Sociological Notes: `For my mother it was so easy,' said Janet

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The Independent Culture
JANET'S MOTHER had followed the traditional path trodden by generations of young British women: school, a brief vocational training, marriage in her early twenties to a man who would invariably be some years older and more highly educated, two or three years of low-paid work, and then babies, who were considered to be a full-time job.

The pattern was ubiquitous - most of Janet's mother's schoolfriends followed suit, often staying in the area so that she had a familiar network of friends with a similar way of life. These days, however, the courting ritual has changed somewhat.

"For my mother it was so easy, so automatic," sighed Janet, a 36-year- old accountant. "She met my father at a Christmas dance in the local town hall. She was with her schoolfriends, all giggling girls of 17. My father was at university in Bristol, 40 miles away, but he was spending Christmas with his parents, doing a vacation job with the Post Office. He asked my mother for a dance and she liked him and was sorry he had to leave early - he had a late shift.

"They were too shy to suggest meeting again, but she saw him in the market two days later, when he was delivering letters and she was buying vegetables. He offered to carry her shopping and take her to a coffee bar and it took off from there."

Some time later they got engaged. They were married two years later in church by the rector, who knew both families well. Janet's parents had waited to marry until her father had left university and got his first job - as was the norm in those days. Her mother got two A levels, took a secretarial course, and worked in an office. She still lived at home, so she saved a little, which helped them to start out.

Thirty-eight years after Janet's parents married, her mother is as perplexed as her daughter about where Janet's life is leading. There is no doubt that Janet's mother is very proud of her daughter; she tells everybody about her clever daughter, a chartered accountant with a high-powered City job, a Knightsbridge flat, powerful car and gorgeous clothes. But, when it comes to mentioning boyfriends, Janet's mother tends to go fairly quiet.

"She hoped I'd settle down with one in my twenties. My brother married, at 28, a girl he met at a local college. But I went travelling in Asia before university in Scotland, and then a job in London where I worked incredibly hard. I was always exhausted: and I lost all my childhood friends."

Janet faces the problem which confronts thirty- something young women in the 1990s who would like to marry but cannot find a suitable man. Her situation is not improving, nor is it likely to unless she takes some conscious action.

She can start by avoiding men who fear commitment: she lived with one from the age of 31 to 34, initially as an exciting adventure, eventually accepting sadly that he would never marry her and have children. Her mother was immensely relieved when Janet left Henry, and grieved with her when six months later Henry married a spectacular-looking but vacuous blonde of 22.

"I used almost to despise my parents' set-up, it was so cosy and bourgeois," said Janet. "I thought they and their friends had such boring lives. I can do pretty much whatever I like - but I have nobody to share it all with. The men I meet are either colleagues - and you mustn't mix personal with professional - or married and wanting a fling, or serial daters, or gay, poor, wet or divorcing and petrified of taking the emotional and financial plunge again.

"Some have children, which is a complication. Others are frightened by an intelligent and successful woman - they want someone less daunting. My mother didn't have any of that. I quite envy her."

Penrose Halson is the author of `Happily Ever After - how to meet your match' (Pan, pounds 6.99)