A couple of weeks ago, I had to give one of those little "Farewell, for now" speeches, in front of a gathering of colleagues, as one of my cataloguers was about to embark on a year's maternity leave. Like all women three short weeks away from giving birth for the first time, she looked simultaneously radiantly healthy, and truly, madly, deeply fed up.
For what it was worth, I had five tips to share:
1. Book a place in the University Day Nursery now
2. Don't try to be Perfect Parents, it never ends well
3. Don't let anyone persuade you not to use disposable nappies
4. Don't let your partner off the hook: nobody likes to change nappies in the middle of the night
5. Forget about the Himalayas, the Antarctic and the Sahara: those are "adventures" for boys in flight from reality. This is the Real Thing.
After the little potlatch ceremony had concluded, and we returned to our offices, I wondered, what would I be like now, if I hadn't had children? It wasn't an attractive proposition.
It is one of those empty cliches (particularly empty when mouthed by celebrities with live-in staff or those parents who pack their children off to boarding school ASAP) that you have no regrets, that your children are the best thing that has ever happened to you. Speaking purely selfishly, though, I think this does happen to be true, in my case.
Selfishly, because, without that ongoing twenty-year reality check, I would probably have wasted most of my adult life, and remained a self-obsessed adolescent at heart. I might have "achieved" more, but I doubt it. Children can survive all but the very worst parents, but few people can achieve adulthood without children to guide them.
It is curious to me, therefore -- I won't put it any stronger than that -- to encounter more and more people who are choosing to be childless. Now, I can easily understand why a lot of people -- particularly women -- are choosing not to share their lives with a partner. I can't blame them. It has been very disappointing to see the rigid re-gendering of society in recent decades, and men have, if anything, become more uselessly child-like than they have ever been.
But even committed couples seem to have plenty of reasons for not having children. Why bring children into such a bad world? Population growth is overwhelming the planet. We both want a fulfilling career. We can't afford it. He won't pull his weight, I know it. I'm not the Mumsy type. It's not the right time. I don't like children. We'd rather spend the money on holidays. I'm afraid I won't cope. I'm afraid, full stop. All good reasons, but I think one of the funniest and saddest lines I ever heard in an American sitcom was, "Damn! I don't believe it! I forgot to have children!"
Sigh. You really don't have a clue, do you?
(they don't come with an Owner's Manual)
It is a fact that all European populations are, demographically, in decline. As Günter Grass put it, "The Germans are dying out". There is now no European country where the fertility rate is equal to or greater than the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Surprisingly, it seems Italy, Spain and Greece have the lowest rates of all (1.33, 1.32, 1.29 respectively -- Eurostat 2004 figures). However much this may be a good solution at a personal level, it has to be seen as a problem at national level. It's almost as if we have collectively lost our belief in the future.
But the real puzzle to me is what I think of as "militant childlessness", people who have not so much made a choice, as taken up a position on the matter. In particular, they seem to resent society's attempts (inadequate as they are) to reconcile child-rearing with the world of work and the injustices of poverty. "Where's my maternity leave?", they cry, as if a typical maternity leave was spent on the beach in Tenerife. "Why should I pay taxes for schools, when I have no children? Where's my child benefit?" You can imagine their reaction to the upcoming proposals to allow female and male partners to share "maternity" leave between them. Outrageously unfair!
So, perhaps I should have given my cataloguer an extra, sixth tip:
When people suggest that becoming a parent is a lifestyle choice into which you have chosen to channel your income -- which they will -- you should reply: "And why should my children pay taxes to support you in your lonely, infirm old age -- which they will, I promise -- when they only have two parents?"
* For non-Brits: a potential 3rd-in-line-to-the-throne has been announced. The big news is that it will no longer matter whether it's a boy or girl, or wants to marry a Roman Catholic. It will still have the right to be Principal Drone. Actually, although instinctively anti-royalist, I find myself wondering whether having a hereditary, ceremonial Head of State isn't a bad system. It does spare us from having to elect a President, and all the political conflicts and confusion that ensue.