Living a life that feels like it's been suspended in jelly, while acutely aware that some of your 'best years' might be passing, is a sinking sensation a lot of people will have experienced, as the pandemic has worn on.
While a romantic relationship and kids are, of course, not the desired path for everyone (there are myriad ways to lead a happy and fulfilled life) for women who do hope find a partner and have a family, this pain might be especially acute. Here, writer Patience Shawarira, 32, digs into this sticky, complex reality.
Editor's note: in the UK, most babies are born to women between the ages of 30-34.
It might be unfashionable to say, but, growing up, I dreamed of having a big, dancing and speeches-filled wedding day, and of then starting a family – passing the years in the tight nest of me, my husband and my kids. My mum and dad were married for nearly 40 years and, while they doubtless had their ups and downs, I admired what they had, and always hoped to find something similar.
While the family dream was always my biggest goal, my career, at the same time, has always been a key driver in my life. I made a conscious decision to work hard after graduating and to then settle down in my late twenties or early thirties. But, I ended up taking a masters degree, which took longer than expected to complete and I finished at 31.
I’d be lying if I said I had zero worries at this point about meeting someone, but kept working hard and going on the occasional date with friends of friends or men I met via dating apps. But, nothing stuck. The next year, though everything felt like it was falling into place. I met a guy, James* during a work meeting. We were both doing research consultancies he was handsome and clearly intelligent. I felt drawn to him.
We exchanged numbers and a friendship formed over text messages and video calls (we lived in different provinces of South Africa, where I'm currently based). A few months in, we realised we had feelings for one another and started a romantic relationship.
Things soon got more complex, though. He was assigned to take a new role in Ethiopia. From the handful of times we had spent together, though, we felt like this was 'it' and, in that fresh love, head-rushing phase, made dizzy promises that we were going to be together. He said he could see a future with me, and that he wanted us to get married and start a family soon; that he would re-locate to my area, so we could be together full time. Caught up in what I felt was finally the right relationship, I was sold.
But, after six months of him being in Ethiopia – and not seeing one another, in person – March 2020 came around and the pandemic struck. After watching news spread around the world that this was very much a real problem, he called me to say he had been told to quickly return to South Africa. Problem was, his new role was in a province twelve hours by car away from where I was.
Naturally, due to lockowns and travel bans, I couldn’t see him; our communication still restricted to waving through screens and endless WhatsApp messages.
Now age 32, I started to feel unsettled about more than the virus ripping its way through the world. I was stressed at the reality that this situation could go on for months and months, all the while, time being shaved off what I had repeatedly been told by medical professionals and family members were my fertile years. Every news bulletin felt like it was peeling precious time from my biological clock.
My anxiety was exacerbated by a new problem: from this point, communication between James and I started to break down. I would watch my messages light up with two blue ticks and receive no response for hours.
Most nights, he said he was too tired from work for FaceTime and the talk we used to have – of what our life together would be like, when we were reunited – dwindled. This went on for close to three months. Living alone with no one to talk things out with, I was stuck inside and working from home. My thoughts piled up with nowhere to go as I moved from my bed to my desk, to my sofa on repeat.
Ultimately, I realised that this wasn’t going to work. If someone was going to be my life partner and the father of my kids, they couldn’t go quiet when things got hard. I prize dependability, and I was not getting it, here.
Still. The decision to breakup was not easy. My hopes of my future were wrapped up in this guy and, after a teary phone conversation, a sharp feeling landed in my gut: that this was my chance of a family, gone. In the weeks that followed, I’d scroll Instagram and see friends posting photos of three month scan pictures and baby bumps – things that I felt were now moving further out of my reach. The pandemic had clearly not halted any of their major life plans. The pain was visceral.
As this strange time has gone on, meeting someone new is, obviously, hard. Social distancing has not been conducive to forming a new relationship, and, though I have been on a few distanced walking dates with guys I met from Tinder, none have felt quite right. The awkwardness of staying a metre away from one another and the weird tension of the time probably didn’t help.
I’d love to say that I’ve had some grand revelation and am happy to be alone, with plans to go for single motherhood, if I don’t meet someone. Truth is, though, I long – really, deeply, long – to be in a secure and committed relationship. I have been trying to spend this time connecting with myself, and taking up hobbies like jogging, watching my favourite Netfllix shows and reading. And, while everyone around me is either getting married or having kids, I've told myself that when the time is right, I will meet someone who wants the same things as I do.
I still believe marriage and kids are possible for me in the near future. But I'm not putting timelines on my life. Yes, my biological clock will continue to tick. But, if there’s one thing that this entire time has taught me, it’s that some things are out of our control.
*name has been changed
4 therapist tips if you feel that 'time is running out'
'I totally understand the frustration of feeling like time is running away from you. We've had to sit still for a long time and it's so far from what we're used to, it's really difficult,' says psychologist and psychotherapist Francesca Moresi. 'Especially when it comes to something that is time-sensitive, like having babies.'
This painful sensation – which you might have felt if you're in your twenties and are scared that your 'fun years' are being spent locked up, if you've lost your job and are concerned that time to establish your career is drifting away or if you too are keen to meet someone romantically and have a family – is incredibly normal, as we exist in this bizarre period.
'Broadly, the fear of time "running out" is something that links in with our Western culture,' explains Moresi. 'We fetishise youth and grow up with this idea that you have to get the best out of it, because then we will become old and ageing is bad.' But, she says, this is something we can challenge. In some Eastern cultures, for example, ageing might be associated with gain – knowledge, wisdom – rather than loss. Not a panacea for that gnawing worry, but maybe something to think about.
Here's Moresi's advice for trying to feel better, moment to moment.
Acknowledge there are some things you can't control
Worth remembering. 'Accepting this is important. We are used to living in a world in which we think we can control everything, but, of course, we can't,' Moresi says. 'Wishing we could just creates more anxiety.' The speed with which we'll come out of lockdown and rates of disease are not in your power, and running through alternative scenarios in your head will only exacerbate stress.
Try to reduce your anxiety
This time is hard – there is no circumnavigating that. Trying to make yourself feel less anxious, day to day, can help. 'Exercise, yoga, mindfulness – all of these things can help to lessen feelings of anxiety,' says Moresi.
Ask what brings you joy
Nixing every bit of angst is impossible. But it's important to try and bring pockets of enjoyment into your day, no matter how basic. 'We know we'll feel happy when we go out with our friends again. But ask what brings you joy in this moment. You could try to dance, cook a nice meal, look at pictures, listen to music... it will be different for everyone, but use trial and error to see what works.'
Try some re-framing
It can feel counterintuitive, but there can be value in asking different questions, right now. Rather than 'why is this happening?' Moresi advises, try 'what can I do with this experience?' Can you find something valuable in enforced stillness? Can you find something in being more accepting? Again, not a fool-proof solution, but try practicing it.
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