Eleanor Mills is a 39-year-old Englishwoman. She belongs to my generation, the one which arguably suffered most when it came to family formation.
The problem is that the women of my generation were brought up to value autonomy above all else. This meant pursuing an independent girl lifestyle right through their 20s. The emphasis was on careers, casual relationships, travel and partying. Marriage and children weren't rejected outright but were deferred indefinitely - they were well down on the checklist of things to do.
By the time these women were ready to marry and have children a lot of men had either opted out, grown resentful, adapted to a player lifestyle or married foreign women. Some women did manage to marry late in life and have a child or maybe even two, but many missed out.
Eleanor Mills tells much the same story from the female point of view. This, for instance, is the relationship history of one of her close friends:
There was nothing physically wrong with my friend. But romantically it just never happened for her.
She is an attractive woman and always had lots of offers — but there was always some kind of complication. As her 40th birthday came and went, it seemed motherhood was going to pass her by.
“The anguish of that was terrible,” she says now. “If I hadn’t had kids I would probably have turned into an alcoholic. I spent many nights looking into that abyss. I really don’t know if I could have coped with being childless: I’d always thought I would be a mum.”
What changed? “I got real. I always thought I wanted an exotic man who would open up a whole new kind of life for me. But then, having lived abroad, I realised I had the life I wanted already. So I found a nice man who wanted kids — the kind I had always avoided before — and it all worked out. Hooray.” Now, aged 44, she has two children.
She rejected many offers from family oriented men when she was young. It wasn't until she was 40 that she "got real" and finally accepted one - despite the fact that being married and having children was the most important thing to her.
I think she was lucky - very lucky - that a man would choose her at age 40 when there were other more youthful women to choose from. She was one of the fortunate ones to still get the husband and kids - but in a desperate, last minute kind of way.
Eleanor Mills is aware of the loss created by the deferral of marriage, particularly amongst professional women of her generation:
This isn’t just about me. One in five females of my generation will never have children; and the Office for National Statistics reports that the more successful you are professionally, the less likely you are to breed. When I look at the women I know who at 40 are single and childless and don’t want to be, my heart aches for them. It is never the ones you’d expect. Many of my singleton friends are at the particularly attractive end of the spectrum; if you’d met them at 20, at university, and been told that at 40 they’d be — unwillingly — alone, you never would have believed it.
How does Eleanor Mills explain the situation? She rightly rejects the idea that it was just a case of women being too fussy:
I don’t think my single friends are on their own because they are too picky. I think it is because as a generation we were bred not to prioritise finding a husband and having a family. Unlike generations of females before us, we were bred to work. I was born in 1970, in the middle of women’s lib. My mother and her peers were conscious-raising and feminist ...
No one, not my family or my teachers, ever said, “Oh yes, and by the way you might want to be a wife and mother too.” They were so determined we would follow a new, egalitarian, modern path that the historic ambitions of generations of women — to get married and raise a family — were intentionally airbrushed from their vision of our future.
So, like the good girls we are, we set about achieving. The friends I am talking about here were my peers at school and university. Many succeeded beyond their feminist mothers’ wildest dreams.
But a career is not the same as family:
But now, and often too late, we are realising that no job will ever love you back; that the graveyards are full of important executives; that the only people you are ever irreplaceable to are your family.
As they stare into a barren future, many singletons wish they’d put some of the focus and drive that has furnished them with sparkling careers, worn-out passports and glamorous social lives into the more mundane business of having a family ...
If you want a family, that has to be a priority. My friends and I just assumed the right man would appear at some point.
It's interesting too that it's not just the men of my generation who feel let down in their efforts to form a family. According to Eleanor Mills, there are women who feel the same way:
At dinner with girlfriends the other night, the feeling was we’d been let down. That society, by leaving us to fend for ourselves and offering no guidance or advice on the crucial subject of finding a mate, had failed us. After all, throughout history, pairing off the next generation has been a key function of most societies, from Jane Austen’s balls to Indian arranged marriages.
She is hopeful that the younger generation has learned from the mistakes of those now in their 40s:
A fortnight ago I went to a wedding: the groom was my brother Theo. He is 29, his bride (who is pregnant) is 28. “You’re so young!” I yelped. Not really, they replied. Nearly all their friends are already married. Last week the Marriage and Wedding Survey of 2,000 women across the UK in their twenties found the ideal age for marriage has lowered to 26, with a first child at 27 (a decade ago it was early thirties). Perhaps the spectre of being a Bridget Jones-style singleton has focused their minds on getting hitched earlier; it is a positive shift.
I think it's honourable that women like Eleanor Mills are willing to warn the younger generation of women of the mistakes made by her own - and that she feels genuine sympathy for those women who have ended up unwillingly childless and unmarried.
The one thing still missing is a sense of regret for how the men of her generation were treated.