Friday 6 December 2013

Childhood lost

Which is more important: a mother's love or a life of opportunity? A few weeks ago I went to see the film Philomena, a true story about a mother trying to trace her illegitimate son, fifty years after he was sold into adoption by Irish nuns. I won't spoil the ending, but it enough to say that her son went on to have a high-flying career as legal counsel to President Reagan in the United States. At several points on Philomena's journey to find her son, she remarks, "I could never have given him this." It is some small measure of consolation for the suffering she has borne - the fact that her boy made good in the land of the free. He would never have achieved such dizzy heights had he remained with his Irish mother, stigmatised by the circumstances of his birth - or so she believes.

The actor Judi Dench
Judi Dench played Philomena in the film
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It is a well-worn argument used to justify the adoption of children in the cases of unwed mothers sixty or seventy years ago. In the aftermath of the second-world war, many unfortunate women were persuaded to give up their babies to save the children from the stain of illegitimacy. It plays on every mother's instinct: do the best for your child, at any cost. There were practical considerations as well since many unmarried mothers could not afford to bring up a child on their own. Indeed such a dilemma faces one of the characters - an unmarried actress who falls pregnant - in my novel, A Sister for Margot

This idea that opportunity or status is more important than parental proximity is not, however, just a relic of a bygone era.  I recently read about Chinese high-fliers enrolling their three-year olds at boarding kindergartens in Beijing and Shanghai to give them the best start in life. According to BBC News Online, the number of boarding toddlers runs into thousands nationwide. The father of four-year old Kelly Jiang believes that boarding school will make his daughter more independent (you bet!) and will equip her with better life skills. Kelly's parents are part of a new wealthy business elite: her father is an investment consultant, while her mother doesn't work. When asked if he misses his little girl, the father's eyes fill for tears. Which begs the question - why on earth?

Brian Moore, the former rugby international, was adopted into a caring family in Yorkshire, but admitted in his autobiography that he could never accept his mother's rejection. Later in his life, he tracked his mother down and listened to the reasons why she felt forced to give him up. He too was an illegitimate child. "You believe it is done for the best of motives because if you think about it the other way, it's so awful," he told The Telegraph in 2010. When I interviewed him the same year, he said he could understand the rationale for his birth mother's decision, but he could never feel the rightness of it, or come to terms with his sense of abandonment. 

In our more modern times, single mothers are no longer put under such pressure to give up their children. Tragedies like Philomena's case seem - thank goodness - to be an anachronism of the past. Possibly we are also more secure as a society and the need to push our children ruthlessly onwards is less of a priority than it might have been a few decades ago. The recent Pisa tests by the OECD show that a clutch of Asian education systems are certainly more aggressive than ours in the UK, which may partly explain the popularity of boarding kindergartens in China. However, I can't help feeling that none of us should lose sight of child's right to a happy home life. Of course achievement is to be celebrated, but surely not at the expense of a parent's love?

The film, Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is based on the 2009 investigative book by former BBC Correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

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