First published on August 26, 2021
It’s not a biological clock. It’s Tim fucking Westwood blaring an airhorn through my cervix.
It’s all across my YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. When I turned 30, a flare shot into the sky to the data gods: “She’s ready, release the ads!”
Pregnancy tests, baby food, wedding venues, diet apps, yoghurt… never-ending yoghurt adverts with manic, grinning women rubbing their stomachs. Giggling babies coo on my timeline under a picture of someone I’ve forgotten from school. I can’t tell if everyone is having babies, or if they all have a timeshare of the same one, because, to me, they all look exactly the same – a timeline filled with tiny bald Elton Johns.
The biological clock is just a metaphor. This shouldn’t be a surprise but somehow it is. It’s so ingrained in our language that for some reason I pictured my ticking uterus like a Dali painting. Turns out the term was first coined in the 1970s by, unsurprisingly, a male journalist at the Washington Post. He reported the phenomenon as something female colleagues had confided in him, indicating that whilst equality may have been underway, many of us poor women were, and are, still distracted by the ticking that grows louder each year we blow out the candles.
Tick tick tick…
I decide to google my fertility. Like any good millennial, I’m drawn in by a quiz, and I find one that looks like something from Sugar magazine. Maybe I’ll find out if Josh ever did fancy me as well as how many years my uterus has left? The questions include age, prior pregnancies, sexual activity, Mother’s age at menopause and STIs. Each answer is appointed a score and at the end, you tally up your fate.
- 20-24 = Very fertile – Go get ‘em, tiger
- 15-19 = Chances are pretty good – Hold those knees up just to be sure
- 10-14 = Perhaps you should see your gynaecologist and have some testing done – Wait, so this quiz isn’t the test?
- Less than 10 = Probably need to see a reproductive endocrinologist/infertility specialist – Fuck
I score 11, praying my mum hit the menopause between 45 and 50 and that ‘hand stuff’ in the bedroom counts, as I’m just one point away from needing to visit my gynaecologist. Correction, needing to get a gynaecologist. The internet tells me that, at 30, the window for having two children has already closed. I think of Mick Jagger and his seeming inability to stop having children.
Whilst I am born with a finite number of eggs, my partner will continue to produce sperm throughout his life. The older I get, the riskier pregnancy becomes, both for me and for my unborn child. In just five years’ time, at 35, I would be, medically-speaking, a geriatric mum. Geriatric before I am middle-aged. There is no equivalent term for a father.
My eggs are a non-renewable source. They’re burning up inside me like coal and whilst every period is still a cause of celebration, I’m starting to see the loss. I’m flushing motherhood away because I’m not ready – and I don’t know when I will be.
In school, girls are taught that it’s so easy to get pregnant, any pair of idiots with a bottle of WKD and a can of Lynx Africa can do it. Just being in a room with a teenage boy puts you at risk. By sixth form, those of us who were terrified of getting knocked-up walked around like there was a target between our legs. We went on the pill before we’d lost our virginities, taking tiny tablets to suppress our moods and personalities and unknowingly being fed the fallacy that it’s up to girls alone not to get pregnant.
After a while, you get a little laxer. Before you know it, you’re in your twenties, peeing on a stick in the staff toilets at work so your housemates don’t find the test. Then you get to 30 and all of sudden getting pregnant is a task – people have to try for a baby. You’re against the clock and no amount of Lambrini and dry humping can help you now.
When I was in my undergrad years, I considered donating my eggs – that’s how cocky I was about my supply. It wasn’t until someone explained how they scraped them out of you that I decided I didn’t want to be used like an old peanut butter jar. I’m glad I didn’t do it. What if I found out now that I’d run out of eggs, having wasted them paying for Domino’s pizza and pitchers of Woo Woo? That now, someone else was walking around with my child?
Reasons to have a child:
- To see the result of mixing mine and partner’s genes (hypothesis: very cute apart from the nose).
- To live vicariously through their prescribed hobbies.
- To buy great matching dungarees.
- To use a buggy as a battering ram in supermarkets.
- To show off presumed child genius.
- To eat endlessly with the excuse “I’m growing a life”.
- To invest early in old age care.
- To quieten that strange feeling in pit of stomach that says I should.
A very clever man I don’t know, a man named Professor Paul Dolan, said that the healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children. So, if science says it, why the stigma? Why are people so obsessed with Jennifer Aniston or Taylor Swift’s ovaries? Why is the most important or exciting thing a cis-gendered woman can do still seen as getting pregnant, and why are we doing it if science says not doing it would make us happier and healthier? Why am I wasting time doing fertility quizzes when I could be out there doing anything else?
The real kicker here is that studies also show that getting married and having kids actually improves men’s health and happiness because it makes them settle down, take fewer risks, earn more and even live longer…
All the opposites were found for women. So, can I still be a feminist if I have a child? If I know that doing so will bolster the life of my male partner at the detriment of my own? Is being born to a woman the ultimate patriarchal victory? Did we all let down the fight on our first breath, our Father’s gift and our Mother’s sacrifice?
Boys, boys, boys
“We’re having a boy!”, our friends tell us over lunch. They’re expecting, but thankfully they don’t say “we’re pregnant!” That’s hideous.
She is pregnant – the result of three national lockdowns and nothing much on the TV after Tiger King. “I was so proud seeing those bollocks show up on the screen,” the husband is thrilled to tell us.
It’s strange, having friends with babies and marriages. It all feels very safe and predictable, a domino effect set up by some greater power and falling just as planned. As soon as another friend announces they’re pregnant, the rest of us make the same joke: “See you in a year or so.”
We then begin the send-off ritual. We suggest names, make plans, buy 0% Prosecco, get gifts, consider if our flat is baby-proof for visitations. Is it baby-proof or baby-safe? Our life is baby proof, but I’m not sure for how long.
I feel as though I’m standing in a long hotel corridor, like the one in The Shining, where everyone I know is in their own doorway. Each time a friend slams their door shut, a shock wave moves through the masonry and our door shudders in response, closing just a little bit, teetering on its hinges. Who knows, perhaps there’s a window open on the inside of those closed rooms – but to me, it feels like a trap. Not necessarily an unpleasant one but an enclosure, nonetheless, the only exit a crumbling, rusty fire escape that holds the weight of one person at a time.
Planning is my addiction. Planning shopping lists, planning hen dos, DIY, writing, holidays, meetings, sex. My planning is so out of hand, I have to plan to do the planning. Come to think of it, planning isn’t an addiction – at least smoking would bring joy. Planning is more like a compulsion. Living in the moment is for teenagers or divorced women taking self-discovery trips in films. If I don’t plan, nothing gets done. If nothing gets done, then what am I doing with my life and how do I expect to achieve anything/everything?
During an evening walk, when we should be enjoying the smell of summer or the sounds of birds performing their curtain call, my partner and I start doing life maths – our ages, the ages and conditions of our parents, our financial, residential and relationship status.
We draw the timeline in the air between us crossing out hypothetical plans, adding milestones, pushing them back. I’m still in uni, add another year. What about that trip to South America we always talked about? Should we get married? I’d like to do that before a kid so we can make the most of the party. We’ll need to save for that, add two more years. Where is this money coming from? It doesn’t matter, it’s all hypothetical. Sort of. Not really.
Between parental health and home renovations the sum equals three to five years before we could consider becoming parents. I shudder.
One of the biggest concerns influencing my baby making decision is the pressure to have a child whilst my parents are still functioning. I started to type alive at the end of that sentence, but actually, I want more than that. This is by far one of the bleakest conversations I’ve shared with my partner.
None of our parents live close, which for the past few years has been a blessing. However, the thought of growing a life inside of me without the support of my mum now feels untethering. I need the presence of the Mother that I am not yet able to be. I need to soak up her motherliness, become a mother by proxy, by osmosis. I know this isn’t a necessity – lots of women raise their kids entirely alone, but I’m not convinced that I’m cut out for it.
My mum isn’t well. She’s had so many mini-strokes, heart attacks, and other illnesses that when filling in my family medical history, it’s easier to go back and untick boxes. She’s in and out of the hospital and should, the doctors say, be in a wheelchair by now. Standing on two feet is a testament to my mum’s bloody-mindedness, but her condition will keep deteriorating. This leaves me fretting, weighing up the options between chasing my bad-paying dreams, or making sure I have a child in time for them to play with their grandparents. What if my kid, unlike my five nieces and nephews, never gets lifted onto a lap, or swung into the air? I’m afraid my kid won’t see my mum stand.
To add to my cocktail of fertility fears, the degenerative bone disease pulling my mum closer to a wheelchair each day is hereditary. If arthritis is an old person’s disease, then call me Mary Berry and pass the sponge cake, because I am riddled. Whilst my arthritis seems to have gone somewhat dormant for now, from the ages of 8 to 16 I was rarely found without a mobility aid, be that a wheelchair, crutches or wrist splints that made me look like a beige robot. Arthritis is the second ticking clock in my body. It’s almost certain it will come back – it’s more a question of when and how badly.
What if I pass it on to my child as well? What if they grow up in pain? Or what if pregnancy and carrying a baby brings back the burning in my knees and hips? What if I’m in so much pain I can’t lift my child onto my lap or help swing them in the air?
This is why we’re advertised all those ridiculous bio yoghurts, I’ve come to realise.
Because 50% of the population is walking around bloated and queasy from planning, preparing or making decisions that feel enormous and imminent. Your womb is a vessel for a baby or for uncertainty and then guilt. We’re stressed and indecisive and, to add insult to injury, stress can impact your fertility.
The choice feels like this: you either become a mother and feel the incomparable love it brings, or you don’t and you instead live a life of (albeit sometimes lonely) childless luxury. But in reality, neither of these feel realistic. If I don’t have a child, I doubt I’ll spend my weekends at the spa and if I do – well, I’ve met my nieces and nephews and I see what fresh hell they can be. No amount of Yakult makes this choice easier to swallow.
A friend tells me that her (female) boss asks when she is planning on having kids, so she can make sure my friend is promoted before then and will have a leg-up when she comes back from maternity leave.
“Apparently, it’s near impossible to get promotions like that once you’ve given birth,” my friend tells me matter-of-factly as we walk through the park. She’s pretty sure she doesn’t want children, but now it seems she has to put her career on turbo boost in case she changes her mind. It’s a kind gesture, but no better than offering a single inflatable armband after pulling someone overboard with you.
It’s a gut-punching reminder that, even before you make that decision, you, the potential pregnant person, have to start changing your life: proving yourself early, planning for something you might not want to do but that people assume you will. And you’re expected to make a decision, safe in the knowledge that if you do the thing you’re not sure you even want to do but that you’re expected to do, when you come back, you’ll be professionally stunted, physically exhausted and spending conference calls clenching and releasing, trying to regain control of your pelvic floor and career trajectory at the same time.
Where are the men in all this?
Here’s some science we don’t hear all too often. With sperm’s swimmers slowing down and some genes mutating with age, the child of an older father can suffer from a range of developmental and psychiatric disorders, while the mother may be put at risk of pregnancy complications. Despite this, no-one is judging Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro or Rod Stewart, asking them how they managed to do it or if they’re worried about the dangers. Instead, we congratulate them – well done Sir Jagger, your balls still work.
I tell my partner that at 30, I feel as though I’m drying up. He reminds me that he’s in his prime. I don’t tell him that for the next 20 years, he’ll be brewing poison in his pants.
As a small child, I remember the surprise in learning that my mum had another name, one that wasn’t said in our house, school or at the doctors. I asked her about it, and she told me: Dawn.
I sounded out the word in my mouth, quietly, feeling my way around the curves of it. She told me I wasn’t ever to call her that. Her true name was a spell, I realised, and by incanting it, I would break the illusion between us. She would no longer be Mum. I still wouldn’t dare to call her it now, but it is her name. It was her name for 27 years, long before my brother, sister and I came along.
“By becoming a mother, I lost everything. My self-worth and identity,” she tells me. “I remember telling you kids, I might as well have my name changed to Mum permanently. It sickened me.”
My mum is an open book and so it’s not that surprising that she would be so honest about her experience of motherhood. But when I asked her why she had children the answer was predictable: “It was expected. Get married and have kids. People just kept asking me, ‘when are you going to have them?’ so we did.”
When I was little, we had a holly bush in our garden. Mum would repeatedly tell us not to play near it or kick the ball in there. I assumed it was because it was sharp, and I was impressively accident-prone. Later, I found out it was a memorial for a daughter my mum had lost before me. All in all, my mum has been pregnant five times, with three children to show for it. After the first miscarriage, before my eldest sibling, she didn’t want to try again. “It was too hard. I told your dad we should get a dog instead.” Yet, before long, she was pregnant with my brother. She warns me, as she has done many times before, that miscarriages run in the family. But she leaves it at that, and I can’t bring myself to pry any further.
She swiftly segues into funny, gory stories about what to expect from pregnancy, barely coming up for air between describing her leaking boobs and the alien growing inside her. “It’s like the invasion of the body snatchers. All you’re thinking is how will you get it out of there?!”
She speaks like a child returning to the playground after a trip to A&E. She’s a veteran, ready to share her war stories. We’re laughing when I ask her, why did she keep putting her body through it? “If there is one thing a woman is here for, it’s procreation – so there must be something in it?”
I begin to wonder if something was slipped into women’s contraceptives or sanitary wear, a tiny microchip sending control signals to the brain that keeps us buying into this cult – this myth that just because you have a womb you have to use it. Why else would my mum, who in one breath tells me “I’d never recommend anyone have children,” in the next reinforce this dangerous lie?
“But there were times when you’d move, and I’d feel a flutter. You were my own little secret, growing inside me. Then you were born and something of me went into you and there it was looking back at me,” she says. I can hear her smiling.
It’s a lovely sentiment but I’m not entirely convinced it’s worth it. My parents divorced when I was 11 and I know it was an unhappy marriage for many years. What if she hadn’t had us? What if they’d separated whilst she was still in her twenties and she went back to studying or travelled like she’d wanted?
“Would I be without you? No,” she answers. “Would my life have been better without you? Perhaps.” It’s a perhaps that she is at ease with. For me it rocks the boat. She has come to terms with her lives unlived, but I am haunted by decisions I’m yet to make.
Invasion of the yummies
The letters are in block capitals, emblazoned on a T-shirt across her chest, just peeking over the handles of the buggy she’s leaning on whilst talking to a fellow pram-pusher. When did mums start looking like me? I remember when mums were all permed hair and snot stains on their sleeves. To say these women look like me is, in fact, an insult to them. They look like me on a very good day.
I have Marmite on my cardigan. I haven’t eaten Marmite today. This is days’ or weeks’ old Marmite that’s integrated with the wool fibres of my clothes. My hair is in a scrunchie that is too big for my recently cut do complete with regrettable fringe. It’s too warm for this cardigan, but I can’t take it off because I have sweat patches. The only person I had to get dressed today was me and I have barely managed that. We should swap t-shirts… if only mine wasn’t so wet.
Are we nearly there yet?
Some people say the clock doesn’t really start ticking until you’re 35, some even 37, but I think I hear mine already. Maybe I’ll take a real test, not an internet one, to understand the state of things in there. But then what? If the Doctor says, “better get a bun in the oven while it’s still hot,” what would I do? Get home and demand my partner pumps a baby in me stat? What happens then?
Will I become that person who only talks about their child, who tells other women that it’s worth it because “you’ll never know love like it”? What sort of reason is that? I’ll never know the satisfaction of the first drink after being stranded in a desert, but I’m not galivanting to the Sahara. Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I’d like to propose an amendment: we tell ourselves lies in order to live.
My partner and I discuss our life as hypothetical parents. We’ll still go on holiday, we’ll still make art, have jobs and go to galleries. We’ll still have fun just us, have sex, see our friends and exist outside of the titles of Mum and Dad.
Or rather, he will. The question I still can’t answer is, will I?