I may have had mixed feelings when my first sister arrived, but by the time the second one came along, when I was 6, I was more than up for this mothering lark . My middle sister and I fought over whose turn it was to get her out of her cot in the morning, carried her about the house, and pushed her around in dolls prams until she was so heavy she broke at least one.
I grew up unsure of what career path I might take but certain of one thing: I would marry and have children. I had it all planned out: career established in my 20s, marriage by the time I was 30, four children, two of each kind, their names already picked out. ( I guess my husband would have had power of veto. Maybe.)
At 17 I au-paired for a summer in France. On day one the parents handed me the children – 6, 4, and a baby of 7 months – and said they wanted to see as little as possible of them for the next month. I worked 7am until 8pm every day, got up to them in the night, and loved every minute of it. (Ok, not quite every minute. Boy, could that baby scream!)
In my 20s I had a couple of boyfriends but for most of that decade I was very unwell and back living with my parents, too ill to care for myself. My focus was more on getting well enough to make my own tea, than on finding a husband. When I returned to Oxford to attempt to finish my degree at 29 I was still just about in time to meet the marriage and babies goals I’d set myself. I was really still too ill to start and maintain a relationship, especially whilst struggling to finish my degree but I guess if I had met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with it might have been different.
Thirty is the age at which everything changes. Every single Christian I have spoken to confirms this, as does all the research on the subject. You know little of what it is to be single if you are married, (or, outside of the church, in a longterm romantic relationship), by the time you are 30. At 30, especially within the church, you suddenly look around and realise that most people are paired off. Of the ones who are left it is blatantly obvious that there are far more women than men and that a significant number of these women, who are apparently all desperate to be married and have children, are not going to find a husband who shares their faith. Many will either have to compromise on that or remain single. All the research suggests that, for single women especially, our 30s is usually the toughest decade.
(The good news is that research also shows that, in general, happiness increases the older singles get. In old age always-single women are amongst the happiest people there are. Certainly happier than their formerly married counterparts, most of whom have been divorced or widowed by then, and who have not had years of practice at doing life on their own.)
To add insult to injury, when you are in your 30s, everybody else is pregnant. All the time. (Clearly this can’t actually be true, but that is how it feels.) Your childlessness is thrust in your face every time you attend church, see friends, or even leave the house. There are pregnant women and babies everywhere. I lost count of the number of times I smiled and said the right things when yet another friend announced yet another pregnancy, only to sob into my pillow once I was alone. My housemate was doing the same. Sometimes I thought my heart would break with grief and pain for the children I was increasingly afraid I would never have.
I tried internet dating, met men through friends, went on a few dates, had a brief relationship with a guy I knew wasn’t right because I didn’t want to dismiss anyone before I’d got to know them.
I yelled at God, telling him that I could maybe do singleness or chronic illness but that it was totally unreasonable and unfair of him to expect me to do both. He didn’t appear to be listening.
Some people talked of praying for the partner that they knew God had in store and was preparing for them. This struck me as a way not only of trying to twist God’s arm – to try to manipulate him into doing what they wanted by a show of faith – but also of refusing to face up to the frightening thought that this undesirable singleness state might not just be some kind of purgatory prior to (supposed) marital bliss, but could become a lifelong affliction.
In 2005, when I was 38, I went on a Christian ‘Women’s Conference’. There was a talk on singleness by a woman my age who was one of those apparently rare creatures who was happily single and had never had any desire to marry or have children. Of course it was possible for her to be happy and fulfilled, I thought. She wasn’t dealing with all the grief and pain most single women I knew were swamped by. I didn’t see how her story was relevant to those of us who longed for marriage and children.
I stomped back to my room, railing at God, and with a constant, and familiar, refrain playing over and over in my head:
‘I was made to be a wife and mother. I can never be truly happy or fulfilled unless I am married with children.’
I swear I heard a voice. I don’t know if it was inside or outside of my head but it stopped me in my tracks.
Two little words that changed my life…