Memories of Catriona
Hilary Mantel concludes her memoir
When I left St George’s Hospital, I imagined that aspects of my past had been excised, cut cleanly away. My long scar would knit and the memory of the pain would fade. For a time I went backwards and forwards, between England and Africa, and in the end I tried to put down roots in the colder climate, and make my way alone. But by 1982 I was sick again, pain slicing through my vital organs and leaving me breathless in public places, leaning against a grimy wall at Euston Station, or clinging like a derelict to a park bench. My skin turned grey, and my weight began to fall, so that one day, when I saw myself sideways in a mirror, I shocked myself: I looked like one of those beaten dogs that the RSPCA used to photograph, with bones sticking through the hide. I hadn’t known that the endometriosis could come back.
Though it is true that radical surgery is usually a cure for the condition, it is also the case that it is difficult to eradicate every misplaced cell, to pick off those minute guerrilla fighters waging a long war in the obscure cavities of the body. Oestrogen, like fresh supplies and matériel, allows the guerrillas to flourish. I didn’t know that then. If I didn’t take oestrogen replacement, I had been told, my bones would crumble. How much to take? No one seemed to know. Trial and error, I was told breezily. Take enough so that you don’t get the symptoms of the menopause.
Soon I was suffering almost continuous pain. Ignorant doctors told me the disease could not return. The pain was the pull of scar tissue, adhesions, or if it wasn’t that, then once again I was imagining things. This should have made me angry, but I was too fragile and worn to react as I should. When I found a doctor who understood my problem and was prepared to treat me, my reaction was only gratitude.
The treatment was drugs now, hormones. The first weeks were tough. On a summer’s day, wrapped in a big quilt, my teeth chattered as they had in Africa when I contracted dysentery. But the tropical infection had left me light and hollow: now, I seemed to be gaining flesh. I entered treatment weighing something over seven and a half stone. By the end of nine months, which was the usual duration of the course, the pain was no better, but my bodyweight had increased by over 50 per cent and was rising.
When I gained the first stone or two, I didn’t really mind. If you are secure in one aspect of your appearance – and there had never been anything to quibble about with my shape – you don’t mind small changes, they don’t seem threatening, and in fact they give you a chance to alter your style. I’d always been afraid of showing my arms, in case people thought I was from the Third World and gave me a donation; and my upper ribs, I’d thought, looked somewhat tubercular. It was good that I looked healthier; I was tired of people asking what was wrong with me, and giving me those dirty looks that very thin women get all the time. I’d even been turned down for a job by a broad-beamed horse-faced woman who said I looked weak: other jobs had been barred to me as soon as my medical record was discovered. It was a bit like going back to the 1970s. In those days, interviewers looked sourly at me because I was married, and looked fertile; so why didn’t they like me any better now I was on my own and incapable of childbearing?
At nine stone and size 12, graceful and curvaceous, I got a job. It was quite a menial one, so I got another, for the evenings. One job was in a shop, the other in a bar. The jobs needed a sort of uniform, so I bought some cheap black skirts and white tops. Within a couple of weeks I had grown out of them. My face was round and looked childish; I was becoming like some phenomenal baby who astounds her attendants. When my next appointment with my consultant came, I said: ‘I’m worried because I’m putting on weight so fast.’ She shot me a spiteful glance, from amid her own jowly folds. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘you know what it’s like for the rest of us.’
I found a secondhand shop quite near where I lived; cast-offs from the bored, and the odd designer label. I was determined not to panic, but I stopped eating: what else could I do? My body was staging some kind of revolt: colic, nausea, an inability to keep food inside me. To get out of the house for eight, I had to get up at six. I spent my scarce free time getting my hair done, lifted and teased and curled into a mane, so that I didn’t look as if I had a pin-head on top of my sweetly plump shoulders. I was a size 14 for a while, and people would say: ‘You do look well – been away, have you?’
My ex-husband came back from Africa. He had once told me I was so vain of my waistline that I would starve rather than gain an inch. But how did he know? In the past it had never been an issue. Now I had starved, and still gained five. Not to worry! He took me shopping. I bought some Englishwomen’s dresses, the pretty, floppy kind that go with creamy skin and broad haunches. We got married again. I had warned him by letter that I was fat now, but I knew I was being melodramatic. Size 14 is not fat, not really, it’s just – it’s well. That’s what it is. Well.
I never was a size 16. I shot past it effortlessly. Soon there was nothing in the secondhand shop to fit me; bigger women don’t discard fashions so lightly. The assistants – and hadn’t I been their best customer all summer? – began to give me the smirk, half-commiserating and half-condescending, that would soon become the usual expression of shop girls when I went to get clad. My skin turned grey again, shading to slate-blue as the autumn came on. My legs swelled and ached. Fluid puffed up my eyelids. Some mornings my head looked like a soccer ball. I was glad when my husband’s job took us to Saudi Arabia, where women wear drapery rather than clothes, and where no one knew me, so that no one could stop me in the street to say how well I looked: where, in fact, I was more or less prohibited from going out on the street at all. I could stay indoors, under artificial light, waxing like some strange fungus.
The failure of my drugs had been recognised, and before I left England I was put on a new type. By now I was not so green in judgment. I looked up the side-effects. Weight gain: I’d done that, and I didn’t think there were sizes bigger than 20 – not really, not for people who’d once been thin. Hair falls out. Well, I had plenty of hair. Voice deepens – never mind, I’d always been a squeaker. Spots – harder to put a good face on spots, but never mind, the clued-up woman knows how to cope with a little outbreak. A general virilisation . . . oh, what’s the odds? I’d always wanted to be a bloke.
A few weeks on, I had developed a steroid moon-face. My hair had come out in handfuls. I was deaf, my eyesight was blurred by constant headaches, and my legs were swollen like bolsters. And one morning I sat up in bed, and cried out, like a nude exposed in a comic strip: eek! I clapped my outstretched palms where my breasts had been, and there they weren’t anymore.
Then I had a bit of luck. I needed a prescription: in fact the drugs would have to be sent from England, as they were not available in Saudi Arabia. I swayed, giddy and wincing, into a doctor’s office. Let me name him – why not? His name was Dr Fishlock. He sat up at the sight of me, and asked: ‘What are you taking?’ He fixed me with a keen look, of knowledge and concern. I told him. It confirmed what he had suspected. He knew the drug, he said. He had worked on the trials. It was effective: but but but.
I knew the buts. I was a walking but. A butt of ridicule, in my own eyes; a sad sack enclosing a disease process, no longer an object of respect, or self-respect. He spoke to me kindly, and cut the dose by a third.
Very few doctors understand this: that, somehow, you have to live till you’re cured.
I went home, to the dark, enclosed rooms of our apartment. I cut my dose by a third. Presently I sat down and wrote another book.
When I was thin I had no notion of what being fat is like. I had sold clothes to women of most shapes, so I should have known; but perhaps you have to experience the state from the inside to understand it. When you sell clothes you get very good at sizing people, but I had sized my customers as if they were fridge-freezers, or some other unnegotiable object, solid and with a height, width and depth. Fat is not like this. It is insidious and creepy. It is not a matter of chest-waist-hip measurements. You get fat knees, fat feet, fat in bits of you that you’d never thought of. You get in a panic, and believe in strange diets; you give up carbohydrate, then fat, then you subsist for a bit on breakfast cereal and fruit because it seems easier that way; then you find yourself weak at the fat knees, at risk of falling over in the street. You get up on winter mornings to pack ice-cubes into a diet shake that tastes like some imbibed jelly, a primitive life-form that will bud inside you. You throw tantrums in fat-lady shops, where the stock is grimy tat tacked together from cheap man-made fabric, a choice of electric blue or cerise. You can’t get your legs into boots, or your feet into last year’s shoes.
You say, okay, then I’ll be fat. As it seems you have no choice, you generously concur. But you become a little wary of adverbs like ‘generously’. Of adjectives like ‘full-bodied’, ‘womanly’ or ‘ample’. You think people are talking about you. They probably are. One of my favourite grim sports, since becoming a published writer and having people interview me, has been to wait and see how the profiler will turn me out in print. With what adjective will they characterise the startlingly round woman on whose sofa they are lolling? ‘Apple-cheeked’ is the sweetest. ‘Maternal’ made me smile: well, almost.
Okay, you say, it seems I can’t be thin, so I’ll be fat and make the best of it. ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue,’ you tell yourself. Fat is not immoral. There is no link between your waistline and your ethics. But though you insist on this, in your own mind, everything tells you you’re wrong: or let’s say, you’re going in for a form of intellectual discrimination that cuts against the perception of most of the population, who know that overweight people are lazy, undisciplined slobs. Their perception, of course, is conditioned, not natural. The ancient prejudice in favour of fat has reversed only recently. When I taught in African schools, the high-school girls thought slimness was a prize to be gained by hard study. As soon as their certificates allowed them to get away from mealie porridge, the diet of their foremothers, they planned to turn svelte. But poor girls, without certificates, who I met at my volunteer project, were aiming only to get as much mealie porridge as the high-school students. ‘Tell me about your best friend,’ I urged my little maids one day. ‘Now, write it down. Two sentences, can you?’ My star pupil leaned against me, in friendly local style, while she read her composition. Her exercise book flopped in my lap, one sinewy arm was thrown across my shoulders. Her other hand trailed towards the book, her finger stabbed at the words, chiselled into cheap paper: ‘My beast friend is Neo. It is a beautiful girl, and fat.’
I think of her sometimes, my beast friend. In the terms of the Church in which I was brought up, the body is a beast, a base, simian relative that turns up at the door of the spirit too often for comfort; a bawling uncle, drunk, who raps at the door-knocker and sings in the street. Saints starve. They diet till they see visions. Sometimes they see the towers of the fortresses of God, the battlements outlined in flickering light. They are haunted by strange odours: heavenly perfumes or diabolic stenches. Sometimes they have to rise from their pallets and kick their demons out. Some saints are muscular Christians. But there are no fat saints.
When you get fat, you get a new personality. You can’t help it. Complete strangers ascribe it to you. When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to be placid. I was the same strung-out, fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me. I was (and am) unsure about how I am related to my old self, or to myself from year to year. The hormonal profile of an individual determines much of the manifest personality. If you skew the endocrine system, you lose the pathways to self. When endocrine patterns change it alters the way you think and feel. One big change in the pattern tends to trip another.
Sometime about the millennium, I stopped being able to think properly. I lost my capacity for snappy summation, and my sense of priorities went too, so that when I was writing I would dwell on minor points at great length, while failing to get around to the main point at all. I could start things, but not finish them. I had no appetite, but grew still wider. Sleep became my only interest. In the end, it was discovered that my thyroid gland had failed. A simple pill treats it; your brain works again, but your body is slower to catch up. Nowadays, more than twenty years on from my trip to St Thomas’s Hospital, everything about me – my physiology, my psychology – feels constantly under assault: I am a shabby old building in an area of heavy shelling, which the inhabitants vacated years ago.
I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. Plenty of people have survived cancer and never put pen to paper. I am writing in order to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness, which until now has been a story told by other people; and in order to locate myself, if not within a body, then in the narrow space between one letter and the next, between the lines where the ghosts of meaning are. Spirit needs a house and lodges where it can; you don’t kill yourself just because you need loose covers rather than frocks. There are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social expectation, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being – even if the writing is aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one can see till I’m dead. When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.
When you were a child you had to make yourself. You had to construct yourself and make yourself into a person, fitting somehow into the niche for a person that in your family had been always vacant, or into a vacancy left by someone dead; sometimes you looked towards dead-man’s shoes, seeing how, in time, you would replace your grandmother, or her elder sister, or someone who no one really remembered but who ought to have been there; someone’s miscarriage, someone’s dead child. Much of what happened to you, in your early life, was constructed inside your head. You were a passive observer, you were the done-to, you were the not-explained-to; you had to listen at doors for information, or sometimes it was what you overheard; but just as often it was disinformation, or half a tale, and much of the time you probably put the wrong construction on what you picked up. How then can you create a narrative of your own life? Janet Frame compares the process to finding a bunch of old rags, and trying to make a dress. A party dress, I’d say: something fit to be seen in. Something to go out in and face the world.
For a few years, in my dreams, I stayed thin, and I wore a thin person’s clothes. Even today, I sometimes see myself, in one of the cities I go to when I am asleep, coming out of a bookshop or sitting at a café table, trim and narrow, though younger than I am now. It is said that, in dreams – in lucid dreams, where you are aware of your own processes – you can’t turn on an electric light, or see yourself in a mirror. I set myself to test this; thinking that somehow, if I could see my fat self in a dream, I would have accepted it all through, and would accept the waking reality.
But what happens, when you face the mirror, is that its surface melts, and the self walks into the glass. You step through it, and into a different dream.
It was 1982 when I went to Saudi Arabia; I was 30. The expatriate wives of Jeddah plagued the life out of me, sticking me like mosquitoes with their common question: ‘When are you going to start your family?’
I didn’t know what was a good answer to this: I’m not, or I can’t.
When I was a young woman I didn’t want children. I was wary of the trap that seemed ready to spring. I was ambitious, on my own account, to make a mark on the world. I didn’t want to carry someone else’s thwarted expectations. If I failed to make something of myself, wouldn’t I heap my frustration onto my daughter? And she, in the course of time, onto her daughter? When is it a woman’s turn, I wanted to know, to get something for herself, and not at second hand through her children? I was good for more than breeding: that was my opinion.
But my resolve faltered, in the face of the expat matrons smelling so sweetly of baby talc and cream. It was hard to tell them that I had turned my back on everything that gave life meaning for them, turned my back until it was too late for me. Once it was necessary for my husband’s employer to arrange for my drugs to be brought in by courier, and the rumour got about that they were fertility drugs. ‘They can do wonders nowadays,’ I was assured. Eyes were on my waistline; which was, of course, ever-expanding. After the natural gestation period had passed, the ladies gossiped among themselves that I was trying to adopt.
This made me angry; after a bit, it made me laugh. Would any agency have thought me a suitable adoptive mother? Adoption agencies don’t like sick women for parents. And why would I want a child not my own? I needed to reflect my glorious ancestry. My great-grandmother, who liked a drink but never smoked a pipe. My forebear who crushed a riot, who was made a sanitary inspector. My cricketing forebear, who punched an umpire; his fighting brother too, who accompanied him around the Derbyshire pubs, bragging. My great-grandfather, who built a wall an army could have marched on.
I should have been a ‘schoolgirl mother’, I thought: that social scourge. At 14 I might have been fertile. At 17. But after that – I have to read my pain backwards, to know what was happening inside me – I guess my chances were decreasing. Those crippling spasms that had to be ignored, those deep aches with no name, those washes of nausea, were not evidence of a neurotic personality, or of my ambivalence about my gender, and they were not brought on by ‘nerves’, or by fear of failure in a man’s world. They were evidence of a pathological process that would destroy the chance of my having a child and land me with chronic ill-health. I wonder why, despite all, I did not insist, could not insist, that doctors pay attention to me and locate my malaise. There are several possible explanations, on several levels. One is that, in the time and place where I grew up, expectations of health were so low, especially for women. The proper attitude to doctors was humble gratitude; you cleaned the house before they arrived. The deeper explanation is that I always felt that I deserved very little, that I would probably not be happy in life, and that the safest thing was to lie down and die. The reasons for this elude me now. I wish I could explain them better. But we were always told at school, when tackling a sum, to ‘show your workings’. Even if you didn’t get the answer right, we were told, you might get the odd mark for honest effort.
What I would have liked was a choice in life. Leisure, to reverse my earlier decision that children didn’t matter to me; leisure, to ask if circumstances or my mind had changed. No one can predict that the game will be over for them at the age of 27. The time I fell in love is the time I should have acted, and now that an era of my life is over, and my schoolfriends are becoming grandmothers, I miss the child I never had. I know what Catriona would have been like. I have a mental picture of her, which I have built like one of those criminal profilers whose formulations – let’s be honest – never fit too well. She would be nothing like me at all. She would be strong like my mother, broad-shouldered like her, broad-shouldered like my husband, with that milky Irish skin that freckles but never tans. I see her small competent hands, chopping an onion; making unwritten dishes, which she has never been taught to make. She would manage her money well, and perhaps manage other people’s; perhaps that’s how she’d make a living. She would drive a car as if it were an art, and know about things like making curtains, which have always defeated me.
People romance about their children long before they are born; long before, and long after. They name them and rename them. They see them as their second chance: ‘a chance to get it right this time’, as if they were able to give birth to themselves.
People have children to compensate themselves for the things they didn’t do or didn’t get. They conceive because they feel impelled to make up, to a non-existent person, for a loss they themselves have suffered. Children are born because their parents feel the defects in themselves, and want to mend them; or because they are bored; or because they feel that in some mysterious way it is time for children, and that if they don’t have them their selves will begin to leak meaning away. Some women want to give a present to their own mothers, or are motivated to prove themselves her equal. They consider that a woman with a child has status that a childless woman doesn’t; they have nothing else for their self-esteem to hang on, which is a dangerous situation for the baby. Motives are seldom simple and never pure. Children are never simply themselves, co-extensive with their own bodies, becoming alive to us when they turn in the womb, or with their first post-delivery breath. Their lives start long before birth, long before conception, and if they are aborted or miscarried or simply fail to materialise at all, they become ghosts within our lives.
Women who have miscarried know this, of course, but so does any woman who has ever suspected herself to be pregnant when she wasn’t. It’s impossible not to calculate, if I had been – it would have been born, let’s see, in November, ice on the roads, early dark; it would have been the offspring of late March, a child of uncertain sun and squalls. They are ghosts also in the lives of men. A man with daughters fantasises his son, and brings him into being through wishing him, a man somehow better than himself. A man with sons wraps his unborn daughter in swaddling-bands, and guards her virginity, like a parched and desert realm of himself. Even adulterers have their ghost children. Illicit lovers say: what would our child be like? Then, when they have parted or are forced apart, the child goes on growing up, a shadow, a half-shadow of possibility. The country of the unborn is criss-crossed by the roads not taken, the paths we turned our back on. In a sly state of half-becoming, they lurk in the shadowland of chances missed.
I never saw a ghost in Africa, though more than once Death came so near me I had to grapple with him. It seemed to me that ghosts – the knocking, echoing, pesky sort – were a manifestation of Europe that would trail after the person who was not yet at home in the continent: who was only half-adjusted to a new, deeper state of emergency. I never felt that unease in the empty house, the queasiness of populated rooms where you can’t see the population, or the fear of the dark. It seemed to me that symbols in Africa organised themselves differently. Outward manifestation of inner chaos came in fatal road accidents and suicides: the truck without lights, the one drink too many, the misspelled police report that got filed in the waste-bin. Any number of lives were trashed, casually, born and unborn; and in Africa, I actually knew a woman who died in childbirth. She was just one among the continent’s casualties, but the one I used to speak to every day. I didn’t like her much, in fact: I’d like to say I mourned, but it would be stretching a point.
Jeddah was different. My life in Saudi Arabia, for at least two years, was like life in jail. Simple force of will – or the force of simple will – could move the furniture and rip off the wardrobe doors. At times of stress, or on the brink of change, you can seem to act as a conduit for whatever disorganised, irrational forces are in the air. Shut in those dark rooms, life going on elsewhere, my body subject to strange mutations, I accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.
When I came back to England, and gave up my concealing Islamic draperies, neighbourly eyes would note my bulk and ask: when is your baby due? The unborn, whether they’re named or not, whether or not they’re acknowledged, have a way of insisting: a way of making their presence felt. No advance in medical technology was going to produce Catriona: she was lost. But when biological destiny veers from the norm, there are parts of the psyche that take time to catch up. You understand what has happened, the medical disaster; you reason about it. But there are layers of realisation, and a feeling of loss takes time to sink through those layers. The body is not logical; it knows its own mad pathways. Mourning is not quick; when there is no body to bury, mourning is not final. I used to say, it’s a good thing I never had children, because I’d be putting them outside the door while I finished a sentence: I’d be saying, don’t you know I’ve this piece to do for the newspaper, why don’t you go and play in the road? No more solemn enemy of art than the pram in the hall: did Connolly ever say a truer thing?
But I kept on planning for Catriona: for her brothers, and for their children too. This is the only conclusion I can reach, when I look at the strange decisions I took about real estate in the late 1980s, the 1990s. Property was a sound investment, of course, but I think I had investments that went beyond the financial. The larders were stocked with food, the presses with sheets. We could have provisioned a small army from the stuff that was stacked in the garages. After we bought a cottage in Norfolk, we had accumulated a total of seven bedrooms, four lavatories, a duplication of domestic machines, the capacity to wash clothes for eight people at once, to do the dishes for 16. Who did I think was coming, unless the unborn; or possibly the dead? The hungry family of uncles, wanting ham and Cheshire cheese: their own dead offspring, that missing generation; my own missing daughter trailing her offspring, a green-eyed girl with my green-eyed grandchildren. What’s to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being? Whose voices should be listened to, but their small sibilations, speaking Latin and Irish on the stairs?
There is a certain pathos attached to ghosts, to household sprites and those hobgoblins that jump into the vision between waking and sleep. At one time, I was plagued by a spate of dreams in which I was a midwife who had let a child die; but when I got my first book on track again, and when, after many years in limbo, it was published at last, those dreams ceased. But time goes on, you think of more and more books you should have written, stories half-fledged and left in the file called ‘work in progress’. I know some of these narratives will never be finished. I dream of half-formed, foetal beings, left abandoned on a cold floor. Sometimes they are blackened, like frozen corpses. They take malign forms: I dream of a castle floor, where children come shrieking through, and so evil are they that they have the actual capacity of revolting stone, of making the flags shrink away from them. Risen from the ground, they are naked and sexless, foul-mouthed and knowing. My impulse is to injure or kill them, swat them like flies, like little demons that, if they’re left, will range about the world and badmouth me and misrepresent me and filch from me everything I have.
But unborn babies are not just ghosts, good or bad. They are also big business. Children are no longer sent by God, some too soon and some too late, some whole and some broken, dispatched by a white-garbed chef absently supplying the dish of the day from the chaos and heat of his kitchen. Women have decided to choose from the menu on offer. Fertility is suppressed at our own discretion. If our discretion fails – or the foetus is not of the quality demanded – we abort. And if we cannot conceive within a year or so, we go to the doctor and demand our right to a child. Infertile women hardly have the option, these days, of accepting their situation. After the tests have been done, and the usual deficits and pathologies have been addressed, much infertility remains ‘unexplained’, which is a source of chagrin for the specialists in the field. The fertility gods, the doctors who make babies for thousands, swagger before the TV cameras, and preen like sheikhs. Since state aid for the infertile is patchy throughout Europe, with no uniform provision even within the UK, many individuals and couples must fund their search for a child to the tune of many thousands of pounds, with little by way of reliable statistics to guide them to the best service providers. The baby business is inequitable, sometimes downright shady. Its social cost has yet to be counted: the depression and the failed relationships that follow disappointment, the possible damage to the would-be mother from powerful drugs and intrusive procedures. The economic cost is significant: the Health Service may not have funded a woman’s treatment, but it will pick up the bill for multiple births, for premature and low birthweight babies and the continuing illnesses they suffer. The new reproductive technologies are a blessing; a mixed one.
They introduce, too, a new level of secrecy into family life. Adoption-bred secrecy; modern parents, with their own hi-tech baby in their arms, try to be frank. But how old must a child be, before it will understand some of the things that may have been done to bring it into existence? Women with infertile partners conceive with the help of sperm donors, usually anonymous: that is to say, they have a child with a man they have never set eyes on, who produces a sample of his semen in a cubicle at a clinic, by masturbating over a picture of another total stranger with her legs apart. I suppose I should say I respect their choice. But I don’t, not really. I think it’s weird.
Sympathy for the childless woman is limited. The media promote images of hard-eyed career bitches, too choosy to settle on a man, too materialistic to give up their jobs, and women collude with the image, deriving much sisterly merriment from the figure of the ‘desperate’ single woman with a ticking biological clock. The fertility industry is fuelled by panic, as women feel their time running out; and because people now wait till later in life to form the stable relationships that are suitable for childrearing, there are more and more panicked people every year. Why isn’t acceptance an option? Why does the wider society make it so hard for a childless person to be reconciled to her state?
Mostly it is taken for granted that a woman wants a child and will go to any lengths to get one, and won’t stop wanting till the need is fulfilled. This is thought a natural position. It attracts social sanction. Those with a less voracious appetite for motherhood may well feel guilty. It is quite difficult to say – as I do myself – that childlessness is not necessarily a tragedy. People around you act as if it must be. They don’t see the other things it is: a liberation, if it’s chosen, and a puzzle, if it isn’t. It’s a puzzle that takes a lifetime to work out. What exactly is it you lack? Why is the lack sometimes a thing you can accommodate, and at other times a fierce psychic pain?
Parents are, of course, the saints of society. Statistically, the riskiest place for a child is its own home; the number of children harmed by strangers is tiny compared to the number of those damaged and killed every year by their natural parents or their step-parents. Yet being a parent is still felt to confer an access of sensibility that the childless lack. Last summer, two schoolgirls disappeared from a small rural community. Some time later, their corpses were found, and arrests were made. In the interval, the public were riveted to every news broadcast, and bouquets from strangers piled high in a country churchyard. The week their bodies were discovered, a Sunday columnist described the grief she shared with the bereaved families – shared, because she too was a parent; because she was a parent, not because she was a person. After misquoting Francis Bacon, she went on to say: ‘You never know what real fear is, just as you never know what real love is, until you have a child.’ So there you have it: the childless are not only unfortunate, they are ethically incomplete. Morally, sentimentally, they’re not the full shilling. If little girls are led away to their deaths, they don’t care like parents care; they lack the imagination, the commitment to the human race.
But Francis Bacon did not say, as the columnist claimed, ‘he who has children gives hostages to fortune.’ He said: ‘He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.’ Wife, husband: dog, cat, bird in a cage. Love constrains and circumscribes us. Love is a risk. Love skins the sensibilities and leaves us naked in the wind. Any kind of love does this, parental or otherwise. Bacon also said: ‘the joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears.’ Would that it were so; but in fact they’re plastered all over the newspapers, to show up the unchilded as defective, in their lives and in their secret thoughts.
Perhaps this defect does not exist. We have been children ourselves, whether we become parents or not. We have all been alone in our child’s life, our fantasies, our desolate moments, when we have lost our parents and can never fight back to them, when we fear we will never feel safe again. It is not only cowards who die many times before their death. We have all been in the dark wood, with the trees moving over our heads, the shadows ambiguous, the moon offering a hollow light: we have all been, if only in the feverish dreams of babyhood, to that place where the path diverges, the place where we are lost or saved.