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Are mothering skills essentially about intelligence? To be sure, to have an intelligent mother who is also a good mother is a great advantage in life, but the two are not necessarily conterminous.
The Nottingham judge who has ruled that a 24-year-old mother, Rachel Pullen, must give up her three-year-old daughter for adoption may be well-meaning, but what he says should certainly not be accepted as a precedent or a principle. Women of limited intelligence can be excellent mothers; brainy intellectuals can be awful mothers.
The upper-class Edwardians (and Victorians) pursued a division of labour on this very point because intelligent women were expected to be out and about taking charge of their social responsibilities, while children were consigned to nannies who were – ideally – warm, comfy, cosy, working-class girls who could be both upright and loving.
Think of Winston Churchill and his devoted, simple-hearted Kentish nanny who loved and cherished him, while his brilliant mother Jennie was far too busy with the ways of the world.
Quite recently, Sir Max Hastings, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, spoke poignantly on Radio 4’s The Last Word about his dauntingly intelligent (and sometimes acidly sharp) mother, Anne Scott-James: Max was attached to her and respected her, but it was his kind, loving, warm-hearted and utterly constant nanny – presumably a woman not clever enough to have been a pioneering female journalist breaking the “glass ceiling” – who was always there for him.
No, it would be an execrable principle to lay down that lack of brain power is a disqualifier for nurturing motherhood. Much of motherhood is instinctive. It is, after all, a natural procedure.
Can a cow, an elephant or a mare be a good mother? They usually are. But pigs, among the more intelligent of farm animals, are not necessarily good mothers: they have to be taught how to do it through skilled husbandry.
Among our human species, there is some research that suggests that the more intelligent a woman is, the less likely she is to become a mother in the first place – the more academic qualifications, the less fertile.
This is explained by a constellation of factors – and intensely focused intellectuals may not wish to have children, or may not feel they can be bothered to devote the time and the patience to parenting. Yet it is still a steady graph that correlates high brain power with lower female fertility.
At one point, the Singapore authorities – never a beacon of democratic libertarianism – tried to bribe high IQ women to have children (or to have more children), as prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was so concerned that women at the lower end of the IQ scale were having so many more babies.
This notion is sailing unpleasantly close to eugenics. And apart from being horribly anti-human, the eugenicists were wrong about most things: at one stage they suggested that the Irish were all stupid.
Sydney Webb wanted the Irish forcibly sterilised – just at the point when Ireland had produced James Joyce, W B Yeats and Sean O’Casey. I would certainly have preferred some nice country Irishwoman as a progenitor than either of the Webbs, who, incidentally, had no issue.
In the case of Rachel Pullen, the effect of the legal process is that Rachel’s low IQ (of 70) – her “stupidity”, in short – makes her unsuitable to care for her daughter, and the child is likely to be placed for adoption, it seems, coercively.
This seems cruelly harsh, especially since a psychiatrist has assessed Rachel as having “good literacy and numeracy and her general intellectual abilities appear to be within normal range”. Rachel has no history of mental illness or of learning disability.
Perhaps Rachel, as a single mother, would need support from social or voluntary services: all mothers, of whatever intelligence range, need some kind of back-up network. But her intelligence should not be the issue.
Kindness, a loving nature, patience, moral sense and attachment to the child are the maternal values that matter, and that should be the guideline: not whether a mother reads Virginia Woolf.