Radio - Rachel Cooke

Women who don't want children are still seen as hard-faced freaks, even on <em>Woman’s Hour</em>

Well, I'm back, and already I'm spitting chips. This past week, the daily Woman's Hour drama (Radio 4, 10.45am) has been given over to a series of five plays about women and childlessness. The terrain they covered, though thorny, was drearily predictable. One was about a single woman of 42 who sees a therapist to help her decide if she should have a baby alone; another involved an adoption. I'd like to tell you more but, alas, that won't be possible: Monday's "drama" was all I could take. Entitled Blowing Out Candles, Cathy Feeny's piece managed to be politically correct and outstandingly sexist - quite an achievement. Women beware women.

The irony is, I listened to it because its storyline rather appealed; there is nothing like being in your mid-thirties and returning from your honeymoon to remind you of the ovary-focused expectations that most people still have of "normal" women. Blowing Out Candles was all about Lucy, in her forties, newly married to her long-term partner, and about to take up the latest in a series of jobs in the developing world. In Britain, her mother throws a gathering for her birthday to which her cousin Clarissa is invited.

Clarissa has four children (all of them with posy, middle-class names) whom she takes, plus sack of wet wipes, wherever she goes - yes, even to adult parties. She is a monster of self-satisfaction.

At the party, everything begins to unravel. Lucy's mother, Sue, is upset at her niece's "parading" of her children. She tells Lucy it is insensitive - to her - but Lucy says she couldn't give a fig. She and her husband decided years ago that they didn't want children: they had better things to do. Later, Lucy goes into the garden and chats to Clarissa's husband, who happens to be an ex of hers. As he tipsily tries to kiss her, they are discovered by Clarissa, apparently in flagrante. Clarissa is furious.

She believes Lucy to be obsessively envious of her fecund life - husband, changing mat, the lot.

Perhaps you are wondering why this seemingly innocuous stuff made me so mad. Well, first off, the dialogue had to be heard to be believed. These characters did not so much converse as read out the standfirsts from a women's magazine ("One woman tells us why she is happy to be child-free"). But it was the subtext that really got my goat. Notice that Lucy is an aid worker. In other words, she is saved from the monstrous selfishness of the wilfully child-free by doing a job that, as she has it, "puts smiles on a few faces".

Why couldn't she have been a lawyer, or a writer? Why, come to that, couldn't she have been a shopworker, or even a bloody dinner lady who just wasn't very broody? I'll tell you why. Because women who don't want children are still thought to be hard-faced freaks, and even in the right-on world of Woman's Hour, they're allowed to get away with it only if what they do instead of mothering is . . . motherly. The play pretended to make a feminist point - "News from the front: not all women like babies" - but then it wimped out. Pathetic.

Now I've got that off my chest, I can say how happy I am to be back by my radio; I missed it so much, I fear I am turning into one of those awful Brits abroad who pack teabags with their sun cream. The first voice I heard on my return was that of Sean Ley, still sitting in for Nick Clarke on Radio 4's World at One. Ley is brilliant, so very spritely. It's amazing how much I look forward to listening to him. If this makes me a saddo, who cares? Better that than a fixation on wet wipes.