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.

Mother and child.
Love without borders: a Massachusetts mother with her Ethiopian adopted son. Photograph: Mary Beth Meehan.
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)