Is procreation really the sine qua non of female happiness? One would think so, based on the advice of commentator/author Lori Gottlieb. Gottlieb has just published a book in which she gives voice to the view that women should stop seeking an ideal relationship and settle for one that's simply satisfactory, to avoid the unsightly unpleasantness of ending up at 40 single, hopeless, barren and facing life as a lonely, isolated, childless failure.
Or such, anyway, is the bleak future Gottlieb paints for women whose too-high standards stop them settling for second best.
"I had to show the reality of being single at my age," she explains, "because I used to be like a teenager who thinks he's invulnerable to drunk driving accidents -- it's all in the abstract, something that happens to other people, but would never happen to me. It never occurred to me that I would become another dating casualty. I had to show, in grim detail, the accident that my dating life became so that you could make choices you wouldn't look back on later and regret."
And so, less than a century after the marriage of convenience was dismissed as a valid social construct, the idea is coming back into currency.
The central tenet of Gottlieb's book, Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough, is about as progressive as Jane Austen. In fact, scratch that. It's way more regressive than Jane Austen. At least the latter had the good judgement to agree that when making a life-long pairing a woman had a right to indulge both her desire and her taste.
Relationships are a disappointment anyway, Gottlieb avers. "Marriage isn't a passion-fest; it's more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring non-profit business." And, what's more, she reckons that any 30-year-old woman who isn't feeling the creeping hand of panic on her back about that ticking clock is lying. Get moving, she warns. Don't hold out for one that fulfils idealised notions of romantic love. Make a pragmatic choice. Marry the man who will have you. Have babies. Surround yourself in a traditional family and spare yourself of the misery of being redundant and childless.
The state that she is so concerned with avoiding is now so discussed and feared that it is fast becoming a cultural trope: the bitter, single, childless female over 35. She is caricatured as unfeminine, unpleasantly ambitious, her boardroom assertiveness motivated by a great yawning sense of regret and despair. She is undeserving of pity, because, out of selfishness, foolishness, fecklessness or feminism, she has brought her unhappy state upon herself.
Gottlieb is right when she says that women buy into this terror. That when they reach the end of their 20s they feel the weight of the pressure and fall prey to the sudden sense of urgency imposed by their bodies and society.
But her advice to them would be a bit more convincing if the case for having babies as a route to personal fulfilment wasn't itself a bit of a myth. Of course, in terms of bringing meaning, purpose, self-development and joy, parenthood has a lot to recommend it, I'm sure. But happiness and children don't necessarily go hand in hand. Very often the opposite is true. According to a study by sociology academics at Florida State University, "no group of parents -- married, single, step or even empty-nest -- reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not"
It is, in a way, nature's big joke, parenthood. It's not in our own interests, but in the interests of propagating the species. The species is indifferent to whether or not we're happy and fulfilled, or whether our marriage is loveless or loving. All it cares about is the transfer of our genetic material to the next generation.
There are, at least, as many trapped, frustrated and remorseful mothers, I'd wager, as there are single and childless women who feel the same. The only real difference between them is how the rest of the world views their position.
The former, generally thought of as deserving of sympathy and support, the latter attracting scolding and scorn.
Surely it's time to reverse that view? To replace it with admiration for women who don't wish to further overpopulate the planet and increase competition for resources by rushing into reproduction.
It's the quality of one's life partnership that makes the most difference to emotional well-being. And in terms of one's day-to-day quality of life, this has much more lasting impact than the simple achievement of procreation.
With modern life expectancy currently around the 80-year mark and rising, the average child flying the nest at 18, and the average family consisting of two to three children, it follows that after a relatively transitory phase of mothering, the woman who settled is going to be left staring at Mr Second Best day after day, constantly struggling for things to talk about.
Female fulfilment is a chimera. It remains remote and muddled as a result of the conflict between our biological urges and our intellectual and social ambitions. But in order to make the best stab at it, partnership for its own sake should be the priority.
Not simply a panicked grab at a man who is little more than a wage-earning sperm donor.