I have no idea how women figure out the right time to have kids10/06/2020
It’s hard to pass by another annual milestone without surrendering to a bit of self-reflection.
In my case, I turn 33 today, and while I’m not sure where I thought I’d be by this point in my life, it’s hard not to take stock and compare it to where I actually am — especially when I think about my mum.
I am officially the same age as she was when she had me, her third and final child, and her only daughter. Growing up, people asked me what I wanted to be as an adult and my answer was always the same – a mother, because my mum was (and still is) my favourite person, and I wanted to be just like her.
My parents never discouraged me from academic pursuits because of my gender, or from dreaming big about the future. It wasn’t until I was finishing university that I really started to notice the push-pull so intrinsic to the lives of high-achieving, maternally-minded cis women.
I had that sinking realisation that all of the things I wanted to accomplish, like becoming a published author, writing for a living and travelling the world might not be compatible with my vision for motherhood, at least not in the world we currently live in.
As I moved towards my thirties, an overwhelming pressure began to creep in. Questions from well-meaning relatives and acquaintances began to permeate our conversations.
Everything seemed to speed up all of a sudden; a subtle change at first, but then over the course of one summer, everyone around me was getting engaged, then married, then pregnant. It would have taken a level of self-confidence unavailable to me at the time to avoid letting all of this throw me off course.
But the truth was, I simply wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready at 30 when I accidentally fell pregnant. I wasn’t ready when I met any of my previous partners, or when I changed careers to pursue writing. I wasn’t ready yesterday, and I’m not ready today. Tomorrow, I’m not sure.
And that would be fine — that should be fine — except that young girls in particular are subject to intense mixed-messaging from the day we’re born. Be what you want to be, but not too much of it. Achieve all your dreams but put everyone else’s before yours. Take your time — but not too much time.
As much as I know how big the life shift of having a child will be, it’s hard to ignore the passing of time when it comes to starting a family. The faint ticks of that inner timepiece we know so well as women have begun to increase to a volume that is more difficult to ignore.
Achieve all your dreams but put everyone else’s before yours. Take your time — but not too much time.
It’s hard not to notice every period pass each month and wonder how much longer I have left being fertile. Hard to know that I am now just two years off the mark whereby any pregnancy I might have would be classified as ‘geriatric’ or ‘advanced age’.
It’s hard knowing that there are associated risks for both mine and any baby’s health the older I am when I conceive. And that the longer I leave it, the more difficult it will be to conceive naturally in the first place. The pressure is intense.
And that’s all before I consider whether this moment in history is a good time to bring a child into the world, as the planet burns and Covid-19 disrupts almost every area of public life.
When you compare our current reality with that of our predecessors, society has undeniably come a long way in accepting people who start families later in life. But it’s also very true that there’s a clear cut-off point when it comes to this acceptance.
No matter which way you look at it, as a mother, it is nearly impossible to ‘have it all’. My laser-sharp focus on my career, which had once been commended, has begun to look more like a problem. Life is increasingly a wrestling match of different seemingly oppositional wants and needs, in which I am struggling to find equilibrium.
It’s hard not to notice every period pass each month and wonder how much longer I have left being fertile.
Is it any wonder that the incidence of anxiety among women peaks in our 30s and early 40s? Or why Kristen Scott Thomas’s character in Fleabag describes menopause as ‘the most wonderful f**king thing in the world’? An end to the pressure of fertility.
As a woman who has so far spent most of her thirties single, I can resolutely say that insulating yourself from the tandem expectations of career progression and domestic bliss can be a herculean task.
Worse still, from the impact that this has on your own expectations. I feel fortunate now to be in a loving and supportive relationship of the kind I have always wanted, and more financially stable than I’ve ever been. As a result, I feel closer than ever to my dream of becoming a mum, but I still find myself having to resist the urge to hurry.
I don’t know how to navigate the impossible balance of being a maternally-minded career woman is — or if there is an answer. As with most of these things, the solution is often multifactorial.
First of all, as a society, I would like to see women truly having equal opportunities, and this means easing the professional pressure on new parents — whatever their gender. Efforts to reach pay parity among men and women — though woefully inert — are a start.
The reality is that the ‘missed years’ of maternity leave often set women back, as well as the fact they often assume the burden of childcare. Women should be able to step back from their professional responsibilities rather than give them up entirely, especially during the early years of infant development, without there being a material impact on career progression. Men should be encouraged to do the same.
But we also need to give ourselves and each other a break. A woman’s desire and ability to have a child really is nothing to do with anyone other than herself. How she wants to do it, when she wants to do it and if she wants to do it — are still none of anyone else’s business.
What helps me is remembering that becoming a parent is a huge responsibility, and one to undertake only if you both want to and feel ready. What ‘ready’ feels like for each and every person is different, so, too, is every person’s personal and financial circumstances.
I’m choosing to trust my gut on this one — it’s never let me down so far. And to try as hard as I can to drown out the noise of everyone else’s expectations. Because ultimately, only I’ll be able to say when I’m truly ready, and any other opinion is irrelevant.
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