No one criticised Jesus for not having children I've yet to read an attack on Jesus for failing to have kids

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The Independent Online
THE historian Olwen Hufton, whose landmark study of women's lives in Western Europe got rave reviews last year, opened her book with a famous image: Masolino's Adam and Eve from the Brancacci chapel in Florence. The naked couple are already in the company of the serpent, an attractive blonde with blue eye shadow and red lipstick who breathes a stream of poisonous vapour towards Eve. The fresco suggests, according to Hufton, "that the fall of man and the birth of original sin were the result of a female conspiracy".

Woman's penalty for this transgression, as outlined in Genesis, is very specific: "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children". I've always thought this a rather dismal way of introducing the concept of motherhood into the world but its twin theses - that having children is neither pleasant nor optional - are deeply rooted in our culture. I was reminded of them again this week when I read an article by the Daily Telegraph's New York columnist, Charles Laurence, pouring scorn on female members of the Baby Boom generation who have reached middle age without having children.

There are a lot of them: nearly 6 million (15 per cent) of the 38 million American women whose 50th birthday falls this year. "Are they now growing frantic as they face 50, and the prospect of a lonely, unfulfilled autumn without children and grandchildren?" Laurence asks. The question is a rhetorical device to introduce an attack on a psychoanalyst, Jeanne Safer, who has written a book suggesting that childless women are quite happy with their lives.

Laurence's premise is that the Baby Boomers are "spoilt, self-indulgent, profligate, randy, stoned and so on". When he complains that Safer's childless interviewees "talk like figures from a satire", two things emerge. First, that his spleen is reserved for childless women (men without children are not mentioned at all). Second, far from being caricatures, the examples he quotes from Safer's book sound perfectly reasonable: a reporter who wonders if she would have covered the war in Afghanistan if she'd had a child, an acupuncturist who feels her life is "just beginning at 50" as she marries a new husband and sets off to travel the world.

Laurence condemns Safer's argument as "a wonderfully boomerish redefinition of selfishness". What he doesn't explain is his assumption that not having children constitutes a failure of altruism. I suspect the answer lies in the title of Safer's book, Beyond Motherhood: Choosing Life Without Children, for the very notion of choice flies in the face of the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition.

WHEN I hear people with children accusing their childless friends of selfishness, I suspect there's an element of projection - deflecting criticism by hurling it at other people. Parents justify all sorts of bad behaviour from letting down friends to abandoning their principles with the excuse that they're only doing it for their children. I've watched quite left- wing people turn into qualified Thatcherites who, while they wouldn't go as far as arguing there's no such thing as society, have no qualms about seeking special treatment for their families.

To take a topical example, it's obvious that the decline of inner-city state schools has a lot to do with the flight of middle-class parents into selective or opted-out schools in other boroughs. Do we really expect comprehensives to improve while the country continues to be run by an elite whose members did not attend them and, regardless of which political party they represent, have no intention of sending their own children there?

Two of the most frequent queries addressed to people without children - Who will look after you when you're old? Don't you want to pass on your genes? - give the lie to the notion that becoming a parent is a selfless act. None of this would matter if parents would stop trying to occupy the moral high ground or if the figures for childless women in America were a statistical freak. But they're not.

ON BOTH sides of the Atlantic, there's a rising trend which suggests that a substantial minority of women will never give birth. The Central Office of Information, looking at women born in England and Wales in 1967, predicts that over a fifth will be childless when they reach the age of 40. This means we can no longer unthinkingly adhere to old myths about motherhood, such as the existence of a universal maternal instinct.

Women have always tried to limit their families or get out of having children altogether, although for centuries the latter course was open only to those who announced a religious vocation; a suspiciously high number of nuns received their first visions at puberty. But the true numbers of women who don't want children reveal themselves only when three conditions have been fulfilled: reliable contraception, widely available education and a weakening of the cultural imperative that all women should conceive.

In a sense, all that's happening now is that women are catching up with men, who have never been as rigidly corralled into becoming parents (I've yet to read an attack on Jesus or Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo for failing to have children). Biblical pronouncements aside, it's hard to see why women shouldn't enjoy the same freedom.

I'VE spent most of this week in bed with a throat infection, my voice reduced to a croak like a strangled sheep. I was feeling sorry for myself until a friend came round and casually announced that his kitchen had been shot. He was doing the washing-up on Sunday morning when he spotted broken glass, raised the blind and discovered a neat hole in the window. The bullet was lying on the floor behind him.

The police rushed round and said that, had anyone been in the room at the time, the shot would have been lethal. Compared with snipers in North Kensington, tonsillitis suddenly seemed quite bearable.