If high-flyers refuse to be mums, we shall rear mediocrities

The Family Policy Studies Centre has come up with its very own bouquet for Mothering Sunday: a study that finds marriage has never been so unfashionable, or motherhood so unappealing. The statistics are dire. More than six and a half million people live alone; one in four women now aged 27 will remain childless; and - the figure that will send shivers down every middle-class spine - teenage single mums are fast becoming the biggest social group giving birth.

Motherhood as minority sport is a new concept for society to get its head round: the idea that we're here on Earth to procreate has been so ingrained, for so long, that it seems preposterous to find anyone who doesn't buy it. It was a pillar not only of Biblical teaching - "go forth and multiply" - but also of Darwinian theory: the fittest survived, then mated and spawned junior.

Society, too, held fertility at a premium: the more, the merrier was how generations of tax-collecting monarchs, feudal lords, and feuding armies saw the population issue. And in nature, too, procreation was at the back of every animal's mind. As David Attenborough's programmes never tire of showing us, female chimps are always looking out for the biggest, brawniest and hairiest beast to give them one.

So why should we suddenly find ourselves staring, if not at extinction, then at a drastic diminution of the species?

Blame it on the women. Top-quality men (the healthiest, wealthiest, toughest, and best educated) still want to make miniature versions of themselves; but top-range women (who can now boast the same credentials in terms of health, income, spirit and education) prefer to leave reproduction to the second eleven. These are women who've fought for inclusion among the great and good: for a place at the top table. They have achieved much, and aspire to gain more; and, like Cyril Connolly, they would single out the pram in the hallway as the enemy of promise.

Their success has fostered independence, which in turn has stamped out broodiness: me first (and second, and third) has been their battle-cry for so long, that the compromises required to be a mum have become impossible. Why give up sleep, socialising, slipping away for the impromptu weekend, casual sex and the thrill of earning lots of lovely money and spending it on moi? These are hard-won privileges - and to lose them when you've just begun to enjoy them seems perverse. And so the high-flyers are saying no to motherhood.

Single, teenaged, unemployed, poorly qualified: these are the characteristics that will soon be associated with maternity. A bump, despite Madonna, risks becoming as clear a proof of a working-class background as the fag hanging from someone's lips. With successful women defining "quality time" as their hour with the yoga instructor rather than the precious minutes with their little treasures, the parents of future generations will be restricted to the poor gals who didn't get ahead and the men who will make do with them.

The consequences of this revolution will be harsh. The issue of the union of second-league woman and the man who'll have her does not seem destined for great things; and a society made up of mediocrities, whose lack-lustre lineage will hinder their progress through life, is not an inviting proposition. With the quality of mothers slipping, the quality of motherhood risks a similar deterioration. The pregnant school drop-out who just wanted a baby to love her is incapable - no matter how many parenting classes her sixth form offers - of nurturing her child properly; just as later, she will be unable to educate it, or advise it wisely. Her young will grow into a socially autistic adult with little expectation and even less talent.

How cruel, the women who refuse to be mums. They condemn us to a very poor- quality world. And a much smaller one.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?