I’m working my way through a really helpful, intelligent and interesting book, Jody Day’s Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful Life Without Children. (She’s the founder of Gateway Women, the online community for the childless that I’ve recommended here before.) Six weeks in, six to go. And I’ve discovered that, even with 58 years behind me, it’s not too late for revelations about my attitudes to my childless condition.
Each chapter ends with an exercise. At the end of chapter 3, for instance, she sets the reader to writing on individual Post-it notes in one colour, without forethought, a word or phrase that springs to mind when you think of the word ‘mother’; and on another set of Post-its, in another shade, a word or phrase that occurs spontaneously in relation to the word ‘children’.
There’s more to do in this task; but it took only this portion of the work to bring me up short. On my notes about ‘mother’, I had written ‘hard-working’, ‘trapped’, ‘dutiful’, ‘conscientious’: words like that. When it came to ‘children’, my words and phrases included ‘fun’, ‘interesting’, ‘noisy’, ‘different’, and – most surprising of all – ‘storybook’. The two sets seemed to jar, to have been written by different people, almost.
It was the ‘children’ list that really arrested me. Instead of prompting me to dwell on the offspring I knew or yearned for, as you’d think it might, it took me unexpectedly back to my own childhood – specifically the phase, between the years of about seven and eleven, when I was quite a solitary girl. My sister and brother, younger than me, often played together, and I felt left to my own devices – or perhaps it was the other way round: maybe I found my own amusements, thus throwing them into an excluding twosome.
We lived in an idyllic place, or so I found it: a picture-book English cottage on the edge of fields, with different outdoor ‘rooms’ screened with hedges and scented rosebeds: swings and outbuildings and caged raspberry canes bordered with rustic trellis, and the green of feudal ridged terrain just beyond the wonky open fence, with hidden muds which oozed and sucked thrillingly at your Wellington boots, and a ditch stream with a log across it that I associated with pirates’ gangplanks, or the ‘pooh sticks’ game from Winnie-the-Pooh, or re-branded as gangways into a different world. Beyond the fields lay a lake that froze so hard in that fabled winter of 1966 that everyone went skating, pushing chairs ahead of them to keep themselves upright. My parents had a patio laid (such style for the time!) outside our playroom, with multi-coloured slabs that I imagined as islands, or a map of different lands, or pathways to them. I used to just stand and stare at them and imagine, I remember.
These fantasies were fed, even germinated, by my voracious reading habits, alone in my dim, sloping-floored cottage bedroom. Among the many books I loved were the prolific series featuring groups of adventurous children. Enid Blyton, of course; Swallows and Amazons; and my own more obscure favourite, the tales by one ‘M.E.Atkinson’ of outdoor fun on water and land, often involving bikes, horses and boats.
Little did I realise – till I did Jody’s exercise – how those children had seeped into my dreams of parenthood, romanticising them, limiting their realism. If I had children, at least part of my subconscious had clearly persuaded me, they’d be fit, energetic, intelligent, self-sufficient types with clearly distinctive personalities and – maybe most telling of all – they’d be out a lot, and therefore undemanding.
I think back to the character lists from those series, and also have to confess that the children I liked least – even, dare I say it, despised – were the domesticated types. In those days, all girls, of course. (Maybe this is another factor in my inclination towards a desire to mother boys.) In Swallows and Amazons, there was Susan Walker, ship’s mate, the cook and campsite organiser, conservative in nature, quiet and self-controlled. I may even have preferred the Secret Seven to the Famous Five, I now suspect, precisely because there wasn’t a personality like Anne in that gang, spoofed in the TV series ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset’, whose tedious ‘indoorsy’ role in the Famous Quintet involved planning, organising and preparing meals and keeping wherever they were staying – cave, tent, old hut – clean and tidy. Then there was Sugar in M.E. Atkinson’s Castaways series:
‘Sugar was the quiet, motherly sort…. Without Sugar… there would have been few buttons or tapes on anybody’s clothes….’
To blacken her further, just like me she found any kind of physical trials unappealing and scary. In shunning these types, I was developing as an escapist from myself: from my flaws and inhibitions, I wanted out.
As for the ‘mother’ side of my thinking exercise… My mother mothered me brilliantly; so I shiver with guilt now, perceiving how those precious texts of mine antagonised me to characters like her, and to her whole role as parent and housewife.
Looking at it as a confessedly hardly-grown-up child, isn’t ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset’ a teensy bit pernicious in making such fun of the lack of intelligence in her role? (But now I’m probably getting too po-faced about great comedy.)
Bottom line is, in coming to terms with my childlessness and my sense of bereavement from the role of mother, it turns out I’ve still got a lot of growing up to do.
This post is dedicated to my wonderful mother, with profuse apologies for my earlier childish prejudices.
A grim yet mesmerising subject, child stealing.The frisson of our something-more-than-outrage, the revulsion and anxiety triggered in us by any news or mention of yet another child abduction, seems to tap into a collective seam of myth and terror that most of us, shivering, can readily acknowledge and share.
In many biblical story versions, the young Benjamin is taken from his family to be a slave. Leaping on to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, research by Dr Bart van Es, an Oxford academic (Shakespeare in Company, 2013), has recently exposed the way that child catchers grabbed little boys on their way to school from the London streets. They were then forced to perform onstage on threat of a whipping, frequently in seedy, semi-dark theatres – venues quite different from, and in competition with, the public theatres such as Shakespeare’s – in order to titillate the generally male audiences. Shockingly, Elizabeth I signed warrants allowing the practice.
Dr van Es explains that ‘In at least one case, a father tried desperately to recover a child who had been snatched and taken to the Blackfriars playhouse.’ A gang ‘did haul, pull, drag and carry away’ 13-year-old Thomas Clifton on his way to school. ‘When his father attempted a rescue by turning up at the playhouse, he was contemptuously dismissed and told that if his son did not learn his lines he would be whipped.’
The whole sordid business throws a potentially murky light on any contemporary adulations of ‘beautiful boys’, and references to children’s theatres, in the literature of the time.
Meanwhile in the 17th century US, children were kidnapped to furnish the North American colonies with an ample supply of servants and labourers.
Jamila Gavin’s classic children’s historical novel Coram Boy, set in the 18th century, feeds into this same vein of revulsion. The venial Otis takes babies and money off desperate mothers, promising to deliver them to the Coram Foundling Hospital in London. Instead, he murders them and buries them by the roadside, to the helpless horror of his mentally ill son, Mish. As a central part of the plot, Otis takes Aaron, the illegitimate baby son of Melissa, then pretends he’s stillborn, and has had to be buried.
Our deep-rooted fear of child stealers is also fuelled by myths and stories about changelings, as http://www.lifepaths360.com explains.
‘People believed fairies, trolls, and elves snuck into the bedroom of sleeping infants to trade the new baby for their own offspring….
‘Sometimes the changeling was believed to be a … piece of wood which would appear to quickly grow sick and die. Creatures would use a changeling to exchange with human children so the children could be used as servants, or because the creature loved humans and wanted a human child.
‘Sometimes the changeling was used as a form of malice. The Church believed changelings were used to punish parents who did not baptize their children, claiming trolls could not touch blessed infants.
‘Changelings were a common theme in medieval literature, as they were used to explain misunderstood infant afflictions such as certain diseases, disorders, or mental retardation.
‘Sadly, the reality behind changelings stemmed from the birth of deformed or developmentally disabled children. Some modern day diseases which fit the description of changelings in various legends are spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, Hunter syndrome, regressive autism, and cerebral palsy. Changelings have found their place in autistic culture, as elven changelings were blamed for the inexplicably varying behavior of the autistic child.’
‘Changelings were identified with a number of qualities. First, the changeling infant often failed to thrive. Changelings were considered to have undesirable traits, such as voracious appetites, malicious attitudes, and difficulty moving. Changelings also had pale skin, and an amazing amount of intelligence.
‘Infant changelings could speak early, and Scottish changelings were believed to have a love of playing the bagpipes. The[y] … would play the instrument early, and with no prior teaching. This belief explains the strong link between elven changelings and autistic children.’
‘Human changeling legends are also a way of dealing with the fear and uncertainty around raising a creature as vulnerable as a human newborn. People believed if they turned their backs for even a second, their child would die or be swapped. Legends often cite a beggar woman who admires the child just before the mother notices a shift in its behavior or appearance. Constant vigilance, lights, an article of the father’s clothing, sharp instruments, spices, and even the Bible have all been used to ward off baby-swappers.’
Maurice Sendak, author of the widely-known children’s picture book (now film) Where the Wild Things Are, didn’t hold back on the scariness of such scenarios in his less well-known Outside Over There. Whether we give this to our children to study rather depends on whether we’re of the ‘We must protect our children from the awareness of all perils’ brigade or not.
In her book Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (1997), Professor Paula S. Fass tries to unpick our fears. She argues that kidnapping plays out society’s fear of sexuality and abandonment and of the dissolution of the family.
‘On one hand, [over the years] you have the loosening of sexual taboos. On the other, you have the fear that this opening will target your child. We have women liberated from the home, and the fear that a stranger in your house can kill your child when we’re out at work trying to make a living.’
Like Sendak, who used the case as his inspiration for Outside Over There, Fass is struck by the legendary abduction of the rich child Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., which exposed the vulnerability even of society’s elite.Then she narrates how by the 1950s, ‘increasing concern about gender roles and sexuality came about at the same time that the kidnapping threat turned into fear of the sexual predator’, rendering child abduction today a strange and nasty contradiction of anxiety and titillation.
I’m a childless woman; but I find that even the psyche of this particular non-mother has daubed the images of stolen children and the terrors of child thievery onto the gory paint palette of my fears. Somehow I’ve subconsciously appropriated it as yet one more metaphor for my loss of the chance of parenthood. Ironically you could say that in doing so I too have, in a sense, become a stealer of children.
Last post I spoke from the heart about childlessness, I mean childlessness not by choice but by circumstance. This time, I won’t talk about the uncontrollable gut, that harsh unstoppable anguish, those visceral keenings, but about the guilt that comes along with them. And there are plenty of reasons for it: factors, influences.
For one, the phenomenon of overpopulation. A recent UN report predicted that the global population will be some 9.22 billion by 2075. It’s already around the 7 billion mark. Life expectancy is rising, and will continue to. While mortality rates in some developing countries will stay high, they’re likely to be approximately counterbalanced, apparently, by high fertility rates in those same countries. And certain developed regions in particular – the USA and Europe, including the UK – will continue to be magnets for large-scale migration. With serious and more widespread food and water shortages predicted before too long, why want to bring more children into the world? Hence at least a measure, for many women incapable of crushing their yearnings, of their guilt.
The second demon? Our pervasive cult of the child (Sorry. This clichéd phrase is lazy, a casual shorthand. The Indian Hindus worship a god, Kumara/Skanda, a boy youth, for ever childish: mischievous, with a love of playing pranks. Now that’s a cult of the child.)
In western countries, motherhood has become more and more ‘fetishised’ – and Jody Day of the online community Gateway Women describes the process, better than I ever could. Today, in so many parts of western civilization (not Germany, though, interestingly), maternity is assumed to be the normative ideal, women’s aspiration of default: ‘motherhood and apple pie’. I’ll leave the exposition to Jody Day; but its counterpart, our modern ‘cult of the child’ is the natural concomitant to that.
The trend towards child adulation began in the eighteenth century, gathering momentum in Victorian times when the poetry of the Romantics and William Blake venerated the innocence that to them, children seemed to represent. Wordsworth and later writers saw a kind of holiness in children, which seemed confirmed by the Bible: ‘Whosoever receiveth this child in My name receiveth Me’ (Luke 9:48). And in several of Dickens’s novels, children are portrayed as having the power to redeem adult characters who have fallen into evil ways. Over time, writers and artists sentimentalised children more and more: in artistic representations, they were often mawkishly idealised as near-angels on earth.
The Victorians passed a raft of laws aimed at protecting children’s wellbeing at work, in the home and at school, too. This reflected their growing conviction that children were different from adults; spontaneous and joyful, a quality adults could often only aspire to; creatures to be shielded from the harsher side of life. There was probably guilt behind this idealisation, too: children were still exploited and ill-treated in mills, factories, home, school and many other places. But children were everywhere: one in three of Queen V’s subjects was under fifteen; and by 1901, when she died, the idea that children had rights, to be protected by the state, was widely supported.
Charles Dodgson, creator of Alice in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass, was just one writer obsessed with children – in his case, young girls. (Over time, some children’s writers even began to make fun of this fantasy of perfection – E. Nesbit, for one.)
Closer to now, one fascinating instance of our wonder at childhood was Minou Drouet. In 1955, this eight-year-old French girl distributed five hundred copies of her letters and poems, and at once became a hot topic for debate: surely someone so young and apparently so tinted with genius must be a fraud? She was subjected to all sorts of tests in closed rooms before her critics had to admit defeat and declare their verdict: she was a child inspired. Even today, many ‘child prodigies’ are regarded with a kind of wary awe: there must be something ‘wrong’ with them; they’re talented, but they defy the norms of youth. They can’t possibly be ‘quite right’.
For us, children are ‘other’ than ourselves. Many adults confess to a failure of memory about what childhood, for them, was like, and how it felt. Many are wistful for some romantic idyll that they believe they’ve lost. But in having children some seem to feel that they can glimpse it again, or even get it back.
Returning to the development of children’s rights over the years, which has enforced this sense of veneration, in 1989 world leaders signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Don’t get me wrong. I admire all our children’s laws and charters and efforts to protect. But they’ve inevitably shadowed the ascendancy of adults’ veneration, even envy, of children, which so persists and thrives in the present.
Joe Branca touches on this brilliantly in his September 2012 post at http://www.paleoplusone.com/2012/09/12/cult-of-the-child-versus-dignity-of-the-child/:
‘We fold [children] into our own constructed worlds of lifestyle (even parenthood can be looked at as a lifestyle category …). Children, however, can only take in the world as something fresh, unexplored, and necessary. Perhaps at some underlying level, we envy this freshness of perspective. At their youngest stages, they question and examine the most primal aspects of social interaction and existence. We intuit their behaviors and inquiries as unexpressed thoughts coming from a world from which we are now far detached. It connects us to something more timeless and indefinable, even an escape from our constructs.’
Most childless women aren’t stupid: we know that child worship has probably gone too far. But our awareness of society’s shortcomings doesn’t prevent our thoughts, our dreams, our attitudes being coloured by its pervasive urge to venerate and adore.
And my third demon? The appropriation, by many women round me, of the child as commodity and artefact. I berate myself at this point for sounding like the Daily Mail, which is the last thing I ever want. But much as I hate to agree, in Hello magazine et al.‘celebrity mums-to-be’ are often pictured showing off their glamour bumps as if they’re the latest cosmetic treatment; many parents, celebs or not, parade their offspring in public kitted out from hairdo to tiny varnished toe in elaborate and expensive fashion statements, displayed framed for the world in designer car seats, buggies and slings; and at Christmas and infant birthdays, adults often seem to vie over the most sought-after and trendsetting children’s accessories and toys. To put a more charitable spin on it, in these hard times, present-giving to children seems one unselfish way for adults to cheer themselves up. In the process though, children have become accessories themselves.
I admit it, I’m as prone to the pressures of consumerism as the next woman. And with no children, one shopping outlet is blocked up.
This is an attempt at an honest post; in the end, I can only speak for me; and I’m not proud of some of what I’m saying. But maybe it’ll help me to come to terms with my pain if I accept that not all the pressures and history of that pain come from inside myself.
This post is dedicated to Jody Day, author of Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children.
I’ve been gloomy lately about my childlessness. Autumn now, foggy and damp and full of dying things yet fruiting all over the place, but not in the way I’d once have liked for me; and Christmas, that cosy-if-not-smug nuclear family time, coming up.
Music might help, I thought. So, with this blog in mind, I’ve been riffling through songs – and poems that seem, often, like songs – about women in my situation: loving and sometimes, maybe even regularly, caring for children, but ultimately in the shadows, looking on.
I started with aunts. In traditional songs and rhymes, sure enough they pop up:
‘There were three sisters in a hall;
There came a knight amongst them all:
“Good morrow, aunt,” to the one;
“Good morrow, aunt,” to the other;
“Good morrow, gentlewoman,” to the third;
“If you were my aunt, as the other two be,
I would say good morrow,
Then, aunts, all three.”‘
And from the US, there’s:
‘Oh I have an auntie, an Auntie Monica
And when she goes shopping they all say “Ooh-lala!”
Because her feather’s swinging, her feather’s swinging so
Because her feather’s swinging, her feather’s swinging so
Oh I have an auntie, an Auntie Monica
And when she goes shopping they all say “Ooh-lala!”
Because her hat is swinging,
Because her hat is swinging, her hat is swinging so,
Because her feather’s swinging, her feather’s swinging so
Because her feathers swinging, her feather’s swinging so.’
You get the general idea. Other lines to add go:
‘Because her muff is swinging, her muff is swinging so…’
‘Because her skirts are swinging, her skirts are swinging so…’
‘Because my aunt is swinging, my aunt is swinging so…’
There are actions, needless to say.
Auntie Monica sounds glamorous: she’s a ‘cool aunt’. But she has other typical auntly features: like the gentlewoman in the medieval hall, there’s a hint of wealth – a hint that there could be self-interested, worldly reasons for any family to keep in with her; and maybe a faint suggestion of sexuality, too; to stick with French, something a bit risqué: could it mean something more than the obvious, her ‘feather’s swinging’?!
Then listen to this one:
‘My aunt came back
(My aunt came back)
From old Japan,
(From old Japan,)
And she brought with her
(And she brought with her)
A big hand fan.
(A big hand fan.)
My aunt came back
From old Algiers,
And she brought with her
A pair of shears.
My aunt came back
From Holland, too,
And she brought with her
A wooden shoe.
My aunt came back
From Niagara Falls,
And she brought with her
A ping-pong ball.
My aunt came back
From the New York Fair,
And she brought with her
A rocking chair.
My aunt came back
And she brought with her
Some gum to chew.
My aunt came back
And she brought with her
Some clowns like you!’
Like Auntie Monica, this is an eccentric aunt, exotic – and also usefully moneyed, by the sounds of it. At best interpretation she’s endearing in her oddness, at worst a figure of fun. The last line, turning the laugh on the audience – children, we assume – doesn’t make up for the typecasting.
Let’s not forget Aunt Rhody.
‘Go tell Aunt Rhody
Go tell Aunt Rhody
Go tell Aunt Rhody
The old grey goose is dead.
The one that she’s been savin’ (x3)
To make a featherbed.
She died in the millpond (x3)
From standin’ on her head.
The goslin’s are cryin’ (x3)
Because their mammy’s dead.
The gander is weepin’ (x3)
Because his wife is dead.’
Aunt Rhody is a more down-to-earth, homesteading female type (alongside ‘grandma’, ‘aunt’ being a catch-all term, through the ages, for woman elders in a community who may have mothered others’ children without necessarily having children of their own). And with her song, things turn more serious and sad. It’s not just that the goose is dead, but there’s a kind of faint symbolism in the goslings crying, as if they’re AR’s children, not the goose’s, and an ambiguity in ‘She died in the millpond’, as if that fate might as well apply to AR. AR and the goose are almost one: or is that just me?
I’ve written before about the way art stereotypes or sidelines aunts.
But there are other women who care for children and also appear in song. This slave lullaby from America’s Deep South moves me, because it half-turns the lens on the nurse as much as the child:
‘Mammy went ‘way – she tell me to stay,
And take good care of de baby.
She tell me to stay and sing disaway.
O, go to sleepy, li’l baby.
O shut you eye and don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy, li’l baby.
’cause mammy’s boun’ to come bime-by,
O, go to sleepy, li’l baby.’
I picture the woman forced to leave her home, quite possibly her own family, to care for a white woman’s child, and hear the love she expends on that baby none the less.
Of course, often a condition of employment in the nineteenth century and beyond was that nannies and nurses should be unmarried and/or childless. They’re present in some songs and poems, if fleetingly. I love the way that William Blake shows the light and the dark of life, childhood and the nurturing of children in his two Nurse’s Songs, one of Innocence and the other of Experience:
‘When voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still
Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise.
Come come leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.
“No no let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides in the sky, the little birds fly
And the hills are all covered with sheep.”
Well well, go and play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped and shouted and laugh’d
And all the hills echoed.’
‘When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.’
It’s interesting to track what’s happened to the image of nurse or nanny – childminder, if you will – in lyrics, though. Maybe Modest Mussorgsky first reflected the subtle changes in his wonderful song cycle The Nursery (1868-1872): in three songs, in particular. In With Nanny, the lyric portrays a child, in the wonderfully authentic voice of an infant, begging the nurse to tell a story; but when the nurse responds with tales of the bogey-man carrying children away, and fearsome wolves, the child complains, wanting something funny or romantic instead. In In the Corner, Mishenka lies like crazy when the nurse finds her knitting in a mess, and is sent to the corner for it; while in The Beetle, the child relates to the nanny an encounter with a huge insect. In all these, the focus of our attention is on the child, with the nanny simply in the background, the employee as much as authoritarian figure – that is, partly there to do the child’s bidding.
This shift of lyrical focus continues with children’s author and poet A.A.Milne (1882-1956). In only one of his poems, Alexander Beetle, is the child’s nanny a friend and accomplice, not just an adult cipher, albeit also an apologetic employee, full of contrition for ‘letting Alexander beetle out’. On Christopher Robin’s expedition to Buckingham Palace the nanny is ‘Alice’, and merely the vehicle to ensure he gets there. In Brownie, ‘Nanny’ is in the poem to endorse the child’s opinions:
‘(Nanny isn’t certain, too.)’
In Vespers, she’s merely one on Christopher Robin’s list of adults to pray for at night:
‘If I open my fingers a little bit more,
I can see Nanny’s dressing-gown on the door.
It’s a beautiful blue, but it hasn’t a hood.
Oh! God bless Nanny and make her good.’
And it’s the same in Binker: like other adults, Nanny can’t ‘see’ the child’s invisible friend, so for him she appears characterless, merely a name on the offhand list of the incomprehending:
‘Nanny is Nanny, and I call her Nan.’
Bringing this whistle-stop lyrical history up-to-date, I challenge all of you out there to name a more recent composition that treats the special relationship between a non-mother – childminder or otherwise – and a child. In part, this seems to be because by this century, the focus in children’s songs – as is the case, you could argue, in all aspects of western culture – has switched so much to the child alone, centre stage: mums and dads, siblings and others don’t feature much, any more than the childless. In other part though, sadly if revealingly, more poems and songs these days, if they do focus on childless women, seem to shine the spotlight mostly on their childlessness rather than on their relationships with other people’s children.
For instance, this from Siegfried Sassoon (1920):
To a Childless Woman
‘You think I cannot understand. Ah, but I do…
I have been wrung with anger and compassion for you.
I wonder if you’d loathe my pity, if you knew.
But you shall know. I’ve carried in my heart too long
This secret burden. Has not silence wrought your wrong—
Brought you to dumb and wintry middle-age, with grey
Unfruitful withering?—Ah, the pitiless things I say…
What do you ask your God for, at the end of day,
Kneeling beside your bed with bowed and hopeless head?
What mercy can He give you?—Dreams of the unborn
Children that haunt your soul like loving words unsaid—
Dreams, as a song half-heard through sleep in early morn?
I see you in the chapel, where you bend before
The enhaloed calm of everlasting Motherhood
That wounds your life; I see you humbled to adore
The painted miracle you’ve never understood.
Tender, and bitter-sweet, and shy, I’ve watched you holding
Another’s child. O childless woman, was it then
That, with an instant’s cry, your heart, made young again,
Was crucified for ever—those poor arms enfolding
The life, the consummation that had been denied you?
I too have longed for children. Ah, but you must not weep.
Something I have to whisper as I kneel beside you…
And you must pray for me before you fall asleep.’
Devastating in its powerful, cursory reference to ‘Another’s child’. (Is this poem unique in recording the pain of a childless man?)
And this from Paul Petrie (1928-2012):
Song of the Childless Woman
‘Up the dark stairs I am carrying
a dead child in my arms,
a child no grief can comfort,
a child who was never born.
Through the apartment window, streetlights
shine on that small pinched face
as I sit by, rocking the cradle
that will bring his heart no peace.
The soundless wail of his crying
echoes through empty rooms.
The breathless hush of his breathing
shakes the walls, like tiny drums.
Not all the hands of the lonely,
rocking that cradled shape,
all the lullabies of those unloved
can put that child to sleep.
And if I doze off while rocking
I shall dream, among many dreams,
how up dark stairs I am carrying
a dead child in my arms.’
The more I’ve written and thought about this, the more it seems to me that culture today is imbued less with a tendency to stereotype and ignore childless women than with the cult of the child, at once highlighting and sidelining each and every adult trying to have them, fruitlessly longing for them, or with a role in bringing them up.
But for my part, roll on more art – including music – foregrounding the childless alongside the children they love.
As I’ve told you often enough by now, I’ve long since failed to have a child, preferably a boy; and in this long, sad haul through the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I find myself, with a dull ache, flinching at the maternal images that loom up at me through the rolling fog of the figurative English language, of course common in speech and writing. Not helped by the fact that I did Latin at school – so the undercover meanings even of the roots of words can suddenly, without warning, occasionally twist and turn the knife.
‘Fruitfulness’: there’s one word that does it to me. Then, in their figurative, oh-so-off-the-cuff uses, there are the words conceive, conception, concept; barren, fertile; seminal, and the verb to disseminate; impregnated, and in scientific settings, to impregnate; to nurse, to nurture; to cradle, to baby; to incubate; to bear, to carry; to mother someone, or to baby them; to brood, and of course to breed; expecting, to expect; to engender, to reproduce, to generate; generation; brainchild; to labour, and labour pains; and those failure words and phrases: abortive, to miscarry, and miscarriage, as in a miscarriage of justice. When I’m feeling weak and vulnerable and someone utters some item from this list, it’s like a silent detonation somewhere deep.
I feel pitiful confessing this, but do you know what the worst explosion can be, given my desire for a boy child? The innocent homophone ‘sun’ from someone’s lips, often taking me unawares.
But then, the imagery of motherhood is everywhere, not just in language.
Images from the heartbreaking stories of the mothers of Argentina, and their protest movement, the Madres de la Plaza Mayo, have haunted me ever since I heard about them. Their tragedies arose out of the coup d’etat by the military junta that deposed President Isabel Peron in 1976. Full of suspicion and mistrust, the new government was determined to eradicate – by kidnap, interrogation and torture – not just members of what it considered subversive organisations, but their friends, family and sympathisers: ‘anyone who opposes the Argentine way of life’. The covert tactics used were horrific.
First, over the years some five hundred mothers-to-be were taken from their homes or off the streets and kept alive long enough to give birth in a labour that was sometimes deliberately induced in their captivity; their babies were then taken away at once and given to families of high-ranking military officers and their associates, thereafter being brought up with no knowledge of their true identities and origins. Of course, few of these mothers ever saw them again.
Next, more than thirty thousand people were ‘disappeared’, many into some 350 concentration camps and detention centres, the majority never to be seen again. You can find just one such story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17847134, the tale of ‘Taty’ Uranga Almeida, whose son Alejandro left the family home one day saying he’d only be a minute, and never came back.
The potency of this story of stolen motherhoods lies also, though, in what those mothers did. Forbidden from speaking out, and banned from participating in official protests, these amazing women began to gather in the vast Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to console each other over their shared losses and to compare notes, and hit on an inspired means of eloquence. They linked arms, at first in groups of two or three, and began to circuit the square in counterclockwise circles, as if promenading: there was no law against that. Gradually, their numbers grew from some thirteen women to hundreds, and their supporters, meeting and walking in the square every Thursday.
This was breaking new ground for women, mothers, in Latin America in those days. Traditionally, motherhood had been seen in Argentina as a private realm: ‘public’ women were assumed to be prostitutes, or mad; non-mothers – even anti-mothers. Now, though, they had found a new role and a new, untrodden sphere: the role of mourning mothers, demonstrating an aspect of ‘good’ motherhood within a public space.
But then the crackdowns started. These mothers began to ‘disappear’ as well. Many were detained and tortured, never to be seen again; significant numbers were killed and thrown out of planes into the sea – another image of motherhood deprived and lost that I can’t get out of my head. And yet the movement, and other such movements, thrived and survived. There is still a maternal organisation, known now as the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Of course, their sufferings put my lack of motherhood in perspective, shame me, even. But the images they have bestowed on me also now have almost the power of legend, at least for me. They speak not only of the stolen motherhoods that I feel we share but of the fact that there are always means of articulating that theft or lack, outside whatever is the ‘norm’. Because there’s one final thing they did which has really stayed with me. They sewed the names of the children they’d lost on to white baby blankets and shawls and tied them round their heads as scarves, so that as they walked they didn’t even need to speak. And so, once more, we’re back to the power of the written word.
At last childless women are finding more ways, in our society, to have a voice. Jody Day has started a fantastic online community for women childless by circumstance at http://www.gateway-women.com. The site is growing exponentially, the publicity for us women snowballing; and she’s just brought out a book,Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 weeks to your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children. In America there are equivalent sites to Gateway Women, with free subscription, at http://www.LifewithoutBaby.com, Childless Mothers Connect and Mother without Baby.
And now, at last, I’ve got interest from a publisher in my novel about the childlessness of a woman. If the English language can sometimes sabotage us, then at least in print, we can try to sabotage it back.
In June this year, the (female) writer at http://www.theoutliercollective.wordpress.com posted: ‘I can’t help but think of an interview with Zooey Deschanel that Glamour ran in February… “We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar. So fucking what?”
‘There’s this weird idea (even within the feminist movement) that femininity somehow takes away from feminism…. Like, wearing pretty dresses and putting on makeup and removing your body hair definitely plays into patriarchal ideas of beauty. But you know what? Feminism is about choice, and these patriarchal ideas are so deeply ingrained in our culture that’s it’s nearly impossible to escape them. So … you fucking wear your feminist Peter Pan collar with pride, Zooey, and I will do the same.’
It’s a bit male-biased-ironic that it’s called a Peter Pan collar, but still, I get, and like, her point.
In March 2012, another blog, http://www.jezebel.com, called out the journalist Jennifer Moses for taking the contrary viewpoint, writing in the Chicago Tribune: ‘It strikes me as bizarre that in the aftermath of feminism, American women, who are perhaps the most liberated women in the history of humanity, choose, of our own free wills, to cripple ourselves. Now we can barely stand at all, let alone march for our rights, in our 6-inch heels. [...]‘
Jennifer’s reactionary stance takes me back to the bra burning of the 1960s. Apparently there was less bra burning than we think, but none the less Women’s Equality protesters often marched bra-free. ‘Feminine’ fashion was suddenly reviled, seen as riddled with constraints: at the Miss America Protest, women hurled bras, girdles, curlers, tweezers and high heels into so-called ‘freedom trashcans’, to be set on fire. Women’s fashion was portrayed as prevention and confinement.
Back to the Zooey Deschanels of this world, and the subject of feminine makeup. Online in April this year, Zara K. (http://www.feministe.us) argued powerfully, ‘If you don’t find my face to be politically correct, or socially appropriate, you should still shut up about my face, because it is my face, and not yours. Asserting control over a woman’s body — her face, her uterus, her breasts — is a betrayal of feminism. If we, as feminists, believe that women deserve autonomy, then I am allowed to have my face without being shamed for it.’
But, she admits equally powerfully, it’s not as simple as this. ‘There is a dark side to my makeup. While it’s true that I don’t wear my makeup to impress other people, it’s also true that I hate my face. I hate it…. I wear makeup to impress myself and change the way I look because I am ferociously disappointed with what I see in the mirror. And this standard of beauty that I apply to myself is as much a construct as my face is, created by movies and television and magazines and even my own friends and family, and a few cruel ex-boyfriends. I have the right to decide what makes me look and feel beautiful, but my decision has a long history of baggage.
‘…The person I am “naturally” is a woman that wants to wear makeup. Feminism wants me to accept myself as I am. Feminism wants me to have a positive body image of the person I am right here, right now. And right here and now I’m a person that’s learning how to contour, that loves to wear two shades of eyeshadow, and has a troubled, yet loving relationship with her face as a means of self-expression. Being a feminist means I support other women — and men, and people who don’t identify as either — in their choice to wear and not wear makeup. Being a feminist means I question why we have the hangups we do, without torturing the people who have them. Being a feminist means that I can be a complicated person, who wears makeup to express myself and hide my flaws, who feels pressured to put on paint but hates being told I shouldn’t.
‘I am a feminist, and I wear makeup. And I am finally learning to be okay with that.’
Blisteringly frank about the complications, and so well put.
On the obverse of Zara K.’s coin then, what about the women – especially those claiming to be feminists – who none the less choose to dress male?
In the tragic 2003 film Osama, a pre-teenage girl disguises herself as a boy to escape the cruelties of the Taliban regime. There’s a long tradition here: we all know the stories of a past in which women have concealed their sex in order to become soldiers, sailors and explorers – and/or to avoid male opprobrium.
In many other cases, women have eschewed female garb in order to participate more fully in a man’s world. Their dress has been the most eloquent possible statement about our male-dominated society: an act of repression in order to self-express.
Such drastic measures are not confined to the sepia of long ago-land. Dorothy Tipton was an incredibly talented woman pianist from Oklahoma who in 1935 decided to remake herself as Billy Tipton in her efforts to make it as a jazz musician in what she considered an almost exclusively male domain. At first only cross-dressing while performing, she gradually masculinised her whole day and night-time persona, fooling at least two out of five wives and all three (adopted) sons. (By the way, Trumpet, a novel by Jackie Kay, has a similar storyline.)
Or, go to http://www.jillpetersphotography.com for her stunning, and chastening, images of the ‘sworn virgins’ of Albania who still, albeit in dwindling numbers, for strategic reasons take on the social identity of a man for life. The practice has its roots in tribal clan practices hundreds of years old, when an archaic code, the Kanun, stated that women – compelled into arranged marriages – thereafter belonged to their husbands, and barred them from driving, involving themselves in business, earning money, drinking, smoking, swearing, owning a gun or even donning trousers. These he-women take a vow of celibacy and, only on that condition, are able to elevate themselves, in the rural backwaters of the Balkans, to the status of a man. Don’t you just love the strength and determination in their faces? Even now, in this day and age, they’re repressing their own feminine in order to self-express.
And so to the modern day. Truth is, women love the performative aspects of dressing up, down or sideways. Witness, for instance, the list online of ’25 Hot Women who Like to Dress like Men’ at http://www.complex.com. Those women are mostly actors and models. And look at the wonderful ‘modern dandies’, above, shot by Sophia Wallace. Whether we’re suppressing our feminine side or not, we women actors or models or whoever relish exploiting our appearance to tell other people something. Often using art and artifice and fashion, we can aspire to convey to the viewer something really thought-provoking about womanhood and its limits, the interesting edges and boundaries of the female – can’t we? After all, all human beings, male and female, suppress parts of ourselves in our urge to give rein to others.
This post is dedicated to mother-of-three Frances Clalin. She took part in seventeen battles on the Unionist side in the American Civil War, many disguised as a man alongside her husband. At the eighteenth, the Battle of Murfreesboro (‘Stones River’) of December 1862, he was killed a few feet in front of her, but she stepped over his body and charged when the commands came.
Back in 2001 the New York Times, reviewing the film L.I.E. and explaining that its central character was a troubled suburban teenage boy remarked wryly, ‘Do the movies recognize any other kind?’
I know what they mean. Film scenarios with boys as the main protagonist, or maybe paired in the limelight with one other, can seem rigidly distinctive. (I’m thinking here of movies that originate as movies, as opposed to book adaptations.)
Looking back over the last few decades, the youths are often hard-done-by, or from ‘difficult’ backgrounds. About A Boy (2002) features a youngster living with a lonely ‘misfit’ single mother. Most of the gang in Stand By Me (1986) have problems at home; Billy Elliot (2000) struggles to discover himself against the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike and his disintegrating family; bullies chase Bastian of The Never Ending Story into his adventures; the youngster in Second Best (1994) comes from an orphanage, and yearns for his father; there’s a messy divorce at home and an absent father in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); The Chorus (2001) is set around a whole schoolful of troubled and abandoned boys; in Sling Blade (1996), the adult Karl’s boyhood history of being taunted by other boys and witnessing a man raping his mother is crucial to the plotline; not only the fact that the boy in The Man Without a Face (1993) is in conflict with his family, but that the title character himself incinerated a boy in the car accident that disfigured him, is significant; Chris, the volatile teenager in Undertow (2005), has a little brother with a strange eating disorder and an older brother in prison; the boy in The Jumper (2011) lives a claustrophobic life; the shy youngster of The Boy and the Chess Player (2012) is being raised in a disturbingly anti-Semitic family; the hero of Across Grace Alley (2013) is trying to come to terms with his parents’ divorce; and in L.I.E., the fifteen-year-old Howie loses almost everyone and everything in about a week near the beginning of the movie. I could go on….
Such dark background colorations could be argued to be essential to win the viewers’ sympathies for these male figures – but the interesting thing is, I’m not sure that so many such scenarios predominate in movies showcasing young girls.
Certain other tropes seem to stick to boys in movies.
For one, the hero is often thrown out of, or chooses to leave, his ‘normal’ environment. Stand by Me: the gang leaves home and sleeps out overnight for the first time. Empire of the Sun (1987): the Japanese occupation of Shanghai tears an English boy from his parents and barrels him into a different world. In Pelle the Conqueror (1988), father and son emigrate from Sweden to a Danish island. The Cure: two boys float down the Mississipi on a quest. In D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), a strange boy seems lost from his ‘normal’ world, in fact turns out to be a cyborg. The lost E.T. yearning to ‘Phone home’ could be taken as a lighthearted embodiment of Elliott’s own alienation from his family. Alec Ramsey of The Black Stallion (1979) is travelling to England on a steamship. Undertow: Chris’s father takes him from the home he knows to the backwoods of Georgia. In Mean Creek (2004), the boys embark on a dangerous boating expedition; and in The Good Son (1993), Mark goes away to stay with his cousins following the death of his mother. And Bastian of The Never Ending Story, like his counterpart in The Jumper (2011), escapes into another life of fantasy and magic. The roots of some of these scenarios seem to twine back, deep and powerful, to the influence of certain classic, boy-orientated texts: Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, as well as all those adventure stories of the 1940s, 50s and 60s where boys (and girls) stay away from home for reasons of family bereavement or sickness….
…because another common trope in ‘boy films’ is violence, brutality and mortality: guns, accidents, fires, drownings, deaths and dying. Witness Stand by Me, Empire of the Sun, The Cure, The Black Stallion, Sling Blade, The Chorus, Mean Creek, The Good Son…. In several notable movies, World War II looms large; in many, the central youngsters choose, or are forced to, or accidentally, participate in violence themselves. Encounters with these harsh physical realities are often the boys’ rites of passage towards maturity and adulthood. As a woman, this realisation makes me uncomfortable. Is this altogether healthy for the young viewing male? Need the violence trope be such a recurrent shorthand in filmland for the young male’s self-development?
Another pervasive formula is pairing: either of two youths, or of a boy with a man. Often in such instances, the biological father or stepfather is absent; commonly in the substitute male-male relationship there is a strong element of mentoring, with the learning explicit and/or inferred. There’s About a Boy, obviously, where Hugh Grant’s ‘shallow’ Will Freeman reluctantly takes Marcus under his wing – in the end, ‘growing up’ somewhat himself too. The man ‘without a face’ actually tutors Chuck, who is determined to go to military school despite family resistance; but the boy and his teacher also end up learning from each other. One of the teacher-pupil relationships in The Chorus turns into an adoption – of the abandoned little Pépinot. The mysterious old chess player in The Boy and the Chess Player teaches his young opponent ‘a great lesson’, but it isn’t about chess. J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004) befriends the troubled Llewelyn boy (that adjective again) who’ll become his fictional Peter Pan. Second Best tells the story of the lonely middle-aged Graham trying to forge an adoptive relationship with a boy who still hankers after his lost father.
Boy-boy relationships are also everywhere. In the adolescent, anti-Semitic atmosphere of a Catholic boarding school, the Jewish boy being hidden from the Nazis by priests in Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) teaches his French schoolfriend some inescapable and harrowing life truths. Michele’s encounter with the older Filippo, a kidnap victim, in I’m Not Scared (2003) brings him to a reluctant, frightened maturity. The Cure narrates the journey of two boys, one eleven, one fifteen with AIDS, who believe in ‘the magic of the world’, towards a tragic ending; but on the way, they enrich each other’s lives and teach each other crucial life lessons. In The Black Stallion, the young Alec forms a relationship with a male, and on their adventures they support and protect each other – although in this case, the ‘mentor’/friend is a horse. The horse companion is a more common trope in girl literature and film – as is the pairing with a female teacher in the boy film Billy Elliot.
Tellingly, rarer are films that investigate the subject of young boys’ sexuality: sexuality too seems female territory, on the whole. The Danish You Are Not Alone (1981) follows two boys, fifteen and nine, as they explore theirs together in a potent atmosphere of masturbation and sexual fantasy at a boys’ boarding school; but in the way the subject is treated, Kim, the younger of the two, comes over uneasily, visually, as something of a sex object. L.I.E. is a fascinating, subtle and disturbing treatment of the relationship between Gary, an adult pederast who is at once sinister, and affectionate and supportive, and the fifteen-year-old Howie. Another intriguing (short) movie is Across Grace Alley (2013), in which a sad boy seeks comfort in his infatuation with a woman he can see through a neighbouring window.
How does this exploration make me feel about boys in the movies? I think, sad that there aren’t more domestic dramas featuring boys – which would allow for an exploration of their developing feelings and the unfolding of their emotional intelligence; and disappointed, too, that more don’t tackle pre-pubescent boys’ positive relationships with women and young girls. (Why, apart from Billy Elliot, can I find so few where the woman/older girl is guide and mentor? Can’t women be role models for boys?)
I wonder, is the film industry guilty of stereotyping boys through its recourse to a few ‘obvious’ boy tropes, or is it that we – boys and men included – are guilty of accepting, even expecting, these limiting scenarios? Probably both. In which case all this art will only reinforce life.