Fertility fears

Baby Hunger

Sylvia Ann Hewlett <em>Atlantic Books, 304pp, £10</em>

ISBN 1903809789

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the new manual of the moment, knows all about baby hunger. Her own appetite for nappies, disturbed nights and yucky splodges on her clothes was so hearty that in her mid-forties, having already given birth to three healthy children, she decided to try to have one final baby. At first, her husband Richard was - unsurprisingly, perhaps - not very keen but, after much soul-searching, she "persuaded him to come on board for this project". Together, they embarked on an expensive race against time. In 1997, after yet another round of IVF treatment, Hewlett delivered a healthy daughter, Emma. At the time, she was 51 years old.

Once you know about this miracle baby, it is pretty difficult to take anything she says seriously. I mean, there's hunger and then there's greed. Sure enough, many of her later assertions are so glib that you find yourself wanting to punch the walls and book yourself in for a sterilisation operation just to prove her wrong. Then again, like all truly maddening manifestos, Baby Hunger also contains a tiny, melancholy ovum of truth - and, unfortunately, it is one that will leave many childless women feeling profoundly anxious.

An economist and former policy adviser to Neil Kinnock, Hewlett originally set out to write about about the "breakthrough generation" of successful women who would be facing 50 at the millennium. What did they owe to feminism? How had they managed to break through the glass ceiling? Early on, however, it occurred to her that none of her high-flying interviewees had children. When she pressed them about this, they told her that they had not chosen to be childless - far from it. Children had simply been crowded out of their lives by their all-consuming careers; now on the brink of menopause, they "seemed haunted" by what they were leaving behind for ever.

Spurred on by this misery, she conducted a nationwide survey (in the United States, where she lives and works) to find out precisely how the private and professional lives of women so painfully collide. Here are some of the "sobering facts": 33 per cent of high-achieving women are childless at ages 41-55, and this figure rises to 42 per cent in corporate America and 43 per cent in academe. In contrast, only 25 per cent of high-achieving men are childless at ages 41-55. Only 14 per cent of these women say they did not plan to have children. Younger women are having an even harder time of it: 55 per cent of younger high-achieving women are childless at age 35, while only 38 per cent of older women were childless at this point in time.

Baby Hunger, then, is a game of two halves. First, Hewlett tells the stories of a handful of the women who were interviewed for this project in an effort to warn the next generation what lies ahead if they do not pay attention to their private lives; she reminds us how woefully inadequate maternity benefits continue to be, and how much of the housework is still shouldered by women, irrespective of whether they also have a career to manage; and she urges us not to be seduced by the "empty promise" of high-tech reproduction (a woman in her early forties has only a 3-5 per cent chance of achieving a live birth through standard IVF procedures).

Second, she tries to come up with some solutions. Her ideas include the development of "off-ramps" and "on-ramps" for those who need to interrupt traditional career trajectories, and offering tax incentives to companies which give their employees "the gift of time". She also issues a challenge to younger women. "Give urgent priority to finding a partner," she tells us. "This project is extremely time sensitive." It is crucial that women have their first child before they are 35 and that, if possible, they choose careers that lend themselves to a good life/work balance.

There are various ways of responding to a book like this. You can honk with derision at a woman who refers to relationships as "projects"; you can tell yourself how much more sophisticated employment law is in Europe than America; you can point out how easy it is easy to lie with statistics; or you can rail against the insinuation that a woman's life is meaningless unless she has submitted to the agony and ecstasy of childbirth. But the truth is that every woman of my acquaintance who has heard about Baby Hunger has been able to respond to it in only one way: viscerally, by holding up its doomy scenarios to the light and comparing them to her own situation.

Here is my story. As a teenager, I devoured the novels of Margaret Drabble and Andrea Newman, books that contained a lot of useful information about sex and contraception and being a woman. This stuff, combined with the fact that my father ditched my clever, ambitious mother only a few years after he had urged her to abandon a PhD and be his wife instead, meant that, by the time I left home, I was absolutely certain that, whatever else happened to me once I started to make my way in the world, it was imperative that I did not get pregnant. Pregnancy could cudgel a girl's spirit as quickly as it takes to pop to Boots. Pregnancy, it seemed to me, was the end of everything.

So, here I am, 32 years old, contemplating yet another birthday - and, in an odd way, my child-free status itself feels like a kind of achievement. My life is absolutely as I want it to be. My work is interesting; my friends are funny; my home is tidy and calm (mostly). The only blot on the horizon is not visible to the naked eye. Deep inside, my ovaries are shrivelling, like a couple of old footballs abandoned at the end of the garden. Naturally, this concerns me, but an attractive alternative, so far as I can see, has just never presented itself. Boredom, frustration, hot envy: these things are the flip side of Hewlett's disingenuous exhortations to go forth and multiply.

Hewlett claims she wants to "liberate and empower" women like me, but the truth is that her book does exactly the opposite. Baby Hunger has put the fear back into fertility (though its author prefers to call it "respect"): not since the days of our grandmothers have women been made to feel so tormented by simple biology. Worse, her thesis will serve to remind intransigent men of their old prejudice - that, at bottom, the opposite sex is interested only in babies. Deprive them, and they become wild, hormonal, fixated.

No doubt Hewlett will be disappointed to hear it, but my imminent birthday celebrations do not, alas, include a quiet night in with my boyfriend and an ovulation kit. Someone's got to take a stand. This year, at least.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer