Outskirts online journal

Vivienne Muller

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About the author

Vivienne Muller lectures in the discipline of Creative Writing and Cultural Studies at Queensland University of Technology.

Publication details

Volume 14, May 2006

'Age Shall Not Weary Them':
the Case of Adriana Iliescu and the Older Maternal Body

The personal and private politics of mothering and motherhood and the cultural discourses with which these dialogue, often betray a complex and disturbing relationship with female corporeality. My focus in this piece is on a specific female body, an aged maternal body, that of Adriana Iliescu, a 66-year-old postmenopausal Romanian woman and retired academic who gave birth to daughter Eliza Maria in January, 2005, after nine years of IVF treatment, donor eggs and sperm and the death of two of the implanted triplets; an event which generated a range of media responses from various interpretive stakeholders (doctors, journalists, religious groups, private citizens, older mothers). My interest for the purposes of this paper is on a number of responses in newspapers and on blog sites which focused on Iliescu’s child-bearing body, and the anxiety, alarm and outrage it spawned as a maternal body well past its use-by date. These mostly negative reactions underpin a not-unfamiliar cultural discourse about what constitutes the ‘good and proper’ maternal body, a discourse which relegates other types of maternal bodies to an abject subject position in the symbolic and social order. As an older and single maternal body, Adriana lliescu’s act is doubly stigmatised – participating in the disturbing processes of boundary crossing, and generating what Elizabeth Grosz nominates as an “intolerable ambiguity” (1996, p.55).

In examining the genealogy of discursive framings of “freaks”, and in her work on disabled bodies (both of which she chooses to label ‘extraordinary’ and ‘exceptional’ bodies), Rosemarie Garland Thompson suggests that the “exceptional body seems to compel explanation, inspire representation and incite regulation. The unexpected body fires rich, if anxious narratives and practices that probe the contours and boundaries of what we take to be human” (1996, p.1). In mapping the processes of modernity onto the body, Garland Thompson considers the shifts in Western culture that have influenced our understandings of “what we take to be human”. She claims that the confluence of rapid urbanization, suburban expansion, a burgeoning print culture, the secularization of the body based around consumerism, and rapid changes in technology have worked to standardize the corporeal body, pressing it more and more towards normative design. Medical and scientific views and practices as part of the process of modernisation have also participated in the one-size-fits-all approach “depreciating particularity while valorizing uniformity” (ibid), and endowing practitioners with the bio-power to firstly identify ‘freakish’ and disenabled bodies with the stigma of error and then structuring corrective and regulatory procedures around such bodies.

Garland Thompson’s cultural analysis of the ‘extraordinary’ body is useful in considerations of the maternal body. It too has been caught up in the cultural and social processes that push to normalise and standardise bodies; it too has fired “rich, if anxious narratives and practices that probe the contours and boundaries of what we take to be human” (ibid), many of which leave their traces in contemporary society in the ways we speak about, apprehend and react to the maternal body. While not all of these narratives abjectify the mother, most certainly objectify her, evacuating the mother as subject from the maternal process, as well as disavowing, by subduing or by making monstrous, the ambiguity that the maternal body itself very visibly signifies. Grosz, explicating Irigaray, calls this “the most primordial of all spaces, the maternal space from which all subjects emerge and which phallocentric society “ceaselessly attempts to usurp” (1995, p.55). Amongst those normalizing and obdurate narratives that usurp the maternal space have been the sentimental, the religious, the familial, the heterosexual and the medical, all of which played a significant role in the hostile responses to Iliescu’s older maternal body. What follows is an analysis of a number of these responses.

In his article entitled “What about growing old disgracefully, eh” Steve Tucker of the South Wales Echo expressed aggressive misgivings that were typical of many reports on the birth of Iliescu’s daughter.

Recently a lot of old dudes have been doing a lot of freaky stuff. First up, at an age when most chicks are content shushing people in libraries, Romanian Adrian Iliescu was giving birth to a delightful baby girl. At the age of 66, Ms Iliescu is roughly the same age as your average great-great-great- grandmother in Ely. But to be fair to Adriana she doesn’t look 66, she looks 96. Indeed she had the dubious distinction of looking like she’d been through 22 hours of labour before she even arrived at the hospital. You have to feel sorry for her little girl. I mean when she’s at school and her classmates ask: “And what does your mother do?” She’s going to have to tell them: “My Mum? Oh, she stares out the window, goes on about how the summers aren’t as hot as they used to be and then wets herself (24th January, 2005, p.14)

Careful to assert his credentials as a young man through his flexing of a ‘hip’ lexicon – “dudes”, “freaky”, “chicks” – Tucker’s response clearly reveals its assumptions about what constitutes the good and proper maternal body; a familiar concoction of youth, heterosexual femininity and non-agency, captured in the displaced references to the “delightful baby girl” and the diminutive appellation “little girl”. The visibly aged maternal body is made abject by the ways in which it is given high comic definition as a spectacle not of wonder or admiration, but error and horror - “freaky”. Moreover this horror is compounded by the coupling of the aged body with the physical act of labour; Iliescu looks like “she’d been through 22 hours of labour even before she arrived at the hospital” Not only does this comment reveal a consciously directed aversion to the aged maternal body but it also discloses an unease, a subconscious queasiness with the birthing process itself in which the pregnant female body enacts the “intolerable ambiguity” of itself. Not surprising that film critics like Barbara Creed (1995) have detected this latent aversion in representations of the “monstrous feminine” (the womb as site of fascination and dread) in mainstream Hollywood horror films.

Another article, a blog site that encouraged reader response, expressed similar views, but was even more insistent in its vilification of the aged maternal body. Entitled 'Bag Lady with a Baby' and accompanied by a picture of Iliescu, it contained the following grabs:

The Hippocratic oath has been compromised; there should be a limit to how old a woman can be to have a child; and frankly this is just gross. Probably the first thing on everybody’s mind when Grandma announced “I’m pregnant!” was 1)Who could possibly be the father, then 2) how in the world did he impregnate her – with a bag over his head? Come on people, that’s what you were thinking.
The woman is 66, not 26. Even worse, she looks closer to 76.

Do you think she’s nursing?
This birth will no doubt create a whole spate of new book titles:
*Coping with Menopause During Pregnancy
*Wrinkles or Stretch Marks—you be the Judge
….

And finally this remark:

The girl was born prematurely by Caesarean section after her twin sister died in the womb, the hospital said.”
Actually the baby died of fright when it realized who its mother would be.”
(Tuesday, 25th January; Mrs. Linklater’s Guide to the Universe - 1:24:00 AM EST)

The tone and thrust of the piece, like the previous one, reveal firstly its fascination and dread with the image of the body out of place, the “unexpected body” the monstrous, freakish, older mother. Moreover its discourses around mothering and the maternal reflect the view that to be a mother is also to be non-desiring and non-desirable. The procreative moment is annexed to the regeneration of the species, and it is the male whose pleasure or displeasure is privileged in the copulative act (“how in the world did he impregnate her? “). The article enacts the ablation and abjection of both mothers as women, and women as desiring subjects in its derogatory pairing of the specifics of the aged Iliescu body with female bodies generally and their somatic signs – the references to wrinkles and stretch marks, menopause and pregnancy, breasts and wombs. This particular presentation of a glossary of female body functions, conditions and parts identifies the interplay between the interior of the body and the exterior world, which, as Kristeva (1982) in her work on the abject suggests, threatens the sense of the wholeness, the intactness of the body. I am arguing here that the article betrays an anxiety about these boundaries which is excited by the active physical female body, the functioning maternal body and the aged and functioning maternal body – a ‘triple whammy’ if you like which threatens to dispossess the viewing subject of its sense of self- possession and the comforts of the normative. Maternity, like freakery, disability, aging and death, threatens to disclose the precariousness of identity and it is against this that individuals and societal norms erect their taboos and defences.

Photographs attending the articles played a constitutive role in the “grotesque” and “horrifying” construction of Iliescu’s body as a non-normative and abject maternal body, many exacerbating her physical frailty, angling the lens towards and amplifying signifiers of the aging body. See Image 1, Image 2. Images such as these were often accompanied by captions and/or sub-headers that congealed opinion around the aberrant body.

While the aged, physical maternal body was the object of much ridicule, satire and disgust in responses to Iliescu’s situation, other views, taking an ethical line, condemned what was seen as her “selfish” desire to bear a child. In this she was roundly criticized for not taking account of the child’s health, emotional well-being and future. These articles focused on the child as subject, betraying their connections with many sociological and cultural narratives around maternity which are predicated on the “terrain” of the child, on maternal duty rather than desire (Walker, 1998, p.180). In this move, such views stipulate a very narrow range of candidates for motherhood. This response was typical of many:

In exchange for asserting her perceived rights, and achieving a day of happiness, Iliescu probably has doomed little Eliza Maria to a largely unsupervised toddler stage, a childhood of drudgery as her mother’s caregiver and, ultimately the trauma of watching her mother die… something that can leave emotional scars on a young person” (“Science, use it carefully”, 23rd January, 2005, The Florida Times-Union, p. D-2)

In an article which deals with cultural myths of older mothers, Mukti Jain Campion comments that those who peddle the “selfish” view, do so on the premise that “it is unfair that the parents have less of a lifespan left to devote to children.” In gently refuting this, Campion asserts that “it has to be remembered that no one can guarantee they will live to see their children grow into adults or not become in need of care themselves” (1995, p. 201)

Many adverse reactions were also underwritten by familiar connections between women and nature; Iliescu, they claimed, had not reproduced naturally. In his report on the case, John Follain of The Sunday Times noted that most of the outrage stemmed from Iliescu’s defiance of the laws of nature and science. Nature, God and Science were conflated in many articles, acting as a hegemonic triptych to endorse the “proper” role of women in marriage, childbirth and childcare. Such views tacitly promote a hetero-normative template of the ideal family structure (young mother, father {age not relevant}, married) as the only morally and emotionally acceptable institutional incubator for the child’s normal/proper growth and development. Denise Robertson’s comments were typical:

Even if Adriana lives to ripe old age, her baby will be orphaned too young and there is no father to redress the loss … I admit that (when) we say a 66 year old mother is too old but pat a 66 year old father on the back we’re being sexist, and that’s wrong. The crucial difference is that there’s bound to be a younger mother for the baby if an older father dies (The Western Mail, 25th January. p.20.)

Like Robertson, many respondents noted the double standard issue while at the same time condemning Iliescu. The mother in this portrait is still seen as the primary caregiver effectively relieving the father or male figure of any responsibility in the passage from childhood to adulthood. Campion wryly points out that “there is of course no law which says children have any right to youthful-looking parents” (1995, p.201).

Reproductive technology is never free from the culture in which it is embedded, and it therefore has a complex and co-dependent relationship with the intersecting and diverse narratives and experiences of and around motherhood and the maternal body. Both conservative and more emancipatory narratives are expressed in its use and its cultural positioning and its “experimentation” with the reproductive female body is often a subject of intense ideological debate and general community angst. An example is the spawning of a commercialised ultrasound “industry”, which, because of sophisticated high resolution imaging techniques, offers parents a photographic documentation of life in the womb. Feminist theoretical interventions in this increasingly unregulated area contend that as the fetus gains agency and autonomy it does so “at the expense of the pregnant woman as subject” (Dijck, 2005, p.106). Moreover, they argue, the in utero family album concept sutures the maternal body to the cultural dominant of the nuclear heterosexual family.

In her analysis of medical technology and older mothers, Campion notes the historical shifts in medical discourses around the older reproductive female body that have accompanied new medical technologies and their social acceptance:

Prior to the 1920s there was little stigma attached to having children later in adult life – there were probably many 50 year olds caring for young offspring. Many women continued their childbearing for as long as they were fertile because lack of effective contraception gave married women little alternative. The development and social acceptance of modern contraceptive methods and the increase in medical involvement in obstetric care has shifted attitudes towards older mothers. Doctors started recording the ill health and complications they observed in older mothers and their newborn babies and advised smaller, planned families. (1995, p.200)

Iliescu’s case etched this symbiotic relationship between medical science and cultural discourses around the aging maternal body. Male doctors and bio-ethicists who commented on Iliescu’s fraught nine year history with the IVF program and the death of the baby’s twin, enforced the popularly held view that for women there is a ‘right time’ to have a baby – preferably in one’s twenties, weighing in with the medical argument around the risks of genetic abnormalities or deformities for the “elderly primigravida”. Berryman (1991, p.117) and Campion (1995, p.200) both note that medical claims about increased risk of problems for older mothers and their offspring are highly contentious and have been strongly criticized for being unduly alarmist. Campion asserts that the “probabilities for genetic abnormalities are thought not to be weighted against older mothers as was previously believed” (ibid).

The ‘right time’ theory is arguably underpinned by an idealised and naturalised equation between young fertile female bodies and non-deformity in children. In standardising this relationship, it culturally abjures other types of bodies as Campion points out: “unfortunately the stigma attached to physical difference combined with the pressure on women to produce perfect babies creates unrealistic and hostile perspectives of normality” (1995, p.200). It must also be remembered that these hostile perspectives can have very real effects on laws, social views and of course individuals. One outcome of Iliescu’s situation is that the “Romanian parliament has initiated legal changes to prevent fertility treatment for post-menopausal women” which apparently will come into effect in 2007. (Barton, Sunday Herald Sun 1st May, 2005, p.7).

Others from the medical profession who commented on Iliescu’s postmenopausal treatments confidently suggested that such are the marvels of modern reproductive technology that they can provide the appropriate service for those women who choose to start families later in life. Many of these contributors were male and in some cases the phrasing of their opinions cemented the primacy of the male in the reproductive and medical process. The controversial Italian gynecologist Severion Antinori who medically supported 62 year old Rosanna Della Corte in her bid to have a child, was reported to have told a desperate Rosanna Della Corta, “if you are healthy, I’m sure I’ll be able to make you become pregnant (my italics)” (qtd in John Follain article). Antinori’s use of the active voice and his ‘sperm donor’ wording in this comment disclaim the desiring maternal subject at the same time as they exploit the older maternal body to promote autonomous, male technical competency. Mary Anne Doane’s comment that the “ultimate (male) fantasy of reproductive technology is of course the production of life without the mother” (1995, p.20) seems appropriate here especially in the light of Antinori’s more recent work with cloning!

When Adriana’s doctor Bogdan Marinescu was asked why he let a woman of 66 become pregnant, he replied: "She was in the right condition to carry a pregnancy”, adding that “medically speaking she is a success”. This reportage (“asked why he let a woman of 66 become pregnant”) and the doctor’s response both act to erase the woman as desiring subject and the mother as woman, as Iliescu’s body is turned into a site and an object of medical experimentation. In her analysis of the medicalisation of older women as mothers, Julia Berryman contends that,

the increased medicalization of human reproduction has not only made women feel that having babies is an unnatural state, a ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’, but it has also undermined their role in reproduction. This is especially the case of those who opt for later motherhood. By defining women of 30 or more as ‘elderly’ or ‘older’, it is clear to women that they are viewed as problems from the outset.” (1991, p. 117)

While the debates around reproductive technology are complex, provocative and multiple, Iliescu’s IVF treatment over a period of nine years offered an emancipatory alliance between her body and medical technology, enabling a sense of ownership of the reproductive body and of agency as woman and mother.1 Her comments about her daughter - “her birth”, she says of baby Eliza Maria “is a victory for me”, while not usurping the role of medical science as the pater familias, at least secures a subjective berth in it.

There were, of course, some positive views supporting Adriana’s decision to have a child at her age, but these were often tepid and tongue-in-cheek or piggy-backing their own agendas – another example of the erasure of this specific maternal body. The response of Bishop Pat Buckley for example was gingerly supportive, but only in terms of overriding religious tenets using the occasion to sermonise about the evils of abortion, to promote the concept of the selfless and loving mother and to champion the rights of the child (News of the World Features, 30th January, 2005). Others, women reporters in the main, used Iliescu’s situation as a way of politicising important ongoing debates around motherhood, child-rearing, workload, career, family, social and personal relations; pointing out the problems of the lack of social scaffolding to assist women in their choices.2 Sadly, but perhaps optimistically as well, it is only in instances when the “extraordinary”’ body such as Iliescu’s postmenopausal body appears, that such debates receive strong media exposure and a flurry of renewed research and attention. This said, many of the responses I have analysed in this paper nevertheless betray the persistence of discourses around mothering, motherhood, parenting and reproduction that stubbornly standardise the good and proper maternal body, even as women like Adriana Iliescu and Rosanna Della Corte usher in new possibilities for respecting the differences and desires amongst women as well as new ways of speaking about these things.


Notes

1. It is interesting to note the differences in opinion between some of the male and female medical professionals and bio-medical ethicists. An article in the Sunday Herald on January 23rd 2005, entitled “Question of the Week: Adriana Iliescu, a 66-year old Romanian, gave birth through IVF. But should older women be allowed to become mothers?” (no author), canvassed three male and two female professionals for their opinions on Adriana Iliescu. The three men did not approve on the grounds that it was a selfish decision and the rights of the child had been overlooked. One woman professional claimed that decisions about these things should not be rashly made, and that the rights of the child were paramount. However she also suggested that medical science has not fully investigated the older female reproductive body. The other woman, a director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University offered qualified support for “people’s reproductive liberty” (p.17).

2. Liane Faulder in The Edmonton Journal on the 7th August, 2005 commented among other things on the increase in the proportion of births to women age 35 and over which increased from 8.4 percent in 1990 to 18.7 percent in 2000. Ellen Goodman wrote specifically about the problems of “life-sequencing’ for career women academics who also want to have children, humorously suggesting that Iliescu may well have the solution - “pensions and pacifiers” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 26th January, 2005). The Australian Women’s Weekly ran a lengthy article on the personal experiences of women who had undergone the traumas and crippling costs of IVF treatment, the physical “problems” associated with being an older mother, issues around single women and their desires to have children without partners (15th March, 2005).


References

Barton, Fiona. (2005) ‘Mummy, what big wrinkles you have.’ , 1st May. p.7.

Berryman, Julia C. (1991) ‘Perspectives on Later Motherhood’ in Motherhood: Meanings, Practices and Ideologies. London: Sage, pp103-123.

Campion, Mukti Jain. (1995) Who’s Fit To Be A Parent? New York and London: Routledge.

Caplan, Arthur. (2005) ‘How Old Is Too Old to Have a Baby?’ http://www.globalaging.org/health/world/2005/old.htm

Buckley, Bishop Pat. (2005) ‘Love not age key to being mother.’ News of the World, Features 30th January. p.E11.

Faulder, Liane. (2005) ‘How old is too old?: cheating the biological clock - Midlife women with fertile imaginations are pushing the medical and ethical envelope, giving new life to the debate: should there be an age limit on motherhood?’ The Edmonton Journal, 7th August. p. E3.

Fuery, Patrick and Mansfield, Nicholas. (1997) (eds) Cultural Studies and the New Humanities: Concepts and Controversies. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Follain, John. (2005) ‘Sixtysomething mothers – and we’re proud of it.’ The Sunday Times, 12th June, p.10.

Garland Thompson, Rosemarie. (1996) (eds) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: NYU Press.

Goodman, Ellen. (2005) ‘Can Women have it all? Adriana Iliescu, 66-year-old Romanian new mom, should take a meeting with Larry Summers.’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 26th January. p.17.

Goodman, Ellen. (2005) 'World’s oldest mother becomes dubious poster "elder" for having it all.’ The Detroit News, Editorials and Opinions. 4th March. p.12.

Grosz, Elizabeth. (1996) ’Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit’ in Freakery. (ed) Rosemarie Garland Thompson. New York: NYU Press, pp.55-66.

Kristeva, Julia. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. L. S Roudiez New York: Columbia University Press.

‘Question of the week. Adriana Iliescu, a 66-year-old Romanian, gave birth through IVF. But should older women be allowed to become mothers?’ (2005) Sunday Herald, 23rd January. p.17.

Robertson, Denise. (2005) ‘At 66, Adriana really shouldn’t be incubating a little mite.’ The Western Mail, 25th January. p. 20.

‘Science, use it carefully.’ (2005) The Florida Times-Union. 23rd January. p. D-2

Tucker, Steve. (2005) ‘What about growing old disgracefully, eh?’ South Wales Echo, 24th January 2005, p. 14.

Van Dijck, Jose. (2005) The Transparent Body: a cultural analysis of medical imaging. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Walker, Michelle, Boulous. (1998) Philosophy and the Maternal Body. London: Routledge.


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