Smug and condescending and/or revered and masterly (depending on your point of view) 64-year-old Jeremy Paxman, recently retired presenter of the BBC’s flagship political programme Newsnight, has got himself into trouble lately. During a practice run for his virgin Edinburgh Fringe comic stand-up routine (‘Paxo’), he recommended Dignitas clinics on every street corner masquerading as tea shops into which we could lead the unsuspecting old people who, according to him, overrun us and who also, according to him, misguidedly believe that the state owes them a pension. A modern-day Sweeney Todd regime.
Genocide jokes against any recognised demographic slice aren’t funny. I’m in agreement there. Nor, probably, is the generalised mockery of any recognised demographic slice. But while old people humour may be off-limits, old age comedy is possibly a different matter.
We all know why Paxo did it: he even said so. His hammed-up prejudice was rooted in real fear; after all, he confessed, he’s about to become, if only according to prevailing pension rights definitions, an ‘old man’ himself (currently in the UK, women become ‘old women’ five years earlier). Why is this scary? Because, he said, the numbers of older people are growing. In the UK in 2013, more than 10 million were over 65; by 2050, the predicted figure is 19 million. The 2011 England and Wales census found 1.25 million aged 85 or over compared with 1.01 million in 2001 (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/mortality-ageing/characteristics-of-older-people/what-does-the-2011-census-tell-us-about-the-oldest-old-living-in-england-and-wales?/) As long ago as 1989, the International Labour Organisation, Geneva pointed out that in most developed countries there had been a dramatic vertical growth in families at the expense of horizontal shrinkage. The four-generation family had arrived, with an 85-year-old likely to be cared for by a 60-year-old child, who might in turn be supporting a 40-year-old child and that child’s teenage offspring: this due to the population’s overall decreased fertility and increased longevity. The ILO described the trend as a shift in demographic shape from a pyramid to a pillar. It’s not so far a stretch from this to a startling inverted pyramid.
But why do sheer numbers scare us so? There are several influences on our terrors; Susan Fiske and Michael North of Princeton University name three of them.
The first issue lies around consumption: ‘They’re sucking us dry.’ We resist the notion that the elderly are consuming huge quantities of scarce resources. The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions stated in 2013 that 65% of its spending was on those over working age; the UK’s Department of Public Health estimated in 2013 that someone over 85 was about three times more expensive to care for than someone between 65 and 75; and apparently, UK state benefits and the National Health Service spend the majority of their finance (around half of UK government expenditure) on older people.
The second issue is about succession: ‘They’re stamping us down.’ Many believe, consciously or otherwise, that older people should sacrifice the jobs and social positions they hold, especially if they’re attractive ones, to allow younger hopefuls their ‘turn': the underlying assumption being that this is an inter-generational competition.
The third issue revolves around older people’s image and identity: ‘They’re imitating us better than we do.’ Older people are healthier for longer these days; are reaping the benefit of treatments, cosmetics and fashions to make themselves look younger; and live longer looking better. Yet there’s an underlying expectation that the elderly should not appear, or act, younger than they are (again, surely through a subconscious fear of competition – as well as a kind of outrage that our ‘elders and betters’ are breaking societal rules; rules that, of course, younger generations have written.)(http://www.academia.edu/2554283/Act_Your_Old_Age_Prescriptive_Ageist_Biases_over_Succession_Consumption_and_Identity)
I’d add a fourth issue: modern society’s inbuilt aesthetic squeamishness: ‘They’re making the place ugly.’ In this cosmetic-surgical, bodybuilt age of image-hyperconsciousness, we’re simultaneously, self-contradictorily, repulsed by appearance stereotypes of the old: wrinkling, shrinkage, incontinence, bandages and tubing, weakening, encroaching stupidity, dribbling, dementia and bad dentistry. Scary, then, that the statistics tell us that we should expect to see more of it.
The result is that these days, older people aren’t just objects of fear: they’re also useful scapegoats for collective social problems – as Paxo painted them, to his cost. Jean Carette, retired Professor at the University of Quebec, Montreal, explains that as the Baby Boomers become the Grandparent Boomers, they’re assumed ‘to have all the privileges and to have monopolized the advantages of their generation, leaving [us] strangled by the debt, collapsing under the load of elders and condemned to the decline.’
The section headed ‘Ageism: Concepts and Theories’ in a Law Commission of Ontario paper on older adults (http://www.lco-cdo.org/en/older-adults-lco-funded-papers-charmaine-spencer-sectionII), the same article that quotes Carette, reminds me that we’ve inherited from the ancient Greeks two models of the older person: not just the ‘geronte‘, ‘the ridiculous old person with cognitive and other declines’ but also the ‘presbyte‘ – ‘the wise old person rich in experience and wisdom’. Shame on us in the west that we can’t even respect the presbyte model in our old age nomenclature: that we call old people ‘the elderly’ and ‘the aged’, with their connotations of mental and physical frailty, or the patronising ‘our seniors’, ‘your loved one’ – and, to their faces, ‘ladies’ or ‘gentlemen’ – when a simple ‘you’ might be preferred. Equally though, I know we have to beware of applying the politically correct ‘successful ageing model’ to everyone, a beatific ideal which denies the realities of sickness and dependency for many older people.
Old age should be the bogeyman, not the old.
And if you fear something, it’s often good to defy it, and one way of defying it is to be funny about it. In a US study of older male patients, those scoring highest on a humour survey recovered fastest from their cataract operations; in another study, the older residents of an apartment block who began to watch I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners reported an increasing sense of wellbeing.(http://help4srs.org/seniortruth/?p=607) In the 1990s, a rise in the popularity of so-called laughter yoga clubs started with groups of older people in parks. (Supposedly, faking jolliness can fool the brain into releasing feel-good endorphins – and boosting physiological immunity, too.) So older people making Youtube videos of themselves doing lipsynch montages or the Harlem shake are fine with me (http://www.care2.com/greenliving/4-fabulous-examples-of-elders-defying-ageism-video.html). Ditto humorous greetings cards that they may choose happily to send to each other: ‘Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them either,’ ‘You know you’re getting older when your back goes out more than you do.’ Still, it would be nice if there were more cards based on positive old age humour: ‘An old maid is a woman who has missed the chance of getting a divorce.’ ‘Girlfriend – when we’re older we’re going to be SOBs – Spectacular Older Babes.’ ‘A reporter was interviewing a man on his 100th birthday. “Have you lived here all your life?” “Not yet!”‘
(I’m well aware that I keep talking about older people as ‘them’, even though at 59, like Paxo, I’m one of ‘them’ myself. I know this in many ways, the most recent confirmation being searching Shutterstock et al. under ‘older people’ for an image to illustrate this post and discovering to my horror that to Shutterstock et al., ‘older people’ clearly mean people who look around the age of 40 max.)
So let’s direct some humour at the ageists themselves. I ransacked the net but couldn’t find a single joke at their expense. Here’s a tentative first try.
Aestheticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who doesn’t look pretty.
Asceticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who’s using up too many rations.
Anti-athleticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who can row.
Appearanceism (my coinage): Get anyone to jump out of the raft who’s prettier than you, or seems more energetic.
Ageism: Everyone in the above categories older than you, get them to jump (if they can still hear, use their limbs and follow simple instructions).
Well, I did say that it was only a first try.
(Anti-ageism: Get Paxo to swim for it too. A fair definition? You decide.)
Next time I’ll get more personal, avoiding the ‘them-isms’. That post I hereby fore-entitle Ageism Part II: The Singlism and the Sexism of It….
As most of you are aware by now, I’m ‘older’ (59), single and childless. What you may not know is that I also live in a cohousing community. A cohousing community is often defined as a self-designed collection of dwellings, probably including communal areas, conceived by a group of individuals who may well not have known each other before the project started, with express intent: they’ve come together with a shared ethos of neighbourly behaviour and a degree of mutual support in mind.
In other European countries, Canada and elsewhere around the world, there can be state support for cohousing; but in the UK, the government won’t underwrite it, even fractionally, so the seed money must be found otherwhere: in the case of my shared home, from the stakes of those who first planned to live here bolstered by bank loans. Now it’s built and up and running, new occupants either buy their homes (whether flat or house), or rent them; we also pay a monthly charge, related to the square metreage of our dwellings, which goes towards communal upkeep (after all, we have shared, unfenced garden areas; a shared kitchen and dining room for thrice-weekly-plus community meals, if we opt for them; a shared party/meeting/social space; a shared workshop; a shared laundry; and a shared games room). (http://www.therightplace.net/coco/public/)
I’ve written many times here about the various ‘alternative womanhoods’ to which I belong: older womanhood, childless womanhood, single womanhood; but as yet I’ve never mused about where such womanhoods might live in order to optimise our happiness, and our sense of social connectedness and usefulness; and also, perhaps, in order to iron out the impressions of our inequality that we can suffer from in wider social groups. There’s a yearning in many of us, artificial nostalgia or otherwise, for some Utopia in which we all ‘get on’ cheek by jowl along some sun-drenched street (or compound of mud huts), having our errands done for us by accessible willing Others while we preserve the precious limits on our privacy. Although Martine, the main protagonist in my novel, lives in a highrise block, her friendships being a physically dispersed network, there are signs even in her of personal effort towards some embryonic community, somehow to be formed from among the neighbours in the flats around her.
‘The problem is to find a form of association which will defend with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone.’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778)
Too true, Jean-Jacques. In Norman Rush’s brilliant, challenging novel Mating (1991), the two main characters recognise that in any society some responsibilities and roles will be unpopular, if not positively repulsive – the classic being the job of the night soil man (or woman); yet in any Utopia, each individual must be able to ‘obey himself alone’, i.e., shouldn’t feel co-opted. Where I live, we try to notch up a quota of hours annually spent on workdays, when such jobs as weeding, cleaning, re-decorating, repairs, log-cutting and other such tasks are done in the communal areas; but I have to say that I wouldn’t do any, or many, of these by choice, as I have a full-time job, and also have my own flat to clean and maintain and keep tidy.
There’s a whole heap more issues than this with successfully inhabiting an intentional community. Casting around for a supportive history of all-female living arrangements, you might be tempted to glean inspiration from the tradition of convent life – for about two seconds, before you’re reminded that nunneries have long been instruments of patriarchy, ultimately subject to male domination and control, partly through such rules as silence, obedience and chastity. Yes, many convents have also been sanctuaries for single, childless and ageing women; but they have almost always had clausura, i.e. rigid separation from the rest of society, as a condition of entry – despite whatever social duties ‘outside’ (almsgiving to the poor, etc.) they might also expect of their members. (Veronika Čapská, Ellinor Forster, Janine Christina Maegraith, Christine Schneider Opava, eds., Between Revival and Uncertainty. Monastic and Secular Female Communities in Central Europe in the Long Eighteenth Century,Silesian University in Opava, 2012) Other religions though do have cohabitational groupings along gender lines – certain Buddhist men- and women-only communities in the UK, for instance – and I’m led to believe, quite successfully.
There are other examples of female communities around the world. http://nomenallowed.wordpress.com describes the Umoja Women’s Group, a cooperative of some 46 women living near the small town of Archer’s Post in the Kenyan Chalbi desert. Here, female members work and live together, supporting themselves by making and selling tribal jewellery for local tourists. However, bitchiness, rivalry and conflict still feature in this lifestyle.
http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/05/where-women-rule-the-world-matriarchal-communities-from-albania-to-china-3525234/ lists examples of female-run communities, though few are majority or all-female. In the Kingdom of Women on Lugu Lake in China, 40,000 women live unmarried with no word for ‘father’ or ‘husband’, taking lovers at will from within the tribe. This is a matrilineal society, with property handed down through the female line and no stigma attached to ignorance of a child’s fatherhood. Sadly, the wider world has often misunderstood this system, with male outsiders arriving sometimes as sex tourists, disturbing the social equilibrium. The tribes of the Indian state of Meghalaya also run a matrilineal ship: the youngest daughter in a family inherits all property, but is also responsible for her ageing parents and any unmarried siblings. But again, this is power reversal, not an all-women’s Utopia: it’s telling that now, men’s rights groups are emerging.
The unnamed female adventurer-anthropologist in Rush’s novel does discover a predominantly female culture, run by women, at a fictional place called Tsau, in the middle of the Kalahari desert. In her notes, she describes it:
‘200 homesteads, 10 new ones under construction…. Circa 450 total population. 50 men, at most…. Children 40, up to preadolescence. All the rest women, 70 percent past childbearing age, 30 percent otherwise. Younger women known as queens…, older women aunts or aunties…: these terms used openly and not unfriendlily on both sides.’
The community tries hard to be self-sufficient, using the environment (sun, rainwater) to its benefit, attempting to create equitable systems of management, property ownership and personal wealth.
The rationale for establishing it is stated by its founder, the charismatic Nelson Denoon:
‘… despite apparent differences every society can be analyzed to show that women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives and the physical reproduction of male power….[Furthermore,] because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone.’
The irony is that he’s a man of course, and that he lives there himself, a well-intentioned spider at the centre of his own web. As a man, together with one or two disruptive younger men who figure in the community, he grows unhappy with the way his creation is evolving (as do some women); and in the end, differences of opinion, deliberately stirred-up unrest and dramatic events affect his own ideal.
Non-fictionally, a group of older women are currently setting up an intentional all-female community in Barnet, London: http://www.owch.org.uk/. http://www.alapine.org/herstory.html is the (also non-fictional) site of the Alapine Community, which describes itself as an ‘all womyn’s intentional community’ set up on a plot of hundreds of acres of mountainous rural Alabama and inhabited by a group of women aged from 50-80, some living on-, some living off-, grid, with environmental concerns very much in mind. It’s hard to tell from their public-facing details how much conflict they’ve experienced, but it’s clear there has been some, as they’re a breakaway from the all-women’s Pagoda community of 1977, and they speak of using techniques for conflict resolution.
I come back to my own home, though. Ultimately I think I still feel ambivalent about all-women communities. They’re at root artificial, and homogeneous (excuse the male-coloured word): bubbles, scientifically induced cultures, outside mainstream society. Here in my cohousing, we hold a women’s group every fortnight whose practice of active listening I really value; we also have a mix of ages, marital and family arrangements and gender orientations. We’re probably unsatisfactorily middle-class for many tastes, despite our best intentions to the contrary.
In the end, I don’t think I want to live away from the wonderful company of the children who surround me, even though I don’t have them myself; from women younger than I am; or from men. I just want society to recognise me more for what I am, and to offer me the status and the roles that I feel I richly deserve.
This post is dedicated to Kathryn Mccamant, co-author, with Charles Durrett, of Cohousing, which, with The Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, underpins the ethos of our own cohousing community.
I have five nephews and two nieces. But maybe I’m a bit slow or something: it’s only in the last few years that I’ve realised in how many different ways we women can play the part of aunt – even if, like me, we’re also single, older and childless.
Today, as I’ve probably said often enough on here, 1 in 5 women in North America, Australasia and the UK has had no biological children by the end of her fertile years. Yet society lags behind, parent/child-centric, obsessed with Motherhood and Apple Pie. Shame on us if we fail to deliver on that ideal, so a widespread mythology goes.
My novel, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, has just come out (http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+far+side+theres+a+boy; and http://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston). Researching and writing it helped me to explore the role of aunt to the full. If a woman is childless, it had me asking, what other functions can she have?
In it, I tell the story of two women from vastly different cultures. Martine, a feisty London woman, navigates her life from the 1980s to now uncertain about wanting motherhood, and about what kind of mother she’d choose to be. She juggles family relationships (sometimes troublesome), a fulfilling job, and a frantic social and dating life. This was typical of many young women in the 1970s and ’80s, offered far more opportunities than the generations before us. No one should blame us for trying to embrace all those chances, even if at the expense of parenthood.
Anupama lives on the exotic Asian island of Sri Lanka. Also an aspirational woman, from a younger generation, she’s uncertain about having a family for different reasons from Martine. Martine loves her mother but is distant from her in some ways; Anupama lives in a remote mountain village with her extended family, and her mother is sick. For these reasons, women’s roles other than motherhood become important to them both.
In parts of Africa, families regard a father’s sister as a kind of female father: she can discipline her brother’s children, arrange her nephew’s marriage and bar him from choosing an unacceptable mate. In Sri Lanka, aunts are termed ‘mothers’.’Senior mother’ is the name for a father’s older sister, again implying more status for aunts than in the west. Actually, any mature woman tends to be dubbed ‘auntie’. But then, most Asians value older generations, and close community groupings that spread beyond the nuclear family, more than western/northern societies.
My story tells how Martine becomes penpal to Anupama’s little brother through charitable giving: Martine’s money from London goes to local community projects. His letters start to get to her:
‘Out of nowhere he broke through Martine like a bead of blood through a membrane….
“What I like most is writing to you….I have things still to say to you…. I ardently wish you were here.”
The words of that letter had hit some soft spot….’
I was a charity penpal to a child abroad myself. It can be a wonderful, aunt-like relationship, educational on both sides. I’ve kept ‘my’ boy’s letters, photos and drawings to this day. There are several international charities that operate this way.
My teenage Anupama is oppressed by her mother’s sickness, by the narrow outlook of her ‘senior and junior mothers’ and by a burden of family responsibility beyond her years. She longs for an empathetic, mentorly figure. She adores but envies her brother his letter-writing outlet, wishing Martine was somehow ‘hers’. She begins confiding in the moon instead, having conversations with it and calling it ‘Handanandamama’, ‘Auntie-Uncle’, her tribute to the special value of aunthood.
More proactive than the moon, over the years I’ve become a godmother four times; as an alternative, several women I know, friends of families of another religion or none, have been designated ‘special aunts’. (Some cultures seriously venerate godmotherhood. In Brazil, PANKs® – Professional Aunts No Kids – the term Savvy Auntie founder, Melanie Notkin, dubbed in 2008 for childless women who are aunts or godmothers by relation, or by choice, to a child in their life – spend more on their godchildren than conventional aunts.)
My Martine doesn’t become a godmother, but as her window onto motherhood recedes she gains two nieces and, like me, takes on the ‘standard’ role of aunt, amazed to the point of awe by her sense of inclusion and involvement:
‘She’d dreaded … the holy family … in its halo of happiness. She hadn’t anticipated the baby handed to her, to herself painted into the picture.’
I soon realised how much I enjoyed my nieces’ and nephews’ company. I took them on outings, laughed with them, helped them with homework and exams. Now most are in their twenties, and that relationship has evolved into something new, but as special. One nephew and I have started letter-writing, spurning emails and Facebook (his suggestion); the results are sometimes comic, sometimes moving and profound.
As Martine’s fictional nieces grow up, she finds herself a useful confidante on delicate matters.
‘Gretel said, “Um. You’re not here…. Men and women. Um…. Look,” Gretel burst out. “There’s a boy…. We don’t… do anything.”‘
I’ve become a kind of mentor too: to one niece, and a daughter, in her thirties, of an ex-business partner and friend. We meet for drinks, meals and trips out. We ask each other’s advice across the generations: on work, family, relationships – and now in Charlotte’s case, a wedding.
I’m blessed. Although single and without children of my own, I live in an extended family of a sort. The ‘cohousing community’ I inhabit is a large group of neighbours who have designed the architecture of what we call ‘home’ to include our own private living spaces – flats and houses – but also gardens; a communal building with a dining room for us to share meals weekly if we want; a large party and meeting room; a games room; a DIY workshop, and more. Singles, families, couples and less traditional households, we have fun together or apart. I love having so many children close at hand.
Martine and I have one other auntly experience (correct term: materteral experience!) in common. I’ve been a ‘guardian’ to an international student, here to study at a UK school for a semester or two, needing somewhere local to stay in her vacation. Rather than go out, and be active, she preferred mostly to stay in, to enjoy (?) my home cooking and hunker down with her tablet and a TV in a cosier, more private space than her boarding dorm.
Martine considers doing the same. For all kinds of difficult reasons, though, she’s uncertain about it. The guardian agent rings her.
‘”Look, we really can’t wait much longer,” says Jocelyn Teague….”There’s a family involved as well, waiting to know.”
“And you say it has to be this one,” says Martine. “It’s only that, ideally…”.
“We’ve been through this before,” says Jocelyn Teague.
“I can’t tell you just yet.” Martine puts down the phone.’
Will she follow through? Ah, well for that, you’ll have to read On the Far Side, There’s a Boy to find out. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+far+side+theres+a+boy; and http://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston)
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:
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:
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 entitled Family without a Child. Do listen, and let me know what you think!
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. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14122050)
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.
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).(http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131019-killer-whales-menopause-hot-flash-marine-mammals/)
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.(http://www.livescience.com/22574-menopause.html)
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….
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 (http://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston) 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.
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.
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, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability; and http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.
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 http://belladepaulo.com/; ‘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].’ (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability) 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 (http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/07/the-naked-world-of-spencer-tunick/100344/): 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. ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2600275/Venezuelan-students-protest-police-brutality-posting-naked-pictures-Twitter.html)
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.)(http://www.newsdzezimbabwe.co.uk/2013/09/khupe-in-bald-protest-over-mugabe.html). 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 (http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=964_1346578638).
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: https://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston). 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.