The best years of our lives?

According to a new survey, women in their thirties are happier, and richer and enjoy better sex than they ever dreamt of in their twenties. But just how accurate is this picture of a golden age? Five thirtysomethings talk frankly about their lives

FIONA STURGES

Freelance journalist, aged 30, lives in Brighton, Sussex

"This new survey of 1,000 women by handbag.com bears out what I've heard women in their thirties going on about over the last five years: how much better their lives are. 'I'm so much more comfortable in my own skin,' said one recently. Pah, I thought. You're only saying that to make yourself feel better now that your life is, like, totally over. But much as I hate to admit it, I'm beginning to realise what they were talking about. Despite the broken veins, the cottage-cheese effect thighs and the 'laughter lines' around my eyes, I've never been less concerned with my appearance. More importantly, I now couldn't care less how others see me.

"It's a myth that insecurity is a teenage affliction; fear of what other people thought plagued me well into my twenties. Now though, I'm at ease with my imperfections and sure of my opinions. Clearly, there are more choices for thirtysomething women - to reproduce or not, to have a relationship or be single, to pursue a career or stay at home. Yet there's an aspect of your twenties that can't be recaptured and that's the ability to change. In the past decade I've gone from being single to married, from barmaid to journalist, from tenant to home-owner. Now, my ideal night involves dinner in a nice restaurant; 10 years ago that money would have been far better spent on Class A drugs. I can feel myself settling down, getting set in my ways. Alarming as it is, I wouldn't have it any other way.

"While it's possible that I may never take acid, shop in Miss Selfridge or snog in public again, there are elements of my youth that I refuse to give up. My natural hair colour will never see the light of day - 'don't let the mouse out of the house' says my hairdresser - and I sincerely believe that I'll be listening to The Smiths when I'm 60. I like to think that flesh-coloured tights will always be a no-no and you can shoot me when I start shopping at Jaeger."

KIM STUART

Catering manager and mother of two, aged 34, lives in London

"From the age of 30 everything changed for me. The kids were at school and I could start a new career and take control of my life. I was a part-time social worker and decided that I wanted something different. I was working with children and having to deal with problems, which all seemed a bit of a burden. So I went to the Jobcentre and got a job as a general catering assistant and it all took off from there.

"Four years later and I'm a catering manager at the offices of a large media group. I used to think that everyone else had a life and I didn't. Now I think I'm part of society and moving with the times. I count. Sometimes I look back and I can't believe where I am now.

"I've got a lot more money now and it makes everything more relaxed. You can do more things as a family and there are fewer sacrifices. It's a relief not having to worry about money. Before I was dependent on my long-term partner and now I'm independent. I feel liberated not having to have to ask him for money. We used to live in a flat on an estate. Now we've got a three-bedroom house with a garden. I love it.

"When I was about 25 I got it into my head that I wanted to look like they do in the magazines and became a bit of fitness fanatic. When I hit my thirties I changed my outlook and now I think 'what you see is what you get'. I realise health is more important than my appearance. I still go to the gym but only when I feel like it.

"I've been with my partner for 18 years and sex is even better. I haven't got any inhibitions and today it's a case of anything goes. If you like it, you like it. In my twenties I think I was more shy and a bit embarrassed to talk about certain things. But now I'm more confident. If I don't like it, it doesn't happen again, end of story. And if I do like it, wayhey!"

LOUISE BARTON

Fire-control operator, aged 36, lives in Newark, Nottinghamshire

"I wasted the whole of my 29th year absolutely dreading turning 30 and when I finally did my whole attitude to life changed and I'm so much happier now. When I was in my twenties I would worry about all sorts of things, like whether I was overweight and what people thought of me. Now I just think 'this is me and if people don't like it, tough luck'. I no longer strive to live up to some sort of ideal which I could never achieve. You get things more into perspective. Life's much more comfortable when you're not worrying about things like that.

"Three months into my 30th year I met my husband-to-be and things got even better. We got married last year. I wasn't ready to be married before. I'm much more confident in my relationship with him than I would have been when I was younger. Sex has never been better.

"Now I'm a leading fire control operator I'm also earning a lot more money than I did before. I go on holidays abroad three times a year. When I was in my twenties I'd go once a year, and never abroad. I also lived in a flat and had to have lodgers because I couldn't afford the mortgage on my own. It wasn't ideal sharing my personal space; I was always looking forward to when I would have a home to myself. Now I live in a three-bedroom house with a garden and we've only got a year left on our mortgage, so there's going to be even more money to spare.

"As you get older you realise what's important in life. And it's not actually money or a career. It's relationships. I'm much more family orientated and we all get on so much better now, which I'm really pleased about. Life has never been better."

AMANDA ATTENBOROUGH

Mother of four, aged 36, lives in Wadhurst, East Sussex

"I really do think life is better in your thirties. I married at 21 and lived in London. We had a great time, but we worked so hard. I was a graphic-design account handler. We then moved out to the country. I stopped working, we had children and life just opened up.

"Every one of life's experiences is enriching and of course the older you are the more you experience. As you get older you continue to grow as a person, the more you read, the more people you meet, the more you learn about yourself and the more problems that you face in life.

"I'm a lot more grounded and a lot more energetic than I was in my twenties. I feel very liberated in my sex life and I don't worry about ageing.

"I know my skin has aged and bits are saggy that used not to be, but I just think so what? My mind is better than it was and I think I have so much more to give as a person than I did when I was younger. I like myself and accept myself more. I spent a lot of time in my twenties being a bit retrospective and thinking about things that I had done wrong and wishing that I hadn't. In my thirties I'm a lot more philosophical.

"There is more money around as my husband, who works in the City, has progressed in his career. I'm free to do the things that I want to and have the luxury of picking up my kids from school.

"I see lots of friends during the day and run a film society, bringing world cinema into a rural environment. And I cook a lot and I'm doing an Open University degree in English literature.

"We've got 12 acres, a vegetable patch and a flower garden. I lead a busy and diverse life. It couldn't be better. By the time you're in your thirties you've figured out what makes you happy."

JAYANTI VENKATESHWARAN

Sub-editor, aged 37, lives in London

"I do believe that life begins at 30 because you tend to grow into yourself. You know what you like and what you dislike. When you are younger you are still experimenting and trying to figure out what it is that you want.

"I know the kind of compromises I'm not willing to make in terms of my life, my career and my relationships with my parents and my sister. And my relationships have improved. When you are younger, older people tend to think that you haven't yet got the life experience to mean what you say. Your ideas are taken more seriously as you get older in Asian families.

"I got married when I was 26 and as we've grown we've worked out the compromises that needed to be made, the things that you are willing to accept and not accept and how to sort out differences you might have.

"When you are younger the relationship is new and it takes a little more effort as you both figure out how not to wind up your partner. As far as sex is concerned it's more of a case of knowing what you like and not having trouble expressing it.

"The longer you work in your profession the more comfortable you become and it becomes easier. We've got more in the bank too. Most times you can buy what you want. When we go on holiday we can stay in a fairly nice hotel, which wouldn't have been possible when we were younger.

"And I find that life is much more enjoyable because I'm more comfortable with myself. I like myself."

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