Baby Hunger; By Sylvia Ann Hewlett; Atlantic Books pounds 10.00
Six months ago I received a call from Sylvia Ann Hewlett asking for advice. She wasn't sure about the UK title for the book she was publishing in the US under the name Creating a Life. Was Baby Hunger too provocative?
To test it, I discussed Hewlett's thesis with women colleagues in their thirties. 'Yes,' I was able to report, 'you will certainly get a reaction - half fascination, half fury.'
The reaction that controversial books elicit is as significant as the arguments they contain. In the newspaper columns and radio phone-ins that followed its publication, it has been described as a diatribe against feminists who want to 'have it all'; a warning to men about ensnarement by broody women; and a denial of men's responsibility to the next generation.
It is none of these. The book may make many people uncomfortable but it does not pick a fight with anyone. Most of it is taken up with a description of the experience of high-earning professional women in the US who have accomplished careers and have not had children. What makes the book so powerful is the regret and anger that so many of these women express.
Hewlett's research shows that these stories are far from exceptional.
She presents data from a large-scale survey of high-achieving women that provide stark statistics: among them that at least one in three high-achieving women are childless at 40 and that a quarter of these women still hold (largely forlorn) hopes of having children.
Baby Hunger has certainly touched a nerve. Much of this is because Hewlett does not take the easy route and lay all the blame for the anguish she exposes at the feet of employers or policy-makers. In suggesting that young women should confront difficult choices about children before they reach their 40th birthday, Hewlett has been accused of blaming women for their own predicament. Several British commentators have ascribed to her the view that not having children is somehow unnatural - a position she rejects.
But can any of us really believe that it is the job of government or employer policies alone to resolve complex and emotionally charged dilemmas such as how to balance professional ambition and a desire for children?
Hewlett reminds us that feminism has won women many gains but life still presents us with conflicting choices. Despite its light and oh-so-American style, Baby Hunger asks difficult and timely questions.