Why a lost child taps a deeper fear

The case of Charlotte Jones, the toddler recovered in a Cheshire wood last week after she went missing for 30 hours, was a reminder of a potent myth

Last week three-year-old Charlotte Jones was abandoned alone in a wood where she spent a freezing night. The child had been presumed dead from exposure and her mother has now been charged with causing harm to her daughter. Had the child been abandoned in a supermarket, we would probably all have been less affected by her story. She'd have spoken her name and been returned to her mother - that's if she'd been lucky enough not to have caught the eye of one of those child abductors we have come to believe lurk around every corner. Had she been abandoned down a disused mineshaft, we'd have been more appalled than we were, because mineshafts resonate with our fears about the fractured, alienating, post- industrial society we have created in which we all revolve in isolation from each other, carrying our suffering like TS Eliot's "ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots".

There is something assuaging about the infant recovered, scratched but unharmed, from a wood. It so much echoes the traditional literary form in which, for thousands of years, we have acted out, and tried to conquer, our archetypal terror of abandonment. Yet from Oedipus to Snow White, from the "Babes in the Wood" to The Winter's Tale, such abandonment indicates relative kindness; a softening of heart on the part of King Creon's manservant, or King Leontes' underling; the wicked stepmother's merciful henchman, or the usurping uncle's contract killers. In The Winter's Tale, the abandoning servant even offers us our most famously funny scene-shifting expedient: "Exit pursued by bear". To run away, rather than wield the knife, means that the abandoned child has a small chance of survival. And the perpetrator, though he has washed his hands of the child, has not committed infanticide.

Some of these stories suggest renewal, or the triumph of good over evil, so that King Leontes has his second chance. The infant he condemned in utero, along with her mother, rises again as "the queen of curds and cream"; the "prettiest low-born lass that ever ran on the green-sward". Snow White is resurrected to marry a prince who falls for a dead girl in a glass box. In unbowdlerised versions of this story, the wicked stepmother is made to dance at the wedding with hot irons on her feet. Oedipus, of course, survives to commit patricide and incest, because another of our archetypal terrors is that our children are not in fact our sweet darlings, flesh of our flesh, but the beasts in the nursery; the incubi; the foetal taboo objects that are neither fish nor fowl. They breathe in water but they have no scales. And, just sometimes, they enter the world to do us down.

As rearers of children, our species has a uniquely terrible time. Our brains being freakishly overdeveloped, our heads are too big to allow for easy childbirth at a sensibly advanced stage. The Neanderthals died out because they were so ill-designed for childbirth that the mortality rate rendered them non-viable. For us, a similar design fault means we must give birth to our children years before they can be relinquished from our constant care and vigilance. Naturally, this places an appalling strain on human parents, particularly on the mother, and both our history and our literature are fraught with the violent emotional ambivalences that result from this difficult and complex commitment.

Is there a conspiracy of silence around motherhood which deliberately keeps young women in ignorance about the fact that the job, for all its joys, is difficult and isolating to a degree; that it will not only bring something small and cuddly, but will also bring them face to face with a package of inadequacies and confusing emotions they didn't know they had? Or is it merely one of those experiences that nobody can begin to understand until they're in it? Motherhood is often about feeling tired and poor and wrong-footed and undervalued. It's about having your identity battered until you feel you might go over the edge.

THE ABANDONING of children has always been a part of the strategy for a minority of non-coping parents. A neighbour of mine was given away by her young mother to a kindly stranger she happened to meet on a bus. Jane Austen's parents gave away one of her brothers for reasons of social advancement - a custom the writer touches on in Emma. In the past people sold their children to harsh employers, or they gave them up for castration so that they could earn their bread as opera singers. Presumably these parents thought, "Well, that's one of them settled and off our hands". In the third world people are sometimes either cheated out of their children or coerced into selling them in order that affluent, childless couples in the first world can adopt them into a context where children have become desirable style accessories. For others in our world, usually those burdened with debt, loneliness, ignorance and low self-esteem, children are a heavy load and sometimes a torment; the constant proof of having bitten off more than one can chew.

Then there are those other abandoned children. Myths abound about children stolen and reared by wolves. Children were stolen, of course, but by starving wolves who needed them for food. Wolf children were not happily nurtured tots plucked from prams and school playgrounds by female wolves with unfulfilled maternal longings. They were abandoned children who shifted for themselves until they were discovered, pathetic and rickety, louse- ridden and retarded. So where was Mowgli's mother when the social workers knocked on the door?

Many women, where there was the chance of anonymity, left newborn bundles in church porches or on hospital steps. Or they committed infanticide. Sometimes, if they perceived their own lives as peculiarly appalling, they couldn't tolerate the thought of the same life being visited on their children. Sometimes children were killed, as it says in Jude the Obscure, "because we are too many". Often the practice of infanticide has been so much internalised that it is not perceived as murder. It's as if the child is killing itself. Aid workers in developing countries are not infrequently perplexed, as they appear with glucose drips and medicines for infant diarrhoea, to come upon mothers who don't raise a finger to save a child. "This child lacks the will to live," the mother will say. (It is, of course, often female children who lack this will to live, but "at least it means that the surviving females maintain their scarcity value," as an anthropologist once put it to me.) There was recently a case in Namibia where a Bushman mother, much vilified by the local black health personnel and coerced into hospital with an ailing and neglected newborn, was charged with murder. Having been chivvied to rise and collect her babe from the nursery for the 2am feed, she had simply dropped the baby on the floor. "I was sleepy," she said. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, tells a story about a severely disabled student he taught in Cairo who'd been the victim of a fall in infancy. His 12-year-old mother had abandoned him on a mantleshelf and had gone off to play with her dolls.

MOST OF US "normal" mothers direct the strains towards ourselves. We "control" ourselves. A dear, gentle old lady I know told me that once - after her infant daughter had changed into a continuous, fractious horror for months on end as a response to having been vaccinated - she had wrapped the child in an eiderdown and had repeatedly thumped the eiderdown. A mother I know reported herself to the NSPCC for no more than harbouring occasional negative feelings about a clinically hyperactive toddler. Once, at the school gate, I remember being startled to overhear a snatch of talk between two new mothers. "I always worry about children dashing into the road," said one. "I'm terrified of running one of them over." "I wish you'd run over one of mine," said the other. She materialised as one of the school's "problem" parents - yet how many of us can have missed the malign innuendo while singing "When the bough breaks the cradle will fall" to our little ones?

As a child, one of my favourite books was Gene Stratton Porter's Girl of the Limberlost, in which an abandoned boy sets out, with his forest friend, to discover whether his mother had really loved him. The children prove that she had, by coming upon a cache of baby clothes that his mother had stitched by hand. In the police mugshot, it is clear that little Charlotte Jones's mother had taken the trouble to do her daughter's fine blonde hair in two pretty little bunches. Does this mean that she loves her? I do hope so.

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

    £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

    Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

    £8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

    £14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable