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Oh Baby! Motherhood and the Media

Panorama: Right Time For a Baby?, BBC ONE, Sunday 18th June, 22:15
Mums Who Leave Their Kids, Sky One, Wednesday 21st June, 21:00

What with the current moral panic over the falling birth rate in Western societies, women's life decisions seem to be fair game at the moment. Last week two programmes were shown that demonstrated the two ways women are always seen with children: the angels that are desperate to have them, and the witches that leave them. On the BBC, we had a documentary about women leaving childbearing until later in life, and on Sky One, we had what purported to be a documentary about the phenomenon of mothers leaving their children.

Kate Silverton left holding the baby.
Kate Silverton and a baby.

The BBC made a Panorama with the inoffensive Kate Silverton, who 'investigated' the recent phenomenon of today's modern career women having fewer children later in life. After we got over the amazing revelation that when you give women career prospects, they prefer to use them, what we got was essentially Kate visiting a couple of pregnant women and getting all emotional over their children's births (guess who'll be sporting a bump in a few months, then?), and looking concerned about a woman in her 40's who was relying on IVF to give her the baby that she hadn't wanted when she was younger. The compelling reasons for delaying motherhood in the UK were touched upon (although the bare facts were obviously not as attractive as the ickle babies); the lack of affordable childcare, the relatively low levels of maternity pay, and the loss of both career prospects and money that women having children in their 20's suffer. This all leads to the real bugbear in the media at the moment, which is women delaying motherhood until their 40's (in some cases) and finding that IVF is not the miracle cure they thought for their declining fertility.

Being the BBC, they also took what was the refreshing step of finding a pregnant 18 year old who had planned her pregnancy, and had prepared herself for the baby in a laudably organised fashion. To be honest, she seemed more confident and capable than any of the older women in the programme, and good luck to her.

Although the programme was watchable enough, and the concerns over late motherhood are legitimate enough (if a little exaggerated), it missed what were, for me, two very important points. Firstly, why the fuss over having your own child? Obviously I've never experienced the heartache of infertility, but I still can't really understand the difference in bringing up a child with which you have a biological connection, and one which you have chosen to adopt. I have heard some justifications along the lines of there being few babies to adopt, but if you're only going into motherhood with the aim of cooing over a baby, you should probably have a serious think about your motives.

Secondly, oddly enough for a programme which was focusing on the reasons why the birth rate in the UK was declining, there was no acknowledgement that there are women out there who actually don't want children, or who have chosen not to have children. Perhaps I felt defensive, being smack-bang in their demographic and being told that if I'm intending to have children, I should leave it no longer than 2 years if I'm expecting IVF to help me. I did rather feel that the message of the programme was 'Reproduce or become a lonely old woman! You haven't much time, y'know!'. In any case, I found the panic hard to understand, seeing as my mother had me at the apparently geriatric age of 34, and my auntie had no problem conceiving at the age of 40. In fact, there was no actual attempt to find out just how many women were rushing to the fertility clinic, which gave the impression that every woman over 30 was signing (or should be signing) up to IVF, when the reality is very different. Presumably, because women can allegedly 'have it all', it's assumed that they should have it all.

Still, although it was a worthy, if panicky, effort to prove the blindingly obvious, it was harmless compared to Mums Who Leave Their Kids on Sky One, presented (and starring) the fragrant tabloid journo Jane Moore. Unshackled from the requirement to provide any journalistic integrity at all, what could have been an interesting discussion about why mothers abandon their children was marred by Jane's eagerness to parade herself as the perfect mother. We were subjected to her constant assurances that she would never leave her children, and that she couldn't understand why any woman would. I thought that was what she was trying to find out, but it appeared that Jane saw the programme as a sounding board for her opinions, occasionally letting another woman get a word in edgeways. At least Kate Silverton had the decency to let her interviewees speak for themselves, but I suppose women conforming to their biological stereotypes is a far less contentious topic than those doing the opposite.

The tabloid nature of the programme shone through in Jane's interview with a woman who had written about her decision to leave her children, where Jane used the old trick of making a judgement and then explaining that 'some' people might think that, whilst making it very clear in the voiceover that it was her own thoughts. Jane was incredibly bitchy about this woman behind her back in the edit suite, in fact, rubbishing her rationale for leaving and being rather smug about her yet unsuccessful attempts at the success she felt eluded her as a mother.

Ignoring Jane's over-riding smugness, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that the women in the programme left their children due to mental health issues, extreme stress, or a realisation that they simply weren't giving their children the parenting they deserved. As hard as it may be for Jane to believe, it is possible that some women simply aren't cut out for motherhood, in which case the kindest thing they can do is to act to rectify this. Jane clearly didn't believe that this was possible, choosing instead to focus on the suffering of the children that are left, which is slightly pointless. It goes without saying that children in this position will be upset, just like they would be upset at any disruption to the family unit, regardless of which parent leaves. However, Jane decided to offer her opinion that children suffer more when a mother leaves as truth, despite having no evidence to prove this, and, bizarrely, featuring a family that seemed to be getting on very well with a single dad and visiting mother. If we take this opinion to its logical conclusion, Jane seems to be taking the very Polly Filler view that men are useless, which is hardly a positive or realistic view. It may be significant that we didn't actually see the father of Jane's children in the programme, and I certainly felt sorry for the very capable single dad who participated in the programme.

The crowning glory, however, was Jane's 'final thought' piece to camera. Holding her baby, she graciously allowed for the possibility of 'genuine' post-natal depression causing mothers to abandon their children, but concludes that all other cases are due to mothers 'dipping their toe into motherhood' and finding it all too much like hard work, despite it being said by many in the programme that the decision by a mother to leave her children is never made lightly. Jane reassured us again that she would never do such a thing. Well done Jane. The canonisation's in the post.

What the programme showed me was that every case is different, and sweeping judgements are never helpful. Given the cultural pressures on women to be mothers, and the attendant pressures of bringing up beautiful, talented and successful offspring, it's no shock that some women are less able to cope than others. Perhaps more support and the acknowledgement that producing children is a worthwhile contribution to society would mean that women as a whole would be better equipped to cope with the multiple roles expected of them. Part of this is surely recognising the contribution that a father has to make in the upbringing of his children. All of the men I know from my generation are either great fathers or would make great fathers, so it's disappointing that hacks like Moore are still clinging to the hackneyed notion that 'Mum is best' and that fathers are irrelevant. What would be best of all, of course, would be a more understanding and inclusive approach to discussing these sorts of issues, but that's not as easy as dismissing people whose actions you disagree with, eh?

About this entry


Excellent piece, Tanya!

By Andrew
June 29, 2006 @ 10:45 am

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>Secondly, oddly enough for a programme which was focusing on the reasons why the birth rate in the UK was declining, there was no acknowledgement that there are women out there who actually don't want children, or who have chosen not to have children.

I was wondering about this as I was reading your article (before I reached this sentence, obviously). As one of those women, it pisses me off no end that there's no acknowledgement of my point of view (I have spent most of my life either being patronisingly told that I'll change my mind 'when the biological clock starts ticking' or being treated like a freak/evil woman for not wanting kids), and that there continues to be benefits/bribery from the government for women to have children when we have a society so full of unfit parents it makes me want to scream.

By Pook
June 29, 2006 @ 1:29 pm

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It's certainly weird that, in an era of humans wanting as little to do with their natural functions as possible, it's assumed that just because a woman has a womb, she's obliged to use it. Then if you're not up to the job, for whatever reason, it's your fault. You really are damned if you do and damned if you don't, and it's interesting that men have rarely been subjected to such pressures.

By Tanya Jones
June 29, 2006 @ 8:16 pm

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'Excellent piece, Tanya!'

Thanks! I was wondering what people would make of the article, to be honest...

By Tanya Jones
June 29, 2006 @ 8:45 pm

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> it's interesting that men have rarely been subjected to such pressures.

You say that, but we have to relieve our testicles of spunk at regular intervals. Much more often than once a month, like your so-called periods.

By Ian Symes
June 29, 2006 @ 9:02 pm

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Tanya: Excellent job. Even if it does sound like you went just a bit easy on the tabloid program. Of course, I haven't seen it so maybe it's not as frustrating as I'm perceiving it would have been...but great job. This is actually a topic that's been weighing on my mind a lot lately, but the reason for that, I assure you, would bore you.

Pook: Freak.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
June 30, 2006 @ 12:19 am

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And there was me thinking that I'd been a bit too ranty :)

By Tanya Jones
July 01, 2006 @ 3:00 pm

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You've not been ranty at all Tanya. I enjoyed reading that.

By Spid
July 02, 2006 @ 1:29 am

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Don't you go having any more babies, Spid.

By Ian Symes
July 02, 2006 @ 2:43 am

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Don't you go having any more babies, Spid.

Don't worry, I won't.

By Spid
July 02, 2006 @ 12:40 pm

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I was just researching reasons why mothers leave their children, probably to justify my own taboo urges to run away as fast as I can and never come back. I loved your approach in this article to actually consider the feelings of these socially branded "monster mothers". 10 years ago I thought the same thing about moms who leave their families. (of course I didn't have kids 10 years ago.) Now I not only realize how wrong that stereotype is, but I understand exactly why some women have to leave. I just hope I don't become one of them.
Imagine yourself in this situation...Your married to your dream man, you conceive your first child on your wedding night, who just happens to be born that beautiful baby boy your always wanted. (I had a great big brother). A couple wonderful years go is looking good. You have a happy healthy 2 year old boy and you just gave birth to the beautiful daughter you always wanted. Only she is colicy and allergic to milk and screams bloody murder 6-8 hours a day/night. You beg pediatricians for help. 2 months go by, daughter still screaming loudly, inconsolable nothing can be done until she outgrows it. You desperately try to tell your 2 year old son that she is just sick and she will get better, we just have to hold on. (He was expecting a normal baby sister to play with and help mommy care for)
Now it's Wednesday afternoon, your 3rd wedding anniversary, you look out the bathroom door into your living room to see your son on his knees with his head on the floor. You call his movement. You walk over to him and his lips are blue......his eyes are half open with a blank stare and he is almost grey in color. You pick him up and realize..he is not breathing at all, you grab the phone call 911 trying to perform cpr on a toddler in a state of hysterical shock. The medics and police arrive and whisk him to the ambulance...nothing was bringing him back, he was pronounced dead at the hospital 45 minutes later, but you knew in your heart he was already gone when you picked him up off the floor. The autopsy could not find anything wrong with him, no reason why he would just pass out and die like that. Now the funeral is over, and you and your husband are given back your 2 month daughter who was with family for a couple days while you dealt with the horrifying shock and grief. Only deep in your heart you knew at that moment in the hospital looking at your dead healthy son, that you were done being a mom, you didn't want anything more to do with it. Just the thought that something that bizarre and horrifying could happen completely changed you. But it was too late, you have a daughter...a non stop screaming unhappy baby girl that you suddenly felt unable to even care for. She continued to scream like that until she was nine months old. She is five now, beautiful, smart but still very difficult to deal with behavior wise. I am proud of myself for making it this long, but I have been faking it for 5 years, I am miserable, depressed, post traumatic stress disorder on medication and being treated by a phyisician, but I still want to run and never come back. I feel like I am hanging from a string that is about to snap. I hate this life, housewife=maid/slave. Not at all what I thought family life would be. I love my husband and my daughter but sometimes I think she would be better off with anyone but me. I hope I can find a way to stay with my family and find some happiness and joy in motherhood again. But I just wanted to chime in and say not all mothers who leave their families are monsters or evil at all. They are more likely women who have suffered most of their lives and just can't be functional in that role anymore. I hope anyone who reads this will give women/mothers a bit of a break with their nasty over simplifications and social stigmas. Thank you for this forum.

By sadmom
March 19, 2007 @ 5:43 am

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I think I actually do hold the probably despicable opinion that if women do not bother with children, they'll end up regretting it later in life. But that's probably just because I WANT TEN BABIES RIGHT NOW, and my judgement isn't very clear. I probably want all women to have babies just so that I can look after them.

"I still can't really understand the difference in bringing up a child with which you have a biological connection, and one which you have chosen to adopt"

Really? How do other people feel about this? I'd love a little cocktail of me and whoever I've impregnated running about the place. Noticing which of our characteristics they've inherited, and stuff like that. I mean, isn't that a large part of why we go to such trouble to pick our "life-partners" - they're going to make up 50% of the genetic material we bequeath to the world? Not that I've got anything against adopting, or think that adopted children run about smashing windows and eating poo because their mothers were smackheads, or something. I'd just much prefer to have a child the traditional way, at least one of them, anyway.

And sadmom - that's a brutally affecting post, and I'm really sorry your life took such a tailspin. I hope you find some way of coming through it all. Although I wouldn't dream of comparing our situations, I'm on anti-depressants at the moment for about the twenty billionth time and can empathise to some degree with the feelings of being trapped by circumstance into a life you didn't ask for. I wish I had some advice for you other than "yeah, it's rubbish, isn't it?"

By Michael Lacey
March 20, 2007 @ 4:33 am

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Thanks for your post, sadmom; you're in an appalling situation, and I wish I could help.

Michael; the problem with women 'regretting it later in life' is that it's impossible to predict if this will happen, and that you're asking for trouble to simply have a child 'just in case'. Also, although our society is indeed based on 'continuing family lines' and so forth, isn't this just simply egotism? Part of the joy of having a child is nurturing it to adulthood, and I'm still confused as to why people put themselves through hell simply so they can say "Ooh, hasn't he got his dad's eyes?". It just seems, well, a bit self-indulgent when there's so many unwanted children out there.

Perhaps my opinions are as despicable as yours :)

By Tanya Jones
March 20, 2007 @ 8:09 am

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Well yes, it is impossible to predict the future, but I think a lot of people put off even *thinking* about children, and statistically some of them are bound to regret it, and should have *thought* about it earlier, if not actually gone to the trouble of having a baby in case of emergencies? Certainly if they want to do that, I'll look after them until they need them. I'll be like Mrs. Hannigan, and I'll make them all do routines.

I think it's oversimplifying things to say that people want their own kids rather than someone elses purely because of egotism, but I'm finding pretty hard to find the words to state my case. It's all a bit abstract, really. I think creating something out of basically yourself than can walk and talk and resemble you mentally aswell as physically is a kind of wonderful, magical thing and it's a way of leaving some mark on the world after you've gone. I mean, it's a bit like becoming immortal, isn't it? I'm not saying that this doesn't happen with adopted children, of course it does, but ehh... can someone take up the baton here? I think I need a good nights sleep before I'll be able to argue this properly and without sounding like a bit of a twat. It certainly fascinates and interests me that I've indepedently found myself reading all the same turn-of-the-century french monarchist satire and other such really specific examples as my dad, and finding out the multitude of different things that people who share my DNA have got up to in the past makes me feel pretty good. But then I was playing peek-a-boo with this little girl this afternoon while I was waiting for my Ma outside some shop, and I thought fuck it I'd be quite happy just taking that kid home instead of asking my wife to ruin her vagina with one. It's certainly a complex issue. If only someone would make a BBC documentary about it!

By Michael Lacey
March 20, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

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i have a 4 month old daughter she has a mark on her neck thats been present since she was born i have been to my family GP on sevral occasions i even went to the local NHS walkin centre and was reffered to the hospital to have a two minute appointment told its a mole then discharged the thing is the mark on my daughter neck looks nothing like a mole when its calm it just looks like a friction burn but then it's starts to swell the surrounding area turns a bright red colour and the mark it's self turns a yellow colour it has even started to ettect her health she has had three infections in the neck area and still nothing is being done
i even took photographs of my daughters neck when it was calming down from the worse its been so far i even showed these to the doctors and they still say it's nothing to worry about only one doctor has seen it at its worse that was where they were finally listening that soon changed when i wet to the hospital no other doctor has seen it at it's worse as there is never an appointment i have to wait till the next day when it's calming down
can anyone please help me? i'm fed up with being passed around and told i'm overreacting just because i'm a young mum please help

By laura
June 14, 2008 @ 12:20 am

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Have you tried parenting forums, Laura? You may find someone who has had the same experience and will at least be able to reassure you whilst you're trying to get an appointment.

By Tanya Jones
June 14, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

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