Our friend, let’s call her Winifred, came to lunch last week. Winnie is a former teacher who was recently widowed. Her late husband once edited the local newspaper in the town closest to us. He was a kindly and inspiring man whose writing did not end with retirement. There was something of the Laurie Lee about him, an impression underscored when he published a wonderful book about his childhood near Basingstoke: then arcadian patchwork, now urban sprawl and agribusiness prairies. Winnie, like many whose departed spouse leaves a big hole, was initially lonely.
My wife was one of several friends who gathered around Winifred, volunteering occasional chats and meals. My wife stood out because she is, if not young, then certainly not a pensioner. I recalled their relationship as I read a thought-provoking piece in the Daily Telegraph by this magazine’s former editor Cristina Odone. Cristina was turning over – in elegant prose – the statistics that demonstrate that motherhood is going out of fashion. The number of women who do not have children has doubled since the 1990s to one in five.
Cristina is right when she says that society does not yet fully appreciate the impact of rising childlessness. It is certainly an area of public policy in need of ventilation. Partly, this is because anything smacking of the judgmental is apt to offend. Remember how Andrea Leadsom came unstuck after hinting that Theresa May might have more empathy had she been a mother. The personal is political, as they say, and so, they might add, is parenting.
But it’s also because the costs and benefits are difficult to calculate. Which brings me back to Winifred. And Peter. Peter is our gardener, whom my wife gives a lift to hospital. Oh, and there’s Zara, whose son is in our dining room now, waiting for his mum to get back from work. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s typical of the unpaid social support many stay-at-home mothers quietly give to their communities.
Obviously, a declining number of mums can afford not to work, but in a country where atomisation is a problem, motherhood is undoubtedly a force for social cohesion. If you don’t believe me, just Google the words “Mothers against …” That maternal instinct frequently extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own brood. Mums help other mums. It’s a network thing. One which long predates Mumsnet.
And, if a mother can concentrate on mothering first and foremost, then the social goods which flow thereafter are amplified. My wife may have been born with a dominant caring gene. But it found expression in the nurturance of children, and doesn’t suddenly shut down just because the kids have gone to school.
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