The internal mother will always be there

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The Independent Online
THE WORD 'barren', as used of a woman, has the power to conjure up a terrifying world. The wife has proved barren and the angry husband casts her out. 'I divorce thee, I divorce thee,' he says, cursing the day he first set eyes on her.

And the woman walks back across the desert, and the disgrace goes with her, and her father and her brothers weep when they hear her story. To purge the disgrace they must pay back the bride-price, together with a mulct of 70 head of cattle. The barren woman has brought ruin upon the tents, the yurts of her clan. God has cursed her. She must have done something terribly wrong.

Assiduously, when we talk of human fertility, we avoid the word barren with its atavistic freight of meaning. But in peasant societies this is not so. Barren women, childless men, give cause for extreme concern.

I lived recently in a world in which my condition as an unmarried, childless man of around 40 was as distressing to those around me as if I'd been walking about with a gaping head wound. At first I would explain that where I came from it was not so unusual to be unmarried. I made no headway with that line, so finally I succumbed to the attitude: Yup, you're right, I've got this gaping head wound. It made things simpler.

In the world at large, the news that it is not too late for a woman in her fifties to bear twins must come as a boon. Traditionally speaking, this is the stuff of miracles, of legends, of the Old Testament. For us, it should be an authentic wonder of science.

But the reaction from official quarters has been: This woman, Mrs X, has been irresponsible. A prim voice on the radio said: 'A child is not something you go out and buy. A child is a gift.' To what atavistic metaphysics are we supposed to subscribe, to believe that a child is a gift? A child might be a gift from science, that is the only meaning I can see under these new circumstances.

Virginia Bottomley: 'Women do not have the right to have a child. The child has a right to a suitable home.' Impertinent cow] What does she know of suitability? When a man of 58 has a child, is the suitability question even raised?

A doctor points out that child-rearing is an exhausting business, for which the old are not necessarily well equipped. But the example of other societies shows that there are ways around this.

When does a woman become old? In some parts of the world, when she's had her last child - say around the age of 40. At that moment she starts chewing betel and losing her teeth and behaving like an old woman. But she has upwards of 12 children, of whom the youngest are still infants.

And it is precisely the old who spend their time looking after children. The old and the responsible young: grandparents and girls of around 10 will spend the day looking after the baby while the mother does the heavy work for as long as she can.

Peasant and aristocratic societies resemble each other in this: They know that the tasks of motherhood can be split up, to the advantage of all concerned. In the former case, grandparents, daughters and poor relations create a kind of women's quarters devoted to bringing up children. There is a great deal of redundancy in the system. Everywhere the child turns he will find a form of mother love.

In the latter case the aristocratic mother surrenders to the wet nurse and nanny the task of providing the warm physical presence and intimacy, while retaining for herself the motherly qualities of mystery, beauty and sacred authority. The child gets to meet Mamma once or twice a day, at a meal or in her boudoir when she is dressed ready to go out for the evening. A short meeting, no doubt, but the impact of it might be enough to convince the child that all the divine attributes of motherhood are there, available for his support.

A child needs parents, indeed, but I can't see that there is a fixed amount of 'quality time' to be dictated by any ethics committee. A father may be physically absent (off fighting a war, say) but immensely present in the household - his personality and concern for his children being successfully expressed through the mother. Conversely, a father may be continually present in the household, but be such a wash-out that he might as well never have existed.

The impact of parenthood cannot be measured with a stop-watch. It follows from this that a mother 58 years old may very well within a short time establish her presence indelibly in the minds of her children in such a way that they will continue to enjoy the benefits of their 'internal mother', their idea of a motherly principle guiding their lives, whatever happens to their actual, physical mother in old age.

To say it is wrong to have a child when you may not live to attend its graduation ceremony, or to be a grandmother to its children, is to value exterior at the expense of interior events. The task of any parent is to provide that parent-in-psychic-reality, that internal parent who will go on supporting the child whatever happens to the parent-in-physical-reality.

And this internal parent will definitely turn up at the graduation ceremony. This internal parent is someone you can count on - like the friend you don't see from one year to the next but who, you know quite clearly, remains your unquestioning friend.

There is no evidence that Mrs X had twins because she thought all women in their late fifties should do so, that she was trying to start a trend. No doubt her decisions were made purely as an individual. And they sound brave decisions for a woman of her age.

But of course in the age-group below there are innumerable women who have missed out on childbearing and regretted it, women for whom the message of Mrs X's success is that it may not be too late after all, for whom each advance in technology brings nearer the possibility of profound happiness.

When people say, 'A woman has no right to a child' one wonders where this talk of rights came from. The news was simply that these women now had the possibility of a child. It was the possibility that proved so exciting.

Are we moving into a society where a woman has a right to an abortion but not to a child? Or one in which she has neither? Or will the next step be to prevent men from enjoying carnal frolics in their late fiftes? Or do men have a right to a child while women don't?

And are we saying to the barren: 'I divorce thee, I divorce thee . . . Crawl back across the desert, go weep among the yurts of your ancestors, you sinful barren women, to whom God has denied his most precious gift'?