The secret of a happy marriage? Don't have children...
As a young woman, Aileen Eglington decided that motherhood wasn't for her. Thirty years on, she isn't surprised by a study that found childfree couples are more content than parents
So it's official - childless couples have happier marriages and a new study has the data to prove it.
Anyone who thought that motherhood was the default position for women may think again with the surprising results of the Open University's Enduring Love? research which set out to uncover what makes relationships last. Involving more than 5,000 people over a two-year period, the study found that those who did not have children were more satisfied with the quality of their relationship than those who did.
Furthermore, the consensus among women was that a cup of tea in bed was a bigger turn-on than sex, and sharing household chores was more appreciated than lavish gifts.
"Women said it was small, everyday acts of kindness rather than big gestures that made them feel valued," says Dr Jacqui Gabb, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the Open University. "To sustain a relationship, just presenting a woman with a big bunch of flowers on her birthday is not going to cut it. Feeling loved, over and above saying 'I love you,' is what counts."
When it comes to demonstrations of love, that show-don't-tell policy works a treat for Irish businesswoman Aileen Eglington. Director of her own successful public relations firm, AE Consulting, she's been married to Paul, a self-employed carpenter and property maintenance builder, for almost 32 years.
"Our partnership is different," she says. "Sometimes I'm the husband and he's the wife and vice versa. I don't really know where the vacuum cleaner is (I'm allergic to dust, honestly!) and I love the little things he does for me, like having a fire lit every night, the blanket on and a glass of water by the bed after a good night out.
"I travel a lot with work - maybe that's why we're married so long; because I'm never there! - but he always gets a bottle of Jameson when I come home and introduce myself again."
Aileen and Paul are also childless, by choice. Despite having reproductive organs in perfect working order, Aileen had decided early on that she didn't want children and told Paul how she felt before they were married. "He said that was fine, it was me he was marrying."
Like many successful women with no kids - think of Cameron Diaz, Helen Mirren, Oprah Winfrey or Angela Merkel - people sometimes assume Aileen's child-free status must be down to either lofty career ambitions or infertility. It is neither.
"I seldom talk about it because I'm acutely aware of the number of women out there who can't have children," she says. "However, it wasn't that I couldn't have them; motherhood just wasn't for me."
She reveals that her determination not to procreate had nothing to do with career goals or lifestyle choice, it was something far simpler.
"I couldn't bear the thought of childbirth!" she says. "If the roles had been reversed and by some miracle of medical science, Paul could have had the babies, I'm sure we'd have a football team by now.
"I get on really well with friends' kids, especially my godchildren, Shane and Beth. But I have never changed a nappy, fed a baby or wiped a snotty nose in my life. The whole nursing lark is not for me, no thank you.
"On the other hand, Paul and I have created a party house that people love to come to, especially friends with kids who loved the ski slope on our Christmas tree! And I think the kids see us as the cool ones, because we don't behave like parents and we talk to them like adults."
Couples who are childless by choice - and women in particular - can come in for criticism, even if it's nobody's business but their own. Helen Mirren recently commented that it was usually older men who would say, "What, no children? Well, you'd better get on with it, old girl!" to which the accomplished actress would reply, "F ... off!"
Aileen remembers one man telling her she was selfish. "You might not always love your spouse, but you'll always love your children," he warned her.
"I just laughed it off!" says Aileen. "Paul and I are not selfish, we're outgoing, sharing people whose lives have been enriched by great friendships, here and abroad. I'm not sure that being childless has made us happier, but I do think it's kept us younger and helped us to cope with a tough five years in business during the recession, and hopefully the recovery is starting now.
"One of the greatest pleasures for us was getting involved in the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) and bringing blind skiers on holiday to Austria with Topflight, a valued client of mine. People like Eamon Duffy, formerly of NCBI and Kathleen, Elaine and Eddie at the Ski Club of Ireland inspire us to do more, because they're so selfless."
Known to her friends as the 'Duracell Bunny' because of her boundless energy, Aileen is a member of the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Chamber of Commerce and its Women in Business Network, she chairs her local residents' association, helps fundraise to restore Kilternan's Lady of the Wayside Church with its iconic blue colour, and has recently been selected to stand as a Fine Gael candidate for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown in the local council elections in May this year. Even though it's a part-time role which will allow her to continue running her business, it's an exciting new direction and she relishes the prospect.
"It's not just because I have no children that I have the time to do these things," says Aileen. "Parents get involved in their communities too. I see them taking part in parent-teacher committees, refereeing matches and standing out in the cold on a football pitch on Saturday mornings. We can all try to make the world a better place in our own way and I have an opportunity now to make a difference.
"I would never have taken this decision if Paul hadn't been behind me every step of the way - and he will be too, up a ladder, during the campaign, as will my brother Kevin! It's just another example of the unstinting support Paul has shown to me over the years and I appreciate and love him dearly."