25 November, 2013Issue 23.4Literary CriticismLiteratureScience

Email This Article Print This Article

Understanding Parenthood

Eleanor Hamblen

Bowlby Rachel Bowlby
A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories
Oxford University Press, 2013
£20.00
256 pages
ISBN 978-0199607945


The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the nature of parenthood evolve at an unparalleled rate. Improvements to contraception have allowed for greater control and choice, while advances in reproductive technologies have enabled new configurations of parent-child relationships. It is in response to these seismic shifts that Rachel Bowlby, Northcliffe Professor of English at University College London, examines attitudes towards parenthood and reassesses representations of parents in literature. Her book, A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories, is both a wide-ranging appraisal of developments in social behaviours and a tightly-focused literary analysis. It offers a fresh approach to such canonical texts as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and George Eliot’s Silas Marner, as well as looking at less frequently studied works including George Moore’s Esther Waters and Edith Warton’s short story, Roman Fever. The result is an original, if not entirely cohesive work, written in an accessible and engaging style.

Bowlby begins with a comparison between the 1983 case of a baby abandoned in a telephone box and the 2006 case of a 62 year-old woman who was able to give birth following IVF treatment. Though just 23 years apart, these extremes of parenthood involve mothers in startlingly different circumstances. The juxtaposition raises a whole range of questions regarding the choices and difficulties which surround childbirth. Such an opening is characteristic of the approach Bowlby takes in her first four chapters, which focus on the contemporary world and feature many real-life examples, supplemented by extensive footnotes. The first of these, “Changing Conceptions”, explores the scientific developments of recent years and how these have transformed our experiences of conception and childbirth. Home pregnancy test kits, ultrasound scans, and the possibility of freezing embryos have invested prospective parents with greater control and a wider range of choices. Bowlby decisively demonstrates that we live in an era of “family-planning” in which traditional visions of parenthood are expanding to include post-menopausal women, homosexual couples, the celibate and the infertile. Although these new parents are still sensationalised in the media, Bowlby indicates how lexical shifts in our description of reproductive technologies—from “artificial”, with all its unnatural connotations, to “assisted”—suggest that they are becoming increasingly normalised within our culture.

In the book’s second and third chapters, Bowlby remains rooted in the present but skilfully weaves eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attitudes into her argument. She tackles the controversial issue of surrogacy, highlighting the fact that surrogate mothers are more likely to receive criticism than egg donors, even though their roles are equally responsible for complicating the notion of “primary” or “authentic” motherhood. Bowlby draws a comparison between modern day surrogacy and earlier debates surrounding wet-nursing, as discouraged by the likes of Rousseau in √âmile, his treatise on education. Both practices involve multiple parent figures and this theme is expanded upon in chapter four with a discussion of two legendary foundlings, Oedipus and Moses. Abandoned under differing circumstances, one willingly, the other unwillingly, both figures are adopted into royalty. This process is further complicated in the case of Moses since his birth mother is selected to act also as his wet nurse. Such chains of parenthood were a reality for the infants admitted to Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, established by Royal Charter in 1739, who passed from the hands of their birth mothers into the care of wet nurses. This institution is vividly evoked by Bowlby with tales of its establishment and the lottery-like selection process in which white, black, and red balls were chosen at random by hopeful mothers, signifying admittance, rejection, and standby respectively. These opening chapters give a fascinating appraisal of the central issues surrounding parenthood, both in the modern period and earlier.

There is a significant shift in the second half of the book, from cultural commentary to literary analysis. We move from a focus on parental identities, primarily established by the manner in which one becomes a parent, to an exploration of lived experience. In the light of the growing cultural prominence of parenthood, Bowlby seeks to reinstate parent narratives which have generally been overshadowed by tales of childhood and romantic love. This is particularly successful in chapter seven, which examines the centrality of adoptive parent figures in Great Expectations, a novel which is more commonly lauded for its portrayal of youthful experience. While Miss Havisham trains Estella to be heartless, Magwitch enables Pip to become a gentleman. Both are pro-active, self-made parents who desire their charges to achieve what they could not; they must rely on the next generation to enact vengeance. Bowlby’s argument that it is the novel’s parent figures who orchestrate and drive the plot is extremely compelling. As she proceeds to analyse an additional eight texts, Bowlby draws illuminating comparisons between their presentations of parent-child relationships. Though they are very different novels, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Austen’s Mansfield Park both involve multiple cases of co-parenting by genetic parents and aunt and uncle figures. This sparks debate regarding education, highlighting the essential question of nature versus nurture. Bowlby comes to her selected texts from an original perspective and her readings are richly detailed.

However, the book feels as if it is divided into two halves which, though independently successful, do not fit together straightforwardly. As Bowlby suggests, it is interesting to consider how modern parenting practices affect the way in which contemporary readers approach these largely nineteenth-century texts. In her chapter on Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Bowlby suggests that “questions to do with legitimacy and with the priority of the union of two given parents have altered to the point that the motivations and reactions of Hardy’s Victorian characters will soon be needing footnotes.” She goes on to discuss the impact of DNA testing and the issues of disclosure which surround new reproductive technologies. An awareness of such narratives, which appear constantly in the press, on talk shows and in soap operas, is likely to colour the reader’s response to their Victorian counterparts. In contrast to this broad and valid point, Bowlby’s passing cross-references to modern concerns, such as the comparison of Jaggers’s life-giving selection of Estella for adoption in Great Expectations to a real-life doctor’s careful choice of sperm to fertilise an egg, establish less convincing links between the book’s two halves.

Although Bowlby’s insights into contemporary culture are not always brought into her literary criticism, she makes references to Freud, who is the focus of some of her other studies, throughout. In the book’s opening chapters, she highlights the significant impact which psychoanalysis has had on our assessment of parenthood. Bowlby suggests that Freud is partly responsible for our child-centric view of family relationships. She contends that his analysis of Sophocles’s Oedipus The King in The Interpretation of Dreams distorts the original play, focusing on Oedipus’s attitudes towards his parents rather than the emotions of pre-parenthood (the fearing of or longing for the arrival of a child). Freudian arguments are also discussed in later chapters. For example, his 1909 essay, “Family Romances”, is used by Bowlby in her exploration of ambiguous paternal identity in Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever, which centres on its intriguing last line of dialogue: “I had Barbara”. This gives an indication of the close scrutiny of Bowlby’s readings, and this is where their real strength lies.

Coming back to the book’s title in her afterword, Bowlby suggests that it is, in fact, impossible to have a child of one’s own:

There always is, or was, or will be, another person or institution or social world in the life of the child, with whom or with which it has been or will be divided. With grief, with relief, or with pleasure; sometimes all of these. There is never, once and for all, a child of one’s own.

This makes it necessary for all parents to let go of their children at some point, an action dramatised by Hogarth’s Moses Brought before Pharaoh’s Daughter—an image that hangs in the Foundling Museum and that is featured on the book’s dust jacket. The theme of ownership runs through Bowlby’s study, from surrogate mothers who lay claim to the child they have carried in their womb to Godfrey Cass’s belated attempt to take Eppie into his care in Silas Marner. This desire to “have” a child who can be shaped, and who functions as an embodied legacy, emerges as one of the main reasons why parenthood is now so positively and actively chosen by so many. The increasing availability of advanced reproduction technologies has enabled many to go to great lengths to have a child who is biologically their “own”; and yet, as Bowlby provocatively suggests, this is a motivation based, ultimately, on a fallacy.

Eleanor Hamblen completed her BA in Modern Languages at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is currently reading for her MA in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton.