| 4.6°C Dublin

Mary Kenny: Why I admire women who go solo when raising children

Iran into an old pal of the family the other day; charming guy, well into his 70s. Married to the beautiful Arabella for more than 40 years. He was talking about his absorbing hobby of mooching around in old churches.

He was describing a particularly interesting architectural specimen and added: "I had my little girl with me."


"Yes," he said. "I have a little girl of four. I suppose I shouldn't have, but I have!" Tell me more, I longed to say, but some dimwit came and interrupted our conversation with pointless chatter about politics.

What had occurred is not, nowadays, so unusual in the annals of London life. Ageing chap is enamoured of younger woman. Affair takes place. Younger woman gets pregnant. Younger woman wants motherhood. Storms all round. Child appears; hearts soften.

It's not always this scenario, but it does happen. The Mayor of London, the ever-affable Boris Johnson, is in the public prints again because a lady, a Mrs Helen MacIntyre, has borne a child who, according to her husband's testimony and given in the public realm, was fathered by the ubiquitous Boris.

Mrs MacIntyre is happy to be photographed pushing her blonde-haired infant, saying that Boris is a great and dear friend. According to published reports, Boris has a number of such female friends. When taxed with these reports, the London Mayor just keeps smiling through.

Then there is the case of Lord Snowdon, former husband of the late Princess Margaret (and half-brother of the Earl of Rosse, whose castle at Birr, Co Offaly, serves the local heritage industry).

Within recent years, it has been disclosed that Lord Snowdon was the biological father of Polly Fry, whose late legal father, Jeremy -- scion of the chocolate Quaker family -- was homosexual, and thus disinclined to fulfil his conjugal duties with a wife. Snowdon gave Mrs Fry a child in his place. Snowdon also had a relationship with a magazine journalist called Melanie Cable-Alexander during the past decade. Ms Cable-Alexander also became pregnant and gave birth to his son.

It is certainly not for me to sit in moral judgement of these modes of behaviour. But it is a striking social development, all the same, in the history of men and women, that women are increasingly confident to affirm their entitlement to have a child, even if the circumstances are not particularly favourable.

These case histories are also an example that innovations never quite work out as expected. I well remember the time when it was confidently predicted that effective contraception would mean there would be no more unplanned pregnancies, that men and women would henceforth 'control' their fertility with the efficiency of laboratory procedures, and that marriage would be so well sustained by such controls and planning that there would be virtually no more divorce or breakdown.

Human beings are not like that. Social change does affect human behaviour, but seldom in exactly the way it is planned.

Let us reflect on past practices in the matter of the unregulated pregnancy. There was a time, and within living memory, that such an occurrence brought great shame upon a woman, and her family. It is still the case in some Asian families, where it may even be the cause of an 'honour killing'.

Solutions to unregulated pregnancies have included forced adoption, or perhaps the child being raised by a grandmother as her own.

This happened to the actor Jack Nicholson, who only discovered late in life that the woman he thought was his sister was his mother, and his mother was his grandmother. He accepted the situation with aplomb, and said, "It was kinda brave of them to keep up the show".

Then abortion became medically simpler, with the invention of the vacuum syringe in 1944. Within 20 years, an unregulated pregnancy could be dealt with by termination, though I can think of scores of women in the 1960s who didn't want an abortion, but felt that it was the best way of coping with a difficult situation, especially if the man wouldn't, or couldn't, commit.

It was called a choice but, for many women, it also meant shame and regret.

But now the metaphorical tectonic plates have shifted once again, and there is a generation of women who are so emboldened by the independence of their lives that they will openly continue with a pregnancy whether the man approves or not. They are not ashamed by calls to respectability.

Whether you approve of this attitude or not, you have to admire such confidence. Unlike the silent generations of mistresses whose pregnancies were hushed up or coercively terminated, this generation of thirtysomethings is not intimidated.

Everyone knows that the ideal way to come into this world is with a mother and a father who are married, love one another and sustain a home together. But while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak, and accidents happen.

Yet women really have changed, not so much in their feelings, but in their sense of entitlement. And sometimes, a charming man who thinks he is just having a late fling finds he has teamed up with such a confident woman, sometimes to his alarm, and maybe ultimately to his joy.

Weekend Magazine