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
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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood