A load of old myths about mothers

Older women who have babies are widely condemned, but Rosalind Miles wants more debate
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When a woman of 63 gave birth to a baby recently, the event provoked a chorus of disapproval and unanimous blame. Accusations of selfishness, even cruelty, along with sneers about "test tube granny mums", blossomed overnight in the pages of broadsheets and tabloids alike. Yet like so many issues in this complex world of ours, this one unpacks to reveal a host of unexamined questions crying out for deeper thought.

The first implication of this violent censure is that a mother of 63 simply cannot give a child the attention it deserves. It is richly ironic that all this righteous indignation comes from the pens of journalist mothers and fathers whose contact with their own children is severely reduced, to say the least, by the demands of their work, and who have never given seven-day-a week, round-the-clock care as an older mother certainly will.

The assumption is also that a mother in her fifties or sixties simply will not live long enough to see the child through to adulthood. False again. Any woman today who has passed her 50th birthday without suffering a major illness (and she would not have been accepted for any fertility programme if she had) can confidently look forward to living into her seventies or beyond. The Dickensian tear-jerking images of the grieving toddler at the mother's graveside would be distressing if they were not so wide of the mark.

Yet one such image hit the news pages recently when a top UN official died of a heart attack at 51, and the little son of his much younger wife was pictured by the coffin taking his last farewell. Men have always had the right to go on fathering children with selfish disregard for any "right" of the child to have his dad around. Literally hundreds of such men come to mind, from Picasso and Pablo Casals to the feckless oldsters who never seem to learn. Does part of the outcry derive from the generalised rage against women's increasing tendency to arrogate the rights of men?

And where is the father in all this? Even with all the miracles of modern technology (which uppity women are more and more seeing as something to benefit them, rather than as "the white heat of the technological revolution" expressed through better machines, more productivity, more toys for boys) no woman has yet contrived a virgin birth. The older dad is more likely to die too, the argument goes. But no one is guaranteed immunity from death purely by becoming a parent.

The complexity of these issues is recognised by the medical profession's own guidelines here. British fertility experts have consistently warned that to deny treatment on the grounds of age alone is "neither possible nor desirable".

The 63-year-old mother lied to obtain the treatment that gave her the child. The clinic where she was treated has since agreed that its self- imposed cut-off limit of 55 is arbitrary, and accepts that the woman underwent the most rigorous physical checks. It is hard to resist the conclusion that a woman of 63 who managed to deceive a team of medical and gynaecological specialists, who mostly know more about women's bodies than any men alive, probably has the body of a 53-year-old and should be treated as such.

Behind all this seems to lurk the genuine concern that the needs of the child will not be satisfied. Yet most mothers today are not able to give their children one-on-one, full-time home-based care. Nothing seems able to disturb the deep, powerful mythic conviction that mum should be there for 18 or 20 years, always at home when the kids come in, always in the kitchen creating meals whose appetising smells waft welcomingly to meet us as we walk through the door.

By condemning these women, we are vicariously living the dream of the mum at home who never leaves, never lets us down till we are ready to fly the nest. Yet when was this dream ever true?

Many of us who are parents today had parents who were absent for long periods, either in the war or in the social conditions of the post-war world, when Daddy was simply "at work" all the time. Many women too have always worked, either from choice or necessity - witness how many of today's high achievers, such as Lynn Franks or Anita Roddick, had mothers deeply involved with business or other activities which took them out of the home.

Another and opposing truth is that many women go on longing for babies till the day they die. "I can't bear the thought I'll never have another baby on my knee," said one. The female organism, after all, is biologically set up that way. And if menstruation is "the weeping of a disappointed uterus", then for such women the menopause can be a crushing blow, even a life tragedy. Who would not reverse that if they could?

Perhaps the lesson of all this is that we simply must not rush to judgement in this pluralistic age. The old cliches and stereotypes no longer serve. In fact they harden attitudes and heat up the debate at the time when we most need to pay cool and reflective attention to the knotty modern problems affecting all our lives.

How old should a mother be? How long is a piece of string? Why don't we unravel it and see?n

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