• Surviving Your Thirties: AKA the
    Panic Years

    Nell Frizzell on Motherhood, Aging, and the Demands of the Biological Clock

    The morning of my 33rd birthday, I woke up in bed beside a man I love, with a two-week-old baby breathing so gently beside me that, for the 578th time in his life, I had to reach out a hand and touch his face to check that he was alive. My stomach was wet mud. My eyes were lychees of restless weeping. I hadn’t slept for more than three straight hours since the last few weeks of my pregnancy, I was wearing a sanitary pad the size of a blow-up mattress, and I smelled like fermenting milk. As a pinkish dawn kissed the treetops along the River Lea, I dressed in an XL gray men’s tracksuit and my boyfriend’s socks, slipped out of my baking one-bedroom flat, crossed the footbridge into Walthamstow Marshes, faced the sun, and howled.

    In less time than it took my sister to pass her driving test, I had undergone a fundamental life change. I threw away the security of a relationship, confronted the finite nature of my fertility, acted at times with careless depravity, and took on, eventually, an entirely new identity. These changes resulted in me having a baby, but whether it’s ending a long-term relationship, moving to a new country, changing your career, getting married, or having a breakdown, huge things tend to happen to us during this nameless period around our late twenties, thirties, and often into our forties, and many of them are irreversible. Becoming a parent is the only decision that comes with a biological deadline, the only one that cannot be reversed: it is therefore the one decision that throws all others into such sharp focus. You can get a new job, move to a new house, make new friends, find new partners, but once you’re a parent, you’re a parent for life.

    And yet this period has no name. Unlike childhood, adolescence, menopause, or the midlife crisis, we have no common term for the tumult of time, hormones, social pressure, and maternal hunger that smacks into many women like a train at the end of their twenties and early thirties. There is no medical term, no compound German word, nothing in Latin, Arabic, or French. Astrology may refer to the seven-year cycles of the Saturn return, but this nebulous phrase speaks little of the grit and girth, the blood and weeping, the travel and transformation that I have witnessed, both in myself and the people around me.

    While in the midst of it, you feel as though you are twisting through a web of impossible decisions—about work, money, love, location, career, contraception, and commitment—each one pulling like a thread on all the others, impossible to untangle or move through without unraveling the whole thing. In hindsight, many, if not all, of those decisions were rendered so intense by the pulsing, beating, inescapable knowledge that your fertility is finite, that you are running out of eggs, and that one day your body will no longer give you the option to have children.

    These years are compelled by the eternal question: Should I have a baby, and if so, when, how, why, and with whom? That question then creeps into every area of your life. It is the rat-a-tat of the tracks beneath your feet. The bassline to everything. Whether you want to be a parent or not, as a person in your late twenties and thirties, perhaps even into your forties, the slow march of unfertilized opportunity brings an urgency to your life that no other period can quite match. You have to decide what you want, now, before your body takes the choice away from you.

    That there are several words for adolescence in every major European language and not a single one for this second transformative time in a woman’s life speaks of two things: that language often lets us down, and that we have never really taken this period seriously. Too often, our journey out of youth, through fertility, and into a new emotional maturity is dismissed as broodiness, anxiety, or “merely” the ticking of the biological clock. In fact, it is a complex focal point of every pressure, contradiction, and fear faced by Western women today, from fertility and finance to love, work, and self-worth.

    It is because we haven’t identified this period with a name that we’re not prepared properly for it when it comes, and we haven’t developed the tools to navigate it. This is a problem if women are then made to feel that everything that happens during this time is somehow only our responsibility, ours to confront, carry, and resolve, alone. By adjusting women’s bodies with contraception and allowing men to live as eternal teenagers—uncertain jobs, short-term flings, adolescent hobbies—we have placed the burden of whether to try for a baby almost entirely at women’s feet. We shield men from the reality of fertility, family, and female desire, because we have been conditioned to consider them uninteresting or unattractive. Throughout my twenties and into my thirties, I tried desperately to appear casual and carefree, believing that any hint at my true, complicated desires—in my case, for love, commitment, independence, a successful career, and ultimately a baby too—would render me single forever. I silenced myself, because I thought it made me more attractive. I tucked my weaknesses, my wants, and my womb out of sight.

    Becoming a parent is the only decision that comes with a biological deadline, the only one that cannot be reversed.

    I spoke to my friends, of course, but not always with total honesty, which meant that they, also, didn’t truly open up to me. By putting on a brave face and acting as if we were in control, we all somehow missed the fact that we were on the same train. Without the common shorthand of language and labels to communicate our experience, we became fragmented, uncertain, anxious, and embarrassed. Well, no more. I am here to crack my neck, unhook my bra, and give this thing a name.

    I’ve come up with plenty of suggestions along the way, formal and informal. Firstly, the jokes: fecund choice, egg roulette, whore crux, ova panic. There are the rural possibilities: winnowing, as in the sorting of grain; lacuna, a gap or space in bone; Rubicon, a river that appears impossible to cross; the dimmet, that magical time between daylight and twilight. There are the Latin ideas: reortempus, the time of decision; procogravidum, to be heavy with doubt, quasitinciens, to be pregnant with questions. Then there are the Germanic options: Schwangerfast, to be almost pregnant; Wechselperiode, the changing period; Trockenlege, to adapt and dry out. All apt, all better than nothing, but none bringing to mind the choking, creeping, bewildering nature of the beast.

    In the end, like the classification of some newly recognized flower or virulent weed, I’m calling it the Flux: a physical and emotional transformation found growing in the soil of the Panic Years. In the landscape, “flux” means the flowing of water; in our bodies it is the discharge of blood; in physics, the state of constant change. The Flux is the gap between adolescence and midlife, during which women lose that constructed artifice of control over their lives, confront their fertility, and build themselves new identities. The Flux is a specific process, provoked by biology, society, and politics, that drives so many of us through the Panic Years like, well, women possessed.

    The Panic Years is not a guide to finding the right man, getting your ideal job, learning to love yourself, how to get pregnant, or the best way to raise a child. It is about what happens when you’re heading toward the grown-up cutlery and matching sheets of adult life, and wondering if you should have a baby, if you only want one because you were brought up to want one, or if you’d even be able to have one if you tried. It is about trying to establish a career before you disappear into maternity leave; it is about wanting stability while your friendship group splinters into the parents and the not-parents; it’s about not just looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend, but a potential parent for your theoretical child; it is about fertility, gender inequality, and social stigma. It is about why you find yourself doing the Panicked Math that if you meet someone, and you date for a year, and if it takes two years to get pregnant, but if you were to aim for this job, and if your period started at thirteen, and your mom’s eggs ran out at 40… until suddenly you’re not doing math anymore but asking something bald and blank and unending: Who am I and what do I want from life?

    In my case, the Panic Years began at a house party visiting my friends in Liverpool, wearing a silver dress, standing in the disintegrating kitchen of a dead landlady whose lodger had put her ashes in a corner cupboard and thrown rugs over the rotten floorboards. My period was a month overdue and I was waking at four-thirty most mornings with my mouth full of fear and sickness. I’d left my boyfriend behind to come and visit my friends. As I looked around that green kitchen I was gripped with a thought that had been quietly lying under everything for weeks: I might be pregnant. I didn’t want to be pregnant. Not like this, not now. I didn’t want to be trapped that way. I knew it then with a clarity that frightened me. My body was telling me, before my mind had even realized, that I was unhappy. My womb had let off an emergency flare and, duly, I watched it burn. A month later, I was single, not actually pregnant after all, sitting in a greasy spoon in Walthamstow and marking my 28th birthday, alone, over a cup of instant coffee.

    Without the anchor of a partner, I spun into a world of work, parties, sweat, deadlines, running, travel, and cigarettes. Without the counterweight of love, and with the explosive ambition of a young journalist, I discovered that I could say yes to anything, everything. In fact, the more I said yes, the less I had to think. For a whole year my one professional rule was to say yes to absolutely every commission that came my way. I also went camping, had sex with men who couldn’t love me and whom I couldn’t love, pitched articles to newspapers I’d looked up to all my life, swam on windy beaches, wrote my heart out, asked myself if I really wanted a baby after all, cried for days before my period, made clothes, went on the radio, cut my hair, and listened to my records.

    The Flux is a specific process, provoked by biology, society, and politics, that drives so many of us through the Panic Years like, well, women possessed.

    One morning, in the speckled gray of early consciousness, I woke up with the tang of something familiar in my mouth, like the snatches of a song you used to sing at school. In my own bedroom, under my own pictures, under my own bedding smelling of my own washing powder, I was finally recalling who I was.

    Which is all very well, but by this point I was 30, and my female friends, who until that moment had been eating toast and drinking tea with me, ripping through their heartstrings and laughing in the face of time, suddenly grabbed their bags and were off: boyfriends, houses, engagement rings, weddings, pregnancies, babies. The race was on—against time, against our bodies, against the half-life of sperm and, inevitably, against one another. I knew, because I’d been there when it had happened, that my mother got menopause early—at 40—and so I had probably inherited less time than my peers; I was facing a shorter deadline. As a result, my Panic Years were particularly intense, my sprint for security more acute, my need to get my shit together relatively extreme. And yet somehow, I hadn’t heard the announcement, hadn’t even bought my ticket. The people I loved most were slipping away from me, while I was left behind, staggering in their wake.

    Less than two years later, I was in love. This man, with his shoulders like scaffolding and a chin like a peat shovel, arrived into my life unexpected, unpredicted, and unannounced. Just like that, I had boarded the train. I didn’t know the destination, but I knew I was going somewhere. And yet, what I’d imagined to be the solution to my disquiet turned out to just be the doorway to more questions. Big questions.

    For any woman entering a new relationship during the Panic Years, the future is pockmarked by the sort of existential decisions that can bring you to your knees. What does it mean for a working woman in an unaffordable country facing a climate disaster to commit to a partner, let alone the future of a child? How do you react when your best friend announces that she is pregnant? Is yours a different path? What if your partner doesn’t want children? What if they want children but just not yet, not now, not like this? Is this the time to move to a new country, change careers, buy an insanely expensive coat, fuck it all up, and sleep with somebody’s brother, buy a house somewhere cheap and go freelance? Should you buy a dog?

    Like your teeth being cracked out of your jaw so the cold wind can rush over your every exposed nerve, you realize that you have lost control again. Your body is held, suspended by contraception in a state of false infertility, while your mind races through the futures being lost. You may be on the train, but you forgot, somehow, to check the destination, and now, fists clenched and eyes burning, the world is sliding past you in a liquid blur. Love cannot stem the flow of eggs leaving your body, a warm bed doesn’t help you decide what you want to do for a career, a partner doesn’t end the civil war between brain and womb, a plus-one doesn’t necessarily make you feel whole. Three years after leaving my last relationship I realized once again something painful and something true: the Panic Years do not end with sex or shared towels; they aren’t simply quieted by the weight of another body in your bed.

    As I careened around my life, ending relationships, trying to earn more money, sharing my rented flat with friends I loved, going to therapy, strengthening my body, and having sex with increasingly kind people, I saw absolutely nothing tying those decisions together. As I move into my mid-thirties and away from all the dust and drama that blinded me to the long view, I see that the prospect of motherhood had been hovering over me all along. It had been my engine, preparing me for launch. Of course. Throughout the Panic Years, my body and my mind were unconsciously breaking up my old life in order to pave the way for a new one, one in which I could decide, if I wanted, to try for a baby. As Luke Turner writes, in his beautiful memoir Out of the Woods: “The decision to dynamite the foundations of a life will always throw rubble in unexpected directions.” Because, as reluctant as I have been to recognize it, and admit it to the people who mattered, I probably always wanted a baby.

    As I move into my mid-thirties and away from all the dust and drama that blinded me to the long view, I see that the prospect of motherhood had been hovering over me all along.

    In many ways, I coined the phrase The Panic Years for the Nell at 28, who stood in that kitchen in Liverpool, in her silver dress, beside another woman’s urn and felt sick with panic at what might happen. But really, it’s for everyone: those embarking on their Flux, those in the midst of the disorientation, those who are curious about motherhood whether they see themselves doing it or not, those who have been through it all and are looking for recognition, and for the men and women who just want to understand what’s going on all around them. I want to show why a 30th birthday party can seem like a one-woman wedding, what it’s like to be the only single person at a dinner party, how to cope with being sexually rejected in a very small tent, why you might start accidentally crying when your boss asks where you see yourself in five years’ time, how it feels to get your period after wondering if you’re pregnant, the fever that descends when you decide you want to try for a baby, what it’s like to imagine throwing that baby against the wall.

    It is time to celebrate the thundering libido of the 30-year-old as she drags herself up a mountain with a conspiracy theorist and his receding hairline. To wade through your own ambivalence about what might be the biggest decision of your life. To describe the lace-edged hell of other people’s baby showers. To relate how it feels to piss on a stick in a dripping toilet and hold your entire future in four centimeters of acidic paper.

    The moment has come to ask the big questions: Where are we and how did we get here? How do we liberate ourselves from our social conditioning, why do relationships end, why do people still get married, when does a fetus become a baby, what is the right salary, what is a family, how significant is turning 35, and how should we allocate the responsibility for contraception? As the weight of all these questions, and more, come crashing down on the shoulders of women in their twenties, thirties, and forties, it is time to start looking for answers.


    Nell Frizzell Panic Years Motherhood

    Excerpted from The Panic Years: Dates, Doubts, and the Mother of All Decisions by Nell Frizzell. Used with the permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan. Copyright © 2021 by Nell Frizzell.

    Nell Frizzell
    Nell Frizzell
    Nell Frizzell is a freelance journalist who writes a column for Vogue and also writes for the Guardian, Elle, Vice, Buzzfeed, the Independent, the Observer, and the Telegraph. She is best known for features and columns on gender, pregnancy, and parenting, and she has been featured several times on various BBC programs. In addition to journalism, Nell has written and performed comedy and works as a lifeguard. She lives in London with her partner and child.

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