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Radio: Parental sympathy

20 May 2009

by Edward Wickham

AFTER the news that Elizabeth Adeney is to become the oldest new mother in the UK at the age of 66, the programming of Britain’s Oldest New Mum (Radio 4, Monday of last week) could not have been more opportune. Sympathetic but not indulgent, Dinah Lam­miman’s account of the experience of Sue Tollefsen — who had her daughter, Freya, at the age of 57 — was a useful corrective to the rants of columnists and phone-in moralists.

“Kids can be horrible,” declared one of the mums at Ms Tollefsen’s mother-and-toddler group, express­ing concern about the teasing that Freya will experience from her schoolmates. To which Ms Tollefsen might have legitimately retorted: “And so can parents,” since this same parent then went on to accuse the older mother of being selfish, her actions unnatural.

In this bruising encounter was a public expression of what many surely think in private. Others are supportive, such as her Norwegian family, her church, and her consultant doctor, who, unable to perform the operation himself, was entirely happy with her travelling abroad to have the procedure.

The upper limit for IVF in the UK is 50; in Poland and Russia they are less fussy. But this programme was admirably even-handed in its critique of the policy in the UK. Soon after Freya’s birth, Ms Tollefsen had to go into hospital for three different operations — one a knee replacement — and the experi­ence clearly shook her confidence. On the other hand, her partner is 11 years her junior, and there is no doubting the couple’s devotion to their daughter.

Rather this, surely, than the casual approach to parenting displayed by some of those featured in A Baby ASBO (Radio 4, Monday of last week). Sean is ten years old, and has 14 stepbrothers and six stepsisters that he knows of. His anti-social behaviour has landed him in a youth-crime action programme, in the course of which he will undergo anger-management sessions, one-to-one mentoring from a youth worker, and lots of fishing trips.

Two years ago, I wrote admiringly of Winifred Robinson’s docu­mentary Peckham’s Lost, in which she confronted fathers who had abandoned their children, who in turn had gone on to join violent gangs. This programme comple­ments that picture, with a look at how, since last year’s government-sponsored Youth Crime Action Plan, the police, social workers, and schools are collaborating in trying to turn primary school children away from the gang culture before that crucial leap into the big, bad world of secondary school.

There are targets, of course — not least a reduction by 20 per cent of entrants into the youth-justice system by 2020 — but, in the end, the success of the scheme is both measureless, and, judging by the way Sean was opening up to his mentor, immeasurable.

Now that “sorry” seems to be the easiest word, at least for our politicians, Broadcasting House (Radio 4, Sunday) asked what real remorse felt like. In short, what is it like to wear a hair shirt? Dr Lavinia Byrne was brought on as the expert witness, although she did not admit to wearing one herself. Indeed, the true penitent keeps such self-torment secret; or, as you might say, close to one’s chest.

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