The Taboo of the Childless Thirtysomething
I find it hard to admit that I want a baby. This may be because, for so long, I did not want a baby.
I went for lunch today with a group of friends. Ordinarily, midweek lunch meetups are a rarity, but they are on maternity leave and I am self-employed.
I ordered the poached eggs and avocado because I am a millennial. I am holding on, fiercely, to this generation identity — albeit not, it seems, to my money.
Because my girlfriends are on maternity leave, all three arrived with their babies swaddled in sleep suits, raincoats, and a variety of weatherproof accoutrements. One friend had brought a gift for another: a peachy pink silicone egg, not unlike something I’ve seen in online sex shops. This one, however, was designed to alleviate the pain of teething. The baby obediently sucked the egg into her open mouth, masticating gently on its silicone edges. She began to cry. (“Oh well; we’ll try again later.”)
There are a lot of things, I am told, you just cannot understand until you have a baby. The sheer number of potential uses for a silicone egg might be one of them. I am told that the sleepless nights are something you must experience to truly empathize with; similarly, the feelings of love you have for your child cannot be compared to the affection I might feel for my dog, or my mother. I have accepted these things as being unknowable, without the benefit of experience.
But there are also things that you simply cannot understand, once you do have a baby of your very own.
You cannot understand, for example, the feeling that comes over you when the waitress who has just given you your third Americano, who has cleared away the plate where once were eggs and avocado and sourdough toast, says, “No children for you then?” and, in the silence that lies between the question and the answer, offers: “Not yet!”
There are a lot of things, I am told, you just cannot understand until you have a baby.
You cannot understand, for example, how it feels to hold a baby that is not your own and have friends say things like, “God, this must be so boring for you,” and think, Boring is not the word I’d use.
I find it hard to admit that I want a baby. This may be because, for so long, I did not want a baby. I had never really thought of myself as the maternal type and, perhaps more importantly, I could not see children in my future. I don’t believe in clairvoyance but I have always given a certain, inexplicable weight to my ability to imagine future events. When plans fall through, I say things like, “I’m not surprised — I couldn’t see it happening anyway.”
It’s difficult, too, to admit that you want a baby when you are 34 and dating and pretending to be okay with being casual and being the Cool Girl and the biological clock — which, until now, you never believed in — is ticking loudly inside the chasm of your womb. (It is easier to speak of these things in the abstract. A biological clock. Your womb. But this is my biological clock, my womb. My baby — or lack thereof.)
I went to a fertility clinic half a decade ago and had things “checked out.” It was before the desire to be a mother kicked in, back when it was still something I thought of as being for other people. I did it for a TV show; they wanted women to discuss fertility on a morning panel, with an expert on hand to discuss these women’s options. It seemed low-risk, as TV jobs go.
I didn’t immediately change my mind about having children, although it would be very human of me to want exactly what I’ve been told I can’t have.
Another time, I had been asked to take the test people are put through to join the fire brigade, committed to eternity on live TV. Run here. Carry this. Put out this fire. It wasn’t until I was truly in the thick of it that I realized I might fail.
Similarly, it wasn’t until I got the call from a very lovely nurse that I realized I might not get to choose whether my future came with or without children after all. She explained to me what my “ovarian reserve” was before telling me that mine was low. “Along the lines of what we might expect for a woman in her early forties,” she said. I was 28.
I didn’t immediately change my mind about having children, although it would be very human of me to want exactly what I’ve been told I can’t have. It was a change that came about more gradually, a softening of sorts. I began to yearn for a more picture-postcard future than I’d ever thought I wanted. I began to accept that my desires were not all that different from anyone else’s. I began to think that maybe I’d been in denial, all along.
I never did go on television to discuss my withering egg supply. I was too shocked and upset by the news — and too angry at this dud hand I’d been dealt. (The producers were very understanding.)
Instead, I began to clean up my act. I quit smoking immediately. I started exercising regularly. I lost weight. I knew that none of these changes would increase the number of eggs I have in reserve — but I thought they might, at the very least, prevent a faster fall-off.
I had my ovarian reserve tested again, two years later; it was concluded that I was just born with fewer eggs than the average woman. This is better news than the alternative: that my eggs were dying off quicker than the average woman’s. The doctor at my return visit told me, comfortingly, “You only need one good egg.”
She was wrong, though — a woman cannot reproduce with egg alone.
Since turning 34, I have lost count of the number of people who have suggested I freeze my eggs. There are certain ages at which certain things occur, I guess. At 18, we begin to drink alcohol (in Ireland, with great frequency and enthusiasm). Our early twenties are for exams and academic achievement. Our late twenties are for romance, engagements and then, a year or two later, marriage. And apparently, egg-freezing happens at 34.
The thing is, I also suffer from depression. (It’s a toss-up, on first dates, as to whether I start with the egg drought or the mental illness.) I take medication. I go to therapy. I bought a lifetime subscription to the Calm app on Black Friday thinking, This will be the best money I ever spend. I have used it once. So, no, I don’t meditate, but I think about it a lot and honestly I think that’s just as effective.
I no longer use any form of hormonal contraception because, when I have — the pill, the combined pill, the progesterone-only pill, the Mirena coil, the contraceptive injection — I have alternated between feeling incredibly depressed and feeling mildly suicidal and neither of those feelings has seemed like a reasonable price to pay to stay child-free (oh, the irony).
I do not wish to risk injecting hormones into my body on a regular schedule in order to induce the release of more eggs from my ovaries through my fallopian tubes so that they may be harvested, frozen and then thawed, fertilized and implanted, with little to no guarantee that the process will be effective. Not to mention the fact that — and perhaps this should have come first — I don’t have the money.
In general, I think we are getting better at talking about things. I know more about mental illness and childbirth and male pattern baldness and hyperemesis gravidarum than I would have known, say, a decade ago. We have learned that it’s good to talk and we are willing to follow through on that lesson. I am thankful for all of this.
There is also the very real concern that, in talking about my desire to have children, and my sadness that I do not, I will in some way alienate those of my friends who are parents.
But there remains a taboo for those of us who are childless and single — and do not wish to remain childless and single. Perhaps there’s no point talking about it. After all, what can we do? There is no solution to this particular problem, bar the obvious.
There is a worry that the very act of talking about wanting children will reduce my chances of ever meeting someone I want to have children with, who wants to have children with me, too. “I’m 34 and I don’t have a lot of eggs and I really don’t want to wait too long to try to have a baby,” is not a great chat-up line.
There is also the very real concern that, in talking about my desire to have children, and my sadness that I do not, I will in some way alienate those of my friends who are parents. They will worry that they cannot talk about the sleepless nights or the up-the-back poos or the colostrum or the colic because I might be jealously thinking that at least they have a kid to clean up after.
I am not, for the record, thinking that. Yes, I want a baby — but, if possible, I’d like one who sleeps all night, poos exclusively in the nappy, and is never ill. And if I do not end up having a child, I would, at the very least, like to have friends whose babies I can cuddle occasionally, and with whom I can eat avocado toast for lunch on a Wednesday afternoon.