Helen is typical of the new breed of would-be mums who prioritised their careers over family. She left Bristol University and was head-hunted by Goldman Sachs where, as a woman trader in the early Nineties, she was a rarity. Twelve-hour days were standard; routinely she began work at 6am.Kristina was also interviewed:
She married her husband Duncan, a freelance cameraman, when she was 30, and continued to work. "I did want a baby. But I was on this merry-go-round and I couldn’t get off," she recalls. I visualised a future with children but you bury your head in the sand and hope these things will sort themselves out. But they rarely do."
For Helen, the consequences of delaying motherhood were catastrophic. When she began a new job with a £200,000-a-year salary in the London office of a German bank, she worked even harder to warrant her huge earnings. But her stress levels soared commensurately. Finally, in 2001, aged 33, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with depression.
She then wanted to try for a baby, but her medication would have been harmful to an unborn child. Meanwhile, her marriage, stretched to breaking point by her illness, collapsed. It took six years before Helen stopped taking medication for depression and by then she was almost 40 and single.
For Kristina Howells, 40, studying became a substitute for the child she didn’t have. In her 20s, she was head of music at a school in Kent.Solutions? It seems that liberal culture has reached a point at which the message transmitted to women is that what ultimately matters is career: that this is the means to self-realisation.
‘It was the prime age for having babies, but work consumed me,’ she says. ‘When I wasn’t teaching, I was planning lessons, taking after-school activities; organising festivals and concerts. It was rewarding but stressful. I remember thinking, “I’m still very young. I can find the right man in my 30s.”
‘You think you’re invincible. Then I reached 30 and was almost panic-stricken. I had a career but no man to have children with, and I didn’t want to be a single mum.’
It makes sense that this message would be taken up more fervently by upper middle-class women, as these women have access to the higher status and higher earning professions.
It's not that these women have entirely rejected the idea of motherhood, but it is not actively pursued - it is something that is assumed will just happen of itself at some indefinite point of time in the future.
So the solution is, in part, for a more realistic view to be promoted within society: a view which recognises that women need to more actively pursue marriageable men in a timely way and to plan for family life whilst still in their 20s.
But even more than this, we need to tweak the culture, so that self-realisation is connected, at least in part, to marriage and motherhood, rather than exclusively to careers. And this is surely possible. We do fulfil ourselves in part in committed relationships with the opposite sex. And we do fulfil important aspects of our being as parents to children.
We have to resist, too, the idea that delaying motherhood until very late is a positive sign of a middle-class identity. The Daily Mail story is good in this regard: it points to the regret and loss and to the negative social consequences of middle-class women "forgetting" to have children.
On a more positive note, I do think there are signs that a younger generation of women are more determined to begin their families by about the age of 27. Hopefully that will start to show up in some of these social surveys.