When I was a girl, my mother stuffed my head full of fairy-tales and the most fantastic of them all sounded quite banal at the time. It was about how families are made. One day (she was quite adamant) I would meet a man and love him so fiercely I’d want to make a tiny version of him in the form of a baby. We would all live happily ever after. The End.

For the past 20 years, I expected that to happen. Never questioned that it would. But now I find myself on the precipice of 35, when (according to NHS Choices) my fertility begins its dramatic fall. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that the very concept of a ‘soulmate’ is a hysterical joke played on the over-romantic and hopeful. It’s probably time to admit to the realities of the 21st century — where dating apps breed only casual sex, not screaming bundles in a crib. Like ever-increasing numbers of frustrated singles worldwide, I must get creative, joining the ranks of those creating new modern families.

Today, babies can’t always be made in the traditional way — for all sorts of reasons — but we are not admitting defeat. Some have enjoyed the full fairytale effect (falling in love, getting married) but with someone of the same sex, so a third party’s sperm or eggs are required to complete the domestic picture. For women, this can be relatively straightforward. Intrauterine insemination costs around £800 to £1,300 at a fertility clinic. It is successful only 22 per cent of the time, but lesbian couples have been making babies this way for decades.

For men, it’s much more complicated, because a surrogate is needed. The non-profit agency Brilliant Beginnings, which has helped create 800 families since it was founded in 2013, claims that £12,000 to £15,000 is ‘the going rate for UK surrogacy arrangements’. IVF is successful only 40 per cent of the time — and that’s among under-35s — so costs can escalate very rapidly.

As a result, many modern families try to incorporate the biological parent into the set-up — which is a lot less expensive, at least in a financial sense. Agencies such as Modamily facilitate co-parenting relationships with strangers, or some people reach more informal agreements with friends and family. In 2015, for instance, the TV presenter Mary Portas revealed that the child she was raising with her lesbian partner (the baby’s genetic mother) was fathered by her brother — meaning there was a genetic link on both sides.

One 31-year-old single, straight man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told me that he is setting out to become a ‘known donor’ for two old friends — one of whom he met at high school, and her lesbian partner of eight years. After joking about the subject for several years, they are quite set on the idea. The baby will very much have two mothers as parents — he does not intend to co-parent and compares the process he is now engaged in as akin to donating blood.

‘They’re going to be much better parents than I can imagine myself being,’ he explains. ‘The idea is that I’ll be a godparent/semi-uncle — involved in the way I would be in any of my close friends’ kids’ lives growing up.’ But if it is a boy, he adds, ‘maybe there’s going to come a time when he’d have questions from a male point of view’. To save money, the trio are adopting a DIY approach. ‘I’m synced with ovulation cycles so I’m going over there to the bathroom with a mooncup to make the donation. It’s not quite a turkey baster, but it’s not far off.’

It’s not just gay people who desperately want children and are casting around for such inventive strategies. It’s singles — particularly single women — in their thirties and forties too. In our twenties, we’d meet up and drink too much wine, discussing our troubles with lovers. Now we obsess about babies. How we want them. How we’re afraid we won’t be able to have them.

We spend a lot of time reassuring each other that we are not mad or selfish. That it is very natural to want children. That it is OK to feel overwhelmed by the sudden fierceness of the need, because it is built into us to ensure our survival, like feeling intense hunger if we’re in danger of starving. That since the UK birth rate has plummeted from 2.4 children to 1.8 in recent years, it is even quite important that we do.

One friend is working so hard thanks to her recent promotion that she has no time to date and is looking into freezing her eggs. This strategy is so popular among high-powered career women that companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google offer this service as one of the perks of working for them. Another friend — a highly successful journalist — has given up on dating because she never meets eligible men and is talking through making baby plans with her very supportive mother. Two more friends — both in their mid- to late thirties — are going through the agony of failed cycles of IVF.

You might think that we are not romantic but we’re probably far more romantic than most. Despite the odds, we’re still holding out for the right man. We all tell tales of those who compromised their ideals in order to get married. Women who ‘want it all’ are frequently lambasted in the right-wing press.

But those who settled for half or a bit aren’t necessarily any happier. Two parents may well be better than one — but the ONS currently estimates that 42 per cent of marriages fail, and the emotional turmoil of separation and divorce isn’t an ideal atmosphere in which to raise children either.

In this context, co-parenting presents a possible solution. The Stork is a new agency that matches people who want to be parents for a fee that costs less than ‘a new car or a mortgage’ — or a divorce. It was founded by businesswoman Fiona Thomas to bring together those no longer prepared to keep gambling that if they only hold out long enough they will eventually find ‘The One’.

If you’re a woman in your late thirties, Thomas explains, ‘there are four outcomes. You can meet someone perfectly naturally and it’s all fantastic and wonderful. You can try to meet someone through an [agency] like mine and end up co-parenting. You can meet someone and it’s the wrong person — and you’d be amazed how many people do that; the large proportion of people on their wedding day who think, “I know this isn’t exactly what I want, it’s probably not quite right, but I’m doing it anyway.” And the fourth option, of course, is to do nothing. You get to 50 and you’re playing with your nephews and nieces.’

There are more single women alive today than at any point in history. And though we might have given up on men, we’re not all prepared to surrender our hope of a baby. The women who use her services, Thomas says, are bright, attractive and successful. ‘Just because it hasn’t happened for you doesn’t mean you’re some kind of freak or reject,’ she insists. ‘It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everybody’s got a story about why it hasn’t happened to them, and it doesn’t in any way indicate failure.’

The conclusion is that we can’t all have the fairytale endings. But that’s OK, because those creating new modern families know there’s an opportunity to change the narrative. Our stories aren’t over yet.



Spectator Life

In the heart of west London, there is what is thought to be a hidden paradise. Private gardens, surrounded by white stucco mansions pristine as wedding cakes, where children roam through landscaped lawns and pampered pooches piddle against the trees. Where pop stars puff through their exercise routines out of sight of the paparazzi and, by night, the ghost of Hugh Grant attempts to scale the iron railings, muttering ‘Oopsidaisy’, with all the other plebs who can’t get in.

In reality, though, it’s hell. Notting Hell, to be precise: a place where homeowners sitting on a pile worth merely £5 million battle with those whose homes are worth more than £20 million. Here, dingdongs signal not the doorbell, but all out war — between parents and pet owners, party animals and pedants. It’s bankers vs billionaires, Brits vs Yanks: All struggling, tooth and nail, to acquire the biggest house, build the largest basement, raise the brightest children, enjoy the wildest sex, and throw the party to end all parties.

‘A communal garden is the ultimate house trophy, an unambiguous symbol that you have “made it” — especially for the Americans,’ explains the author of the Notting Hill Yummy Mummy blog. ‘They infuriate the native Brits because they drive the prices so high only the richest can afford to live here. And once they get here, these hedge-funders and finance guys don’t just compete at work; they compete at home, too. They have to own a “wow” house, with the absolute best swimming pool/Jacuzzi/slide/aquarium/zipline/cinema set-up.’

Alas, even the most spacious Georgian villa rarely comes with room for a frigidarium — a posh name for a cold spa — so incomers dig deep into the clay beneath their homes to build what are known as ‘iceberg’ basements. Trophy wives battle yummy mummies, and vice versa, over planning permission — with Filipina maids caught in the crossfire. The conversions, which often take years, bring builders, trucks, dust and noise, interrupting morning mindfulness meditations and ever more exhibitionist yoga routines.

Communal gardens were invented to provide oases of calm in the middle of the city — but the mania for building below ground has unleashed chaos.

One long-term resident irked by all this is the novelist Rachel Johnson, who grew up in Notting Hill, and whose neighbours include celebrities such as Rita Ora and Ruby Wax. In 1992, Johnson bought a ‘falling-down semi-detached house off Elgin’ for £385,000 and now sits pretty in a house worth more than £4 million, simply by virtue of never having moved.

‘Five householders at the last count were putting in double basements in Elgin Crescent alone,’ Johnson complained in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘My husband says that when you live in a place that you can’t afford to shop in it’s time to move. But I won’t.’

Still, it makes for comic material and Johnson has now spent eight years eviscerating the vulgarities of the super-rich in her Notting Hellseries of novels. The latest, Fresh Hell, opens with a murder in an iceberg basement.

‘It’s all fiction!’ bellows an exasperated Johnson, when I ask her about how she gets her inspiration forher fabulously pulpy books. ‘How dare you ring me up like this?’

So, alas, no actual lesbian sex scenes chez Elgin like the one depicted in Fresh Hell, which is hotly tipped to win Johnson an unprecedented second Bad Sex Award. (‘My whole body was buzzing, as if I’d run away from a charging bull and hurled myself over an electrified fence only to find myself at a cheese-rolling event…’)

But there’s no shortage of real-life shagging, according to Notting Hill Yummy Mummy. ‘Due to all the building work, many women spend far more time with their workmen than their partners,’ she says. ‘This causes a lot of affairs. One woman got pregnant by her architect and initially tried to pass the baby off as her husband’s.’

The French contingent is typically relaxed when it comes to les liaisons amoureuses. Russian oligarchs, meanwhile, like to keep their friends close — and their mistresses around the corner.

Gossip is rife. Aberrant behaviour is closely monitored — and stamped on — by a network of residents’ associations. (The TV producer Peter Bazalgette was living in Kensington Palace Gardens when he launched Big Brother, which no one thinks a coincidence.) Barbecues and ball games are strictly verboten.

Elderly residents can be particularly crotchety when it comes to screaming infants and yapping puppies. They remember the bad old days: when Jimi Hendrix overdosed at 22 Lansdowne Crescent and you’d step outside expecting to get shanked, rather than pistachio cronuts. One of the most contentious issues is tree-felling. Typically, residents of houses that are south-facing prize the beauty of the ancient trees, while those in the north-facing ones rant about the lack of sunlight.

One garden square somewhat lacking in more hysterical shenanigans is Stanley Crescent. Its residents’ committee, stuffed with energetic, enthusiastic Americans, not only throws a convivial annual fireworks party — to which plenty of outsiders are invited — but permits (horror of horrors) football. It is so child-friendly that when the Obamas moved into the White House and wanted a really good set of garden swings, they copied the one in Stanley Crescent.

It is believed in these parts that the number of children you have indicates how much money you have, since the bigger your brood, the more you have to fork out on private education. So there are a lot of children in Notting Hell. With several birthdays every week, the fiercest rivalry of all is reserved for children’s parties. Parents outdo themselves to create the costliest, most original extravaganza.

Bouncy castles are erected, private pony rides laid on, gardens are transformed into fairgrounds complete with Ferris wheels and candy floss machines. Every-thing is outsourced, so there is an arms race for the best children’s entertainer. Magicians, clowns and face painters are passé — what you really need is a troupe of acrobats, or the ‘insect man’ to awe children with creepy crawlies. One celebrated birthday party had the young guests dress up as knights to embark on a quest around the garden to find and slay a dragon — the dragon being a giant piñata.

Party bags — which used to consist of a piece of cake, a party popper and a pencil sharpener — are now bags of loot to rival the ones they hand out at the Oscars. They contain gifts that in less affluent areas of the country would be given as main birthday presents: Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, a Play-Doh kit or a Disney character. The parents must also be taken care of, with champagne and canapés.

Still, whatever jealousies seethe in garden squares, there is no shortage of people desperate to get in. Houses cost 25 per cent more if they come with access to a communal garden. And one day soon the residents may even forget their squabbles and unite to counter a greater threat to their lifestyle. Kensington & Chelsea council periodically mutters that more access to these sacred spaces might be granted to people who live locally but who can’t afford the adjoining homes. When this was last raised in 2008 it was a suggestion repelled most vigorously. Paradise might not mean a garden, these days — but letting the oiks in? Well, that would be hell on earth.