Nell Frizzell: These are the Panic Years

Thursday 11 February 2021

Women in their twenties and thirties will know this feeling of pressure and change. But they haven’t been allowed the language to describe it


Standing under the milky pink of dawn, in an XL grey men’s tracksuit, wearing a sanitary towel the size of a mattress, I turn my face to the sky and holler like a ship coming into dock. Two weeks after giving birth, my eyes look like lychees, red and weeping; my stomach is a carrier bag full of custard; my pelvis is a walnut cracked open. “How did I get here?” I ask the sky. “What just happened?”

Five years earlier,  I had crawled under a crochet blanket in a tiny attic room in my grandmother’s care home in the Midlands, and wondered if my future was over. I had just broken up with my long term boyfriend: the man I’d bought a washing machine with, gone on a holiday to a static caravan in Cornwall with, danced to Northern Soul in a DJ booth with, and imagined having children with. I had been made redundant, had moved out of the flat we rented, back in with my mother, and had just been invited to my third wedding of the year. The future I had carried around in my heart for six years was gone – and just as all my friends seemed to be getting married, buying houses, earning promotions, getting pregnant.

I knew that I had undergone a fundamental life change in those intervening five fast years. I had thrown away the security of a relationship, lost the anchor of a full-time job, confronted the finite nature of my fertility, and eventually took on an entirely new identity. In less time than it took my sister to pass her driving test, I had been changed utterly. And yet, at 28, I’d had no word for what had just happened to me. The convulsion of hormones, social expectation, biological anxiety and hope had felt, at the time, like a private crisis. I thought I had failed. It was only at 33, as I stared into the marble eyes of my son, that I got some glimmer of the structures, conditioning and injustices that had led me there.

We have no common shorthand for this transformation; unlike adolescence, the terrible twos, menopause or midlife crisis, we don’t prepare each other for what’s coming. There is no phrase that’s part of popular or even private culture. The symptoms are seen as disparate circumstances. But they are everywhere. 

In the UK, according to the ONS, the current age for a woman to become a first-time mother has increased to 30.7 years, while for men the equivalent average remains at 33.6 years. And so, during your late twenties and early thirties, whether you want to have children or not, whether you are physically able to get pregnant or not, whatever your sexual or gender identity, whatever job you do and wherever you live, if you have a uterus, then the question of whether or not you are going to have a child will hum through your life, everywhere, for years. Should you have a baby, if so when, how, with whom? How will you pay for it? What will it do to your career? These questions will sting your eyes and cling to your hair and feel, at times, like they are turning you mad.

Without the right language, a mutually understood codeword, we are all forced to describe our individual circumstances, in all their Technicolor complexity, every time one of the big questions rears its ugly head. Imagine if, the next time a well-meaning aunt sidled up to you beside the buffet at a wedding and asked pointedly, while staring at a pregnant cousin, what you were up to, you could simply reply, “Well, Jean, I think I’m in The Panic Years.” Imagine if you could go into work appraisals and explain, without having to carve your heart apart under a fluorescent strip of office lighting, that with The Panic Years on the horizon you need to be promoted to a better title, better income or better team, possibly with better maternity benefits. Imagine if you could turn up to a friend’s house with a lasagna and bunch of daffodils and simply say that you’re sorry; that this is The Panic Years and that better things will come.

Words do not simply erupt into the world by themselves, to spread and settle. I knew that if I wanted this term to exist then I had to trace back through my own panic years, to sketch out their corners, to recount their anecdotes, and to summon their characters, in order to allow other people to identify their own. The book I have written is not a guide to finding your ideal partner, the right job, learning to love yourself, how to get pregnant, or the best way to raise a child. In order to make the broader point that this period deserves recognition, it simply relays mine, as it happened – and is still happening.

That this disorienting, transitional period lands primarily in the laps of cis-gendered women ought to tell us something. In western culture, cis-gendered men are simply not conditioned to see their fertility in the way that women are expected to. Male fertility is wiped across unwashed socks, while female fertility is policed by governments, picked over by strangers, and pours out of your body like a stab wound every month, reminding you, once again, that you only have so much time. 

The idea that sperm and testicles ride on into the sunset, as potent as the day you first messed your sheets, is not only false but enormously unhelpful. To quote a cheerful little study called ‘Fertility and the Aging Male’, published by the journal Reviews in Urology in 2011: “The idea that robust fertility for a man will continue well past a woman’s decline in fertility is untrue. Although the female ovarian reserve is perhaps the most crucial component of a couple’s per cycle fecundity, the age of the male partner also has a significant impact on reproduction.” It goes on: “This reflects the age-related increase in acquired medical conditions, decreases in semen quality, and increasing rates of DNA fragmentation seen in sperm. In addition, there is an association between age of the male partner and the incidence of birth defects and chromosomal abnormalities.”

The number of men who told me during my twenties and thirties that they “didn’t feel ready” to think about, let alone have, a baby could pack out a decent-sized Pizza Express. But not feeling ready is simply the luxurious consequence of never being told you have to get ready. It is the benefit of silence.

By pretending the male body has no deadline; by allowing a 15.5 per cent gender pay gap and a toothless parental leave policy that all but forces pregnant women into fulltime maternal labour; by obfuscating the reality of fertility, family and female desire for decades… we have created a culture in which panic can spore like mould.

I don’t have all the answers; I cannot take away your panic. But with a common phrase, perhaps we can at least start to talk about it more widely, more honestly and more productively. An experience without language is just an experience. Give it a name, trace its contours, question its causes and delineate its effects, and, suddenly, we have a phenomenon on our hands.

The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell is published by Bantam Press today.