What a way to treat a mother

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The Independent Online
I went to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery on Wednesday. In a week when a young single mother was parted from her two-year-old daughter and sent to prison for giving police a false address after being stopped for a motoring offence, I needed a bit of culture. I sought the reassurance of revisiting the early Renaissance paintings of the Virgin and Child by Raphael, Duccio and Ghirlandaio and the Leonardo da Vinci Cartoon.

If you strip these images of their religious context, what you see in the calm, grey London light is a positive depiction of contented motherhood (and scant sign of a father figure). Through the protective gloom of its special alcove, Leonardo's Virgin glows serenely - womanhood fulfilled. I had just bathed and dressed my own baby before leaving home. Here, in the later paintings, and in the adjacent Titians, was babyhood in all its roly-poly truthfulness (minus, I concede, the realism of nappies).

Before I became a mother these were just lovely works of art. Now - and I am thinking particularly of Raphael's delicate Madonna With The Pinks - they touch me with their tenderness. It doesn't take much imagination to realise what a softening, civilising effect the worship and cult of the Madonna and Child must have had in the dark centuries which led up to the creation of these paintings. I am not that religious, but I think they still have a lot to say to us.

A mother with a new-born suckling child is weak, encumbered, easy prey for unscrupulous attackers. This has been true through the ages: think of the tragic images from Rwanda of women trudging with a baby at the breast and you grasp the plight of vulnerable young mothers in the Middle Ages, when famine, invasion, cruelty, suffering and superstition were rampant - and there was no hope of a United Nations doctor or aid worker at the end of the trail.

We should, at the very least, be aware of this heritage when thinking about our own turbulent times. We should think long, not short. Should we send mothers with young children to prison when they are no danger to society - and destabilise the child in the process? I am with the Howard League on Penal Reform on this one: the answer is of course not.

I do not mean that women and babies should be placed on pedestals - rather that their interests and problems should be approached with a degree of kindliness and understanding because they are so vulnerable. The way that companies treat their women employees returning to work after maternity leave is a key test of their personnel policies.

Consider, in the light of Raphael's depiction of motherhood, the increasingly ugly debate about single mothers; some protagonists seem intent on blaming them for society's ills. I am quite prepared to believe that a tiny minority of young women get pregnant to get a council flat. And that a larger group can become unhealthily hooked on benefits for life. But to imagine that this is the real problem and offer nothing but punishment is wrong.

One of the most truthful testimonies to be heard in the debate that followed Panorama's controversial and unbalanced 'Babies On Benefits' came from single mother Fay Sheppard who said that her first child had been born during a stable five-year relationship which she had not expected to end. Precisely.

And it is pretty clear who is usually left holding the baby and trying to cope. An enlightened society should surely offer assistance in the form of training and childcare allowances, at the very least, to ensure that the children of single parents do not grow up disadvantaged.

A wise professor at the recent British Association for the Advancement of Science conference remarked that, even for many modestly-paid middle-class people, penury is only a salary cheque away. If we were to follow the prescriptions of the right- wing social scientist, Charles Murray, we would penalise already disadvantaged single mothers to the point of driving them on to the streets and reinforcing the very underclass he accuses them of creating. If this social experiment were ever tried in this country it would not last long: public opinion, already repulsed by the sight of young people sleeping rough, would not stand for it.

Which is partly why I am an optimist in this debate. We are going through a period of immense adjustment, rather than social disintegration. There are men who want to be active parents; there are young women unprepared to commit themselves to motherhood until their thirties, if at all.

Despite the clear evidence that divorce damages children, and that boys can grow up wild and unruly without a father's example, not all the offspring of broken homes will repeat the pattern: history is full of examples of people who have revolted against their backgrounds. Anyway, there is no point in Conservatives and moralists trying to force-feed a diverse electorate with their views on family values. They can simply set out their stall.

In the meantime, we would probably all benefit from five minutes in front of the Madonna With The Pinks.