On both sides of the Pond, dating games have taken over telly. In the UK, the big new dating show is 'Take Me Out' where swaggering simpletons walk away with ditsy blondes on stilts. Go stateside and the hugely popular 'The Bachelor' has lasted 16 seasons with notoriously fickle American audiences. And if you don't fancy making a fool of yourself on prime time TV, there are so many other ways to get lucky. There's online dating, speed dating, fixed-up-by-friends dating and silly-new-name-for-the-same-old-kind of dating.
Many of my single friends are very Zen; they're pushing forty and have got their own groove. They can't be bothered to scavenge, or if they do, they do it their own way. Charlie's Angel Lucy Liu captured the zeitgeist perfectly when she said with a shrug, "Everything I buy is vintage and smells funny. Maybe that's why I don't have a boyfriend."
However, some singletons I know have capitulated and go on the hunt in the established manner, less like a chillaxed cheetah on the prowl and more like a hamster on a wheel it can't stop. Although many of them would actually agree with High School Musical's Zac Efron, who had famously mumbled, "Dating is kind of hard. Like dinner or something like that. Like a forced awkward situation." Who doesn't have trouble with dinner?
These single friends tell me how fraught it all is, with its many unknowns. They say they never know what they'll get on Date Night; creeps they've had to kick into touch with reality or worse, put up with, men who have become mates (not in the animal kingdom sort of way) but nothing more, and the very occasional Adonis, whose seeming perfection they cannot vouch for with any certainty because they are rarely there for further scrutiny the morning after.
They recount all the effort that goes into the weekly conflux with relish: casting their nets far and wide to make a catch, chatting non-stop with friends in the run-up to Date Night, for advice, support and the name of those tummy-tucking underpants you saw at the shop together, the hours spent colouring their roots, finding the right dress, blemish concealer and push-up bra, the quick hoover 'round the flat in case there is a post-date...nightcap, the last minute handbag inventory for mace and, should the fella turn out non-creepy, other equally important forms of protection.
And then, of course, there are the necessary post-mortems, sitting across a pub table from me and Mr.H, with our young children crawling all over us, their faces screaming their bewilderment at the mystery of our decade together (but deep inside, I wonder if they might also be thinking like Kristin Davis of 'Sex and the City', "I've been dating since I was fifteen. I'm exhausted. Where is he?")
But listen up, all you single ladies, Mr H may have put a ring on it, but that hasn't made Date Night in the Handley home any less fraught than yours. Yes, really, married people go on dates too. With each other. And they need to pencil in that 'couple' time even more than you, footloose folks. There is excitement (mainly caused by the children brawling in an attempt to spook the babysitter, just as we step out) and unpredictability aplenty (will Mr H even remember?). There is a build-up too; it is a mating ritual every bit as complicated as yours.
It starts with a phone call in the morning, "Hello Sexy" he growls.
Covered in dried toddler puke, antiseptic cream and noodles (or similar strange combination), I hiss, "Are you sure you've called the right number?? This is your wife!"
"It's Date Night", he says soothingly, "I was just trying to get you in the mood."
"The mood!" I holler (it's been a bad morning at the homestead), "If you get me in the mood, I'll just have another brat to look after!"
A few hours later, a little box pops up on your 'puter screen. A message from 'Mystery Man'; he says he is married to a mottled pink giantess and is looking for a petite, dusky, bootylicious babe, and I may be just the thing. I smile to myself, Mr H again, trying to get me in the zone. The kids have settled down and I am less harried, so I play along.
'What are you wearing?" he asks.
I look down at my old jeans and t-shirt and decide to make him happy, "A lacy little negligee...." I may be the proud owner of several but I wouldn't wear them in the afternoon, except on a really bad day when the children haven't allowed me time to change!
"So," he rasps, "what will you do when I turn up on your doorstep tonight?"
But even as I launch into as steamy a description of the treat in store for him as I can manage with the children capering around, I notice another little box has popped up and it is Mr H saying sorry for the ham-handed phone call. Yikes! So who have I been cyber-snuggling with?? Trying to shake off the image of a Jabba the Hutt in week-old underpants entertaining himself with thoughts of me, I get on with my hasty prep for Date Night.
Where some single ladies will slave for hours, even weeks (discovering a sudden passion for the gym) to get the desired look, the mien the married mom of two will aim for is- well, just clean. If my hair is food-free and I smell human, then I'm doing well, and believe me, that is aphrodisiac enough for Mr H.
Then, as I stand looking lost in front of my wardrobe, my brilliant little ones come to the rescue, pulling out a combo of dressing gown, woolly scarf and bikini which I decline sweetly and send them on their way. Mr H comes home with 15 minutes to spare till the official start of Date Night, and where the single woman may artfully undress at the end of the date, artfully doesn't even occur to the married mother, standing about in her mommy pants, wondering what to wear. When Hubby gets into the act, suggesting I try an LBD (little black dress) he had been keen on before the kids came along, I am roused into reminding him of his villainy in knocking me up twice and spoiling my once-svelte figure. Something is eventually found that I think will pass, and which, Mr H, never dampened by mommy-moods, assures me I look stunning in. With the children safely ensconced with a trusted sitter, we are finally on our way.
Date Night itself is no different whether you're married or single. If you get along, there will be breathy laughter, hand-holding and lash-batting eye contact. Your trusty companion, the iphone will not make an appearance if you're having fun (well, maybe just the once to make sure the kids are OK) and no matter how long you've been at it, the magic of an evening together will reignite that spark, never lost, just hidden underneath all the baby paraphernalia. Like Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel (just a tad less glamorous), we swear by our married Date Nights.
Where the single dating game really diverges from the married one is in what happens after the date. I'm afraid you always have to take your husband home, you really don't have a choice, but you'll never have to reach for the mace or the kitchen knife or worry about catching anything other than a cold (not usually). You will both reach for the key, you are unlikely to tear each other's clothes off in the hallway because the baby sitter is waiting for you, and then it's cherubs before carnality, as you both look in on your sleeping children before moving on to the things that produced them in the first place.
While it's rarely frantic because neither of us is going anywhere, it can be quite...erm...creative because we're so comfortable with each other that anything goes. As for unpredictability; singletons, beware, you won't anticipate your man's moves any better once you're married. After a married date on a weeknight, there is every possibility one or the other of two exhausted parents may fall asleep at an inopportune moment (just between you and me, it's more likely to be Mr H) but the defaulting partner happily makes up for it later.
Despite the fatigue, the not quite mint-condition bodies, the hasty prep and perhaps that wee bit of missing frisson that you get with a new man, there is nothing like the morning after a married Date Night. It makes all the other less-than-perfect, sometimes comic aspects of dating your husband worthwhile.
In the morning, when the sun creeps up to our bed instead of the children (this is unusual, you think, what has the baby sitter fed them), he is still there beside you, the man you love. He feels you stirring and wakes and smiles, and says in that deep Yorkshire voice that still turns you on, "You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
"Still?" you say, to check he's wide awake and in possession of his senses.
"Still," he says, as he draws you into his arms again, "and that won't ever change."
And for this moment alone, I think as I snuggle up to him, I'd have a married Date Night over any other kind. Every time.