How did we get here, then?

A generation ago, the profile of the average 40-year-old woman was not hard to draw. Today things are much less predictable. Sally Williams looks at the very different worlds of three baby-boomers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A typical 40-year-old woman a generation ago would be married, would have two teenage children and would possibly have a part-time job. If she worked full-time when she married, she would probably have given up her job to look after her children.

A typical 40-year old woman today is much harder to characterise. She may be married, cohabiting or happily single; she may be a grandmother or a first-time mother, a seasoned career woman or only now collecting her first pay packet.

The birth of the teenager, the growth of feminism, improved health care and widely available contraception has changed expectations of marriage, children and work and altered the pattern of family life. Couples now settle down later, if at all (twice as many people live alone compared with 30 years ago, according to a recent study by Mintel); they don't necessarily get married; they are more likely to get divorced; they have children later (the number of first-time mothers over 35 has risen from 9,000 in 1953 to 15,000 in 1993); and they may even decide not to have children at all (according to the British Organisation of Non Parents, increasing numbers of women are choosing to remain happily childless).

The first generation of women to benefit from the social revolution and to challenge traditional ideas of family life were the post-war baby boomers, women now in or approaching their 40s. While some from this ground-breaking generation may be following a similar path to their mothers', there are many whose lives are radically different, not only from their mothers', but also from each other's.

'I've lived for myself for 20 years. The next 20 will be devoted to Bill and Megan'

Isabelle Davies, 40, freelance stage manager, is married to Bill, a freelance engineer. Their first child, Megan, was born in January. They live in North London.

"Twelve months ago none of this - the house, the marriage or the baby - were here. I started working as a stage manager aged 19, and spent the next 20 years careering around the world with all sorts of unsuitable boyfriends. My own family is very conventional. My mother was a physiotherapist, gave that up when she married Dad, aged 20, had my brother and me in her early 20s, and then devoted herself to her family. I don't think she felt frustrated. It was what women of her generation did. We all saw her role as being very valid.

I'd known Bill for years; we had pizzas, went to rock concerts, but he wasn't right. Then, a couple of years ago, I thought, "Let's give it a whirl". I was approaching 40, and apart from a lot of very good friends, had very little to show for my life. That sounds very casual, but we did fall into it. The decision to have a baby was not so much "Let's got for it", but "Let's stop trying to stop it". We got married because I wanted the commitment. I was giving up an awful lot of my flat, my freedom, my plans. I had decided to give up stage management - it's a young person's profession - find a niche in South Wales and become an eccentric aunt. Not having children didn't bother me. A lot of my friends are single and childless.

Bill and Megan are the best things that have happened to me, but they wouldn't have been right any sooner. I needed to live out my wild side. I've lived for myself for 20 years; the next 20 will be devoted to Bill and Megan. My mother did it the other way around. I do worry about the future, about being financially dependent for the first time ever and about the responsibilities of being a wife and mother, but I don't think I'll feel that decrepit waiting at the school gates. I've met lots of older mothers.

If I'd lived in my parents' time, I would have conformed, I would have got married and had children when everyone else did. I'm not that eccentric."

'I love children. I've always worked, but only because I had to. The children come first'

Di Lewis, 42, database controller, has two children, Deborah, 23, and Russell, 20, and one two-year old granddaughter, Paige, from her daughter. She is divorced and lives with her new partner, John, in Surrey.

"I got married at 19 and had Deborah soon after. Both my children were accidents. My husband didn't want any - he is from a family of six- but I love children. I've always worked, but only because I had to. The children have always come first. I'm not at all career-minded.

I got divorced four years ago. My mother was separated from my father. Neither wanted to get divorced. It was frowned on. So, she lived alone and he paid her money every week and they plodded on. Mum was a plodder. Anything for a quiet life. I think that was quite typical of lots of women in those days. She got very lonely.

I have very good friends. One in particular is very close. First, my husband left for another woman and then Deborah and Russell left home and I felt very lost, but she helped me through it.

Now I'm a changed person. I am much stronger and much more confident at 42 than I ever was at 22 or 32. My husband took that away. He put me down a lot. I wanted to fly and he'd say: "You can't fly. You suffer from claustrophobia". I wanted to learn to drive. "You can't drive", he'd say. Since he left, I've bought my own house, decorated it and learnt how to drive. It's me now. I'm on top. First, it was my husband, then my children and I came last. Now it's me.

I have a live-in partner now, and a very equal relationship. I'm not dependent on him, not for one thing. He asked me to marry him. But there's too much to lose. Being married would make me feel that I was going back again."

'In my mother's time, I would have been more of a social outcast'

Pam Wainwright, 40, is head of geography at a girls' school. She lives alone, is happily childless and "shares" a married man with another woman.

"I've never had any great desire to have children. I cannot understand what it is about a baby that makes a perfectly sane person go completely pathetic. My partner has two grown-up sons. We've been together for five years, but we don't live together.

He lives with another woman. If she doesn't know about us, she must be incredibly stupid, but he has never openly told her. I see him two or three times a week. In between times I can do as I like.

It suits me well. In some respects my life is selfish, but I have responsibilities to my family and to all the children I teach.

I don't regard my set-up as being that unconventional. Being a mistress isn't that unusual today. In my mother's time I would have been more of a social outcast. It was certainly harder not to have children. As a child, one of our neighbours was childless. Everyone felt sorry for her, but who knows, maybe she didn't want children. My mum was a war widow and my father was her second husband. She had two miscarriages with her first husband and another after me. She gave up trying after that.

Ever since I gave my granny spelling tests at the age of four, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My mother worked in an office until she got married and then gave it up. She was no academic, but she wasn't stupid. She would have done more if she'd had the opportunity. She had to leave school at 14. I'm really glad women have more choice now. Teaching has been everything to me. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been able to do it."