Parental neglect at its most extreme is rightly recognised as a hideous dereliction of duty, something that appears to go against the grain of what is supposed to be an instinctive gut reaction to care and nurture one’s offspring. Even those of us who don’t have (and have never wanted) children find it difficult to fathom how any parent can countenance cruelty on the scale we’ve all read about in high-profile cases over the years.
Neglect is defined (in one randomly chosen dictionary, at least) as ‘to ignore or disregard’, and the gruesome catalogues of neglect the media routinely reports in terms of the parent/child relationship have included numerous such cases where this one definition has sufficed – those where infants have been left to stew in their own shit, locked in dark rooms or strapped into high-chairs. This kind of neglect can also be classed as abuse, and the conclusion reached is that the parent cares so little for their child that they practically pretend it doesn’t actually exist. But abuse can take on other forms, ones where the child is very much attended to, above and beyond the line drawn by any decent parent with half-an-ounce of genuine love and compassion. You know all-too well what I’m talking about. Then again, what of the parent whose affection for their offspring doesn’t cross that line, but walks it like an inebriated acrobat taking an ill-advised trot along the tightrope?
Anyone over a certain age will recall Ronnie Corbett’s sitcom ‘Sorry’, wherein the diminutive comic actor remained a home-boy, dominated by a fearsome mother who had failed to recognise her son had bypassed puberty several decades before. A funny concept, yes; but in the hands of another writer, one who wasn’t necessarily penning a mainstream family series, it could have taken on a tragic, sinister aspect. There was certainly an undercurrent of that aspect twenty years before, in ‘Steptoe and Son’; but in ‘Sorry’, it was absent. It wasn’t that kind of sitcom. Without wishing to overanalyse what was, after all, a lightweight pre-watershed show, I think the mother character to Ronnie Corbett’s Timothy (played by Barbara Lott as a scary hybrid of Margaret Thatcher and Queen Victoria) was evidently a lonely old woman whose sense of self was utterly wrapped-up in her son. Nothing – or nobody – had come along in her life who exhibited the same emotional dependency on her as her son had once exhibited. The tragedy for both mother and son was that the apron strings had never been severed because of this.
Several generations of women, particularly those emanating from a social demographic where they weren’t required to work for a living, were defined completely as wife and mother. But while hubby could be a peripheral figure in her life – out of the house by eight, not back until six (and possibly one whose secretary took notes with her knickers round her ankles) – most of her love would be given over to her children. Their importance in her life would be elevated to a level that placed them upon such a lofty pedestal that once a son reached the stage of his life where a potential bride would be invited home for tea served in the best china, the poor girl would be deemed not good enough. The mother knew she was poised to be supplanted in her boy’s affections by a younger model and the loss of this position could come as a devastating (if belated) severance of the umbilical cord that had been her life-support system since his birth. His emotional dependence on her had been the one element of her existence that had given her life purpose. Without it, what was there but a vacuum?
Excessive coverage of career women smashing the glass ceiling whilst they also raise a family, multi-tasking to the nth degree, could suggest the old-school mother whose world revolves around her children no longer exists. She does, but her obsessive and ultimately selfish need to keep her children close and trapped in an infantile mental playpen to vindicate her omnipotence is merely manifested differently in the twenty-first century. It takes the shape of what the otherwise terminally annoying Mylene Klass referred to in a moment of unexpected inspiration as ‘The Breastapo’.
The fanatical, borderline-fascist advocates of breastfeeding constitute an unnecessary and unfair pressure group that young mothers are vulnerable to within western society, especially here and across the Atlantic. The sight of a babe-in-arms being bottle-fed, as the majority of us most likely were, is now viewed as heinous an act as sticking a fag in its mouth. Endless articles in women’s magazines or the constant whipping out of an overinflated tit on daytime TV sends out a powerful signal to the first-time mummy that there are rules and regulations in place that she disregards at her peril, even if – as is sometimes the case – she finds the breastfeeding process painful. Bottled milk will result in her precious angel growing up to become a serial killer at best or a paedophile at worst. Only mother’s milk will give the child the pure and healthy nourishment it requires, and to deny it the maternal elixir is tantamount to child abuse.
The perfectly understandable awkwardness some men – and women – feel when a Breastapo mother marches into a public place and arrogantly assumes there’s something seriously wrong with anyone who experiences any uncomfortable moments at the sight of a naked knocker was recently highlighted by the ‘incident’ at Claridge’s. Some mothers who have absorbed this propaganda have acquired an addiction to the lip at the nipple that is akin to a constant craving for narcotics. Whereas previous generations of middle-class mothers had at least allowed their children to progress beyond the nappy stage and had maintained a mental as opposed to a physical grip on them, this new breed cannot even do that.
Once a child can eat solids, breastfeeding has reached the end of its cycle and should rightly cease. Mothers that continue to breastfeed their children when they are at school are playing a dangerous game that many might see as a form of neglect itself, not one that would commonly be acknowledged as neglect of the kind that grabs headlines, but one that betrays a similar lack of thought or consideration for the child. For one thing, the breast is sexualised quite early in a child’s life, especially for boys. Page 3, top-shelf magazines, saucy seaside postcards – all present the breast as the erotic object of desire that, once certified as such, remains so for life. A mother who invites a boy to wrap his lips around her breast when it has already dawned upon him that a soft, juicy Bristol can provoke to a rapid swelling in the pants is strolling blindly into an incestuous, narcissistic netherworld of Oedipal proportions. And if she refuses to accept this truism, she as may as well have kept the boy chained to a bed and languishing in his own crap for all the good she is doing him.
The Mother Industry that has taken hold of the western world’s young women over the past decade or so via celebrities promoting it in the same way that they endorse products has led to the sowing of seeds that are already being reaped to the detriment of society. Young men who cannot boil an egg, change a plug or wash their socks because mum did it all for them might not literally be drinking milk from their mother’s breast anymore, but in one sense, they still are.
Oh, and on a lighter (better-late-than-never) note…