The seven ages of love: 30s

It's a Saturday afternoon and I've been cleaning the kitchen listening to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero". "Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods? Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?" My lodger comes in and purses his lips, Mrs Danvers style. He's getting a little fed up of playing the gay best friend. I turn off the music with suitable shame. "You don't need a hero, Joy. You need a nice boy who wears Converse boots and listens to music," says my lodger. "Is it really that difficult?"

Poor man. He has to sit through me coming in late in the evening, and very occasionally early in the morning, with another tale about the latest object of my affections, each a little more inappropriate than the next. The hopeless compulsive liar who couldn't remember whether he was married or separated, the cad who always had three women on the go, the boxer who made up for missing brain cells with a perfect six-pack.

Is it really that difficult? If convention is to be believed, thirtysomething singleton women are out to find a good husband, have a couple of children and put boxes of pansies out on the window sill. A tick-box list of things that add up to happiness. With 40 as the next milestone, surely this is the decade to aim for it.

I had been married for a couple of years in my twenties and had a child and, when I stumbled out of my little nuclear family on the cusp of 30, I expected all my friends to be chasing what I had abandoned. True, a few had managed to find a decent man with whom to move in, begin the breeding cycle and learn the arcane language of Ofsted reports and baby buggy specifications. They had found the easy security of lives mapped out by mortgage payments and childhood development stages.

However, there were also a number of friends who just hadn't joined in, and several years later are still showing no signs of domesticity. There's nothing wrong with them. They are a clever and witty bunch, well-educated Londoners with incomes good enough to support their shoe-buying habits, who have grown more confident and so more beautiful in their thirties. My little gang is never short of a date. But if finding the perfect partner is just a numbers game, the dice seem to be loaded against nuptials.

Shortly after turning 32, my friend Henny told me it had dawned on her that she could have taken her mother's advice to heart and just "settled for someone". By now she could be in a happy relationship, planting her garden and kneading dough in a rehearsal for motherhood. But that hasn't happened and she reckons it's because she still isn't ready for a husband or proper partner and may never be. It wasn't the men who were dithering and failing to commit. It was Henny.

Another friend, Rosie, hit her mid-thirties and found her search for her husband to be hollow. The trouble, Rosie told me, was that she was already happy, with a good job in television, her own flat, a steady supply of box sets for quiet evenings in and more than enough men offering to take her out for supper. "It's a big deal to change all that or give it all up to find the space to accommodate a man who is probably also pretty settled in his own life," said Rosie.

When we were growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, the message ringing out was that "We could have it all". The husband, the children and the full-time job was what could be expected. That soon enough got muddied by the counter argument that women couldn't have it all without the family suffering. For my clique of London friends, I am beginning to wonder if they don't actually want it all. And by that, it's the husband and children that have become the option, not the job.

That doesn't mean affairs of the heart don't dominate our conversations. My inbox is full of e-mails from friends who want me to double-check their close textual analysis of billets-doux for signs of ardour, lies, or worst of all utter ambivalence on behalf of the man in question. But when it comes to marriage and babies, their absence isn't a mark of failure.

It's a recipe for regrets, my older friends say, and threat of a childless existence is waved at us. I don't have to face the sharp edge of this, already having a daughter. But my friends are not exhibiting much envy. Two happily admit that they have no interest in children, a couple more say they would rather hang on a little longer to find the right man and take their chances with their biological clock. One friend of mine, Sonja, has found herself a great guy but now is stumbling on the children issue. What she has said to me and I hope to him is that the idea of a nuclear family nappies, semi-detached houses and couples' dinner parties terrifies her. She enjoys her messy, urban family of friends and housemates, and when she has to let that go it will be a sacrifice.

Meanwhile, the rest of us carry on in the whirlwind of dates. There are some tears shed along the way, and Bonnie Tyler's other embarrassing hit, "It's A Heartache", occasionally surfaces on my iPod. But were it not for all these women throwing themselves into the path of unsuitable men, our little world would not be filled with glorious new avenues. Had everybody been happily married, I would not have the friend who had a fling with a butcher and can now instruct me on all aspects of meat (with some good innuendos thrown in), or the other who had an affair with a lecturer in the Great American Novel, which has broadened all our reading horizons. The next drinks I've got lined up are with a chocolatier. "What is your thinking on violet and rose crmes?" he asked in an email. Now there's a chat-up line I never heard in my twenties.

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