A few years ago I went for a drink with a female friend who had been dating for some time, but hadn’t met anyone in it for the long haul, and she was adamant that she wanted to have children. She felt the ticking of her biological clock acutely, but was frustrated that the men she met acted as though they had all the time in the world. “I’ve decided that I’m not going to wait around for some man to get his shit together and commit to me and the possibility of a family,” she announced, citing the Danish phenomenon of the solomor, or solo mother. “I’ll give it a couple more years, and then I’m getting a sperm donor and going it alone.”
I admired her. Being single in your 30s is not the quagmire it perhaps was in the 90s, when “singletons” had to negotiate a world of “smug marrieds”, as Helen Fielding satirised in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Today’s thirtysomethings are more open to alternatives to heterosexual monogamy as a relationship model, being single is less stigmatised, and, in the current post-recession economy, the markers of adulthood are less clear-cut. For the first time, in 2020, the Office for National Statistics found that half of women in England and Wales had not had a baby by their 30th birthday, an increase of 32 percentage points in 50 years. That is a radical societal shift, and one that reflects women’s increasing access to education and career opportunities. But for thirtysomething women who want children or are open to the idea, looking for a partner in the modern dating economy can be tricky.
Pippa Bailey is 30, broke up with her long-term boyfriend a year ago, and is now “on the apps” in search of a partner. She is one of the female writers who you could say has taken the mantle from Fielding in writing frankly and honestly about the experience of modern romance. In a recent column about the Joachim Trier film The Worst Person in the World, whose thirtysomething female protagonist is in the midst of an early-30s crisis, she pinpoints a feeling familiar to many. “[My friends] are buying houses, getting married, having babies, while I continue with ‘more of the same’. I know it is childish and naive, but I find it hard not to feel betrayed, left behind”, she wrote.
Bailey thinks she “probably” wants children, but when she became single, she hadn’t anticipated how many people were not looking for a relationship, let alone children. It means the prospect of parenthood requires “two extra stages of imagining”, as she poignantly puts it. She’s trying to be more open to the fun of dating without too much pressure, while “balancing that with wanting to be upfront at the beginning about what you want so that you don’t waste your time”.
Apps can facilitate this. Just as you are able to screen partners according to their vaccination status, or whether or not they smoke, you can also filter on the basis of whether someone wants kids or not. Bumble even has a basic info badge where you can state that it’s a deal breaker. But Bailey says that a lot of men simply don’t answer the question about children.
Men I speak to who are dating tell me that they just don’t feel the same fertility pressure as women. ’Twas ever thus, you might say. The sense that women who long for children are a bit “desperate” is nothing new, but the transactional nature of dating apps casts it into sharp relief.
Though modern women are more confident in expressing all kinds of desires, it strikes me that for a woman to articulate the desire for a child – especially when it feels profound and urgent – remains to some extent taboo.
At least scientific advances mean more women have alternative options. My friend didn’t end up needing a donor; she met a lovely man and now has children with him. But I speak to Sioned, 36, who is now heading down that path after splitting from her ex; he already had one child from a previous relationship and didn’t want more. After several years of dating, she became increasingly blunt about her desires and found the options for filtering partners helpful, but is less invested in finding someone to embark on parenthood with than she was.
“I like being single, and enjoy dating as a way to connect with new people, but I didn’t want my prospects of parenthood to be tied to someone else’s shifting desires – especially to a man who doesn’t have the same biological time pressures and might change his mind when it’s too late for me,” she says. She’s inspired by powerful stories of solo motherhood and says queer kinship has taught us there are many kinds of parental models beyond traditional mother-father ones.
As it happens, Sioned has just started dating someone who has said he does want children at some point but, aware the sperm-donor process can take a long time, she has an appointment next week at a clinic. “I will have to tell him what I’m doing and risk he might not be OK with it, but equally I can’t wait around to see if the relationship works and we might try to have a child together.” For women tired of waiting, such conversations – unimaginable to centuries ago – look increasingly likely. All power to them for taking action into their own hands.
I’ve been enjoying Jessica Traynor’s collection, Pit Lullabies, (Bloodaxe) this week, poems exploring early motherhood, often through lyrical reference to nature and the environment. I particularly liked her Metaphysical Breast Milk Poem: “I clamp you to my breast/where your nip is the pinch/of the universe/squeezing into existence”.
I’m trying to work out how it is that French and southern European parents are able to go out in the evening with their babies. When my son was a newborn, it was easy to take him out for dinner, but now that he spends the runup to bedtime in a cluster-feeding-and-pooing frenzy, I’m fearing we will become slaves to bedtime. Is this cultural conditioning in action, or just a phase?
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author