Marriage? Kids? Career? The Pandemic Has Intensified Women’s ‘Panic Years’

For anyone facing their decade of big decisions, life in isolation has brought those questions into even sharper focus, says Nell Frizzell.

Panic Years

by Nell Frizzell |

'This epidemic has completely changed my life plans,’ one woman in her early forties tells me over Twitter. ‘One week before lockdown my partner and I were about to start contacting IVF clinics, as we’d been advised by doctors that we had to go that route to start a family. One week into lockdown, he broke up with me. So now not only am I mourning the loss of a relationship I had thought was so committed, but also, with no options for IVF alone because clinics are closed, I am having to come to terms with the fact I will now not be a mother.’

One of the most significant symptoms of the Covid-19 pandemic is, at the moment, uncertainty. Uncertainty over our health, our jobs, our relationships, our families, our very future. But what does it mean for the millions of women, in Britain and beyond, who were already in their ‘panic years’? Those years characterised by decisions – some apparently small, some big, some so fundamental that you can only bear looking at them out of the corner of your eye. What do you want from your career, what makes a good relationship, where do you want to live, who are your real friends, how much money do you really need, and the big one – the constant hum beneath everything you do – doyouwanttohaveababy?

All are almost impossible to pick apart without unravelling the great web that is your life; and the last is irrevocable. With over 27,000 people in the UK having already died of coronavirus at the time of writing, the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex warning that over 6.5 million jobs could be lost due to the economic fallout from lockdown and a vaccine still potentially months away, how does anyone look to the future and decide how to act right now?

The pandemic will certainly have put some women off the idea of parenthood, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever. As one midwife on Twitter put it a few weeks ago, ‘This is not a good time to need emergency NHS care for a condition that could be delayed.’ One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me via a private message that while she and her partner had started trying to get pregnant in January, he now wants to put it on hold.

My own desperate hunger for a second baby, which had been causing so much friction within my relationship, has suddenly dissipated.

‘I feel in limbo,’ she writes. ‘Having only just gotten my head around the idea of having a child, and the knock-on effect to my career, it feels disorientating having to backtrack on such a monumental life decision, especially when there’s no timeline for when things will get back to “normal”.’

My own desperate hunger for a second baby, which had been causing so much friction within my relationship, has suddenly dissipated. As I read the headlines, study the graphs and talk to medic friends, I now feel I’m not ready, or willing, to bring a new person into this world. I don’t feel able to take on that responsibility. Not now.

Yet for others, like writer Caroline O’Donoghue, the reaction is quite the opposite. ‘The most I’ve ever thought about children is in lockdown,’ Caroline tells me during a call from her London flat. ‘Until now I’ve never wanted children at all. To the point where I felt quite strident and protective of that. But turning 30 in lockdown, being at home with my partner a lot, I’ve been realising that we actually are great together. Which makes me think we might be quite good at being parents.’

For many women, the experience of quarantine is also going to change the whole way they think about work. ‘As a freelancer, losing a bunch of jobs that I’d been relying on for income has made me re-evaluate this career path,’ says playwright and screenwriter Matilda Ibini. ‘Of course I knew the uncertainty of having to live month to month, but I usually made it work. Now even that is somewhat threatened, I’m having to be more vocal about needing financial support.’

Finally, there is the question of love: where, when and how to find it. ‘I’m actually really enjoying the fact I no longer get asked if I’m dating or if I’ve met anyone by my friends and family because there’s literally no way I can,’ says Francesca Specter, 28, the founder of the Alonement blog and podcast. ‘Although I do feel like, in some respect, I’ve been deprived of up to a year of “figuring things out”.’

Without the ability to go anywhere that isn’t a supermarket, pharmacy or place of exercise, the chances and means of dating have become, let’s be honest, constrained. Which is why online dating is, for many, still providing some hope.

‘Six months ago, I was desperate to become a mum and had started to think about solo parenting,’ one woman tells me. ‘Then I met someone. Yes, via online dating – remember that? We only managed to sleep together once before lockdown – our last night in London, as it happens. We both left town not realising we wouldn’t return, but we’re actually still in regular contact. I can’t say for certain that we’ll meet again after all this, but having a special person in my life again has given me an optimism I didn’t have before.’

The truth is, none of us can guess how this period of stasis, enforced isolation, health anxiety and economic uncertainty is going to change the way women think about their jobs, bodies, friendships, families and futures. We are all in a state of flux. And we’re all going to have to help each other.

‘The Panic Years’ by Nell Frizzell is published on 11 February next year (Bantam Press) and is available to pre-order now.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: I Am Trying To Get Pregnant – Should I Stop?

READ MORE: The Truth About Sex After You've Had A Baby

READ MORE: LIFE AND LOVE IN LOCKDOWN

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