows in order to stimulate dreams of their future husbands. Mistletoe under the pillow is supposed to aid conception, verbena to be an aphrodisiac. Flowers = pollen = fertilisation by the honeybee etc. = fruitfulness. You get the picture.

In many of the centuries-old rituals, just as tonight heralds the transition from spring and seed-sowing into the time of harvest, the focus is on fertility, i.e. young maidens and their future relationships with lovers or husbands-to-be. Midsummer is seen as the pinnacle time of potency for young women seeking suitors, whether for nights of fun between the sheets or the more serious business of procreation.

Other traditions employ fire (in part, symbolising the sun at its zenith) or water, meant to wash away harm and ensure purification. As far back as the thirteenth century, a monk of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, the county where I live, recorded how local boys collected bones and other rubbish and burnt it ‘to drive away dragons’, while others rolled a wheel downhill to signify the sun tipping over into its downward course towards autumn in the heavens. A common European practice used to be to feed nine herbs into a bonfire then jump it for luck and fertility.

But enough of all that. I’m neither young nor a maiden nor capable of reproduction these days, and yet, somewhat ridiculously for a woman of her times with one or three brain cells to rub together, as I say I struggle with these same pagan leanings somehow pulling at me. So I’ve invented some hocus-pocus of my own for us older, single celibates:

- No point in burying herbs under the pillow? Shred up some ex’s letters very small. Layer them with smelly vegetable material. They should make wonderful compost for the garden.

- Too creaky or lacking in energy to jump a fertility pyre? Write your own correspondence, hopes and prayers, to the children you never had and toss them on the barbecue tomorrow, along with a juicy steak or something (it’s set to be another glorious summer’s day here in Ye Olde England).

- Pretty sure you’ll never find that magical fern, with its oh-so-mythical seed? Forget wandering off into the depths of the forest after it: plunge into a deep, dark biscuit barrel instead.

- Daren’t fashion flower garlands at midnight in case your relatives scoot you into a home? Do what I’m doing, then: buy an artificial floral crown, or wear something vaguely flowery, if it suits you, and tiptoe along to my Midsummer Gladness party on Wednesday, 25 June (details above), and help me deck all womanhoods other than youth, and fertility, and marriedness with new, more powerful meanings.

Sleeping woman. Lost Gardens of Heligon, Cornwall.

Sleeping woman. Lost Gardens of Heligon, Cornwall.

P.S. I deliberately set myself the task of researching and writing this blog in the run-up to Midsummer midnight. Over the time that I’ve been tapping at the computer the sky has changed from lemon to a blush of candyfloss clouds to grey and banked, and finally dark and starry. It’s 23:30 now. So not far off my target.

Happy Midsummer’s Eve, readers.

‘But I’m single.’ ‘No, I’m childless.’ ‘Actually I live alone.’ How do we utter these naked truths?

Self-exposure: how do we do it? Image courtesy of Stockimages/

Self-exposure: how do we do it? Image courtesy of Stockimages/

For me, the above three statements are true. All in my position will have had the experience of the courier on the phone who presses us disbelievingly, ‘But is there no one else at home who could take the parcel in?’ or the fellow wedding/christening/funeral guest swallowing an embarrassed, ‘Oh. So you mean you’re by yourself?’ Depending on our mental strength that day, we may give a telling retort or mutter something inadequate while dying a little inside.

Some of us may have a fund of killer responses: ‘I didn’t realise that a partner was compulsory.’ ‘Did you know that 29% of households in the UK consist of just one person?’ ‘What a shame that, at social occasions, the first thing we do is try to define each other not by ourselves but by our “significant others”.’ But in the heat of the offguard moment, these ripostes may not spring handily to our aid.

For a lot of us in today’s society, being single, childless, over a certain age, transgender or having some other alternative womanhood (or manhood, come to that) still, much of the time, colours our most everyday experiences with shame, stigma and a sense of vulnerability. The charismatic and inspiring psychologist and researcher Brene Brown is one of my favourite experts on all this: see her TED talks,; and

She urges us to see our vulnerability as utterly essential. Vulnerability, she explains, is simply showing others who we are at our essence: if we don’t expose ourselves, render ourselves emotionally naked at times, we are not being utterly genuine and honest; and unless we risk self-confession and -revelation, others won’t feel encouraged and safe enough to do the same in return. The upshot: we will never, truly, connect.

At the root of our sense of exposure when confronted with those everyday faux-pas, which of course only reflect society’s deeply ingrained ‘isms’ (‘singlism’ – see Bella DePaulo’s work, quoted here before, at; ‘childlessnessism’, and more), is the challenge to our convictions of self-worth. Brown lays the onus firmly on us as individuals to put this right: ‘The only difference between people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and those who don’t is that the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging [my italics].’ ( Owning up to our hurts in an honest way might gradually, gradually, help us to reclaim our sense of personal value. In which case, perhaps we should tell the courier on the phone or the tactless wedding guest, gently but firmly, ‘I’m sorry, but it really hurts me when you make those assumptions about me.’

This is a form of self-exposure that’s as uncomfortable and scary for most as nakedness.

Talking of nakedness, through history the act of getting undressed has been used to make stark statements about ourselves or press home a political point. Take Godiva, the wife of Leofric, 11th century Earl of Mercia. She petitioned him endlessly to reduce the city of Coventry’s heavy taxes until he promised to if she rode naked through the crowded marketplace. She did, and Leofric freed the town from all tolls except for those on horses. (Mind you, her long hair covered her nude form except her legs – still, those shapely limbs were an unheard-of body part to put on view.) Of course, the power of Godiva’s action stems from its opposition to societal attitudes to nudity dating back to the Bible story of Adam and Eve (the couple were punished by ‘shame’ at their own nakedness for breaking God’s commandment and eating the forbidden fruit). With her defiant ride, Godiva was overriding – excuse the pun – her own ‘shame’.

On 7 September 1968, some 400 feminists protested against the ‘ludicrous “beauty” standards we … are conditioned to take seriously’ of the Miss America pageant. Outside the Atlantic City Convention Center they marched around a ‘freedom trash can’ hurling in high heels, girdles and bras: to them, symbols of feminine oppression.

For over twenty years, the photographer-artist Spencer Tunick has been placing massed nude bodies in landscapes, or juxtaposed with architecture: for me at his most striking when their crowded figures spread prone far and wide on the Arctic ice eloquently highlight the dire future of the melting glaciers ( humanity and nature equally exposed and under threat.

In April 2014, hordes of Venezuelan students posted naked self-portraits on Twitter. This was a tit-for-tat retaliation against government forces’ stripping of a masked loyalist during street protests. (

To go bald – head nakedness alone, if you will – can also be to hammer a message home through personal self-exposure. In August 2013 in Zimbabwe, MDC-T Vice President Thokozani Khupe vowed to go bald until President Robert Mugabe gave up his title and the country held fresh, fair elections in place of his ‘electoral theft’ – a visual statement made more poignant because she’s a cancer survivor, so was once bald from hair loss during treatment (Was this even a back-metaphor, referencing the political ‘cancer’ of the country? Clever, if so.)( Female Chinese students in 2012 had their heads publicly shaved in opposition to what they regard as gender discrimination in Guangzhou province’s educational system (

Many might see nudity as the ultimate peacetime act of emotional bravery.

Now, while I’m not going to get naked soon, in terms of my emotional and psychological vulnerability I might just as well be planning to. On the evening of Wednesday 25 June, in central London, I’m launching the publication of my novel about a sassy London woman who gradually realises that she will remain single, childless and live alone – which isn’t ultimately depressing, I promise! (it can be preordered on Amazon: And my plan is to set out from Bar Titania at 75 Charing Cross Road, the venue, on a walkabout with any courageous women who care to accompany me. We’ll be carrying paper fans emblazoned with messages such as ‘Not reproducing does not mean failing,’ and ‘We’re here. We’re childless. We rock.’ We hope to stop women in the street and talk to them about their own experiences of singledom and childlessness, and in exchange give each of them a small gift, made by us with love and care. I’m absolutely terrified (Will anyone talk to us? Will they laugh at us? Will they reject us?) But, remembering Brene Brown, I’m going to do it.

Please come along to the upstairs room in the bar, any time from 7.00 pm onwards, if you’re a woman and you’d like to. Help me be brave. I’ll welcome you and thank you.

PC muses on children as pawns in the hands of Mick Philpott, Sajad Ahmed Rana… and Titania

Playing chess with children

Playing chess with children

In August 2006 Molly Campbell, a teenager of mixed ethnic origins, disappeared from her Glaswegian secondary school and her home orbit, where she lived with her mother… only to resurface, eventually, in Pakistan with her father, Sajad Ahmed Rana, and her sisters. It was yet another (alleged) parental child abduction, whose incidences, according to Reunite International, rose 164% between 1995 and 2010.

In May 2012 came the notorious case of the house fire in Allenton, Derbyshire, England in which six children died. Their father Mick Philpott had planned the fire with a neighbour, Paul Mosley, and with at least the knowledge and tacit support of his wife Mairead, in an attempt to incriminate his mistress, with whom there was a custody battle over the children. It seems that Philpott had intended to save the children, emerging as the media hero, but the blaze got hopelessly out of hand.

It’s easy to see the adult-offspring relationship as mere chess-with-the-children-as-pawns in such episodes, but when you look into the details, more often than not there’s also a lot of adult love for those children, albeit confused, misapplied and tangled love. Dismissing the individuals as ‘objectifiers’ of children is far too facile.

What has all this got to do with a childless blogger, you might ask? Well, in other posts (‘I’ve been a bit childish about wanting children’; ‘The childless woman: Paula Coston confronts 3 demons that make her feel bad’), I’ve tried to probe the deeper, more tangled motivations for wanting children myself. We all objectify each other, at least somewhat, a tendency that language just enforces. We talk about ‘having’ a partner, a lover, a husband, and so the same with children; at social gatherings, strangers ask you ‘Which ones belong to you?’

In my novel out this June, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, Martine, the central woman, is wrestling with the decision to receive a young stranger as a guest: I label this person, for much of the tale, ‘the object’ of her decision. Martine grows into wanting a child, on the back of a difficult affair with a man called Charlie; she incants to herself, ‘If I had a boy, I mean really had him, I wouldn’t grip him as I gripped onto Charlie’ – which implies of course that she knows all too well that she might. I deliberately set her in London during the burgeoning of capitalist Thatcher Britain, with its delight in the proliferation of ‘material things’.

There’s a blurred line between love and the need to help and give, and a grasping need that can only lead to exploitation or other destructive behaviour: for Martine as much as Mick Philpott and Molly Campbell’s father.

Many forces play their part in our attitudes to children: gender politics, for instance. Take the Fairy Queen Titania, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Titania and the changeling Indian boy by Joseph Bouvier, eighteenth century.

Titania and the changeling Indian boy by Joseph Bouvier, eighteenth century.

In this dramatised tale she’s taken charge of an Indian ‘changeling’ boy, the son of a votaress who died giving birth. A tug-of-war over the boy is the spark that fires the mix-ups and conflicts of the main characters. In some stagings of the play, we’re led to empathise with Titania’s reasons for holding onto him, to see this is a sisterhood thing. The two women used to laugh together, the votaress brought her ‘trifles’: ‘For her sake do I rear up her boy/and for her sake I will not part with him.’ In other interpretations, these can be played down, passed over as mere excuses in the fierce quarrel over the boy’s guardianship with Oberon, Titania’s royal husband.

Gender politics and male power play abound in the drama. After setting in train a chain of mischief intended to humiliate and subordinate his Queen, Oberon takes control of the boy at the end, a crude denouement in which Titania capitulates completely, making no objections at all. Of course it’s a male playwright who shapes events towards this close. In the royal couple’s broader associations too, the power lies all with Oberon and the patriarchy: ‘Titania’ gets her name from men, the Titans described by Ovid, one of whom we assume was her father, while Spenser’s Faerie Queene, written at about the same time as Shakespeare’s play, portrays Oberon as the father of Gloriana – the thinly disguised Queen Elizabeth I herself: he’s The Queen Father, in other words.

I mustn’t colour child exploitation as more male-influenced than female, though: that would be over-simplifying and debasing. Although statistics from Reunite International reveal a general assumption that more parental child abductions are by fathers, actually, up to the year 2010, 70% were by mothers.

Contradiction: Oberon and Titania, by Richard Dadd, 1854-8.

Contradiction: Oberon and Titania, by Richard Dadd, 1854-8.

Shakespeare’s Indian changeling encapsulates all sorts of knotty thoughts about our attitudes to children. For one thing, Shakespeare writes the child no lines, not even an entrance: in other words, no fought-over child need appear onstage at all. If he does, he’s usually a six-to-ten-year-old, wordless and soundless. Why? A modern audience might say, because the roots of our behaviour to children lie in our parental, even infantile behaviours as exposed all too clearly among ourselves as adults, without any need for children present.

Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety finds further gender issues in this little child’s case:

‘The changeling boy is in one way a figure for the boy actor, for the anxieties that surround him…. Is it a boy or a girl?…. Is he to be Titania’s or Oberon’s? Coded male or female? Crowned with flowers, and made all Titania’s joy, or raised up by Oberon, knight of his train, to roam the forests wild, and be his “henchman”? …. In Tudor and Stuart times – indeed, until fairly recently – young boys and girls were dressed identically until about the age of seven.’

So our ‘parenting’ of children may entail a (subconscious?) fight for our own gender’s supremacy.

It would be interesting to see 21st century gendered statistics on child custody quarrels: to what extent mothers fight for sons vs. daughters, fathers for daughters vs. sons. I’ve said here before that I can only trace my desire for a boy child, in particular, to some kind of subliminal wish to appropriate the ‘other’. The fact that Shakespeare’s boy is also a changeling, and Indian – representing the exotic riches of the East, just beginning to be sought after in England – enforces this sense of his ‘otherness’.

There’s another aspect to human attitudes to children. They’re smaller than us. And whether we like to admit it or not, ‘bigness makes us capable and independent. To put it crudely, the big have power over the small. And a sense of power, or at least agency, is a deeply satisfying assurance in human consciousness’ (Dr Linda Young of Deakin University, Small, Tiny, Minute: the appeal of the miniature). Titania is a fairy: in folklore unnamed, or known as Queen Mab, she is of tiny stature, with a carriage the size of a walnut shell, her ethereal attendants only the size of flowers. In staging Dream therefore, if we were being literal, we’d have to represent her infant ward as still more minute than her.

Susan Stewart explains our attraction to the small: ‘The miniature object has a paradox: it is more precious despite its smaller size because more labor is invested in its making.’ (The Indian boy is ‘manufactured’ in that he’s a work of Shakespeare’s imagination; but real-life mothers and child guardians also dress, teach, help ‘create’, imagine, the children whom they bring up.) Stewart goes on:

‘- Miniatures [are] nostalgia for [an imaginary/our own] childhood….
- Miniature transforms its context: “Scale is established by… correspondence to the familiar,” and miniature has the capacity to make its context remarkable.
- The miniature… is usually an “island”, uncontaminated and perfect. It has an immense effect on the viewer.’
(“Miniature”, in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, John Hopkins University Press, 1984).

This has been a bit of a rambling post. But the culmination of it is this:

On Wednesday 25 June, from 7.00 pm, I’m holding a publication party for my novel, all sympathetic fellowesses, including the press, invited. We’ll be celebrating not just the book but the many nurturing, intellectual and creative powers of alternative womanhoods, especially all womanhoods without children. So what better location could there be in central London, given the complexities of our attitudes, childless or not, to children, than Bar Titania, at 75 Charing Cross Road?

Bar Titania, 75 Charing Cross Road, London; nearest tube: Leicester Square

Bar Titania, 75 Charing Cross Road, London; nearest tube: Leicester Square

I’m discovering I’ve been ambivalent about having children – but I’m even ambivalent about that, Paula Coston admits

Children or not? Happy about being a ditherer or not?

Children or not? Happy about being a ditherer or not?

The female protagonist, Martine, in my novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, is ambivalent about having children. She admits this only to herself and, obliquely, to the little boy she writes to.

‘”When a woman’s expecting a baby… she’s going to have a better present than she’s ever thought of. She’s alive with it, she feels ill with it; she sees everything as changed…. Then, almost at once, there are threats ahead. Others will have to see him and hold him and know a lot about him…. He’ll grow and change… in her mind.’

A bit later her more private ruminations unfold:

‘A baby, … somehow, abruptly, she knew wasn’t what she’d want…. Martine knew that a girl wouldn’t do, wasn’t what she wanted either.’

I haven’t even been her level of honest. Back in my thirties, I did confess to friends and family that I wasn’t big on the baby side of things, was more attracted to the idea of older children, children developed to the extent that they could respond, interact, articulate their thoughts and feelings in words. But it’s taken nearly 59 years to admit even to myself that I was a physical coward, too, also frightened of the pain involved, the tearing side of childbirth – and maybe even of the fact of carrying another human being: the responsibility, the no-going-backness of its existence. One or two other, younger womenfriends who’ve been pregnant, or on the verge of it, have admitted much the same.

Apparently psychology recognises a personality trait or style, ‘ambivalent attachment’. According to the author of The Everything Psychology Book, Kendra Cherry:

‘As adults, those with an ambivalent attachment style often feel reluctant about becoming close to others and worry that their partner does not reciprocate their feelings. This leads to frequent breakups, often because the relationship feels cold and distant. These individuals feel especially distraught after the end of a relationship…. Another pathological pattern [is that] ambivalently attached adults may cling to young children as a source of security.’

This all sounds disturbingly familiar – right down to my insistent attachment – no pun intended – to the notion of offspring as a solution to some gulf in my life that was maybe more profound.

Dr Mario Mikulincer, Dean of the School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, says that ‘shades-of-grey’ people tend to experience troubled relationships, staying in them longer, whether they’re healthy ones or not; they’re also more likely to go through a divorce. Well, as a singleton, at least that’s one bullet I dodged. But in general, studies of ambivalence I’ve so far, well, studied show me to be a rather incompetent human being.

Dr Jeff Larsen is a Professor of Psychology at Texas Tech University, Lubbock specialising in ambivalence studies (it’s good to know that they’re getting even dithering sewn up). He gives me a bit more hope. Apparently, most people with tendencies to ambivalence show them reasonably consistently across different areas of their lives. Here I know that I’m an exception, thank God. I’m definite and decisive in practically every other aspect of my existence. I know this because I have a sister who is not (she jokes about it, and won’t mind my saying this). So it’s on motherhood alone that I have been a total wuss.

As for this, Larsen’s investigations seem to show that thinking in greytones is a sign of maturity, enabling people to see the world as it really is. “It’s a coming to grips with the complexity of the world,” he says. Moreover, their vision of all sides of an argument and their experiencing of mixed emotions seem to help them to empathize with others’ viewpoints. Plus, being used to contradictory feelings may give them healthier coping strategies when something disastrous happens. Plus again, such people may be more creative: varying emotions may prompt them to consider different ideas that they might otherwise have overridden. ( So maybe my sister and I shouldn’t feel all bad.

There’s a fabulous blog on motherhood indecisiveness, Maybe Baby, Maybe Not. Blogger Liz’s life’s work seems to consist of grappling with her own indecisiveness on this issue. I especially like her posts ‘Intellectualizing the Baby Decision’ ( and ‘Reasons Not to Reason Your Way through the Baby Decision’ ( Basically, she points out that, on motherhood, our havering is a kind of pseudo-rationalisation that really can’t apply. Summarising and quoting from an article by Alison Gopnik, she points out with her that

‘Rational decision-making assumes there is a single person with the same values before and after the decision….I can safely assume that if I prefer peaches now, the same “I” will prefer them after [a] purchase [of peaches over pears]. But what if making the decision turns me into a different person with different values?…. The person I am before I have children has to make a decision for the person I will be afterward…. [Even if] I don’t have kids, my future self will also be a different person, with different interests and values.’

It’s something of this awareness of the impossibility of future-proofing, of the inevitable uncertainty of the unknown, that I’ve tried to capture in the mind of my novel’s ‘heroine’, Martine.

Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity by Dr Mardy S. Ireland includes me firmly, reassuringly, in the motherhood ‘debate’. Within the changing psychological and social contexts of modern times she places women in three groups, according to the reasons for their childlessness: ‘traditional’, childless for biological reasons; ‘transitional’, without children because of ambivalence, and delaying circumstances; and ‘transformative’, who have consciously decided not to have children in order to develop lives outside parenthood.

The label ‘transitional’ sounds so much more positive than ‘ambivalent’.

I’m intrigued that Ireland’s last chapter takes us on to the legend of Lilith: supposedly, in multiple versions of the creation story, the first woman, even before Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden for her refusal to be subservient to Adam. To many interpreters of religious/mythical texts, Lilith was, if not still is, a symbol of evil, a kind of demon; but for Ireland, Lilith is symbolic of female desire and female power.

Categorising myself as nurturing and loving enough to be considered an ‘Amo’, an ‘alternative’ kind of mother, I’d like to see myself as still evolving, like Lilith, and growing more empowered – even in the dimension of, in my perception of, my own ambivalence. So I dedicate this post to her.

My novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy comes out on 25 June, and can be preordered now on Amazon.

Intersexuals, transsexuals, M-to-F, F-to-M: what does the brain want?

M to F, F to M: is the desire really for difference?

M to F, F to M: is the desire really for difference?

The traditions of indigenous cultures are abundant with examples of intersexuality, i.e. of one gender acting as the other. Intersexuality may feature either at certain periods of a person’s life or over a whole lifetime; sometimes, but not always, in the performance of a specific role. As far back as 1775 Thomas Falkner describes the sorcerers of Patagonia:

‘Male wizards are obliged (as it were) to leave their sex, and to dress themselves in female apparel, and are not permitted to marry… [These are] those who at that early time of life discover an effeminate disposition. They are clothed very early in female attire, and presented with the drum and rattles belonging to the profession they are to follow.’ (Descriptions of Patagonia).

Among the Sakalavas of Madagascar, little boys considered to have a feminine look were raised as girls. The gender-crossers of the Antandroy and Hova of Madagascar considered themselves real women, ignoring their birth gender, be-jewelling themselves, dressing their hair in female styles and practising women’s voices. It’s Zulu women who forecast rain, brandishing the male warriors’ accoutrements of spears and shields, symbolically/phallically penetrating the clouds. The Sotho of South Africa dress their girls as boys to initiate them into womanhood.

Roberta Perkins of the Gender Centre, Australia ( points out that the world is rich with instances of cross-dressing and cross-acting as ‘rites of rebellion’. During feasts, festivals and rituals (mummers’ parades, Mardi Gras, Hallowe’en), such ‘mutinies’ are a way of signposting a change in the ‘normal’/established order of things, a shift to some new phase of life or societal/seasonal state.

Of course there are many reasons why the genders cross over. Other ‘kinds’ of cross-dresser (‘kinds’ sounds crass and unfriendly, sorry) may happily function also when not cross-dressed. But for this particular post I’m focusing on, intrigued by, cross-dressers whose overwhelming ritual/cultural motivations take them over the ‘gender divide’. At least some seem psychologically to ‘become’ what they’re biologically not.

In addition, I’m talking here about transsexuals/the transgendered: those convinced they are, and choosing to live as, the opposite of their birth gender (Saila, a troubled transsexual, features in my forthcoming novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy).

Many writers have now demolished the ‘gender binary’ as crude and false. They cite societies such as the Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii: their mahu, men and women with a sacred role as guardians of Hawaiian ancient traditions and as teachers, fulfilled a gender role that somehow embraced both the feminine and the masculine. In India, a law has recently been passed recognising the hijra, the continent’s ‘third gender’ (although many are dubious that in practice, it will do much for the people it’s aimed at). ( So writers talk about three, four or even five genders these days, albeit sometimes lost down their own arseholes in further quibbling and debate.

Two-spirits of the Lakota tribe

Two-spirits of the Lakotla tribe

Among North American Indians, ‘alternative’ genders and gender roles have been found in over 155 tribes, echoing, and maybe derived from, similar traditions, long ago, among the native peoples of Siberia, and of parts of Central and Southeast Asia. Traditionally, North American culture believed in at least four gender states: masculine men, feminine women, feminine men and masculine women. In the past, they called the latter two berdaches (these days, commonly ‘two-spirits’). In about a third of tribes, they actually awarded formal status to females who undertook a man’s lifestyle: hunter, warrior, chief. There was disrespect, teasing and worse of berdaches in some groups, but in general, this was a serious, religious/spiritual belief.

For North American culture, this wasn’t about biology. The N.A. Indians stressed individual character over a superficial label based on birth gender, with a whole spectrum of possibilities: from slightly effeminate men or masculine women, to androgynes and the transgendered, to those who completely cross-dressed and -acted. (Sadly, the Sister Girls within the aboriginal population of Australia – biologically male – don’t necessarily have the same weight and muscle of indigenous tradition and understanding behind them.

But why do some of us tend towards our gender opposite more than others?

In 1995, Zhou et al. discovered that a region of the brain called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTc) approached average female size in male-to-female transsexuals and average male size in female-to-male transsexuals. Follow-up researches revealed that the numbers of neurons in the brain also corresponded to the average numbers for the sex to which a transsexual tended.

A team at the National University of Distance Education in Madrid, Spain studying transsexuals who had declared themselves female-to-male found that four regions of their brains had white matter resembling that in a male brain; male-to-female transsexuals, equally, had white matter indicating that they were ‘on the way to’ being feminised. The Karolinska Institute, Sweden goes on to theorise that one of the four brain regions in particular, with its white matter connecting the parietal and frontal lobes, might well have implications for transsexuals’ body perception. ( So the brain and its neurons are a cause of our compulsions.

Brain investigations like these may begin to explain why one gender inclines toward its opposite. But it’s not as simple as some of us ‘tending to be different’ (or even rather different) from what we, biologically, are.

Further brain studies show another facet to our uncontrollable inclinations: that they may be urges toward sameness, and not ‘difference’ at all.

In the 1980s, Giacomo Rizzolatti et al. discovered that specific neurons would fire in a macaque monkey when observing a fellow monkey picking up a peanut, or popping it into its mouth. Thing was, they were exactly the same neurons as were firing in the eating monkey: ‘mirror neurons’, as they became known. The indications are that the same empathetic tendency happens in human brains.

Now, investigations are focused on whether our brain chemistries mirror – empathise with – others’ emotions and sensations when we perceive them, too. ( But it does look very much as if our brains are prompting us to walk in the shoes of the ‘other’.

I’m not a scientist. This is just me the philosopher and optimist speaking. There would be something heartwarming, wouldn’t there, if these researches all came together one day: if there was an eventual scientific discovery that, biologically too, our neurons are spurring us – wherever we are on the gender spectrum – towards solidarity and fellow feeling, not dissension, with our fellows of the ‘opposite’ physiological sex?

With many thanks to Alastair Baird and Clare Hudman for their inspirations, which lie behind this post.


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