19.08.1995

Was brave Alison such a responsible mother?

Was brave Alison such a responsible mother?
 
By LYNETTE BURROWS
 
DEATH concen­trates the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson observed. The untimely death of Alison Hargreaves on the slopes of the K2 mountain reminds us why women do not often get involved in such enterprises.
She leaves behind two shattered, grieving children aged six and four.
 
They cannot be expected to know why she had to go, and will have to pretend to feel pride in her achieve­ment when all nature makes them capable of at this time is despair, incomprehensible grief and loss.
 
Yes, we are all sorry Alison was killed, and we grieve for her family and friends too. But there is a bigger issue at stake here.
 
The question of whether we can continue to ignore the importance of a mother's role is one which transcends this individual tragedy.
 
Alison's death throws into sharp relief the reality of just how differ­ent are the roles of men and women. The first, instinctive response to the news of her death — quite untu­tored by media comment or politi­cal correctness — was sorrow for her children, and blame because she chose to risk herself in this way.
 
This is a raw, strong instinct and it is reasonable to try to make sense of it.
Did Alison, as a mother-of-two, have the right to risk her life so unnecessarily? Straight away comes the answer from her husband, Jim: "The fact that she was a mother is irrelevant. Nobody said Reinhold Messner shouldn't climb because he was a father."
 
Yes, but with all due respect, the reality is that, as we see those chil­dren struggling to cope, we know their mother did not have the right to risk their well-being and happi­ness in order to satisfy her own ambitions.
 
OF COURSE, the rhetoric to justify her putting her own desires before her responsibilities will be loud and strident. But what comfort can we offer her chil­dren — youngsters she should have cared for?
 
She was the only mother Tommy and Katie had, and she is irreplace­able. They didn't choose to be born; she chose to have them — and then to leave them.
 
It is the spirit of the age to think that a mother's role is minor in raising a family. It is only dramas such as the present one which remind us that this is not true.
 
Many people would dearly like to believe that mothers are easily replaceable, because responsibili­ties put constraints on us all, and the responsibility of bringing another human being into the world is the greatest of all.
 
We have also denigrated motherhood for so long in our culture that we are used to women prefixing their description of themselves as "only" a mother. Well, these chil­dren have "only" lost their mother now, and yet see how sympathetic it makes us feel?
 
The fact is that the attempt to make a sort of feminist heroine of Alison is doomed to failure and our honest response to it tells us why. A woman is inseparable from her role as a mother once she has had chil­dren. This means that anything she does has to be equally beneficial for the children if we are to admire her wholeheartedly for it.
 
The question why it is not the same with men is easily answered, because it is a matter on which we are all experts. We all had fathers and mothers — and if we didn't, we know even more surely how impor­tant is the mother and how the worst nightmare of childhood is to lose her regardless of how incompetent she appears to the out­side world.
 
This is not in the least to deni­grate men or their role as fathers — as they well know. They too had mothers and most people are able to make the quite subtle distinction between the roles of parents. These roles are bound to differ — as does our response to them.
 
IT IS simply a fact, comfortable or uncomfortable, that we could admire a man who was killed performing a physical feat that symbolised the triumph of the human spirit — even if he had children.
 
On the other hand, the very real tragedy of a young mother getting killed in the same way is largely lost in a feeling that it was unjustified. We do, deep in our instincts, regard a woman's ability to protect and care for her young as paramount.
 
Her luck is that her duty is never misplaced and is always an affair of the heart. If Alison Hargreaves's sad death causes a few more of us to realise that, it will not have been entirely in vain.