Luckily for me, Madame Petulengro was wrong. But I think the assumption that all young girls aim to get married at some stage and have babies remains the same. I got away with turning my nose up at family life in my twenties because most of my friends agreed that it was uncool to rush into an intrinsically boring way of life. The ones who didn't served as a horrible warning to the rest of us - always too tired or too tied down with the kids to go out.
Then the tide turned against me. One summer I went to a different wedding every other weekend and I remember scowling under my hat at each new vicar talking about the sanctity of marriage and the joys of procreation. I did feel the odd one out. I was still resolutely single at 30, but I noticed that friends in couples and elderly relatives had started to inquire anxiously about my romantic prospects and I found that humiliating.
On a deeper level, I was not unambivalent in my views about children. Somewhere at the back of my mind was a barely audible voice whispering about the change of heart that a great love might bring. In fact I think I secretly hoped - in the way that perhaps some gay people hope that their sexuality was just some passing phase - that I would suddenly experience the irresistible maternal urge which people talk about, because then I would be normal like everybody else. There aren't many role models for women like me. I don't fit the stereotype of the hard-nosed career woman. I'm lucky enough to have interesting work I enjoy, but I would be very depressed if I thought life consisted solely in the journey towards material benefit. Which leaves me without a reason for not wanting children, other than hedonism.
About 18 months ago I met a friend I hadn't seen for a long time, who told me she was writing a book about women who didn't want to have children. I immediately offered to give her an interview, but as soon as I had said it I felt embarrassed, because my boyfriend was there and I realised I had never discussed the subject with him. It opened a can of worms; Simon comes from a big Catholic family and is very fond of children. I love him very much and for a while I toyed with the idea of having just one baby with him, but I know this would be the worst sort of half-hearted compromise and deeply unfair to the child. I have seen a couple of friends defer to their husbands in that way and both were resentful afterwards. I've also seen other friends start families because they didn't like their jobs any more.
Of course people love their children, but the relationship doesn't sound so rewarding from the outside. Friends with one child tell me how lucky I am to be able to spend a whole afternoon shopping if I want to; but they also say that their friends with two children make similar remarks to them. People don't openly acknowledge this train of envy. In some ways the pity I used to experience for being left on the shelf was easier to deal with than the covert hostility Isense from some mothers who seem to feel that the decision of people like me not to have children is an unspoken criticism of them. It's very painful to have to face up to losing Simon eventually because our visions of the future differ in this one crucial respect, but I don't think my position is one which many women would sympathise with.
I suspect that the pressure my own mother puts on me to "settle down" is rooted in the desire to see my life take a similar course to hers. She would say she only wants me to be happy, but the truth is, I am happy now in an unconventional way which she finds unacceptable. My brother and I were often a trial to our parents. We fought with each other constantly, and from the age of about 10 I had at least one argument with my mother every day until I left home. Having children is a risk: it is tantamount to letting a stranger into your home with an open-ended invitation to stay for 20 years.
It's easy to slip into family life without really deciding to do it. I've heard people say "We thought we'd better get it over with," or even that it was an accident. I'm with Freud on this one; there are no accidents. If you are careless with contraception, the decision will be made for you. In the middle of a lovely evening in a restaurant recently, a single friend said wistfully she was sure we would look back at this period of our lives as "the golden years". I wondered why she thought they would have to end.Reuse content