London - Jennifer De Gray Birch looked every inch the glamorous bride. If a teenage girl had imagined a fantasy wedding, it might well have been Jennifer’s. She wore a floor-length strapless designer gown in pale grey silk dotted with crystal clusters, and carried a bouquet of pink peonies and roses.
Her groom – dark, handsome and clearly a man in love – stood adoringly at her side, and the vintage car which ferried the newlyweds to their intimate wedding breakfast was festooned with flowers.
But perhaps best of all, Jennifer’s father was there to walk her up the aisle. Beaming from ear to ear, he could not hide his delight. After decades of wondering if this day would ever come, his daughter was finally getting married… at 40.
Now, 40 might sound a little mature to be dressing up as a blushing bride but it’s not that unusual these days. According to a recent survey in Britain, the age at which women marry for the first time has been steadily climbing. In fact, the number getting married for the first time in their late 30s and 40s has almost doubled in the past decade.
And, despite their age, many are opting for the big white wedding they dreamed of as a little girl.
Jennifer, a 42-year-old babywear designer who lives in Billericay, Essex, with husband James, 30, and their 18-month-old son Sebastien, says she always hoped she’d get married and have a family one day – but admits it was never her intention to tie the knot quite so late in life.
“My parents have been together for almost 50 years now, they married in their 20s, and they’re a great example of a happily married couple. They still hold hands when they’re out and about.”
Jennifer did come close to settling down a couple of times before she met James, an engineer, but as serious as those other relationships were, none of them resulted in marriage: “I didn’t really have a meaningful, long-term relationship until I was almost 30,” she says.
“Before that I was much too busy enjoying myself. Although many school friends got married and started having children in their early 20s, I just didn’t feel the urge to do the same.”
Relationship coach Jo Dale, founder of the Dear Mrs Herbert website, which specialises in helping “smart, professional women get confident and find love”, says Jennifer’s romantic history is typical of many women.
Jo says: “These women don’t deliberately put marriage and children on the back-burner when they start their working lives, it just happens. An exciting career can be all-absorbing and the years just fly by.”
As she sailed through her 30s, Jennifer says the pressure to marry and have children became greater. “Friends I’d been living the single life with suddenly started settling down and having babies, and that made me think about marriage.
“I remember going to visit one of my oldest friends just after she’d had her daughter and noticing how similar her daughter looked to my friend as a child. It was a poignant moment. Time was moving on and I realised I really wanted to be part of the natural cycle of things, too.”
But even when Jennifer became involved in a steady, live-in relationship at 33 with an old acquaintance, she says something still stopped her making that ultimate commitment. “We’d been together for a couple of years, when he handed me a glass of champagne in a restaurant, with an amazing diamond-and-platinum engagement ring in it.
“There’s no doubt he was a lovely person but I knew deep down he wasn’t ‘the one’ for me.”
As any single woman knows, decent, kind, solvent men don’t come round very often. So could it be that Jennifer struggled to settle down because she was just being a bit too picky for her own good?
A psychologist who specialises in relationship issues, Mairead Molloy, says another reason many women stay single for longer these days is that they often have unrealistic expectations about relationships: “We’ve become a society of perfectionists. In the past we were happy to fall in love, get married and then do our best with that relationship, for better or for worse.
“These days, women will complain that they can’t meet anyone, then tell me in the next breath that a man has to be the right height, have the right hair colour, the right job, the right car, almost the right DNA before he can even be considered for a date.”
Jennifer disagrees: “I don’t think I was being unreasonably picky. Although I knew I really wanted children, and I was heading for 40, I was always determined I wouldn’t marry someone just to have a family.
“I wanted to meet my soulmate.”
When Jennifer eventually met James through mutual friends, just before her 40th birthday, things moved very quickly.
“I flew out to Ibiza to celebrate my birthday with some girlfriends in September 2009 and James flew out to join us for a few days,” she recalls. “We fell in love on that trip.
“I remember him saying that if we still felt the same way about each other in three months’ time we should get married – and that’s what happened. He proposed in the December and I said yes.
“Although I had a few reservations about the age gap at first, they soon disappeared. I just found I wanted to be with him all the time.
“I came off the Pill straight away as I thought it could be a year or two before I’d get pregnant – but to our surprise I fell pregnant immediately. We were both thrilled.
“Our wedding was quickly organised for the end of May 2010 because we wanted to be married when Sebastien was born.”
Jennifer chose to be married before her son was born, but it’s not unusual for women to have a family without tying the knot these days. That lack of pressure to get married, Dale says, also contributes to women leaving marriage until later.
“Not that long ago, a woman risked being labelled a spinster – pitied, even – if she was still single at 30. It was a scandal to have a child outside marriage. But, quite rightly, that simply isn’t the case now.”
When 45-year-old novelist Ali Knight finally walked down the aisle this year, she’d already been with her fiancé Stephen, 40, for a decade and has three children with him – Joseph, nine, Luke, seven, and three-year-old Isabel.
The children walked her down the aisle before a double-decker bus took them and their guests back to their favourite pub for a five-course Italian lunch for 85 people.
“Of course, there were lots of comments and ribbing from people about how it was about time we got married,” says Ali.
“But everyone was thrilled for us. The day couldn’t have been more perfect.”
So what led Ali, previously a self-confessed marriage-sceptic, down the aisle?
“I got pregnant accidentally when I was 35, just two months after meeting Stephen,” she confesses.
“Once we established we were both keen to go ahead though, things moved at breakneck speed. We moved in together and only ever had the vaguest of discussions about marriage.
“I’ve always been fiercely independent, so the idea of getting married made me panic – Stephen just shrugged. Like many co-habiting couples today, we just told everyone it was something we’d do later.”
Two more children followed and the couple found the time and money needed to organise a wedding were in short supply.
“But a turning point came when Luke was in hospital with suspected meningitis,” says Ali.
“The nurses couldn’t find me to comfort him because our surnames were different. I realised I was fed up with having a different surname to the rest of her family and not knowing how to introduce Stephen in public. I wanted to call him my husband. I guess I’ve grown up.”
Relationship psychologist Molloy says the creeping realisation that we’re not getting any younger can help to push dyed-in-the-wool singletons to settle down. She also believes the current economic troubles are a catalyst for the marriage boom among mid-lifers.
“The recession has left everyone feeling a little insecure,” she says. “It’s quite natural to hanker after the comfort and security that marriage can bring. When times get tough, there’s always a return to traditional values.”
Financial security was certainly one of the reasons Clare Baker, 48, and her husband Stuart, 42, decided to marry four years ago.
“I was exceptionally shy as a child, so boys didn’t really appear on my radar until I started working in the local bank when I was 17,” Clare says. “Even then, I had no confidence with the opposite sex, I’d just cling on to the wall and get tongue-tied. No one ever asked me out in my teens and 20s.”
Overweight and painfully shy, Clare remained dateless until her best friend got married in her mid-30s.
“That was a huge turning point for me. I remember struggling to find an outfit to wear to her wedding.
“It was awful – I felt fat and miserable. I realised then that I really regretted not making more of an effort to settle down and have a family myself earlier in my life.”
So Clare joined a slimming club, lost 19kg and moved out of her parents’ home aged 39.
“I suddenly became a much more independent and outgoing person,” she says. “I started to enjoy life – and enjoy being single. I even went on a few dates, although none of them became serious.”
But a debilitating bout of ME soon after she turned 40 meant the new, independent Clare could work only part-time. She was struggling to pay her bills when she met Stuart in 2003 through an online dating site.
“Stuart was my knight in shining armour, really,” says Clare. “He helped me pay off my debts, suggested I sold my flat – and we moved in together. As much as it was romantic, it also made financial sense for us to pool our resources.”
Five months after they met, Stuart proposed and the couple married five years later.
“My life has changed beyond all recognition now,” says Clare. “Stuart’s eight-year old daughter, Scarlett, has come to live with us recently so not only have I become a wife in my 40s, but a mom as well.”
But it seems that despite these women’s happy, new-found marital status, old, independent habits still die hard.
Ali Knight admits she still has her own bank account and Jennifer De Gray Birch still uses her maiden name at work. Clare Baker says she’s found it hard to let go of the final strands of her single self, too.
“We’ve been married for four years, but it’s taken me a very long time to change all my documentation over to my married name,” she says.
“My passport – which is still in my maiden name – feels as if it is the last remaining vestige of the old me. I love being married, but it’s hard to believe that once it expires next year, I really will be Mrs Baker - in every aspect of my life.” – Daily Mail