JULIAN Brazier, Conservative MP for Canterbury, has proposed a tax on childless couples in a pamphlet for the Bow Group. He believes this will promote a return to Victorian values. When it comes to attitudes towards women without children, Victorian values are still all too much with us, I'm afraid.

Many times in recent weeks, and in this newspaper too, worse still, writers have assumed that all women become mothers. The only question has been whether they have babies early on in their lives or late.

This is rubbish, and smug rubbish at that. What about the women who have babies neither early nor late? Are those who are not mothers wiped off the human map? I don't like being 'disappeared' in this way. Or, if I'm recognised, is it only to hit with a punitive tax?

Why get so worked up? What does it matter, really? The answers have to do with self-respect, of course. And with keeping a grip on reality. To start with the latter: Lady Margaret Jay, interviewed in the Independent last week, pointed out the importance of facing the facts about how people actually live and the dismal prospect for us all if we fabricate pictures of the world instead.

Clearly it is not only stupid, it is irresponsible to go on about a cosy world in which, say, mummy and daddy live with their little boy and girl when there are as many households in which a person lives alone as there are households where two people look after children. And larger than either of those groups are the households in which couples (married or not) have no children in residence at all. It's just as silly and careless to go on about all women being mothers when one in ten women is never a mother.

That 10 per cent of women do not have children may not be unrelated to the fact that during the Seventies there was a revival of a women's emancipation movement. By no means is every instance of childlessness the result of failed treatment for infertility. It wasn't votes that women needed when feminism came round again, it was choices. Children born female had grown into girls wanting more than the alternatives being offered. They wanted the right to decide whether or not they wished to marry, have abortions, mother, divorce, have careers or just jobs, and hundreds of other choices besides.

Fate plays its part, as do genes and temperament. Whatever her choices, not every female finds it possible to be a mother or raise children, just as not every woman is able to have a well paid and/or rewarding job. In the Seventies women may have thought it would be possible to 'have it all'. They lived to learn otherwise.

Some women no doubt feel rotten because they have not borne a child. But it's been a very long time since I've heard the phrase 'empty vessel'. That seems to have gone out of the language along with 'spinster'. Though in its place is a tendency by some to regard couples who've lived together a long time without children with sort of mawkish amazement. In both cases patronising is the word that best describes this attitude. I am one of life's worriers, but the fact that I'm childless isn't among my anxieties. It is awkward and irritating that our language hasn't come up with a word to describe this aspect of my life without a negative being attached. But it's far more awkward and irritating that English has no good way to describe people who live together for years without marrying. 'Significant other', like 'spouse equivalent', is revolting.

Having been dead against legal marriage, I nevertheless often refer to the man with whom I make my life as my husband. This is both a betrayal of my beliefs and by far the easiest figure of speech. But I would hate to think that anyone ever thought my doing this was a verbal form of, as it were, social climbing. I'd hate it almost as much as I dislike being sent into oblivion by the

self-satisfied all-women-are-

mummies set. I not only hate it. I object.

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