Dear Mariella

My friends and I are sin­gle, child­less – and run­ning out of time

The Observer Magazine - - Self & Wellbeing -  @mariel­laf1

‘You’d be amazed at what can be achieved be­fore you hit 40’

The dilemma Like me, most of my friends are in their 30s, some turn­ing 40. Those with part­ners and chil­dren have dis­ap­peared, other than post­ing their idyl­lic fam­ily life.

We’ve tried all of the dat­ing things, found no one and bi­o­log­i­cal clocks are tick­ing. One friend said her life is not worth liv­ing be­cause she hasn’t got a part­ner or a child. In the past I’d give ad­vice and en­cour­age­ment – sug­gest things might turn out all right in the end. There’s still time!

But now there’s ac­tu­ally not time. I can’t en­cour­age, be­cause life isn’t go­ing how we thought it would. We’re be­ing left be­hind and with­out the fi­nan­cial abil­ity (or hous­ing) to freeze eggs or go it alone, or adopt.

I get ha­rassed by some friends, al­most bul­ly­ing me into go­ing on dat­ing apps be­cause it worked for them. But I hated it – men were rude, un­kind and I felt phys­i­cally threat­ened. I found my­self de­spis­ing all men.

The idea that sin­gle peo­ple in their 30s are all hav­ing fun is a lie. We are the have-nots and we are sad. What now?

Mariella replies What a fas­ci­nat­ing dilemma. It’s rare to get cor­re­spon­dence that em­braces the big­ger pic­ture, be­yond the con­fines of press­ing per­sonal con­cerns, and this is, with­out doubt, a ma­jor so­cial is­sue of our time. I ex­pe­ri­enced the pass­ing of my 30s my­self with great re­lief, so pre­dom­i­nant were the is­sues you iden­tify. It’s star­tling to re­ceive your re­minder that in the 22 years since Brid­get Jones was pub­lished (and 30 since the orig­i­nal col­umn was con­ceived), life hasn’t changed much for women in their 30s. I’m not con­vinced that even mil­len­ni­als will have a rad­i­cally al­tered ex­pe­ri­ence of women’s still un­ten­able po­si­tion.

While He­len Field­ing’s book was dis­missed as “women’s writ­ing” (as though that should be an in­sult) at the time, it was a zeit­geist novel that summed up the state of the world for sad “sin­gle­tons”. Women were told they had equal­ity in a still wholly un­equal world. Now here you are, over two decades later, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the same old story. Truly so­ci­ety has not yet shapeshifted enough to fully in­te­grate us.

It’s hope­fully cheer­ing for you to know that for many of my gen­er­a­tion, de­spite our fears, it ac­tu­ally worked out. I’m not just re­fer­ring to those who found last-minute fathers for late chil­dren but also those who are now, for the most part, en­joy­ing ex­cit­ing, ful­filled 50s un­fet­tered by parental re­spon­si­bil­ity. For women for whom chil­dren are a pri­or­ity, you’d be amazed how much can be achieved in the few short years be­fore you hit 40. The am­pli­fied tick­ing of our bi­o­log­i­cal clocks seems to fo­cus minds and en­ergy on the sin­gle is­sue of moth­er­hood in a way that of­ten pro­duces re­sults. So many of my friends found part­ners and had chil­dren, as I did, around the age of 40. As a re­sult, my kids have grown up see­ing me not as a freak of late moth­er­hood, but a mem­ber of a small and steadily in­creas­ing mi­nor­ity of older mums.

Your let­ter con­firms what I’ve long sus­pected – that the seis­mic changes needed to make the world more bear­able for our sex aren’t hap­pen­ing fast enough or with enough fo­cus. Women are still pe­nalised for preg­nancy, bear the main bur­den of do­mes­tic life (so of­ten now com­bined with full-time work) and, de­spite in­creas­ing life­spans, have the same short win­dow in which so­ci­ety deems them to be fully con­tribut­ing mem­bers. I’m sorry you are sad and I’m an­gry, too. Our na­tion has spent my life­time hi­jacked by po­lit­i­cal par­ties squab­bling while is­sues that mat­ter – uni­ver­sal child­care, ed­u­ca­tion, the NHS, equal pay, pornog­ra­phy, and vi­o­lence to­wards women and chil­dren – have all been swept into a West­min­ster silo.

While the Brexit band­wagon rum­bles on, our coun­try is silently slip­ping back to the 20th cen­tury in terms of pro­duc­tiv­ity, in­fra­struc­ture, ed­u­ca­tion, health and so­cial jus­tice. Where are the fresh ideas to im­prove cit­i­zens’ lives? That may seem a di­gres­sion, but the rea­son you are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ex­actly the same frus­tra­tions as my gen­er­a­tion, is that time re­ally does seem to have stood still. It’s not Europe’s fault that our po­lit­i­cal classes ap­pear in­ca­pable of blue-sky think­ing and that this pur­ported brave new, in­de­pen­dent Bri­tain looks very much the same as it did in 1990.

There will, I firmly be­lieve, come a time when women’s lives truly are equal and break­throughs in med­i­cal sci­ence will be wel­comed in­stead of fu­elling hys­ter­i­cal head­lines about pen­sion­ers giv­ing birth. We ur­gently need cre­ative think­ing and col­lec­tive en­ergy to push us out of our present in­er­tia and force the change that will im­prove all our lives.

Small changes ini­ti­ate huge ones and step­ping be­yond your com­fort zone is an im­per­a­tive first step. I’m con­vinced that if you and your friends fo­cus fur­ther on shap­ing the world you want and worry less about what the fates will bring, your chances of ful­fil­ment and hap­pi­ness will soar. And, of course, un­fol­low all the smug mar­rieds on In­sta who, be­hind the scenes, are prob­a­bly ru­ing the day they shacked up as of­ten as you wish you could join them! ■

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