Birth stories: how science is changing parenthood

Over the course of the 20th century, children became more of an active choice than a post-marital expectation. Rachel Bowlby explores the influence science has made in offering a new range of parental types.

One night in 1983, a baby was found abandoned in a telephone box. In 2006, Patricia Rashbrook, a 62-year-old woman who had become pregnant through IVF with a donor egg, became what the media called “Britain’s oldest mother”. Both these events occurred in the same small town – Lewes in East Sussex. Just a couple of decades separate them but in other respects they are worlds and centuries apart.
 
The story of the abandoned baby seemed to be a strange return to a time when motherhood out of wedlock carried an unbearable stigma or when material circumstances might have made it impossible for parents to care for a child. The later birth represented one of the more striking possibilities of a new order in which parenthood has come to be regarded as a form of personal fulfilment, a valid lifestyle option open to anyone, whatever their age, marital status or sexuality.
 
Rashbrook and her husband had travelled abroad to receive the expensive medical treatment that enabled them to become parents. The young girl – if she was – had fled from the motherhood she had found herself in, leaving her baby to chance. In terms of age, the hi-tech mother could have been the grandmother of the younger one. Capsuled together in a single place, so near and so far, these two extreme stories, as though from the opposite ends of history, draw attention to the simple reality that pregnancy and parenthood, which might seem like timeless biological certainties, are as mutable as every other facet of human existence.
 
Until quite recently, parenthood usually went without saying: barring cases of moral or medical mishap, it was just what followed from marriage and not a significant story in its own right. Compared to the passions of childhood, it seemed only the counterpart or background; where there was a child, there were or had been parents. Compared to the spectacular attachments of romantic love, parenthood was the unremarkable sequel. In the final chapter of Jane Eyre – the chapter that begins with “Reader, I married him” – the birth of Jane’s and Mr Rochester’s son is mentioned in passing: “When his firstborn was put into his arms . . .” Nothing in the narrative leads up to it (no thought of a possible child; no mention of a pregnancy) and nothing comes after it. Parenthood is not the start of a story.
 
Yet over the course of the 20th century, having children became, in most western cultures, more of an active choice than a postmarital expectation. Initially, contraception separated sex from procreation; now, reproductive technologies separate procreation from sex. First, you could have sex without having to have babies; now, you can have babies without having to have sex. Whether to be or not to be a parent has become a new life question, one that would not have occurred to most people previously, when parenthood was what you were likely to get if you married, regardless of what you wanted.
 
In the past few decades, possible parental types have gone forth and multiplied. Gay parenthood and single parenthood by choice are the most striking examples of this. The break-up of parental couples makes step-parenting common (as it always was before the 20th century – but back then it was almost always as a result of death, rather than divorce). Biologically, new reproductive technologies alter the very “facts of life” that engender parents as well as children.
 
All these changes are generating new kinds of (sometimes unlikely) parental stories. In particular, the innovations in reproductive technologies and their accompanying parental possibilities have the fascination of science fiction – but also a striking speed of normalisation. In 1978, the birth of the first “test-tube baby”, Louise Brown, was an international news story; today, IVF is considered a fairly ordinary medical procedure and controversy focuses instead on the latest exceptional scenarios: the “mother of 62” or the single man who commissions a surrogate mother.
 
In the late 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft deplored and mocked those who saw women’s only purpose as biological parenthood: “to procreate and rot”. This was a good enough life for a plant or animal, but women, as human beings, must not forget that their “grand destination” was to be something more than a reproductive organism (and compost-to-be).
 
Today, the terms of that argument remain but they have been turned on their heads. On the one hand, parenthood can be represented as a valuable human goal in itself – a parent is something to be. On the other, the parenthood sought or envisaged may well be valued –not scorned – as “biological”, with new birth stories generated to accompany or promote this desire. In the words of one US website aimed at prospective gay, male parents: “Some partners both want a biological connection to the child(ren). In this case, some clinics are able to combine the sperm of each partner with separate batches of the donor’s eggs. The possible result: twins – each with the same biological mother but separate dads. If the process does not take, a DNA test will be needed to determine which donor is the father.”
 
It is worth noting in passing that these twins are defined by shared gestation, rather than shared genetic parents – yet the pregnant woman will have no part in the babies’ post-womb lives. But at the same time, the “separate dads” are differentiated and that is the whole point of the procedure, postnatally: even though they are a couple, each man gets a child of his own, known as such and cherished as “a biological connection”. Each twin, for that matter, gets a dad of his or her own. (The “biological mother”, meanwhile, has no post-natal role.)
 
But if the physical process of making a baby can now be broken down into separable ingredients and stages – egg, sperm and womb; extra-uterine conception and then gestation – this means that the notion of “biological” parenthood has many possible interpretations, often mutually incompatible. When it comes to the female “connection”, because of the possible distinction between the woman who provides the egg and the woman who is pregnant, either of the two can be regarded – or can regard herself – as a child’s biological mother. In Patricia Rashbrook’s case, natural parenthood depends on her being the one who gave birth (the egg was not hers). In cases of surrogacy, however, such as the gay advice website’s scenario, the valued biological connection can be played the other way, now represented by the future parents’ genetic contribution of egg or sperm (or both). Gradually removed from the story, the “biological mother” procreates and rots; but for the child’s post-natal fathers, parenthood is the grand destination, a life goal elaborately achieved.
 
Before the developments of 20th-century choice and the new biological parenthoods was what now appears to have been a world in which children came along or didn’t, wanted or not. Modern parental choice does have antecedents in stories of foundlings and what we could call “seeklings”: of children either abandoned or longed for. Even so, fables of foundlings were usually concerned with either the origins or the destiny of the child, rather than with the feelings or motives of the finding or abandoning parents –or perhaps that part of the storyhas beenneglected in subsequent retellings.
 
The Oedipus story is a good example. In Sophocles’s play, his parents leave him to die as a baby and he is then adopted by a childless couple. But that double story of the rejecting and welcoming parents gets forgotten. Freud saw the tragedy exclusively in terms of childhood desires – quite absent from the play – rather than parental longings and fears.
 
There are many more parental narratives to be told or discovered in the interstices of well-known stories. In the past, adoption – like the usual kind of parenthood –was often simply accepted (in the most extreme situation, when a foundling was discovered; or more commonly when relatives adopted because of illegitimacy or parental death). But it could also be actively sought. Usually, this would have been because of a couple’s childlessness; but there are also precedents for the contemporary scenario in which parenthood is a private project and individuals seek a child of their own, on their own.
 
Take Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. We think of this as the quintessential story of childhood emotions. Yet it is also a book about two eccentric individuals, Magwitch and Miss Havisham, who each adopt to give meaning to their life.
 
Magwitch uses his newfound wealth to pay for the young Pip’s transformation – and thus to become the father of a gentleman. Miss Havisham, meanwhile, is more than the mad old lady endlessly stuck in the day that her fiancé jilted her; she is also someone who contacted a lawyer to find her a little girl “to rear and love, and save from my fate”. Behind the novel’s focus on Pip’s fraught growing up, Great Expectations is Dickens’s tale of two parents.
 
Rachel Bowlby is the author of “A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories” (Oxford University Press, £20)
Love without borders: a Massachusetts mother with her Ethiopian adopted son. Photograph: Mary Beth Meehan.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Photo: Getty
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In the race to be France's next president, keep an eye on Arnaud Montebourg

Today's Morning Call. 

Good morning. As far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the least important voters are here in Britain. Whether UK plc gets a decent Brexit deal depends a lot more on who occupies the big jobs across Europe, and how stable they feel in doing so.

The far-right Freedom Party in Austria may have been repudiated at the presidential level but they still retain an interest in the legislative elections (due to be held by 2018). Both Lega Nord and Five Star in Italy will hope to emerge as the governing party at the next Italian election.

Some Conservative MPs are hoping for a clean sweep for the Eurosceptic right, the better to bring the whole EU down, while others believe that the more vulnerable the EU is, the better a deal Britain will get. The reality is that a European Union fearing it is in an advanced state of decay will be less inclined, not more, to give Britain a good deal. The stronger the EU is, the better for Brexit Britain, because the less attractive the exit door looks, the less of an incentive to make an example of the UK among the EU27.

That’s one of the many forces at work in next year’s French presidential election, which yesterday saw the entry of Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, into the race to be the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Though his star has fallen somewhat among the general public from the days when his opposition to halal supermarkets as mayor of Evry, and his anti-Roma statements as interior minister made him one of the most popular politicians in France, a Valls candidacy, while unlikely to translate to a finish in the top two for the Socialists could peel votes away from Marine Le Pen, potentially allowing Emanuel Macron to sneak into second place.

But it’s an open question whether he will get that far. The name to remember is Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister who quit Francois Hollande’s government over its right turn in 2014. Although as  Anne-Sylvaine Chassany reports, analysts believe the Socialist party rank-and-file has moved right since Valls finished fifth out of sixth in the last primary, Montebourg’s appeal to the party’s left flank gives him a strong chance.

Does that mean it’s time to pop the champagne on the French right? Monteburg may be able to take some votes from the leftist independent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and might do some indirect damage to the French Thatcherite Francois Fillon. His supporters will hope that his leftist economics will peel away supporters of Le Pen, too.

One thing is certain, however: while the chances of a final run-off between Le Pen and Fillon are still high,  Hollande’s resignation means that it is no longer certain that the centre and the left will not make it to that final round.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The government began its case at the Supreme Court yesterday, telling justices that the creation of the European Communities Act, which incorporates the European treaties into British law automatically, was designed not to create rights but to expedite the implementation of treaties, created through prerogative power. The government is arguing that Parliament, through silence, has accepted that all areas not defined as within its scope as prerogative powers. David Allen Green gives his verdict over at the FT.

MO’MENTUM, MO’PROBLEMS

The continuing acrimony in Momentum has once again burst out into the open after a fractious meeting to set the organisation’s rules and procedures, Jim Waterson reports over at BuzzFeed.  Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, still owns the data and has the ability to shut down the entire group, should he chose to do so, something he is being urged to do by allies. I explain the origins of the crisis here.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE  BEFORE

Italy’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi, may need a state bailout after its recapitalisation plan was thrown into doubt following Matteo Renzi’s resignation. Italy’s nervous bankers will wait to see if  €1bn of funds from a Qatari investment grouping will be forthcoming now that Renzi has left the scene.

BOOM BOOM

Strong growth in the services sector puts Britain on course to be the highest growing economy in the G7. But Mark Carney has warned that the “lost decade” of wage growth and the unease from the losers from globalisation must be tackled to head off the growing tide of “isolation and detachment”.

THE REPLACEMENTS

David Lidington will stand in for Theresa May, who is abroad, this week at Prime Ministers’ Questions. Emily Thornberry will stand in for Jeremy Corbyn.

QUIT PICKING ON ME!

Boris Johnson has asked Theresa May to get her speechwriters and other ministers to stop making jokes at his expense, Sam Coates reports in the Times. The gags are hurting Britain’s diplomatic standing, the Foreign Secretary argues.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here’s Anna’s top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.