Epater Le Bébé!

ratner halleberry1v Epater Le Bébé! The tots came at the rate of 63 an hour—or 1.05 a minute—gliding by in a haze of Pirate Booty and stroller dust.

It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in early October, and all up and down Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue, women were busy being mommies. There were a few nannies, and four fathers stumbled about. But mostly it was mothers—a solid 50 or so—dutifully juggling life and babies while managing to look at once earthy and graceful, not a Britney among them.

This is the good life for a certain caste of New York woman, the aspirational endpoint as brought to you by Maclaren and Cookie magazine. But watching the parade of moms it was hard not to wonder, at what point did child-bearing become such an inescapable component of the New York woman’s dream? And at what point did New York City, historic refuge for the quirky, carefree and childless, turn into a Den of Procreation?

“It’s like a cult,” said a 34-year-old not-yet-parent named Alison who works in advertising and lives with her husband in Lower Manhattan. “It’s like a cult, complete with the required reading, the clubs, the gurus, the dues, the inclusion, the excommunication, the hierarchy.

“And the pressure,” she continued, “starts in the missionary position.”

Raised on the old baby-versus-career debates, women of Alison’s generation always anticipated that the big discussion would be about if they wanted kids, not whether they planned to have three or even four. Certainly when they chose to settle in New York, a town that regularly undershot the national birth rate and was proud of it, they had reason to expect that they were not on the soccer-mom track.

But sometime during the past few years, something strange happened to these historically reticent reproducers. They freaked out, got busy and turned themselves into mascots for the new maternity. In just five years, between 2000 and 2005, the number of children under five living in Manhattan ballooned more than 32 percent, according to Census figures.

It probably didn’t help that in 2006 the Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines recommending that all women of childbearing age be considered “pre-pregnant,” chomp folic acid and avoid smoking. In 2001, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine launched a “protect your fertility” campaign, complete with posters of baby bottles in the shape of quickly draining hourglasses. Meanwhile, the fashion industry has been churning out empire-waist dresses and billowy blouses that make even the skinniest ingenues look like expectant mothers.

Somewhere along the way, the powerful feminist idea that having children was a choice disappeared into the trousseau chest.

Over in France, a similar fertility push, which has helped give that country the highest birthrate in Europe, has sparked something of a backlash in the form of a best-selling book by a writer and psychoanalyst (naturalement!) named Corinne Maier. Titled No Kid: 40 Reasons Not to Have Children, the book is part angry manifesto, part modest proposal urging adults—and above all women—to remain “without descendants.”

“No children, no thank you,” writes Ms. Maier, 43, in the conclusion of No Kid, which is currently being shopped to American publishers. “Women, the future of our country depends on you. The last freedom is to say, ‘I prefer not to.’”

Ms. Maier has caused quite a commotion in France, not the least because she already has two children of her own. (Talk about giving Junior a complex!) But No Kid has raised some valid questions, like, why are people so eager for women (particularly white, nonimmigrant women) to have babies these days? And why, when they do, does it have to be “the most beautiful thing in the world?”

“For women it’s compulsory, you have to be delighted,” Ms. Maier told The Observer in a phone conversation. “We have to work hard, be perfect and be ready,” she added, to sacrifice everything to raise the perfect child.

But back here, in radical old New York, there has been little public discussion among pre-pregnants of the rising pressure to procreate. In this age of “mom”-inism, where success is grand but motherhood is holy, women who declare they don’t want kids are considered self-haters or throwbacks.