Sharyl and Richard Horley are like a couple in the first flush of love. All around their home are pinned fond notes they send each other.
‘Missing me?’ asks one. ‘Sorry I ate all your chocs: have one of mine!’ exhorts another. Such small gestures of affection permeate their lives.
‘I sneak saucy knickers, teddies and photos of us into Richard’s luggage when he goes away on business,’ says Sharyl, who is as neat, pretty and well-preserved as the Home Counties cottage in which they live.
Richard, in turn, secretes little messages in unexpected places around the house for his wife, so when he is absent — if only for a day — she will find them and smile.
Such effusions of romance would have long been abandoned by most long-term couples. But not for Sharyl and Richard.
They have been married for 26 years, yet they share the mutual adoration of newlyweds. How have they preserved the magic?
For Sharyl, 48, the answer is obvious. She says they have stayed together — monogamously and contentedly — for almost three decades while other marriages have foundered and disintegrated around them for one simple reason: they don’t have children.
Sharyl is neither infertile nor wistfully resigned to a life bereft of children. On the contrary, she has never wanted them. More than that, she is adamant that her marriage to Richard, 50, has endured and prospered as a result.
Few parents will not have thought longingly of the days when they were unencumbered by little ones, free to do as they please. However, children are the glue that seals a marriage, a source of mutual amusement, frustration and love.
So how, one wonders, has Sharyl and Richard’s relationship deepened through the years without a family? For Sharyl, it is clear-cut. Theirs is a bond unhindered by the chaos children can bring. Babies, she is convinced, are disruptive, demanding and far more likely to be the cause of friction and marital break-up than a source of happiness.
Moreover, she believes, not only do many women who are childless by choice share her view that children are all ‘take, take, take’, but growing numbers of parents agree their offspring have drained them emotionally, financially and physically.
‘Some friends have told us: “If we had our time over again we’d never have had children,”‘ she says.
‘I’ve seen friends who are so driven by the compulsion to be perfect mothers they give in to every whim of their children and push their husbands out of their lives.
They’re exhausted and stressed. They lose their identity, their sense of fun — and their figures. Friends with children moan: “My boobs have joined my belly now.” They stop looking after their appearance and their self-worth diminishes. No wonder their husbands aren’t happy.’
Sharyl, in contrast, is petite, glamorous and absurdly girlish for her years; a fact she attributes partly to genes, but largely to years of uninterrupted sleep, thanks to not being woken up by crying babies.
‘You hear about couples who never make love after the children come along because they’re too exhausted. We’ve never had to contend with that or the worry of being interrupted in the throes of passion.
‘Children drive a wedge between couples. While I’ve lost count of the number of friends who’ve said “When are you going to start being responsible and have kids?”, others have told us: “We’re just waiting for the children to leave home so we can get a divorce.”‘
Sharyl, 48, an actress and model, who also helps run Richard’s lighting design business, is one of a growing number of women who are childless by choice.
Estimates suggest that by 2018 almost a quarter of women in Britain of childbearing age will never have a baby. The Office for National Statistics confirms this growing trend: one in five 45-year-olds does not have a family — double the number in the Nineties.
The phenomenon is not confined to Britain. One in five American women in their early 40s is childless, while in Japan and Germany the proportion is one in three.
In fact, 96 per cent of those surveyed by the Canadian Centre for Research and Education on Women at Work listed the advantages of being childless: freedom to pursue activities together, more time and greater disposable income.
And a third believed that their relationship with their husband was stronger, which reverses the received wisdom that the prime purpose of marriage is procreation.
For Sharyl, who has never felt any maternal longing, the findings are unsurprising. Thanks to not having children, she and Richard can spend their generous income on a comfortable lifestyle.
Their cottage near Lingfield, Surrey, has glorious landscaped gardens and stables for Sharyl’s two horses, Solly and Magic. Beyond are the seven acres of fields in which they graze.
Sharyl’s disinclination to have children dates back to her childhood. Living in Singapore with her father, a regimental sergeant major in the British Army, Singaporean mother and two older siblings, she was more interested in ponies than baby dolls.
When she was six, her father was made redundant. Their glamorous life evaporated and they decamped to a drearier, cash-strapped England, where he worked in life assurance.
Sharyl was keenly aware of the sacrifices her father and mother — who once aspired to be an actress, dancer and singer — made to raise their three children.
‘Mum gave up her dreams to have us,’ she says. And from this point, it seems, Sharyl resolved never to be weighed down by the responsibility of raising a family.
When she was 17, she started dating Richard, an old friend. Sharyl was impressed by his courtesy and attentiveness. ‘Before we got married, I discussed children with him,’ she says. ‘I said I had no desire to have them and he was unconcerned.
‘But I thought it would be kind to speak to my future mother-in-law, too. I said: “Please don’t expect grandchildren. I’ve no intention of having any.”
‘Her response was: “My dear, do whatever you want and don’t be pressured by anyone into having them.”‘ She heeded this advice. When Sharyl and Richard got married, at the ages of 22 and 24, her pony attended the celebrations. It set the tone for a future in which her beloved animals would take precedence over children.
Later she watched as her friends succumbed, one by one, to what she terms the ‘baby bug’. Her most potent fear was that she, too, would be bitten.
‘When friends paraded their babies, I felt nothing,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to hold them or admire them. But as I neared my 30s I got frightened. I’d watch as this desperate and uncontrollable urge to procreate hit my friends.
‘I was terrified it would happen to me and destroy my comfortable life with Richard. One of my friends had told her reluctant husband — who’d decided to withhold conjugal rights because he didn’t want a child — that if he didn’t perform there and then she would go out and find a sperm donor.
‘He succumbed, but the strain of having children almost destroyed their marriage. We’d go to dinner at their home and it would be chaos. We’d wait for an hour while she ran back and forth bathing and settling the children, then she’d fall asleep at 9pm, slumped over the table.
‘One friend ended up unhinged by her desire for a baby. She’d do a handstand after having sex because she thought that it would improve her chances of getting pregnant.
‘But when this failed, she’d sob every time she saw a woman pushing a pram.’
Richard remained relaxed about his wife’s decision. ‘Sharyl would have been the one carrying the baby and giving birth. She didn’t want it, so I didn’t push it,’ he says.
Then, in 1989, Sharyl’s elder sister Sally had her first child, a daughter, Julia. While every other female visitor clucked and fussed over the baby, Sharyl was unmoved.
‘My sister was proudly presenting her daughter to the visitors and her friends were saying “Ahh, she has her father’s eyes” and “Oh, isn’t she beautiful?”‘ she says.
‘But I was thinking she wasn’t at all pretty. My sister said: “What do you think of your new niece?” And I said truthfully: “She looks a bit like ET.” Sally laughed and actually agreed.’
Sharyl concedes that Julia, now 23, has grown into a beautiful woman. But she was repulsed by descriptions of her sister’s ‘horrendous’ forceps delivery. And only once did she look after her baby niece.
‘I remember changing this awful nappy, holding Julia over the sink, dousing her with water and vowing: “Never again.”
‘Though I was happy to shovel horse dung all day, I didn’t want to change another nappy. I rarely saw her until she turned six.’
By then, even in Sharyl’s eyes, Julia had become an adorable little girl. ‘If I was to choose a child to have, it would have been her,’ she says. ‘She was gorgeous: helpful, happy, sweet — and pony mad.’
Because she shared her horsey passion with her aunt, Julia visited Sharyl every weekend. In time, Julia’s friends came, too, for weekends and throughout the holidays.
Much as she adored her niece, Sharyl began to resent the intrusion into her life with Richard and the disruption to her marital routine.
‘I became a weekend baby-sitter. Julia’s friends arrived in droves for free horse riding lessons and childcare,’ she says.
‘I resented the fact I couldn’t go out with Richard; that this posse of little girls was taking over my life. It became a bone of contention.
‘I got cross that one of Julia’s friend’s mothers expected me to taxi her daughter around “because I had nothing else to do”. I met lots of mothers who seemed frustrated, angry and desperate to foist their children onto other people. I thought: “Why have them if you hate looking after them?”
‘Perhaps most significantly, it compounded my conviction that I never wanted a child of my own.
‘I realised how restricted our lives would be if we did.
‘Richard and I could no longer be spontaneous. We couldn’t go out for dinner at the drop of a hat, enjoy lie-ins, leisurely breakfasts together or impromptu holidays.
‘It put a strain on our marriage. I was spending my weekends taking the girls to horse shows and pony club. Richard and I were rowing over children who weren’t even ours.
‘I felt torn in all directions. I remember thinking: “This is just how mothers must feel all the time.” I felt beleaguered.’
In the end, Sharyl’s role as a childminder ended when Julia went to university. ‘I missed her and had a good sob,’ she says.
‘But Richard pointed out “We have our freedom back now,” and we had.’ Their lives fell back into their happy routine. Meanwhile, friends redoubled their efforts to urge Sharyl to reproduce, aware that, at 42, her child-bearing years were almost up.
‘One rang me and said: “I’ve got a box of baby clothes here. When are you going to have children?” There was a sense of accusation in her tone. I was made to feel selfish.’
In fact, insists Sharyl, the selfishness lies elsewhere: she contends that motherhood consumes women to the extent they often forget their obligations, not only to their spouses, but to other members of the family.
‘Children just take, take, take and their mothers give, give, give just to them.’ Without the responsibility of raising children, Sharyl says she is free to spend time with her father, an 83-year-old widower, parents-in-law, her circle of friends and, most importantly, Richard.
She says there was only one occasion when her commitment to childlessness wavered. As she neared her 40s, a close friend planted a seed of doubt in her mind.
‘She asked: “Would you have a child if Richard really wanted one?” I began to worry that he might and that he’d swan off with a younger woman and have a family with her.
‘The idea burdened me. I knew if he’d had a child with someone else it would have broken my heart.
So, I had to get a final opinion from him to make sure that one day he wouldn’t change his mind and say he wanted a baby.
‘I asked Richard to think it over seriously, and he did. It was a month before he gave me his answer.
We were on holiday in Devon having a lovely walk when he blurted out: “I’ve made my decision.” It was a defining moment in my life. This hot flush of fear flooded over me. I knew that if he’d said “Yes, I do want children”, I would have had to consider his needs.
‘He said: “I’ve put a great deal of thought into my decision and I don’t think it would be right for us as a couple. I’m happy as we are.” I almost collapsed with relief.’
Sharyl and Richard exchange a glance when she tells me this. Aside from their lack of offspring, I ask if there are other qualities that sustain the freshness of their marriage.
‘We laugh a lot, there’s lots of banter and we talk. We never really argue, and we’re very silly; quite childish at times,’ she says.
‘In fact, we have a couple of space hoppers and we bounce around the garden on them. I defy anyone not to laugh when they’re doing that. We’re like a couple of kids, if I’m honest,’ and she can’t help but smile at the irony.
Read more: Daily Mail