It takes quite a lot to knock MPs’ expenses off the front pages these days, so I was amazed, as I grabbed a random tabloid while rushing for a plane on Saturday morning, to discover that the big news of the day was a story of impending motherhood. A British woman was pregnant, we learnt from the six-inch high headlines, and a pretty scandalous pregnancy the paper thought it was.
It wasn’t that she was a single mum. It wasn’t that she was divorced. It wasn’t that she was choosing to give birth by (boo, hiss) caesarean section. No, the reason we were learning about this blissful mother-to-be was that this mother-to-be was old. In fact, she is eight months gone at 66, and is therefore likely to be the oldest mother in the proud history of British maternity. She is the mother of all mothers!
Instead of sharing this woman’s joy, the reporting dripped with disapproval. “Desperate for a child,” said the headline. “I don’t need to defend myself, says divorcée.” There was another account of an older mother, in a sidebar headed, “I know people think I’m selfish.” I read every word of the accounts, preparing to be decently outraged by the lady’s life choices. After about five minutes I came up for air, feeling rather sympathetic towards her, and that there was something mean about the coverage.
Of course there are disadvantages in having a child when you are not in the first flush of youth. Most of us find it pretty shattering to get out of bed in the middle of the night when we are in our twenties and thirties, never mind our sixties. But are we really going to forbid happiness to a woman who has all her marbles, who is perfectly fit and well, who runs a successful business and who has made no call whatsoever upon the state to finance her fertility treatment?
One of the chief grounds for attacking her venture, it seems, is that she will be nearly 80 when the kid becomes a teenager. Well, we are all living longer and longer, and we all know many sprightly 80-year-olds who would be excellent parents; and in any case it is sheer nonsense, ignorant nonsense, to suggest that a woman should be somehow forbidden from having a child because she might not live to see out her offspring’s teenage years.
For most of human existence, mothers have either died in childbirth, or else in their forties or fifties. It is only in the last century that such large numbers have lived for so long. If a medieval 27-year-old woman became pregnant, there was every chance that she would die before the age of 40. No medieval churchman would have criticised her for taking the risk and failing to see her offspring to adulthood.
And yet today’s Church of England seems to think that this pregnancy evokes some sort of moral problem. “A child is a gift, not a right,” says a spokesman, obscurely. “For those who have never received that gift, we can well understand their desire to have children, but it is always important to think in those circumstances about what is really in the child’s best interests.”
This is pure tosh. Since the choice is between the child’s existence or non-existence, it is ludicrous to talk about “the child’s best interests”, unless the Church of England is really saying that it would be better for the child not to be born at all. Is that really what the Church is saying? It seems uncommonly brutal. It also displays a staggering ignorance of the Bible.
Genesis has barely got going before we come to the story of Abraham, and Sarah, and the way she was cured of her barrenness at – what age? Ninety! Is the Church going to tell us that it disapproves in retrospect of Sarah’s nonagenarian fertility, blessed and sanctioned as it was by the Lord? “God has given me laughter,” said a jubilant Abraham, 99, when he heard the news. Would the Church withhold that gift of laughter from a mere 66-year-old? Or don’t they read Genesis these days? There is no scriptural or moral reason for the Church’s reservations, just a timid reluctance to sound approving of family structures disapproved of by the tabloid press.
These hypocritical newspaper Pharisees have had to give up attacking gay marriage and other arrangements, and so they turn their fire – as usual – on the eternal question of when it is right for women to have babies. It sometimes looks as though the female sex can’t win.
As a culture, we love to terrify successful professional women with the thought that they are failing to have babies in their twenties and thirties, and thereby losing their chance to pass on their genes and achieve fulfilment as mothers. Tick-tock, tick-tock, we say in our bullying way. Well, here’s a woman who has solved the timing question, and we bully her as well. We don’t know what problems – what useless men, what medical difficulties – have forced her to delay having a child, and we have no right to know. To criticise her is not just ageist. It is also blatantly sexist.
It is a fact of life that men are generally able to procreate much, much later in life than women. These tabloid papers are themselves full of raddled old roués who have fathered children on younger women. Charlie Chaplin had a child at the age of 88, double my age.
There is, no doubt, some sound evolutionary reason for this, but it amounts to a basic inequality between the sexes. Here is a woman who has out-generalled nature, and it strikes me that we should look on the positive side.
We all worry about the “baby gloomers”, people who have to look after their parents as well as their children.
This woman has brilliantly cracked it by having a baby when she has no parents to worry about and enough dosh to care for the kid. Good luck to her, I say. It may not be for everyone, but that is no reason to disapprove.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 18 April, 2009 under the heading: “Britain’s oldest mother deserves congratulation not disapproval.”]