A seven-month pregnant woman -- her belly vast -- was at a supper with a friend. He, being of the family type, told her she was very lucky to be expecting a baby. He was the first person who had said such a thing, she told him.
It's a jarring anecdote because it so sharply puts into focus how pregnancy has become the occasion not for congratulations, but for anxious questions about childcare, leave and work. Watch how the announcement of a pregnancy among women is followed within minutes by the "What are you going to do?" question. We've replaced the age-old anxiety around life-threatening childbirth with a new -- and sometimes it appears just as vast -- cargo of anxiety around who is going to care.
This anxiety is the backdrop to the UK's 90,000 baby gap -- the number of additional babies that women would like to have had -- identified by a recent Institute of Public Policy Research report on how the birth rate is falling below replenishment levels. How is it that in cultures all over the world pregnancies prompt congratulations rather than anxious questions about childcare? How is it that in a culture equipped, materially and medically, to ease child-rearing, we are so reluctant to enjoy new life?
The answer, I would argue, is that a bias against having babies has permeated British culture. This phenomenon needs a new word -- anti-natalism -- and it is this that prompts a good part of that pregnancy trepidation. The only consolation to my mind is the spectacular everyday acts of rebellion by which thousands of babies still manage to get born in the UK.
These are bold claims -- so let me explain. The anti-natalist bias is implicit in many of the influences that shape our sense of self and purpose, our identity, our aspirations and our understanding of success and the good life. That bias is evident in our consumer culture and our work culture. The problem about motherhood (and, to a lesser extent, fatherhood) is that it comes at the cost of failure -- or at least compromise -- as consumer or worker, or both.
Hence you are a good mother in direct proportion to how useless a consumer you are. As Shirley Conran put it in her days at the UK's Work-Life Balance Trust, you can always tell the mum in the office because she's wearing last season's coat. (A more familiar problem is finding I've worn the same outfit three days in a row because the multiple demands of three kids rule out thinking about what to wear.) The increasing impatience of consumer cycles means that anyone who is not devoting inordinate amounts of their weekend to shopping and browsing magazines is just not cutting it.
Not cutting it -- that's pretty much the gist at work too. The entire debate on women's work is about mothers failing in the labor market: they don't earn much; they're in dead-end jobs; they don't make it to the top; they take the easy option and duck responsibility; they're less productive than men. This was the refrain of the Women and Work Commission last week; it reminded me of a summit on women's productivity at the official London home of the UK finance minister Gordon Brown just over a year ago. Women had to get into better jobs and work harder, a selection of highly productive women and Gordon Brown declared. You could hear the lashing of whips from these well-meaning slave drivers.