As a single almost 36-year-old woman with a successful career, I feel like the pandemic has robbed me of two prime years of my dating life and has fast-tracked me to the red region of my biological clock. The pressure I feel to do something about this deadline is massive, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea how to make up my mind. Do I continue to focus on myself, or prioritise dating, or resort to egg freezing?
I have always assumed I wanted children. But after seeing every one of my close female friends struggle with their Covid babies in one way or another, I have major doubts. Although I have a full and varied post-lockdown social life, I have not met a man to share my life with.
I have seen firsthand what a burden it is to have a child with an incompetent man and I would rather be alone and happy than with a man who makes my life harder. There is so much I would like to do with my life before “sacrificing” it for children, but by the time I get all that done, I’ll have no eggs left! I also don’t want to be a parent who resents their child for limiting their life – I want to fully devote myself. How do I begin to work out my next steps?
It’s a striking fact about parenthood that across cultures, socioeconomic brackets, ages and nationalities, you never hear a new parent say, “You know, it’s not as hard as I thought it’d be.”
Part of why it’s so difficult to decide whether you want that particular kind of hard is because we don’t know what it will be like until we’ve done it. Sure, we can visit friends’ kids and babysit and bounce and dandle, but we don’t really know. Some experiences we can’t imaginatively map until we’ve been to the territory in real life; parenting is one of them. We don’t know what it feels like until we know what it feels like.
That makes it difficult to decide whether to want it. We only have “kids” for a few years, really – after that there’s a full-fledged adult in the world and in your life. As the philosopher LA Paul has written, becoming a parent in some ways changes who you are: the you who makes the decision is not the you who lives the resulting life.
Deciding whether you want to be a parent is vexed because you will be made different by becoming one. One of the most adventurous, world-roaming people I know decided to become a parent and thought she was ending her adventurous phase – only to discover that for her, parenting was the most horizon-obliterating adventure yet. Ayahuasca in a jungle isn’t anything compared with birth, she said: if you love meeting new people wait until you see someone learn to talk. Like so many other parents, she hadn’t known what she’d find.
That can make it feel it’s impossible to make the right decision. You asked how to work out your next steps – perhaps letting go of the notion of a “right” decision might be a helpful place to start. It sounds as though you have a lot of options, each simultaneously good and bad: that combination can make us feel under enormous pressure. As if there is one single choice which would deliver a wholly contented life, if only we could figure out which one it is. Decision panic tends to arise when each of our options have some appeal: it isn’t about avoiding an intolerable outcome but avoiding the sense that things could have been better. What strange creatures we are, that having a multitude of options with joys in each can feel like torment instead of relief.
The sense that you can get it “right” is in some ways illusory; there’s no door behind which the right version of your life is waiting. There will be pain and joy in all possible futures – if you are a parent you will have moments where the other path seems to glow with freedom, and if you’re child-free you may wonder what could have been.
But the joys we might have had shouldn’t distract us from the ones we have – it sounds as though you have a fulfilling and full life with a career and a strong sense of self; the question may not be how to get the right answer to this question, but how to find the space to celebrate the fact that each of your options contains a life you’d be proud to live. Perhaps in releasing some pressure to make the best decision, you’d be pleasantly surprised by how many you could love.
This letter has been edited for length.
Ask us a question
Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.
August 19, 2022 at 07:17AM Eleanor Gordon-Smith