A Child of One’s Own by Rachel Bowlby: A study of “unnatural” parenthood

One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us <em>Wuthering Heights</em> where the Moses story resulted in <em>Jane Eyre</em>; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

A Child of One’s Own
Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £20

Without wishing to see too much that is analagous between the artistic and the procreative – the latter being found so frequently to be the enemy of the former – one might say that ours is an era in which the prospective parent has an unprecedented degree of authorial control. The erstwhile notion of “family planning” and the subsequent growth of reproductive technology constitute an invitation to shape the life narrative, to rethink, as it were, the concept of inevitability. Whatever forces we once blamed the mystery of ourselves on – fate, God, the simple randomness of biology – the author’s hand is these days more conspicuous. Freud taught us to see ourselves as psychologically the product of our parents and now medicine has extended that patent to our physical being. Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea.

One might ask what inevitability ever did for us, now that it’s gone. One answer might be that it gave common cause to our mistakes, that the sense of ourselves as part of and subject to some grand, mysterious design was socially cohesive in a way that the narrative of “choice” cannot replicate. A parent, these days, is someone who has got what they wanted and can be left alone. What Freud identified as the parent’s narcissistic objectlove is now serviced by culture even before the object is conceived; the faux-eminence of the contemporary child perhaps only reflects the self-regard of those who, more explicitly than ever, see themselves as its maker. Children do not belong to everybody any more and, as well as being uniquely gratified by the child’s capacity for narcissistic supply, the modern parent is isolated when their creation – as creations are apt to do – goes wrong.

Rachel Bowlby’s study of “unnatural” parenthood is predicated on this interesting elision of art and biology and, among other things, reminds us of how much the notion of “character” has suffered at the hands of the modern author-parent, whereby the subjective self is able to extend itself into others without recognising their objectivity. As Bowlby demonstrates, writers have made some preposterous uses of the biological link – or lack of it – but what, for instance, Dickens loses in realism by breaking the subjectivefamilial continuum he gains in reverence for the human spirit. The hermeticism of the family, in the works Bowlby examines, is indeed the enemy of creativity, for the family seeks to conserve itself by excluding others or else by recruiting them into its subjective world. The family “plot” is no plot at all, hence the novelist’s time-honoured decision to introduce an interloper to stir things up.

Again and again, Bowlby shows writers and dramatists breaking the family structure to get a better view of character, with the Oedipal story as the template not – as the post-Freudian misreading goes – for a vision of “plot” as extensive of the self and its desires but rather the reverse. “The baby [Oedipus] is got rid of for fear of what he may do to the parents”; when the link between parent and child is severed, the greater (artistic) mystery of character is born.

Bowlby makes some interesting comparisons between this and the foundling story of Christian culture – that of Moses – and in doing so demonstrates that these two stories lie at the root of two opposing narrative traditions. The Moses story represents the narrative of wish-fulfilment: Moses’s mother abandons him not because she fears or hates him but because she loves him. At great personal risk, she disguises herself as a wet nurse: ergo, his wet nurse turns out to be his “real” mother, whose love is proved, indeed, to be greater than average. One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us Wuthering Heights where the Moses story resulted in Jane Eyre; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

Bowlby finds, by her own admission, the parental “subconscious” of such novels as Mansfield Park, Tom Jones and Silas Marner almost the most fascinating thing about them. She also finds some intriguing antecedents to our world of surrogacy, fertility treatment and adoption (and, brilliantly, in the case of Mary, mother of Jesus, to artificial insemination) in plot twists that are, in essence, novelists’ decisions to rupture reality so as better to make it serve their specific emotional, psychological and artistic needs.

This, in a sense, is the most fascinating parallel between literary and procreative culture and it hints at the profound limitations of the novel as a form. How does the novel decide between being the objective book of life and the subjective book of self? In attempting to reconcile the two, the author becomes a kind of God, making nature in his or her image. But in art, at least, reality is corrective. The novel that wanders too far from what we agree to be real – if only psychologically – dismisses itself from our notice. How far the same can be said of reproductive technology (and for how long) is another question. Bowlby believes the corrective power of reality adheres as much in life as in art: “There always is, or was, or will be, another person or institution or social world in the life of the child . . . There is never, once and for all, a child of one’s own.” I hope she’s right.

Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea. Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865. Getty Images
public domain image/pdpics.com
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As the language of break-ups changes, are we regarding our ex-partners differently?

From “conscious uncoupling” to “LAT” couples, we are learning to retain friendly – even familial – post-romantic bonds with former lovers.

Is the conversation around break-ups changing?

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” in March 2014, I was among the bemused detractors. Was it just a hippy-dippy euphemism, a nicer way of dressing up a plain old separation? Wasn’t a break-up bound to be easier if you had money and several houses?

Yet, almost two years on, it’s hard to deny that it seems to have worked well for them. “We’re still very much a family, even though we don’t have a romantic relationship. He’s like my brother,” she told Glamour magazine last week.

They’ve holidayed together and been photographed smiling and laughing like dear old friends. Perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t prevented either from moving on to new romantic partners.

Even some of my (non-Hollywood) peer group are starting to come round to the idea. “I may be the only person in the world who likes the term,” posted one friend in a Facebook thread when I announced that I’d done such a volte-face that I was going to call my new solo show The Conscious Uncoupling.

It quickly turned out that she wasn’t the only person at all, as other friends added that they rather liked it too. Mind you, comedian Kate Smurthwaite commented that she’d only be likely to utter the words if she’d “accidentally swallowed poison and needed to regurgitate it”.

Now that we have an alternative phrase, albeit one that carries a divisive whiff of pretension, it does seem to be empowering us to behave differently, thinking more carefully about bringing greater compassion and communication to this life-changing painful process.

A male comedian friend described to me how he and his wife had, “agreed and admitted that this might all be over but we would still want to be friends – because at heart, we are.

He added: “No one teaches us that this can happen. If you split up, you must scream and shout and never talk to the other person again. Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Yet perhaps this behaviour did already exist. In previous decades, lesbians typically went through lengthy, turbulent transitions to form lasting family-like connections with ex-partners. The community was so small and secret that you “simply had to get on”, according to Dr Jane Traies, who conducted a comprehensive survey of older gay women in the UK.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the gay community have been pioneers of trends that have caught on enough to generate their own new language. They were “living apart together” long before anyone talked about so-called “LAT” couples.

So for those of us embracing the concept and ideology of conscious uncoupling yet not wanting to associate too strongly with Paltrow, how about an alternative term?

I’ve tended to talk about “post-romantic” relationships, while the writer Anna Freeman says she has used the word “metamorphosis” to describe “a changing closeness”.

I’ve also mooted the idea of a “decompression year”, a consensually agreed 12-month untangling, as opposed to abrupt endings that usually come as a shock to one party and render ongoing friendship impossible.

New York psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently called for greater “relationship accountability” in the wake of alarming new trends, “ghosting” and “icing”, which respectively see partners disappearing without explanation or finding excuses to suspend a relationship and put it on hold.

If we extend a sense of accountability to online dating and short-term flings, maybe we should offer a suitable substitute match to everyone we reject.

It’s not a million miles from a popular comedy industry ethos whereby you offer a replacement of an equivalent quality and experience level whenever you drop out of a gig.

In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending.

Whatever our feelings about conscious uncoupling, the idea of embracing the good things about your ex seems a pretty sound one. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who claims that she coined the phrase, has added something important to the conversation around breaking up – while celebrity endorsement of it has simply made more of us sit up and pay attention.

Rosie Wilby is a stand-up comedian, broadcaster and writer.