It is a prolonged period of writer’s block and a penchant for procrastination that has led me to the perilous point upon which I am now teetering, with a frighteningly small number of days left to finish this essay. As the deadline marches irrevocably closer I find myself working backwards to find the specific amount of time I have left; over the years I have perfected this technique, enabling me to truly grasp the scale of the mess I’ve left myself in. I’m an expert at working myself up into a frenzy wondering how things could have been different if I’d started earlier, and what am I going to miss out on once I start prioritising the task in hand? This whole thought process is anxiety-producing, terror-inducing, and most heinous of all, unproductive.
My sister became a mother at 24 years old. As she’s older than me, I suppose it doesn’t matter what age this happened, she’d have still felt old to me, but when I consider the state of my own life at 24 it does feel very young. The thought of bringing a vulnerable, dependent little potato into my world back then was laughable; do babies enjoy clubbing and menthol cigarettes? Her husband was at work when the first scan rolled around, so I volunteered to accompany her to the hospital. I was excited to see the first glimpse of my nephew, but for reasons still unknown, I found myself at a house party the night before, so I arrived in the morning dishevelled, hungover, and thirty minutes late. I walked in to find my sister sitting with our mother, waiting for the scan pictures to be printed and wondering why her disgusting sibling was running into the room with penises drawn all over her arm.
My nephew is everything a nephew should be. Just the right combination of adorable, innocent, and curious. He’s also very demanding, and truly believes he’s the boss of everyone, which I think makes him all the more charming. I live a few hours away from my family, so whenever I’m home I make sure to spend as much time with him as possible, before I go away again and he selfishly continues to grow up to the extent where he’s slightly different every time I see him. I recently picked him up from school, and he immediately went to work on me.
‘Aunty Em, do you have your money?’
I stayed quiet; experience had taught me exactly where this was leading.
‘Can we go to the shop?’
He looked up at me with his little hazel eyes, only 4 years old, filled with wonder and delight and a scarily sophisticated understanding of how to manipulate the adults around him.
He swindled me out of three chocolate bars and a Lego magazine. On our way home, full of sugar, he began to run ahead of me and my heart crept up into my mouth. As I quickened my pace to catch up, shouting his name, I was sure there was a busy road ahead, and the more I yelled the faster he seemed to go, the closer I got towards him the further away he became. How could those tiny legs propel him so far? I threw my bag to the ground to increase my speed, smashing my phone in the process, and managed to grab him before he was in any danger. Then I looked up and realised he never really was. The busy road I was imagining was a few streets over.
I am descended from a long line of anxiousness. I’m not sure how my ancestors made it through the evolutionary process at all.
‘Why is my child less hairy than me?’
‘Her forehead is smaller than mine, where is her brain?’
‘IS ANYONE ELSE’S CHILD USING TOOLS?’
Mercifully, it seems it isn’t just us. Steve Jobs once described parenthood as having your ‘heart running around outside your body’, and I’m sure every parent I’ve met would agree. Parenthood is fear. I’m 25 years old and I feel the need to tell my mother when I’ve eaten a meal with vegetables so she’ll stop worrying about my (admittedly high) salt intake. We recently reached a really exciting new level where she worries about me and I worry about her too. She worries about me worrying, and I worry about her worrying about me worrying. It’s becoming a real worry.
I find one of the best ways to worry yourself is self-diagnosis. During my first year of university I remember suddenly feeling out of kilter, so like any self-respecting hypochondriac I researched my symptoms. Each of these was a separate concern; breast pain (could be cancer), nausea (ulcerative colitis), fatigue (myalgic encephalomyelitis), bloating (urinary tract infection), but when you put them all together, what do you get? Unplanned pregnancy. One Very Big Concern. This was then confirmed by a doctor, who listened to my stomach and explained to me and my mother that the heartbeat we could hear was the next little person to inherit our shared idiosyncrasies. Concern developed into full-blown panic as I lost my breath, and tried to work out how to fit a crib into my university digs. As though she was reading my mind, through a shaking voice my mum exclaimed ‘But she’s just started her degree!’ as though that fact was going to change anything.
On the way to the scan the next morning I could feel a new bond forming between me and my mum, tying us closer together, as she described what I was in for over the next few months. It’s this extra strand of motherly love that I see now between her and my sister, one that was only forged once she became a mother and they shared an understanding of this immense rite of passage. We sat in the waiting room and discussed names, genders, whether this baby would have my eyes or the eyes of my childhood sweetheart. I instinctively rubbed my stomach as we spoke, already feeling an affinity with this tiny bundle of cells forming inside me, this magnificent accident that would upend my entire life and reaffirm my whole existence. It was magic.
Disappointment is a complex emotion. It is rooted in sadness, with a distinct edge brought on by unmet expectations. It’s going up the hill in the rollercoaster, and having to get off just before the drop. In my case, the ascent was breathtakingly fast, and the ride broke down after an uncomfortable ultrasound and an invasive pelvic exam. It turned out there was no miracle, nothing unusual inside my body- that is, once the doctor’s entire hand had been removed. My Very Big Concern had been so monolithic that it had managed to convince our GP that my body was cooking a baby, when in reality the heartbeat we heard was my own, and my symptoms simply a result of the very powerful hormones coursing through my body, emanating from the magic stick surgically implanted into my arm years before.
At 15 years old, during the first awkward instance in a doctor’s surgery discussing my sexual habits with my mum, the contraceptive implant appeared to us both as the most sensible pregnancy-preventer. The choices are simultaneously overwhelming, underwhelming, and downright unappealing; the pill makes you depressed, the injection makes you fat, the coil hurts like hell. After some consideration, a quick procedure utilising local anaesthetic and a post-surgery tuna sandwich, I was done. In the midst of GCSE’s and boyfriend troubles, my ovaries were now one less thing to worry about. Looking back, it was inordinately young to be thinking about my fertility, but if I didn’t then who would?
As I hurtle towards my late-twenties with all the grace and decorum of a reversing dump truck, my thoughts become increasingly dominated by the number 35. The average woman in the UK reaches menopause at the age of 51, but fertility drops significantly once they reach that magic number 35. An unrelenting deadline. I was born with a clock inside my lower abdomen that started ticking at the first sight of blood, and will stop altogether with accompanying hot sweats; although my partner is the same age as me, and will probably die before me, he has infinitely more time. Our conversations are becoming less about what we’re doing at the weekend and more about what we’re doing in 5 years.
Tick, tick, tick. If I have kids, I want at least two, with at least two years between them, which means if I get pregnant with my final child at 35 then I need to be pregnant with my first by 32. I’m 26 this year, which means I have 6 years left to build a career to a point where I can take maternity leave without the fear of being left behind, buy a house that’s big enough for at least three, save money to go on enough holidays to make the most of my remaining time as an independent person, as well as buy all the various equipment and utilities that you need before you have a baby, including a car with five doors and a reliable safety record. Amongst all this, I need to work out whether any of the above is actually worth it.
How do you know whether you want a baby, if you’ve never had one before? If you’d never climbed a mountain, you wouldn’t start with Everest. The further away I got from the false-pregnancy incident, the more my disappointment turned to relief, and the more time I spend with my nephew the more I understand how difficult parenthood really is. Keeping him alive is hard, but my sister is also responsible for turning him into a well-rounded functioning human being. I have enough people in my life to keep my brain fizzing with worry. Do I really need another, especially one that will chew on my nipples and obliterate my pelvic floor?
Since time is of the essence and most certainly not on my side, I recently decided to take stock. The average woman experiences a dip in her fertility at the age of 35, but what if I’m not average? I could be below average, which would mean there’s even less time than I thought. The deadline could be approaching even more rapidly, the end even more nigh. I chose to do an at-home fertility test to ascertain the scale of the mess I was in. Me and my partner agreed that if the results were bad, if my egg reserve was smaller than we hoped, then we would bring our previously agreed ‘trying age’ forward by two years, to allow us more time to get pregnant. Based on my previous calculations, this means that I would need to start thinking about getting pregnant from the age of 30, which only gives me 4 years of self-improvement before everything changes. If you’d told me at 15 that I’d be using this much mathematics just to contemplate having a baby then I would have paid better attention in school. Or probably not; I was too busy poking at the stick in my arm.
I ordered the fertility test kit using my smartphone and it arrived within two days. A small sterile container, a contact-activated lancet and a self-sealing biohazard bag were the keys to understanding what the next few years of my life were going to look like. As I milked my finger for the 6 or 7 drops of blood necessary to do the hormone testing, I thought about how many times I’d put myself through a grisly procedure in the pursuit of preventing pregnancy, and how many more I might still need to go through in pursuit of encouraging it. My sexual organs have become something of an albatross around my neck, and as I watched the blood drip into the container I wondered whether I’d have been better off jumping overboard.
My results came back within a few days, and when the email notification appeared my brain ceased all functioning. The moment of truth. Two whole years of my life, gambled on this little number on the screen. I took a deep breath, opened the link, and read the result. Then I spent 17 minutes working out what it meant. With a fair amount of difficulty, I managed to ascertain that I have a high level of Anti Mullerian Hormone, which means that I possess more eggs than the average woman. In real terms, this means I can stick to the original timeline and the chances are looking good that I will still be able to conceive, in spite of the hormonal hell I’ve put my body through over the last ten years. Success.
In amongst all this, I can see that I’ve started to view my life in terms of a university deadline, counting backwards to work out how much time I have left for each phase. As a woman, I feel like I need to; the ticking of the clock is so deafening, it’s hard to focus on much else. The only way to ignore it is to take yourself out of the race entirely, decide against ‘doing the kid thing’, buy yourself a power suit and chow down on some serious career-building. A prospect that is sounding increasingly more appealing the more I consider it.
Maybe I won’t have children. If I were a boy, I would have the luxury of waiting until I knew for certain; Jeff Goldblum didn’t become a father until he was 63 years old. Unfortunately for me, I am a woman, and Jeff’s wife was only 32. What if there is another way? What if I have been brainwashed by society to believe that this is the course my life should take, and my fascination with babies and pregnancy is born out of a desire to fit the mold, rather than any genuine maternal instinct?
I am grateful I live in the current social climate which, in spite of its many flaws, does offer women more lifestyle options than ever before. Unlike my ancestors, I have the freedom to make my own choice about whether I want to introduce the perils of parenthood to my ever-growing list of anxieties. On balance, it doesn’t seem worth it. My fertility has already provided enough worry to last me a lifetime, I don’t need the fruits of my labour to turn up and disturb my peace even more.
But. The uncompromising ‘buts’. Relief when I saw the number appear on screen suggesting I had a good chance of conceiving in the future; magic when I held my stomach in the hospital waiting room, making plans for the future of my hypothetical mini-me; a twinge in my stomach every time my nephew grabs for my hand, or looks up at me with his angelic little eyes and asks me for money. These are the moments that stick, they hijack my brain and force me to abandon all logic.