If you are a person with a uterus within a certain age range, chances are the phrase “biological clock” has been uttered in close proximity to you – and, likely, within your own brain – more times than you would prefer. The idea that many of us live a portion of our adult lives to the tune of a ticking clock is such a ubiquitous part of our existence that it is easy to take it for granted, to perhaps ignore or accommodate it, rather than subject it to serious inquiry or pressure. In The Panic Years: Dates, Doubts, and the Mother of All Decisions, a memoir publishing today in the U.S., UK-based journalist Nell Frizzell pushes on the bruise of finite fertility and its impact on ambitious and independent women. “Unlike childhood, adolescence, menopause, or the mid-life crisis,” Frizzell writes in the book’s introduction, “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.” She calls this phase “the Panic Years” or “the Flux” and tells her own story of navigating its currents as a way to elucidate the mental and physical havoc it can wreak. Ultimately, the book is as much a lament about men’s attitudes toward fertility and parenthood as it is a description of the panic many women feel as they move past early adulthood. Maybe if we were doing this together, Frizzell argues, we could come up with some better solutions.
It struck me while reading the book and speaking with Frizzell that the Panic Years can take on a different shape or duration depending on who you are, whom you hope to partner with, and, if you want to have a child, what avenues for doing so are open to you. The book made me want to read still more, yet-to-be written books and essays on the different forms that panic can take (happily, Frizzell is hosting a Panic Years podcast so we’ll get to hear more people talk about their own individual panic years) but The Panic Years is a necessary, passionate, and hilarious start to a conversation many of us have spent a long time trying not to have, mostly to our detriment. Read on for our conversation on getting a book deal after having a baby, why panicking is a privilege (but worthy of analysis all the same), and how Rob Delaney feels about his vasectomy.
This might be quite a time for you, promoting a book about deciding whether to have a child while home with your small child during a pandemic.
I think it would be absolutely brilliant if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic and my partner wasn't a teacher. I'm sure you had this, my son was in nursery for six months before this happened so I just got a glimmer of what it was like to not be doing 24-hour-a-day childcare and like, you know, taking off trousers then having to put them back on again, the waistband is so much tighter the second time around. Now that I've had the release of day care...
I compare it to college dorm rooms. You can go from a double to a single but you cannot go back from a single to a double. That's always what losing childcare has felt like to me at least. Before you know any different, it's fine. Once you see another way, you're like, how?
Yeah, juggling writing a book and my son not being in childcare was sort of fine because I didn't know any better but promoting a book having tasted just a little morsel of that freedom is sort of tricky.
You could be doing all this publicity during the daytime.
Yeah, can you imagine if I would be writing things in daylight rather than in the weird, pre-dawn?
The book is so aptly titled because I can't think of a better description for what so many of us feel -- that is, when we allow ourselves to think about it -- as we move past early adulthood. That panic of, ‘will I have enough time to get the life I want?’ I remember doing that same calculus you talk about in the book of, if I met someone tomorrow and fell in love and, you know, I want x amount of time to be with them before we even think about having children and I want to have y number of children, and it's exhausting. Plus, I was doing this at 24 years old? It's crazy, right?
It's absolutely crazy-making and also sort of shameful because I don't know about you but my friends, we weren't talking about that. I don't know how many of them were doing the maths. I was frantically calculating all the time but we never actually baldly said to each other, ‘how many years are you going to try and have casual sex before we meet someone? Do we want to have kids at the same time?’ It was like this sort of strange, unspoken pact, almost like a kind of confidence trick, like if we don't mention it at all and then we can just pull it out of the hat at the last minute and no one has to see the sausage getting made. The maths actually drove me insane and I think made me feel quite lonely because I wasn't admitting it to anyone else and therefore no one else was admitting it to me. And I felt like I was in this sort of strange little silo of panic and, just to add insult to injury, none of the straight cisgender men in my life were doing the maths at all. And I know they still aren't, even the ones who are in their 40s and have always said they wanted have children. They still haven't quite done the a plus b equals c calculation that that would mean maybe committing to a partner now. They haven't joined the dots somehow.
But shouldn’t some sort of male panic also exist? Because even if you ignore the fact that male fertility also declines with age, we all die at some point and the later you have children, the less time you have with them, the less time they have with you. But there doesn’t seem to be a male equivalent of the panic years.
No, and I think there is almost an entire other book to be written about why do men not panic. This is my book about why I panicked and I would love to read the book that just says ‘why I didn't panic.’ Why are men not panicking? Is it because they've been told their fertility is infinite? Is it because there is a suspicion of men around children that is sort of really unfortunate? Is it because a sort of certain type of consumer capitalism has encouraged men to put making and spending money above their family? There's loads of reasons, I'm sure, but I couldn't write that book because it wasn't my experience. I don't know if this is relevant but I went into the meeting pitching, I want to write a book that is like the 20 questions you were too embarrassed to ask about parenthood. I wanted to write a book that kind of broke down all the major taboos or gross indignities of early parenthood. And my then-agent quite rightly was like this is quite a saturated market and what him and I had talked about just casually before about how there were these years where everyone just talked endlessly round and round the toilet bowl about will we have children, who with, when, how, in what way, that maybe that was not explored as well as the actually once you've had babies. So I thought, yeah, there is a gap here. There's a gap between the ‘I'm a single carefree woman in my twenties’ and ‘I'm a responsible mother in my 30s or 40s.’ We almost need another decade between those two decades to do the sort of handbrake turn.
I went to a very feminist women's college and I am an unabashed feminist, as are most of my friends, and we never talked about this either and I think it was because like we felt like we couldn't, like it would be giving in to something. Also, many of us came from a more religious community where the focus is so much on marriage and having kids that we were kind of pushing back on that, saying ‘we're just trying to be ourselves and figure out who we are.’ No one talked about the panicking part because it would be like admitting that we also cared about those things, or cared too much.
A sort of friend and woman I interviewed for a podcast I'm doing, a British South Asian woman so obviously a different but perhaps relatable kind of cultural background to the one you're describing where her aunties and mother were very keen on 'you're going to get married and have children and that being the big thing. And she said, if you've spent 15 years striving to prove what an ambitious, career-driven, intellectual, assertive woman you are, to then admit that you would really like to nurture, breastfeed, birth, wash, cuddle, sing to, soothe a baby feels really lame and it's sort of almost a betrayal of the woman that you fought to be beforehand. And I'm very lucky, I was raised by a very politically-engaged mother who also left this kind of field open to me. She would talk to me about how she couldn't even buy a fridge when she was my age because she didn't have a husband to counter-sign to say that she was able to buy a fridge even though she had the money. So to say to my mum, ‘oh, actually, I just want to have a partner and a baby’ almost felt like I should be taking the torch and carrying it on.
Right, all of the hard-fought gains of that generation...
Yeah, I think that was a hang up I had to confront and actually almost completely turn on its head. There's a Gloria Steinem quote about we have dared to raise our daughters like sons, but do we dare to raise our sons like daughters? And we have dared to push the right for women to work and be financially and socially independent, but have we dared to then argue that some women and men also want to be parents and to have a life that is not going to earn anyone else money? Oh my god, that is such a radical thing. In the book I talk about that 1970 first Women's Liberation Conference where the first point of order was 24-hour free Child Care on demand which, when I was in my 20s, I was like sure that sounds nice and now I'm like, oh my god, that would utterly transform the nation.
It would change everything.
And I remember thinking, after I'd had my son, it is more socially acceptable in your social life or in your in your professional life to talk about a pair of trainers you've bought or a film you've seen than the life you've made or the child you're raising. That is absurd, actually, and also quite depressing. Why is it more interesting? Why do we treat the hobby of buying curtains as more sort of valid or interesting than the utterly essential work of raising a child? After I gave birth, I remember one of my very, very early thoughts was ‘well, I don't need to go to war.’ This is why men invented war, because the sheer courage, physical endurance, self-sacrifice, being pushed to the very, very edge of what seems physically and emotionally and logistically possible, all of that is so colossal that any man who's ever witnessed it must think, ‘oh shit, what do we bring to the table of humanity?’ I've not been in trench warfare but I think a midwife has essentially been in a day-to-day exposure with human bravery, courage, resilience that is similar if not more impressive.
It struck me when I was reading The Panic Years that it's a very 21st century book. It couldn't have been written for our grandmothers’ generation. Similar to that idea of the teenager as a 20th century invention because there were no more child labor laws and all of a sudden this whole period of life kind of got produced out of an air, it seems to me that because of birth control, because of, depending on where you live, access to abortion, we have all these choices which give us this illusion of control which is the only reason we can panic in the first place when we ultimately come up against the wall of this one thing we can't control, which is our fertility.
Yeah. I almost think there should be like a giant note all over the front page of the book that sort of says, ‘I know that panicking is a privilege that I'm very lucky to have.’ I absolutely understand that if you are a woman of color in an economically developing country, you don't have this problem and that's far worse, of course. If you don't have access to contraception or access to legal abortion, because there will always be people having abortions, they just won't be legal. Or if you don't have access to the kind of education that would mean you could work or all of those things then yes, you don't get to 28 and think ‘oh my God, should I have a baby?’ But I think if progress is to be progress, it has to also confront its shortcomings. I think if we are going to celebrate the enormous gains that feminism has made in even just the last 50 years- the widespread access to the contraceptive pill, that is incredibly meaningful but it is only meaningful if we are also then allowed to say the pill made me weep for three months and it turned me into a clay-breasted bovine misery because otherwise, what is it? It's just another means to keep women in a state of sort of- not control, but if you're not allowed to criticize the gains you have then they're not really gains, I think.
You talk about male contraception-
What happened to vasectomies? Why do we not talk about this? There are so many men who won't remember my name but I want to go back to them now and say, ‘you know how when we slept together you said you absolutely definitely never wanted to have a child, why didn't you get a vasectomy then?’
Right, there's no panic over ‘should I get a vasectomy or should I not? What if I change my mind later?’ Nobody's doing that.
And if you really mean it that you definitely know you don't want to have children then put the scissors where your mouth is and do it. I knew I wanted to have children and yet I spent years having uncomfortable and sometimes hormonally-devastating treatments in order to not have them because the people around me didn't want to have them. The number of straight men I know who expect their partners to alter their bodies because of their feelings and would be outraged at the idea that they should alter their own bodies to ascribe to their feelings is just- and these are enlightened, kind, beautiful, lovely men but they just don't think about it. They don't think they need to do it because why would I have surgery when my wife can just take the pill and I don't have to think about it anymore. Do you know the comedian Rob Delaney, the writer?
Yes, I loved Catastrophe.
So when I interviewed him he was like, ‘I got a vasectomy – I LOVE it.’ And I said, ‘I knew it, I knew it was a good thing!’ Surgery is maybe not the contraception for everybody but where is the hormone-free, side-effect-free male contraceptive?
I want to talk about freelancing: on the one hand it can be this perfect work situation for someone with small children because you can set the pace and be available for your child when you need to be available. But it can also be relentless because in order to make a decent living you kind of have to be working all the time. You freelanced before you had a baby and have freelanced since and written a book. What has that been like?
I have to be careful in how I talk about it because I know that I'm inordinately lucky but I also want to provide some hope to people who might be in the same situation. The truth is that I was a moderately successful writer before I had a baby and I would pitch like two or three ideas a day, and maybe two of them would get picked up in a week or something and I'd get paid a hundred or hundred fifty pounds a pop and I could rent my flat and I could cycle everywhere and live relatively cheaply. And I'd always been told that having a baby basically dropkicks your career into a big bin. And so I thought that I've got to get my career sorted and then the irony was that when I had a baby, I then quite quickly after got a book deal which gave me more freedom to work and I basically knew that I had enough money that I didn't have to keep coming up with new ideas every day. It gave me time and space that meant that I could look after my son and feel like a proper writer for the first time, like a proper, proper writer who was able to pay my bills without really worrying about it.
Did you have child care at that point?
No, I had my mum living in the same city and my partner's mum living in the same city.
But you still need the time, right?
Well, until I got the book deal, I discovered that I couldn't afford to have the baby that I had just had. The book deal basically meant that I then could afford to have a baby.
So the book about having your baby allowed you to afford your baby.
Yeah, that's the joke of it. You know, there's this saying – it's an Irish saying, apparently – that babies bring money and friends and in my case that was true. Having a baby gained me more friends and earned me more money, which is absolutely not the case if I'd been a waitress.
That should be on the cover of the book. Buy this book and you too-
And you too can transform your life. But if I was a waitress or a nurse or a primary school teacher or a cleaner that wouldn't be true. Like you say, being a writer is a very sort of privileged position in that sense. But also, to not get too pretentious, creatively the restrictions that having a baby brought to my writing practice such as it is also seemed to be incredibly galvanizing and incredibly useful. When I was a child-free, single woman, I would theoretically have 10 to 12 hours a day to write and when I had a baby I had between four in the morning when I had to breastfeed him and six in the morning when he woke up and my partner went to work, and then if I was lucky I had between one in the afternoon and maybe two and a half in the afternoon in which to work. So, The Panic Years, almost I'd say 90% of it was written in four-hour chunks when my baby was asleep.
Talk about heroics. That you could write a book in those small chunks of time.
There aren't many men I know who have, because of their child, had to do their work in such a sort of compressed way.
I'm actually very eager to interview dads because of course every writer is a beautiful snowflake, but there are themes that emerge when you interview writers who are parents about how they do it, and I'm just dying to know whether it's the same for men. Like, find me a man who's writing during naps.
When I listen to interviews or read interviews with male novelists of a certain generation, they always seem to be walking off to their private office or private apartment on the other side of the city in order to concentrate. And I've been to Wordsworth's house – this is such a great analogy for the whole shebang – he built a special walkway that meant he could walk down the mountain through his garden and straight into his office without having to go through the kitchen and possibly interact with his wife, sister, and many children. And I think that's simply not available to mothers, I don't think, or very few. And if that was available to me, I don't know if I'd take it. I don't really want a Victorian sort of relationship with my son where I pat him on the head before bed.
And as you pointed out, it can be very generative, being in that role and having small people around. But it also sounds nice to have a cottage to walk to. I would be willing to walk through the kitchen, definitely.
Just the divided attention. Just to have undivided attention suddenly becomes this incredibly valuable resource after you have children, and especially if you're working within your home that you share with children. I know there are writers who also have to fit that in around a day job so they have a commute or they have another time when they can do it, but for me it was basically naps. And now that I'm promoting the book during a pandemic, ironically, I'm back to it. I wrote a novel in the spring exactly the same way. I woke up at four in the morning and I wrote it. Luckily now that he's three years old, I'm no longer breastfeeding my son so I just had to wake myself up at four in the morning. It's not for everyone and it sometimes makes you feel like one of those sort of strange Franciscan monks, but I do think that there is something about the pre-dawn that is just incredible. I would take the dark before the morning over the dark at night every single time. I hear from writers more often than any other job that they love mornings and I think there must be something in the air.
That's how I wrote a lot of my dissertation, actually, but the problem is that I now have a child who has an almost spiritual perception of when I'm awake.
I do think it's almost a sort of telepathic sense, they know.
The umbilical cord was cut long ago but he still has this very strong connection to my body rhythms. I'll wake up before five and if I can't fall back asleep I'll think, if I'm going to be up anyway I might as well get work done. But I know that if I stay in bed and just look at the ceiling, he will stay in bed and he'll probably sleep even later than usual. But if I even try to go downstairs and sit down to write for an hour or two, he'll be right there with me.
Well, do you know I started to do and this really does hold up the telepathic argument. I would make myself a thermos of coffee the night before and have it by the bed, and so I would literally wake up, sit up in bed, pour myself a cup of coffee, and write in bed. I wouldn't turn the light on and the noise I made was equivalent to turning over in bed. I was silent, I didn't move, I didn't wee, I didn't do anything. And he would know. He was like two rooms away and he'd be like ‘sounds like somebody's thinking’ [screams].
‘Mother is trying to be a person today, trying to create things that are not me.’
Someone's trying to have an analytical thought, I had better start screaming and shit myself.
They're so magical in that way. This also reminds me of your recent column on how the loneliness of parenthood is this weird kind of loneliness because you're not actually alone. I wonder if this is true for other writers but I am more of an introvert and I find that rarely feel lonely because I can always use the time to write. But parenthood takes that silver lining out of loneliness because it's almost impossible to get any writing done with a small child. So being alone with a child makes you feel more lonely than being alone in a literal sense.
Yeah, I think there's an interesting parallel there with boredom. As a writer you don't often get bored because there's always work you could be doing and as a parent you're not meant to get bored because you're meant to find your children very interesting and you're not meant to get lonely with your children around because you're meant to find them great company and actually I'm quite happy to admit that I get both bored and lonely when I'm hanging out with my son. Even now that he is verbal and he wants to play and still I find myself thinking 'I haven't spoken to anyone for eight hours.' What was he saying today over and over again? 'I think this is a ladybird. I think this is a lady bird. I think this is a lady bird,' honestly like a machine. And I'd say, 'yes, it is a lady bird.' And you think, this isn't exactly company. This isn't quite the sort of social interaction that really fends off loneliness. This is this is one step up from a doorbell. Maternal guilt is like a whole other podcast, but I think the guilt you feel about being bored or being lonely exacerbates the boredom and the loneliness. And I also wonder, because I don't think they feel judged in the way that women feel judged, I don't know about dads. I don't know about paternal boredom and paternal loneliness because I don't know about paternal guilt. Maybe they do.
My husband has a higher tolerance for playing than I do.
Oh my god, Sara, I hate playing. I hate it. I'm so bad at it and my partner can do it for hours. If I had the choice between animating a cardboard box for an hour or literally walking up and down the road for an hour, I'll go for the road. I'll just walk him around and look at other people's houses through their windows. My partner is completely the opposite. He can sit at home for hours and hours making imaginative play, incredible development of language and alternative world and all that stuff and he'll realize that they haven't gone out and they're still in their pajamas and no one's brushed their teeth. Which is why it's good to have two parents and they don't have to be in a romantic relationship and they don't have to be a man and a woman and they don't have to live together. But if you can have two figures raising a child, two or more, I do think that's where it comes into its own because if it was just me, he wouldn't have any toys, we would just be marching around.
You write about how, when you're in those Panic Years and you hear that someone is pregnant, it can feel like a knife in your heart, even if you also feel very happy for that person. And I've been struck by the way this continues long after you think it will. I'm pregnant with my fourth child, which feels insane right now, but when I was deciding whether or not to do it, when I had three children and could have easily stopped and been very happy for the rest of my life, when I would hear about someone getting pregnant, it would bring up all these questions, like a little miniature version of the Panic Years. And then when I did get pregnant and another friend of mine also got pregnant with her fourth child, it felt like a validation of my own decision. What is that about and why do we do this to ourselves?
I have spent the last three years, because that's how old my son is, really trying to pick apart what this is. Is it envy? What is going on? Is it hope? Is it the need to recreate the family that I grew up in? Why is it that if a woman I love tells me that she is having another baby, I feel like a failure, I feel rejected, I feel sad.
We immediately internalize it, which is not how we take most other news.
It becomes almost immediately a judgment- not a judgment, but about me and my life. And my partner is the only child of a single mum so his understanding of family is really different to mine. I grew up with a sister and then my dad also has two other children who came around when I was in my twenties. But the rational part of my brain thinks, you have a child, your labor was good, they are healthy, you've got no reason to feel like there's something missing from your life. And during the pandemic I've had moments of thinking, god, I'm really lucky that I'm not having to do this and breastfeed or be pregnant. I'm sorry.
No, you are right. I had the same thoughts.
I think that I can cope now and I'm not sure if I could cope if I had another child. And yet, still there are nights when I go to bed crying because I just want another. What is it? Do I want another baby? Do I want to be pregnant again? Do I want to give birth? I've thought about surrogacy. If it is just the act of giving birth that I want again, maybe I can do that without becoming a parent again. Or if it's the validation that my partner wants to be with me for the rest of our lives, maybe we could just get married. Or if it is because I want to have a bigger, broader family then maybe I just make more of an effort to sort of cohabit with another family. There are other ways around doing that than getting pregnant. But I think what I really want is to be pregnant again. We were in couples therapy up until the pandemic because it was tearing us apart. He is absolutely sure he doesn't want to have any more children and I don't believe him. I don't believe him and I think he might be wrong, which is so reductive and so offensive because of course that is how he's feeling. He's an adult and, for completely rational reasons about money and the climate and our lifestyle, thinks that we have enough children. And I can rationally agree with him and yet not feel the same and not agree with him.
That rational versus emotional part is so key. For me, there were so many reasons to not get pregnant again and I was sick of thinking about it, so tired of the should I, shouldn't I but I also wasn't willing to say I was definitely done. And I had that ticking clock and I was worried that I would regret not doing it.
That should I, shouldn't I, should I, shouldn't I. One friend, she's much older, she's in her 60s, a lesbian woman, and she said when she got the menopause, it was such a relief because she didn't have to ask herself anymore what she was going to do.
That's how I feel about this baby.
Yeah, it's your baby menopause, you have answered the question. The regret doesn't get talked about nearly enough.
Regret is the biggest word in the word cloud.
And it's such a taboo on either side because I think if you decide not to have children you are expected to justify that decision to everyone and you cannot let in any possible chink of light that you might regret it because then everyone will say you did the wrong thing, and vice versa. And so I really struggled with that, you know, and I only had one but in the early days of him being alive, I would look at him and I'd look at my partner and think ‘oh my god what have I done?’ Not to get too macabre, but I remember thinking, if I had died during labor, Nick would be a single dad to a baby he'd never even planned to have. Like, how dare I have done this to anyone? And, of course, I regretted it. That regret was temporary and it wasn't harmful and hopefully I've parented in exactly the same way as someone who doesn't talk about their regret, the difference is just that I have been open about it.
Buy the book that Rob Delaney calls “vital reading” here or wherever books are sold where you live and panic.