I gather from recent news stories that the disupte over the custody of Michael Jackson’s children has been resolved. Debbie Rowe, mother of the two older children, will not contest the efforts of Katherine Jackson, who is Michael Jackson’s mother, to secure custody of all three children. (As I wrote before, it is not clear to me who, if anyone, is a parent of the youngest child.)
It’s worth noting that while the parties have reached an agreement, it is still the role of a judge to assess the appropriateness of the agreed upon solution. This is because the state has an independent interest in the well-being of children. They are not simply property, which can be apportioned as private parties see fit.
To me the most noteworthy feature of the agreement is that Katherine Jackson is 79 while the children are 12, 11 and 7. Of cousre, given the financial circumstances of the Jackson family, much of the physical labor or child-rearing could readily be farmed out to others. But still, the grandmother’s age gives me pause.
In an obviously different context, a number of stories about older mothers have been circulating on the web recently. For instance, a 69-year-old woman (Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara) recently died, leaving behind twins she gave birth to at 67. As this story recounts, there has been much outrage at the idea of a woman choosing to become a mother at her age.
I don’t mean to belabor the comparison, but there are similar questions in these cases. Some are narrow and relatively specific, even though they are hard to answer (can one be too old to be a parent), but beyond these there are meta-question–who gets to decide whether one is too old, when and why?
Katherine Jackson is likely in a fortunate position. Because she has (or will have) ample money to ease the strains parenting can impose and because she is a grandmother of the children, I suspect the age question will not gain traction with her as it did with Bousada de Lara.
It isn’t only age, of course, that leads to judgments about which people should and should not have children. Particularly in the field of ART, the greater question of regulating who gets to be a parent arises with some frequency. (Think here of the Nadya Suleman, a single mother who gave birth to octuplets.) It might be useful to consider the custody claim of Katherine Jackson as a part of that larger picture.