A few years ago, I was visiting my best friend in Seattle. I was between jobs, not dating anyone, and very much aware that every person on Facebook and in the real world seemed to be engaged, pregnant, or experiencing some glossy professional milestone. Meanwhile I found myself getting an electric thrill when my cornershop started selling a new Doritos flavour.
Luckily, my friend has two hilarious young kids: instead of fixating on flaky guys and the impending emptiness of my non-existent work calendar, I found myself reading The Gruffalo, watching Frozen and ranking popsicle flavours. On the drive back to the airport, I confessed to my friend that there seemed to be nothing waiting for me back in London.
“Excuse me?” She gaped. “You can wake up and do whatever you want. You get to read. In silence. By yourself. Any time! You can sleep in, have a quiet cup of tea, whenever! I’m jealous.”
Fast-forward to now and I feel much more settled on all fronts, but still hesitant when it comes to the question of kids – largely because of that conversation. You take freedom for granted until you realise it’s finite. And I really do enjoy reading in silence and having a quiet cup of tea any time I want.
I recently discovered there’s a term for this: ‘maternal ambivalence’. Dr Peggy Drexler, a New York-based research psychologist, explored how birth rates around the world are going down as maternal ambivalence climbs.
“It’s not as simple as just making a five-year plan and sticking to that – there are too many unknown factors.”
And I wonder: what if I turn 35 and I still feel the same way I feel now? When is it ‘too late’, and what happens if I still don’t know? After all, it’s not as simple as just making a five-year plan and sticking to that – there are too many unknown factors.
Plenty of women (myself included) are delaying even the question of kids because your thirties is right when your career is taking off. Either you’ve got the emotional and financial resources to invest in a career change, or you’re reaching more senior levels and more exciting assignments. To retreat from the party while it’s just getting started seems incredibly unfair.
Yet we might not have as much choice as we’d like to think. According to the British Fertility Society, “At birth, most girls have about 2 million eggs, at adolescence that number has gone down to about 400, 000, at age 37 there remain about 25,000.” Brilliant.
But there’s IVF, right? Well, the NHS states: “Between 2014 and 2016 the percentage of IVF treatments that resulted in a live birth was 29% for women under 35 and 23% for women aged 35 to 37.” As for egg freezing, Dr Hana Visnova, medical director of IVF CUBE, shares that it isn’t the ultimate reproductive insurance policy that some people may think.
These are depressing ideas if, like me, you want to believe the exciting ones: that the world is your oyster and you have plenty of time. But it’s interesting to explore the uncomfortable realities about fertility limitations: while social narratives have changed, biology hasn’t.
“Kids are expensive, and as Prince Harry has so famously reminded us lately, having too many is the worst thing you can do for the environment.”
With fertility treatments, I never expected to get metaphorical access to some expensive club where you then have Deliveroo-style access to a magic stork. But I did think that I could buy myself some more runway to consider the most irreversible decision of my life.
My ambivalence means that I vacillate between wanting to put the brakes on my career before I get pregnant; then wanting to work as hard and as fast as I can to get to a certain ‘level’ before I have a kid. The more women I speak to, the more I realise that I’m not alone.
Few want to be one-dimensional workhorses who measure themselves by their job title. Few can afford to be full-time stay-at-home mothers. Hardly anyone I know wants to give up all of their friends and life outside the home. Most women I can think of want to strike a balance.
That balance becomes more achievable with flexible and remote workplaces; high-quality part-time work; and phasing out of the presenteeism plaguing some workplaces (where productivity is judged by how much time you spend at your desk). We don’t live in a working world where that’s the norm, but I hope that’s where we’re heading.
Women of our generation have entered adulthood sandwiched between two major recessions, with less economic stability and more ecological consciousness than predecessors. Kids are expensive, and as Prince Harry has so famously reminded us lately, having too many is the worst thing you can do for the environment.
More and more women, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been questioning procreation in the age of climate change. Here in the UK, there is a movement called Birthstrike, of women who have decided not to have children due to climate change.
“The millennial generation are displacing the notion that marriage and motherhood are the markers that matter”
In this context, I think the millennial generation are displacing the notion that marriage and motherhood are the markers that matter. I think we’ve already normalised maternal ambivalence, because collectively we’re accepting that today’s women have options, and with those options come a natural hesitation.
The ambivalence is not the problem – it’s simply a symptom of a duality. There will probably always be a duality within me and that’s okay. Right now, there is a part of me that adores babies. There is another part of me that’s terrified; not just of the birth, but everything that comes afterwards.
My attitude towards the ambivalence is what I’ve had to change. I remember that conversation in the car with my friend in Seattle, and many other conversations with many other parents who are honest enough to share that they are exhausted.
These days, a weekend barbecue often means that there will be a handful of dangerously cute toddlers smiling and laughing. ‘Let’s make one now!’ my ovaries cry. But sleep-ins. Spontaneous weekend trips. Cups of tea. Time.
Don’t be greedy, you can’t have everything, I tell myself. Someday I’m sure I’ll look back and marvel at how I managed to overcomplicate something quite simple.
Adele Barlow is a writer and author. Follow her on Twitter at @adelebarlow
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