In the third part of our series on the five ages of women, Fiona Malcolm discusses the biggest choice our mothers never had - yes or no to babies?
It's never the right time to have a baby. This old cliche has tripped off the tongues of successive generations. Before women had a method of contraception they could rely on, it was meted out as consolation for a common scenario: starting family life in one room with a cold tap on the landing.

Nowadays, with pregnancies planned as meticulously as career stages and pensions, the phrase may be used as a mild form of bullying, an encouragement to those who, thanks to widely publicised statistics, know that having children can seriously damage your lifestyle.

Choice creates dilemmas and the baby question is one of the big, life- changing ones which has grown and grown since Marie Stopes first began promoting "voluntary and joyous motherhood" early this century. "Women who are really sure about not wanting children tend to make that decision quite early and feel quite happy and clear about it," says Ruthie Smith, a psychotherapist at the Women's Therapy Centre. "In the past, women who felt total antipathy towards becoming mothers were unable to voice their feelings and were cajoled into going through the entire process. At least they now have the option of remaining childless, but I see a lot of others for whom the issue becomes agonising during their late thirties.

"It's rarely as simple as deciding that the time is right. A lot of the dilemma centres on partners and just how much support they might or might not get from them. A woman who desperately wants a child may go on putting off the issue because she can't find the right partner. Thirty years ago, there was an assumption that even if the relationship was not ideal, a man would stick around to support his family, but there is no such feeling of security now. Many women feel their relationships are too fragile to survive the strain of bringing up a family."

The Eighties study carried out by the research organisation One Plus One followed couples for the first five years of marriage, by which time two-thirds had become parents. Many of the women interviewed felt dismay at the way in which the arrival of the first baby changed their view of the world and their position in it.

"Having embarked on married life as equals, they expected that parenthood could be similarly tackled and felt let down when their husbands did not volunteer for the same range of duties," says Sharon Breen of One Plus One.

Since the Seventies, women have been politicised by this chain of events. They may often have regretted their liaisons, but rarely their progeny. An unhelpful husband is not enough to quell the maternal drive, which lives somewhere quite separate from the brain and does not respond to rational argument.

"It's what we're for, isn't it?" says the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, who bore seven children. Two died, and she has written eloquently about her grief. "I've seen friends driven mad with sorrow because they could not conceive. I had four under five at one point. My husband [the late Colin Duckworth] was out of work and the house was being rebuilt, but I wouldn't have been without any of them. I went about with a child on one hip for years; I was never not tired, but I coped."

Nor was it a period, she says, during which she lost her sense of herself as an individual. "I found it a very creative time. When they were very little I painted and made their clothes and managed to read a lot. When they got older, I started to write. Of course, bringing them up involved a huge amount of work, and teenagers are a nightmare, but if you get it more or less right, what you end up with are the most delightful friends and, as an added bonus, lovely sons- and daughters-in-law. I love all of mine. I never weighed up the pros and cons of having children. I certainly didn't plan them. I think you must just get on with it."

Getting on with, putting up with and making do, all smack of sacrifice, not an easy concept for women in their thirties who matured during the Thatcher regime. Those who weathered the recession are holding on to what they can, trying to pay their mortgages and renew their short-term contracts. For women who now take it for granted that they can prolong their fertility, the idea of an extended period of Marmite sandwiches in the coir carpeting and Lego in the VCR takes some pondering.

Asda's widely covered report What Price A Child, published earlier this year, didn't help. It contains figures frightening enough to send obstetricians scurrying for the dole queue. The average cost of getting a first child through the first five years is pounds 20,000. By the time they have been put through some sort of further education, expect the cost to have soared to pounds 100,000.

Few parents count the cost (and, anyway, the total need not be anything like as high as that), but the increase in the numbers of women of reproductive age remaining childless (one in five today compared with one in ten in their mothers' generation) has risen sharply enough to spark a major survey on childlessness in this country, conducted by the Family Policy Study Centre with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

"The survey draws from a wide social spectrum, so that women with varying levels of education and training were interviewed," says Ceridwen Roberts, director of the Centre. "The assumption so far has been that voluntary childlessness is a feature of professional, highly educated women. It will be interesting to see how true that is." The results, which are strictly under wraps until next spring, are bound to make a major contribution to the debate.

Next week: post-natal sex

`Each child has given me a different sort of joy'

Jane Chick, 35, has five children under the age of 10: Sophie, nine, Emily, seven, Toby, six, Lottie, four, and Anya, two.

Ihave always wanted a large family. I had a demanding job in shipping, using my skills in German, before I got married, but I always saw it as a way of filling in time before the really important work of bringing up children started. We tried for two years before I became pregnant for the first time, and ended up having to endure endless tests. My husband's sperm count was almost zero and I had to have cysts removed from an ovary, so the doctors painted a gloomy picture for us. We were both devastated at the prospect of not being able to have children, but got on with life and bought a wreck of a house. Within two months of moving in, I was pregnant with Sophie. She seemed extra-special, a miracle baby. I remember feeling a sadness when she was a week old because I knew that no period in the future could be as special as that first week with a first baby. Her smell, her tininess; it was a time of pure joy.

After such a struggle to have the first, it seemed ironic that I became pregnant with Emily five months later, while I was still breast-feeding. We were just as thrilled. I worried slightly that I wouldn't have enough love to go round, but I've gone on loving them all equally as they've come along.

My husband wanted seven, but we decided to stop at five because one of the advantages of having them all in seven years is that there are no big gaps. I don't want the older ones to miss out because there is always a baby around with different needs. As it is, they can enjoy the same things. I did also find being pregnant the fifth time very hard work.

I've fed all of them myself. Sometimes I do feel that I've either been pregnant or feeding for about 30 years, but I love having them so close together. Some people react with horror when they see us all out together because there are so few big families these days. Occasionally someone comes up and says, `Tell me they're not all yours.'

One of the best aspects of the whole thing is how well they get on together, playing their games, the bigger ones helping with the little ones without being asked. It's what I wanted. I feel a great sense of achievement when we all sit round the table together for a meal and they make each other giggle.

We manage to get away now and again but after the first night, I want to come home. I want to wake up with all the little bodies in bed with me, all such different characters. I've got a confident eldest, a quiet second, a boy who makes more noise than the four girls put together, another one who gets out of bed in the night to look at the stars and the moon - each child gives me a different sort of joy.

I've had four of them go down with chickenpox at fortnightly intervals. Two have had bad asthma and have had to go into hospital, and the baby broke her arm recently, but episodes like that are inevitable. It's the only time I don't perform well, if they're ill and I can't make them better. That's when I need support. All the other problems I can deal with, and they've always been good at night. The younger ones are in bed by six and the others by seven, so we have the evenings to ourselves.

I want them to have wonderful memories and I get my fulfilment from providing them with as good a childhood as possible. We're lucky enough to have a nice house and some land in a lovely part of the world, near the coast. We've got chickens, cats and guinea pigs, as well as a large black sow who has just had ten piglets, and we're giving a retirement home to a pony soon, so I hope we've got it right. I'll feel sad when they're all at school full time. The last nine years have been a time of great happiness. FM

`I thought, if I were sterilised, that issue would be taken away'

Liz Davies, 43, is manager of a Marie Stopes clinic in Essex. She was sterilised at the age of 30. Her second husband, Bill Taylor, is a police officer.

I never wanted children. I'd known that from my teens - I had a termination when I was 17. I just thought, no, this isn't for me. I used to be a nurse, and I can remember doing my obstetrics bit and everybody was telling me how wonderful it was to see a baby being born. I went into the delivery room expecting to be moved greatly and I actually thought the whole thing was quite disgusting. Truly revolting.

I don't really like having them around me very much. Nobody would ever ask me to babysit - I'm not that comfortable with children, especially ones I don't know. But all my friends have always respected my choice. I've known people in the past who've acted very surprised - "Oh, you're not a real woman, you're not totally fulfilled." I just think that's nonsense. When you go to buy a house it's, "Oh, you're feathering the nest.' Or, `You'll feel differently when you have your own." And I say, "Well I'm not going to have any so I'll never know." And they just can't comprehend it. They think a woman is put on this earth to procreate and breed.

Both my husbands had been married before and had children. Becoming a stepmother was very awkward in my first marriage. I had contact with them, but it was always very uncomfortable. Fortunately, I've never met my current husband's children. They live with their mother and he's not in close contact with them.

I was on the Pill for about 12 years. I had no problems with it and I liked not having periods. But when I got to my late twenties, it did strike me that if I met somebody and they wanted children, it would become an issue. I had a very brief attachment and we talked about getting married, then all of a sudden his mother started going on at great length about grandchildren. And I thought then, no way, this is going to be a hassle. I thought, if I were sterilised, that issue would be taken away. Then the man would have to make a decision. Either he loves and respects me enough not to have children or he has to find somebody else. The ball would be in his court. I met my present husband about a year after that. He was going through a divorce and had had a vasectomy. So there was no problem.

After the operation I felt discomfort for a few days, but basically I was relieved. Then I started to get terrible migraines; I used to be really ill each month. In the end I thought, I can't bear this any more. I went to a gynaecologist and had the whole bit done - a hysterectomy and my ovaries removed as well. Now I'm on HRT. And I've never felt better since. It's wonderful. I'd recommend it to anybody!

I can't say mine was a happy childhood. It may well be that I've always been brought up to be independent, to be very self-reliant and not to rely emotionally on other people. But then I do know people who've had extremely happy childhoods who haven't wanted children. I don't think it's ever clear-cut.

I've got friends who've got children in all stages of development and it never seems to be hassle-free. I see no compensation in having them at all. Every single benefit people come up with for having children is a reason why I don't want them. I'm not interested in going to school sports. I'm not interested in seeing them through the traumas of exams. I don't want to be worried about when they get their first boyfriend, are they going to get pregnant, are they going to take drugs, are they going to beat some poor old lady over the head - I don't want to relive the trauma of growing up.

Interview by RUTH PICARDIE