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A Point of View: Can parents and non-parents ever understand each other?

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There's little clear debate about why people choose to have children, or to remain childless, says the novelist Will Self.

A few years ago I was doing some preliminary writing for a film project helmed by a famous director whose work I admired so much that I addressed him - quite unselfconsciously - as "Maitre". On one occasion we had a meeting over dinner at a Loire chateau that had been converted into a luxury hotel. Sitting in the bouquet-garni-scented dusk, listening to the cicadas chirr, and slowly ingesting the rich fare, the conversation turned for some reason to having children, and I found myself blurting out this dreadful solecism: "I don't know what the hell I'd do if I didn't have children - I mean, I might end up collecting china, or something ludicrous like that!" There was a frozen moment as I looked from the director's face to that of his wife, both were suffused with anger - then the director said what I'd already known, but had crassly forgotten: "Neither of us have any children - and we don't collect china, or anything else for that matter!"

Needless to say my involvement with the Maitre's film project was abruptly curtailed - as abruptly as a certain kind of sympathy is terminated, between the childless and the procreative by childbirth itself. I've told people who're about to become parents for the first time that the experience is as much philosophic as physical, my reasoning being this: When you are childless your identity is a fiction that can, necessarily, be rewritten. Yes, yes, of course you have all sorts of relationships, but it's only your own child for whom it's an absolute and irrevocable emotional requirement that you remain identifiably the same person. Infants, as we know, thrive in contexts defined by routines and norms, and what can be more destabilising than a mercurial parent, forever striking this or that pose. When concerned commentators say that teenage girls get pregnant because they want somebody who will love them unconditionally, they're only addressing an aspect of this desire - because surely, just as much as anyone wishes to be loved, so we wish to be loved for ourselves, and in order for this to be possible at all, we must be one self and one alone, rather than a omnipotential whirl.

It follows that if those without children tend to view their lives as freer, it's because they may reinvent themselves, while for those of us who choose to replicate (or have parturition thrust upon us) each new arrival signals another tightening of the tension cords of necessity. You might've thought this means parenthood is invariably accompanied by the firming up of the parents' personalities and their effective maturation, but nothing's that simple with our species, and often new parents react to the overarching demand that they be themselves by frantically struggling to get out from under it - I know I did. My first child was born when I was 28, my second when I was 30, my third arrived on my 36th birthday - as nice an injunction as I can think of to be myself - and my fourth entered this world six weeks before my 40th. Thus the vast majority of my adult life has been taken up either with childcare, or - as the mothers of my offspring would undoubtedly argue - its avoidance. But then, as an old ex-bank robber friend of mine once said: "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime."

But whether caring or careless, it's been impossible for me to side-step - both psychically and physically - the status of being a parent, whatever that means, because throughout my lifetime, and with gathering intensity during my own childrearing years, the value we attach to the reproduction of our species has become problematic. This isn't a phenomenon that should surprise us, given the birth rate in Britain has steadily declined during this period. More than nine out of 10 women in my mother's generation had at least one child. With my own generation this has fallen to fewer than four-in-five. It is a huge social change - but one that we register, if at all, by absences rather than presences. Some friends of mine who have opted not to have children (although one can never be altogether certain whether the vagaries of partner selection, or the winding down of the biological clock were the true decider) refer to the rest of us as "breeders". There's contempt in this ascription, certainly. It implies that they've freed themselves from the sordid mess of biology we're wallowing about in - so they may sip vintage champagne, visit the Prado midweek during school term, and generally maximise both their earnings and their concomitant pleasures.

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However, there's no real consensus on why exactly the birth rate has been falling in the so-called "developed" countries. Yea-saying Panglossians, who believe all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, point to the correlation between more female education and fewer babies, and argue that as more and more societies become socially and economically secure, the world's population will stabilise at a level that will be sustainable. Doomsters, on the other hand, point out that humans are animals like any others, and that many mammals respond to environmental stresses by, quite instinctively, reducing the number of their offspring. Women may think they're putting their career first, but really it's the planet that's become their problem child. Then again, there are those who point to the invention and subsequent widespread use of safe and effective contraception as evidence not just of women assuming their reproductive rights, but of the beginning of an era in which humans will take control of their own evolution.

All this seems a long way from Noah's injunction to his sons, as they surveyed the flood's devastation: "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth." We seem to be faltering when it comes to this imperative, whether we regard it as a biological necessity, or a form of manifest destiny. Yet for the most part we refuse to debate the issue on philosophic grounds. Rather, the declining birth rate is examined through the lens of economics, or gender politics, or concerns about immigration, or the aforementioned reproductive rights - in the form of fertility treatments either supplied or withheld by the NHS. Meanwhile, divorcing parents fervidly fight over access to their little bundles of joy, although they may have severe misgivings about having had children in the first place. The real indication that we don't know what value parenting currently has is that to either valorise or demonise this state of being seems as ridiculous (if not offensive) as doing the same in respect of childlessness.

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image captionA Byzantine mosaic depicting Noah and his family leaving the ark

But why should this be? The argument is, I suppose, that it's a woman's - and a man's, for that matter - right to choose whether she or he has children. But such an attitude surely puts the future of our entire species on the same footing as buying new bathroom towels, or taking up pilates. It could be argued that if we wish to restrict immigration, our current population should indeed be encouraged to be fruitful and multiply, so there will be someone about to do all the work. Alternatively, from an internationalist and humanitarian perspective, it could be that people should be incentivised not to have children - or even that it should be illegal, as it was for a time in China, to have more than one.

Which brings me full cycle and back to collecting Meissen or Spode - that I should've seized on such a ridiculous characterisation of childlessness, rather than, say, suggesting if I hadn't have had the little blighters I might've become a great film director. It's a mark of quite how much being a parent does change you psychologically. Decades of being compelled to play the part of dad has resulted - to paraphrase John Updike's remarks on celebrity - in the mask of parenthood melding with my own face. Now, it's no longer possible for me to imagine what it might've been like to be one of the childless - anymore than it's possible for them to stand in my shoes. Perhaps it's time we acknowledged this incommensurability, one that vitally affects all of us and all of us who are to come.

More from the Magazine

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It's a simple question that is deceptively difficult to answer. It's one my husband and I have asked ourselves, as we've struggled to start a family of our own.

When childless isn't a choice (August 2014)

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT or listen on BBC iPlayer

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