Montage: Rosie Carmichael


Suddenly, it seems urgent – and I’m caught up in The Great Baby Panic

Thirtysomething women worrying about fertility is nothing new, but against the backdrop of books about motherhood and an Instagram full of babies, Marisa Bate is feeling freshly anxious

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By Marisa Bate on

You might think that this is the summer of Danny and Dani Dyer. Or Gareth Southgate. Or Cher singing ABBA. But that’s not the case for me. For me, this is the summer of The Great Panic.

It’s not immediately obvious that it is happening. There’s no rioting on the streets or urgent rallies. Nothing looks outwardly different. Sure, it’s been hot. But we’ve all carried on: wake up, commute, work, dinner, sleep, repeat.

Yet after a glass of wine or cup of tea the panic starts to leak out, words crash out of worried faces like a falling Jenga tower. They spill all over the table, while the person who has spoken them tries to scoop them up. And it doesn’t matter what table I’m at or who I’m opposite, it seems to be everywhere.  Everywhere I turn, the panic radiates, like sweat from pores on the Central line. And, as faces turns white, out it comes, heavy with anxiety and longing and fear. It falls between us in the air with a thud: babies. The when, who, maybe yes, maybe no. All anyone is talking to me about is babies.

Or was that thud actually the sound of baby boomers hitting their heads against a wall at the indecision of younger women who behave as if they are the first to ever have this dilemma? After all, the revelling in The Great Panic of a thirtysomething procreating – the should I, would I, could I – is the ultimate sign of privilege. Because it demonstrates choice, the ability to have children and the economic funds to raise children. It was this reason I struggled with Sheila Heti's Motherhood, a much talked about novel published earlier this year. Heti’s book devoted 300 pages to an intellectual wondering if kids are a cost to great art. So, I understand that the Great Panic might be bothersome and irritating and self-indulgent and old news to some, but for many, it is alive and real.  

Somehow, the increase in all our options only makes babies a trickier choice. Our careers are in fifth gear, so when do we take a break? We’re the breadwinners, so can we afford to take a break?

And it’s having an impact around me. I know of people giving their partners ultimatums: “Quick, hurry up or else I walk!”. I know of people nervously calculating relationship maths: their age, squared by how many years they’ve been with someone times the number of months it will take to get pregnant. I know of people who aren't relying on the maths but freezing eggs, trying to cheat the system. I know single women going to baby showers and being made to feel inadequate humans. I know people whose parents pile pressure on like it’s Sunday night homework: “Why have you left this to the last minute?!” I know women trying and trying and trying and still nothing is happening, because that is life. I know of all these people.

But not everyone is swept up in the panic. One single friend is in South America, sending videos of herself salsa dancing. Clearly, she is not panicked. Or a gay friend who admitted that, while he has had his own very real struggles as a gay man, and still does, the pressure for babies, and the way society responds to women who don't have them, is a particular evil he sees only for heterosexual women. Then there’s a friend who just doesn't want them. I look at these people and think, this is the future – when babies aren’t a reason to panic but things that some people do, and some people don’t, like taking bins out on a Tuesday instead of Wednesday.

But we’re not there yet. And although, arguably, in wealthy Western countries women have more choices than they ever have, the baby thing is a stumbling block modernity is having trouble getting over. Of course, we see hopeful examples, the miracle of IVF and those couples who simply say, nope, not us. But, as modernity has brought choice and options, babies still require certain rigid things to happen, namely, fertility of some kind, which comes with a sell by date (aside, of course, from adoption). And, somehow, the increase in all our options only makes babies a trickier choice. Our careers are in fifth gear, so when do we take a break? We’re the breadwinners, so can we afford to take a beak? I really like my life and have no pressure, so why am I doing this? And isn’t having children the most irresponsible thing you can do when it comes to the environment? Throw into the equation that the economy is a disaster, or at least it will be post-Brexit, and we have no financial security, and the baby question becomes increasingly difficult to answer. It’s like being on the phone with British Gas for 55 minutes trying to understand how you owe them £700 and suddenly you’re crying, because you can't make the maths work – the timings, the career breaks, the cost. Meanwhile, your Instagram feed is full of tiny toes and fingers and all you want to know is how other people have managed to figure it out. No, baby panic is nothing new, but it’s falling against a confusing backdrop right now.

I wish I had an answer, but I don't. And so the summer of The Great Panic will roll on. And, while we got knocked out of the World Cup and Love Island finished, just like my feelings about Cher’s eternal youth, this is a timeless conundrum. But if you are indulging in the Great Panic of 2018, know one thing for certain: you’re not alone.


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Montage: Rosie Carmichael
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