How the parent trap ensnares us all

'There they all are, the child-free, congregating around the photocopier as dusk falls, moaning about absent colleagues'

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In my darker moments - when oppressed by tax bills that I've failed to anticipate, or by the need to get up at 6am when midday is indicated by the wound-down body clock that ticks increasingly raggedly inside me - I have a fantasy. This daydream returns me to my pre-paternal state of a decade ago. It clears the potties and the broken toys from the living room; it places my partner back in the marital bed and removes the restless seven-year-old, allowing me to be - once again - her only baby.

In my darker moments - when oppressed by tax bills that I've failed to anticipate, or by the need to get up at 6am when midday is indicated by the wound-down body clock that ticks increasingly raggedly inside me - I have a fantasy. This daydream returns me to my pre-paternal state of a decade ago. It clears the potties and the broken toys from the living room; it places my partner back in the marital bed and removes the restless seven-year-old, allowing me to be - once again - her only baby.

It repunctuates my life with indulgences such as grown-up cinema and weekend trips to European cities, while Dynorodding out the ballet lessons, the Disneyland Parises, the singing cartoon characters, the fish fingers and cries of "I don't want to have my hair washed!" All the money I make gets spent on me and all the time I have available is my own. Suddenly I am rich almost beyond imagining.

So I was well miffed by that study published late last week by Management Today magazine, revealing how many of those working in offices resent the special treatment being given to parents. Some 2,000 executives took part (creating - be warned - a self-selecting sample), and 55 per cent of them identified a feeling of discontent among employees concerning issues such as parental leave and specially structured work patterns for those with children.

This majority apparently believed that what the parents were gaining, they - the childless or those not seeking special provision - were losing. If Mrs Mum was dashing off at three to catch Lucinda in her first school play (and we all know from the US movies what happens if you fail to put in an appearance) then it was unmarried Muggins who found herself covering the phones. "Snot fair!"

The survey, emerging at a time in the news year when there are only air crashes and paedophiles to divert us, launched yet another discussion about the work-life balance, but this time inserting the word "backlash". Like a strange childhood ailments that has no specific cause yet results in a spectacular rash, the story of anti-parental Britain led to articles and phone-ins about how the childless are done down by the over-fecund.

In these kinds of situations interest groups suddenly appear - as if by demand - to supply spokespersons for the most unlikely causes. So I found myself listening to the gruff tones of a Mr Root Cartwright, introduced as the chair of the British Organisation of Non-parents (or BON). Now, "non-ness" is - it seems to me - a strange business. Imagine the British Organisation of Non-Jews; the Society of Non-Philatelists; the No-golf Union; or the Association of Non-ME Sufferers.

It's far from clear why anyone would want to proselytise on behalf of a negative state of existence.

And that, of course, is BON's point. On the organisation's website it said it was "founded on the premise that the cultural and media bias against those without children must be redressed". Those who chose childlessness were, implied BON, stigmatised and discriminated against. "We provide," it went on, "solidarity for those who feel isolated by their choice and seek to stress the positive and liberating possibilities of the child free option." At this point, I imagine, the writer fell headlong through the open door he thought he was pushing at. Parents hardly need to be reminded of the "liberating" possibilities of non-parenthood - unlike the childless, we have experienced both states. Sorry, did I say "childless"? "We prefer to be called not "childless", but "childfree", says BON.

In at least one account written over the weekend, the American woman counterpart to Root Cartwright, Elinor Burkett (author of How Family Friendly America Cheats The Childless), was described as "the Betty Friedan of the childless [sic]".

To me, this particular invocation of one of the most celebrated feminists, is a bit like calling someone the Nelson Mandela of Hollywood film stars or the Spartacus of the senior civil service. Some people just don't need liberating. Especially as, in BON's own words, "having and bringing up a child is an exhausting, time consuming, difficult, and expensive task". It follows that the non-parents have more time, fewer worries and more money. Hardly time to march on the Capitol. And yet, there they are, the child-free British (or at least, some of them), congregating around the photocopier as dusk falls on the city, moaning about absent colleagues.

Why are the parents of school-age children allowed the privilege of holidaying in August, when they are asked to go in June or September? How come they can take time out for sick kids (and whoever knew a kid that was that sick?), when I wasn't permitted a day off for Wimbledon? I've seen and heard them, and so has my partner, these 25-year-old women who imply that the mums aren't pulling their weight because the handbag has gone from the desk at five. Or, worse still, the ambitious other mums who haven't taken any time off themselves, and feel guilt and resentment in equal measures.

Listen to them whinge about how children are allowed to make a noise in hotels, or to run around restaurants, or jump in swimming-pools.

But there is no discrimination against the childfree, save by thwarted grand-parents. And there has been no wholesale move towards family friendly policies yet in British workplaces, despite the evidence of the productivity benefits that would result. In this country most hotels are snotty about children, many restaurants actively foul to them, and the only time some people seem to care about them is when they're being sexually abused. And if a teacher wants to slap one right across the face, then the teaching union is on the slapper's side.

There is, however, some progress. None of which has been sufficient to stop the growing trend towards child-freeness, which pretty soon will mean a quarter of all women not having babies by the time they're 40. A pretty funny response to discrimination, you might think. And, for all of the nonsense about it somehow being a contribution to reducing over-population (suicide is a more reliable method), the explanation for growing childfree-dom - according to a study conducted for Family Policy Studies Centre - is not positive aspiration, but fear of responsibility and change.

Now, I could get nasty here and, like the Bishop of Rochester did back in March, condemn the deliberately childfree as living lives that are, "self-indulgent and incomplete". I might suggest that this was a symptom of social infantilisation, with young adults trying to stay children forever, and therefore being unable to take the competition from real babies. I could counter the jibes about how parents bore acquaintances with kiddy tales, by making observations about how the childfree send me to sleep with their drivel about kebabs, bad movies and hang-overs (after having first gone out and got legfree).

But I won't. There are many reasons for childlessness. These days some people just run out of time, or never get the partner they wanted to parent alongside. Several of my closest friends are not parents, and callous non-parents worry me far less than callous parents. I can also see that the observation of convention is insufficient reason to have children, nor do I want us to be governed by a "biological clock" or by some ill-defined heaviness in the testicles.

And maybe, if we parents are going to demand treatment at work that allows us to be good fathers and mothers (and it's in everybody's interests if we do), then perhaps we should moan a bit less as well, because the compensations are great. For if my daydream is to find myself magically unencumbered, my worst nightmare is exactly the same.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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