'What I learned from my 30-something panic years'

Nell Frizzell
·5-min read
Photo credit: Philippa James
Photo credit: Philippa James

From Red Online

Nell Frizzell is a journalist, author and parent. Her new book, The Panic Years, explores the decisions women are forced to make 'between their mid-twenties and early-forties about partners, holidays, jobs, homes, savings and friendships' – all of which are impacted by 'the urgency of the single decision that comes with a biological deadline': whether or not to have a baby.

Here, Nell shares her own experience of 'the panic years' with Red and what she learned along the way.

During what I call 'the panic years' — that tricky period between adolescence and the menopause where you must choose the shape of your future — there will always be decisions.

Decisions about work, love and friendship; about money, family and home; about sex, power and your body. But all those decisions are wrought more urgent by the big decision, the mother of all decisions, the only decision that has a biological deadline: should you have a baby?

As any woman who has just spent a year on frustratingly remote walking dates with people swiped upon online, or waiting at home thrumming with worry about whether their fertility clinic will close because of lockdown, or padding around a tiny flat with a screaming baby for 23-hours a day entirely alone will tell you: nestled in the heart of the panic years is a conundrum.

Whichever path you take – through choice or circumstance or a combination of the two – you will never be able to know what your life would have been if you’d taken another.

If you remain childfree you will never truly know what your life would have been like as a parent. If you do decide to have a baby, and are lucky enough to get pregnant, you can never truly know what you would be like if you had remained childfree. You will never know if yours was the right choice because – and this is almost impossible to bear – there is no right choice. There is just the choice you made and, on the other side, the absolute unknown.

Today, as I sit at my kitchen table, the milky dawn of 6 a.m. spreading through my house like fog, a box full of my partner's lateral flow tests at my elbow and a small tin robot, pile of plasticine, a book about pirates and a Duplo elephant on the table in front of me, I am something that has been years in the making. I am now a mother. And yet, I am also recalling, slowly, the Nell I was at twenty-five, at fifteen, at nine.

In my case, the panic years were provoked, propelled and eventually placated by three extremely unremarkable realisations. They are the kind of thing you can find printed on a tea towel at a seaside town. They are the kind of wisdom you can find for £2.99 in a gift shop, beside the moustache mugs and novelty toilet paper. They’re the stuff of key rings.

And yet, once worked through, once unpicked during hours of interrogation, experience and thought, they quite literally changed my life. They might not change yours, of course, but here they are...

Your wants and needs are valid

As people, we all have innate worth. You are allowed to want what you want, you deserve love and you can ask for help. Just by dint of being a living person, with an interior life, a past, feelings and thoughts, you are not only a bit-part in the lives of people around you. And you can honour that worth by being honest about your interior life, your past, your thoughts and your feelings.

Admitting what you truly want will not be easy

Admitting what you want will make you feel extremely vulnerable. It will open you up to the possibility of disappointment, frustrated hope and other people's pity in a way that can be hard to bear. Of course, you are far less likely to get what you want if you cannot admit to wanting it in the first place. But that admitting may be more painful than you imagined.

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It's okay to depend on another person

All humans are interdependent; that we need interdependence in order to survive and so interdependence is not a dirty word. It is how society functions, how we exist, what keeps us going. It is the very thing that so many of us have been missing during the last twelve months.

Showing someone you love that you also depend on them will not drive, scare or push them away; it will simply encourage them to depend on you in return. Whether that is a partner, a baby or a friend. This is how bonds are made. This is how we live.

My entire flux has been pushed forward by the slow, repetitive, maddening unravelling of these three knots. I cannot do it for you. I cannot pour these realisations into your body or weave them through your mind.

Your panic years will not look like mine; they will not happen at the same time, in the same order, with the same cast of characters. But some of the questions will be the same. They will arrive in your life like a knock at the door, in the middle of the night, a force to be reckoned with: who are you and what do you want?

Asking them will tear you apart. But answering them will knit you back together. Through loss and change and hope and pain, the panic years taught me what I wanted and showed me who I am. I hope it can do the same for you. Good luck.

The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell (Penguin) is out now.

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