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‘Life hasn’t changed much for singletons.’ Above, Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones. Photograph: Working Title

My friends and I are single, childless – and running out of time

WT24 Desk

The dilemma Like me, most of my friends are in their 30s, some turning 40. Those with partners and children have disappeared, other than posting their idyllic family life.

We’ve tried all of the dating things, found no one and biological clocks are ticking. One friend said her life is not worth living because she hasn’t got a partner or a child. In the past I’d give advice and encouragement – suggest things might turn out all right in the end. There’s still time!

But now there’s actually not time. I can’t encourage, because life isn’t going how we thought it would. We’re being left behind and without the financial ability (or housing) to freeze eggs or go it alone, or adopt.

I get harassed by some friends, almost bullying me into going on dating apps because it worked for them. But I hated it – men were rude, unkind and I felt physically threatened. I found myself despising all men.

Mariella replies What a fascinating dilemma. It’s rare to get correspondence that embraces the bigger picture, beyond the confines of pressing personal concerns, and this is, without doubt, a major social issue of our time. I experienced the passing of my 30s myself with great relief, so predominant were the issues you identify. It’s startling to receive your reminder that in the 22 years since Bridget Jones was published (and 30 since the original column was conceived), life hasn’t changed much for women in their 30s. I’m not convinced that even millennials will have a radically altered experience of women’s still untenable position.

While Helen Fielding’s book was dismissed as “women’s writing” (as though that should be an insult) at the time, it was a zeitgeist novel that summed up the state of the world for sad “singletons”. Women were told they had equality in a still wholly unequal world. Now here you are, over two decades later, experiencing the same old story. Truly society has not yet shape-shifted enough to fully integrate us.

It’s hopefully cheering for you to know that for many of my generation, despite our fears, it actually worked out. I’m not just referring to those who found last-minute fathers for late children but also those who are now, for the most part, enjoying exciting, fulfilled 50s unfettered by parental responsibility. For women for whom children are a priority, you’d be amazed how much can be achieved in the few short years before you hit 40. The amplified ticking of our biological clocks seems to focus minds and energy on the single issue of motherhood in a way that often produces results. So many of my friends found partners and had children, as I did, around the age of 40. As a result, my kids have grown up seeing me not as a freak of late motherhood, but a member of a small and steadily increasing minority of older mums.

Your letter confirms what I’ve long suspected – that the seismic changes needed to make the world more bearable for our sex aren’t happening fast enough or with enough focus. Women are still penalised for pregnancy, bear the main burden of domestic life (so often now combined with full-time work) and, despite increasing lifespans, have the same short window in which society deems them to be fully contributing members. I’m sorry you are sad and I’m angry, too. Our nation has spent my lifetime hijacked by political parties squabbling while issues that matter – universal childcare, education, the NHS, equal pay, pornography, and violence towards women and children – have all been swept into a Westminster silo.

While the Brexit bandwagon rumbles on, our country is silently slipping back to the 20th century in terms of productivity, infrastructure, education, health and social justice. Where are the fresh ideas to improve citizens’ lives? That may seem a digression, but the reason you are experiencing exactly the same frustrations as my generation, is that time really does seem to have stood still. It’s not Europe’s fault that our political classes appear incapable of blue-sky thinking and that this purported brave new, independent Britain looks very much the same as it did in 1990.

There will, I firmly believe, come a time when women’s lives truly are equal and breakthroughs in medical science will be welcomed instead of fuelling hysterical headlines about pensioners giving birth. We urgently need creative thinking and collective energy to push us out of our present inertia and force the change that will improve all our lives.

Small changes initiate huge ones and stepping beyond your comfort zone is an imperative first step. I’m convinced that if you and your friends focus further on shaping the world you want and worry less about what the fates will bring, your chances of fulfilment and happiness will soar. And, of course, unfollow all the smug marrieds on Insta who, behind the scenes, are probably ruing the day they shacked up as often as you wish you could join them!

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