Be careful what you wish for. I'm not being entirely facetious when I say that I can't for the life of me understand why Madonna is engaged in an ugly custody battle with her ex-husband, Guy Ritchie. Madge is wrangling over her recalcitrant 15-year-old son, Rocco, who has apparently made it plain that he'd rather live with his father in the UK.

The trouble started last December, when he abandoned his mother's world tour and went to visit his film director father, 47, who has re-married and now has three young children.

When a Manhattan judge ordered him to return to his mother, Rocco refused to go. Ritchie refused to make him. Madonna is not accustomed to being refused anything. The US Court ruled this week that Rocco can stay in London, so she is now bringing legal action in this country demanding his return under child abduction laws.

Although I'm sure her son's de facto rejection is painful for Madonna - being a global superstar is no bar to feeling hurt - I can't help the suspicion that this almighty row is about power, not parenting, and control, rather than nurturing.


If her son is safe, happy and being educated at a school she has endorsed, why not leave him be? I wouldn't be tripping over myself to compel a stubborn, angry teenager to come home and play happy families when a) he clearly doesn't want to and, most crucially of all, b) he is with his other parent.

Whatever the reason for the marriage breakdown, there has never been any suggestion that Ritchie is anything other than a loving father. Whether the Material Girl approves of him allowing their son to play guitar late into the night or eat an occasional Kit-Kat ought not to be the stuff of legal action.

But Madonna keeps a tight rein on her kids. When Rocco absconded, he was being schlepped on his mother's latest tour along with his 10-year-old brother David, who was adopted by his parents during their marriage. (Younger sister Mercy, also 10, was adopted by Madonna on her own; elder sister Lourdes, 19, is at Michigan University.)

There's an inescapable irony in the fact it's called the Rebel Heart tour. On stage, the 57-year-old may dress like a louche S&M queen, but she runs her family life with military discipline and will not countenance any sort of sedition in the ranks. For a taboo-challenging iconoclast, she's a private control freak; her children share her macrobiotic vegan diet (privations include no dairy, no chocolate, no sweets) and are famously forbidden to watch television.

Pop star Madonna waves to the crowd as Guy Ritchie holds their son Rocco after his baptism at Dornoch Cathedral in 2000. Photo / AP
Pop star Madonna waves to the crowd as Guy Ritchie holds their son Rocco after his baptism at Dornoch Cathedral in 2000. Photo / AP

That can't be an easy regime for any young man trying to find his place in the world and figure out who he is. Boarding school would be a breeze by comparison; a lot of people in her place pay good money outsourcing their hormonal or unco-operative offspring.

My sisters cheerfully believe they were shipped off aged 11 to a convent boarding school in order to promote peaceable family life. They had a point; five daughters at home would have made for a hormonal tempest. Sometimes long-term family togetherness is best preserved by short-term distance.

One of my oldest friends would love it if her moody 16-year-old son were to move in with his father for a while. "I love him, but I really don't like him right now," she sighs. "He's moody and rude and it's shocking how disrespectfully he speaks to me. His dad can see how difficult he is and has agreed he and his new partner will take him for a few months, except my son is deliberately winding us both up by refusing to go. I suspect it's because he knows his dad would really make him toe the line."

Quite so. Madonna's draconian house rules have long been a source of gossip and wonder. Lourdes has spoken, affectionately, of her frustration at her mother's hardline insistence that any clothing discarded on the floor will be confiscated. The pair remain close, but her relationship with Rocco is clearly much more complex; made all the more so by her mawkish (aka utterly embarrassing) social media attempts to win him back.

She posted pictures of him with pigtails in his long blond hair, topless wearing a Hawaiian lei, as a smiling chubby baby. They were the sort of precious, intimate snaps that aren't meant for wider consumption, and accompanied by captions like "I really miss this boy", they made for excruciating viewing.

Rocco certainly found them to be off-key. In a terribly modern manifestation of his own rebel heart, he blocked his mother on social media. Ouch!

The thing is, he may only be 15 and legally a minor, but he isn't bedding down in a drug den. He hasn't placed himself voluntarily into care or decided to sleep rough in order to turn his back on his life of privilege. He's not in physical or moral danger; why, his new best friend is one of the Beckham boys, and we can all nod knowingly about what a nice family they are.

Money is no object for either parent; Rocco can presumably leap on a plane when he wishes. Except he doesn't. As well as phoning the lawyers, Madonna has flown to London in a bid to persuade him. She failed.

Unable to obtain his willing consent, she is determined to pursue her son through the courtroom, despite the fact that on his next birthday he will be free to choose. It begs the uncomfortable question; why?

The answer is equally uncomfortable; because she can. And because she can, she will. In the London court the judge expressed dismay that Madonna and Ritchie could not simply sort this parenting matter out between them. From an outsider's perspective this looks less like a welfare issue and more a matter of sheer bloody-minded pride.

In principle, the law may be on Madonna's side. In practice, if she wins and a reluctant, resentful Rocco is returned to her, it will be a pyrrhic victory that destroys the very thing she so desperately seeks to preserve.