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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.