NOT SO long ago, the girlfriend of one of my sons confided in me that what she really wanted – despite being a lawyer with a top firm in London – was to live in a cottage in the country and have lots of children.
She wanted to spend her days reading stories to them, making jam and chutney, having long walks in the middle of the day, and feel somehow that she was alive.
A short time later, she and my son split up. I was too tactful to ask why, but I’m sure my son, Will, 27, found her lack of ambition exasperating. After all, she came first in her exams at law school. What was the point of having a good brain if you give up at 25 to become a full-time mom? For Will, kids weren’t even on the agenda.
But despite my silence, all I wanted to do was ring the poor girlfriend to tell her I was with her every step of the way. I wanted to tell her that the life of the career-juggling modern woman was exhausting. Why should she quash her yearning to be an old-fashioned mother just because society – and, more importantly, my son – sniffed at it?
It seems she’s not alone. For while we hear much of “Have It All” young women, who foolishly ignore their biological clock to pursue their careers, how often do we hear about the young men who are even more reluctant to settle down and have babies?
Indeed, so opposed are these chaps to committing that I can’t help but feel that young women often keep their broodiness well hidden, playing at being independent career woman to avoid scaring them off. And when these women reveal their true intentions, their boyfriends bolt.
When I probed further, it seems that my fears are well-founded. Several of my five sons and many of their friends are among this group of baby-refuseniks.
Will and his brother Tom, 30, my eldest, are positively vituperative in their avoidance of a life filled with nappies. Well-educated, kind and polite they may be, but they’d do anything rather than settle down and have babies.
It’s all rather ironic, because the type of woman they’re rejecting is just the type of woman I was, a full-time mother, who had dipped her toe into the world of work, but turned away from it to devote herself to the running of a home.
Unlike Will’s broody ex-girlfriend, I had my first child at 23. And I can’t claim to have had a “career” at all, despite qualifying as a probation officer before I fell pregnant. Rather, I worked with young offenders whenever I could snatch the time and afford the childcare, which was pretty rarely.
I stopped work altogether after the birth of my third son in 1988. It had become apparent that work of any kind made no economic sense and I became a full-time mother – just the kind of life my sons seem so contemptuous of.
So last night I bated my breath and asked my three eldest sons, all older than 21, the following outright: If a young woman in her twenties wanted to get married, have children and give up work, would it put you off dating her?
Tom, as the eldest, probably the one who should be most immediately considering family life, baulked at the very question.
He’s been with his Spanish girlfriend, Estephania, for four years, and children aren’t even on their radar.
“I hate that word ‘marriage’,” he told me. “Marriage belongs to another era. I prefer the word ‘partnership’ because that’s what it should be, a partnership of equals right from the start. Both man and woman should contribute financially to the home, and both should do domestic work.
“What really annoys me is when the woman has children and somehow thinks it’s all right to skive and stay at home with them.
“The baby should be sent to a nursery as soon as possible and the woman should get back to work.
“Aren’t women supposed to have the same aspirations in their careers as men? Then they should prove it and not expect a whole year’s maternity leave. It’s scandalous!”
His brother, Will, an author, had an even more pragmatic view. Yes, he would be put off dating a woman sprinting towards marriage and children.
He’s written a book, The Romantic Economist, about the correlation between love and market forces, which, he says, shows the gulf between the sexes on this issue.
“When you’re 30 and you’re female, your biological clock is ticking loudly and you will settle for less than perfect. That decreases your value in the market place. Unfortunately, there are simply more of you about.
“But a man of 30 doesn’t even have to think of getting married. He’s still looking for his ideal.”
Will was clearly referring to himself. With no biological clock ticking, he’s taking his time to settle down. And while he is dating again, he declared that a family is not even on his horizon.
Thankfully, my middle son, Ben, 26, is more of a romantic. He is setting up a gallery with his partner of a year, Karina, 29.
“If you love someone, and they want children, even if it turns your life upside down, isn’t it worth it?” he said.
But Ben is very much the exception. His friends tease him remorselessly for being so in love.
“He’s not done his maths,” they tell me. “We can’t even look after ourselves, let alone a family. We’ve got student debts to pay off. Some of us are still living with our parents!”
One young man actively avoided women in their late twenties because he felt he would let them down and waste their time.
Another said: “If you like them enough you’ll swallow that bitter pill.”
How awful that the natural broodiness of a young woman in her prime could be seen like that.
No wonder young women today aren’t having babies as easily as my generation did.
Born in 1960, I was brought up to believe that being a good wife and mother was the best life could offer us. My mother would say to me: “To go to sleep in the arms of the man you love, to wake up at his side, to bring up children with him, this is what makes a life worth living.”
My boarding school reinforced that message. St Michael’s, in the Sussex Downs, has long since closed as it offered something no longer wanted by the middle classes: teaching girls our task in life was to be good wives and mothers.
The tragedy is that the new generation of men don’t want to support a wife and family. Why? Well, undoubtedly, there’s an element of herd mentality. Who wants to be the first stallion to be tied down, when you can bounce from relationship to relationship without feeling under any moral pressure to commit?
And there’s no doubt that young men will have an easier life if their female partner delays having children. Becoming more established on the career ladder means a greater income for her and less financial pressure on him. Young men today, as I discovered in my chats with my sons, expect and need a double income.
Of course, there’s some practicality to this. After all, house prices alone dictate that both partners need to be earning.
Let’s not forget that in the olden days, men and women could slip into their prescribed roles and not think too hard about it. Dad would go out to work, Mom would stay at home.
But in the wake of so much choice on how to arrange things comes real confusion. And so the romantic image of men who provide, hunter-gatherer-style, is one that clearly hasn’t taken root among my sons’ generation.
Perhaps it’s no wonder. For so long, women have insisted that they can be just like the boys. So can we really be surprised when our young men refuse to countenance treating their female partners differently from how they are treated themselves?
And yet, despite all this, I am still haunted by my son’s poor ex-girlfriend, with her longing for a gentle life, and her description of whole nights spent in the office working.
“Last year,” she told me, “there were about 30 of us at work on Christmas Day! And one of them was a mum with young children. Why would I want to get to the top of that slippery pole?”
Why indeed. What new mom really wants another woman to enjoy her baby’s first steps, words, songs? But until our young men accept the realities of a woman’s ticking biological clock, I fear young women will continue to be disappointed. – Daily Mail
• Olivia Fane is author of The Conversations: 66 Reasons To Start Talking (Vintage Books).