When I was young, I took certain biological conditions of my existence for granted. I assumed I would find the love of my life in college or shortly thereafter, that we’d get married, and that I’d have children in my early to mid 20s. My mother was 25 when she had me, and her mother was 25 when she had her. I realized as I approached my 25th birthday that I would not be following that tradition, but surely, I thought, it was right around the corner. I believed I’d met the right person and that our life was leading in that direction. I was laughably wrong.
This November I turn 35, which I have customarily treated as the expiration date on my childbearing years. I’m not sure where I got that number, although since Facebook thinks all I’m interested in is menstruation and reproduction, articles on fertility pop up all the time. In one from The Atlantic originally published in 2013 called “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?” which came up again this weekend, I re-read how a lot of our culturally-accepted understanding that 35 is the start of fertility decline is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830. And today I read how the one thing I believed to be true, that all a woman’s eggs are present at her birth, may not be true.
Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me, and Señor Xolotl, 1949, oil on Masonite.
In truth, I rather enjoyed the poetry and Keanu “whoa” moment of a meme I saw once (and of course can’t find now), declaring, “The egg that became you formed in your mother’s body when she was in your grandmother’s womb.” That’s a pretty profound expansion of one’s physical existence beyond the borders of known consciousness. But it’s also okay with me if that’s not accurate. I know of many examples in my family and others where women continued having healthy babies well past 35 and 40, and my doctor, like everyone else in my life, says I worry too much and my age shouldn’t be an issue. But I think she’s assuming I’m not going to hit pause for another 5 or 10 years while I get the rest of my life together and find a suitable partner.
Beyond feasibility, there are other factors to consider in having a baby, like the increased odds of some chromosomal mutations and genetic aberrations with age, or whether I personally should be passing down my DNA at all. Maybe the love of my life turns out to be someone who’s unable to have children in the traditional way, or maybe it turns out I’m unable to carry a child to term (you don’t really know until you get pregnant, right?). I always thought I’d have plenty of time to work those questions out, but I’ve wasted a really lot of it. And I would like some time to get to know the person with whom I’d be creating another life and be reasonably confident the world would benefit from a combination of us.
Self Portrait as the Sea, 2016, digital collage
So turning 35 is a bit sad for me. Even if it’s not the actual end of my chances to have biological children, it’s a lot closer to the end than 25 was, and I haven’t made any better progress in dating men who want to marry me and start a family. If anything I’m back-sliding on that front. Men my age like to freak out when I say upfront that yes, I want a real relationship and yes, I’d like to get married and have children sooner than later. Maybe I’m supposed to pretend I don’t care or that I’m so chill all I’m thinking about is brunch tomorrow, but that would be a lie. I’m not trying to waste more time, but I’m also not going to settle for the wrong person just because he might be my last chance. I’d rather be alone forever than unhappy with the wrong person again. I’ve always been okay with adoption, an option that would give me more time, but that’s by far the more difficult and expensive path, and from what I understand, preference is still given to married couples with healthy bank accounts. I don’t imagine saying, “I don’t know, I’ll trust the universe and figure it out” is the best approach to getting approved to adopt as a single parent if it goes that way.
Occasionally in quiet moments preceding mortality-based “What the hell am I doing with my time on this planet?” type panic attacks, I like to ask myself, “Do I even want children?” I think about the ways my life would change, how expensive and exhausting and challenging kids are, and I can’t honestly say I know for sure I’d be a good mother. I’m nurturing, I try to do right by people, I have a pretty strong sense of responsibility when it comes to caring for pets or other people’s children, so I assume I could get my act together for my own, but I don’t actually know if that’s true. Would I be able to put on a good face in the depths of depression and act like everything’s okay so my kid has a normal childhood, or would I make them miserable and unhappy because I still can’t manage my brain chemistry and need a lot of quiet time? Children can’t process that stuff easily, and I don’t want to damage someone I’m supposed to be encouraging to dream and hope and love.
I’ve always believed I wanted a family because I had a pretty great childhood and family means so much to me. Some bad things happened, I had some struggles, but my parents were always there for me and helped me through it. We had a lot of fun, and I am so grateful that my parents made our family such a priority – we ate dinner together every night, no matter what, and we all talked about our day, discussed current events, and truly knew each other as people. I dream of having that, instead of eating by myself at midnight if I get around to cooking. I’m very close with both of my parents and my brother as adults, and so in addition to the years of cute little people cruising around and energetic family life, I’d like substantive relationships with my children as adults too. My mother recently told me she and my father had a “No Assholes” policy when we were kids, which is to say they would not tolerate brattiness, unkindness, temper tantrums, selfishness, materialism, passive consumption of media, lying, or any of the things that would enable us to grow up into boring, asshole adults. They were quite young when they had kids, so their intent was to raise people they enjoyed being around. And then they spent a lot of time with us and did their best to help us be good people (they still do). I think that’s what I want.
But… I don’t want it with the wrong person. I have dated some great guys, but also some appallingly terrible ones, and I worry about my judgement and ability to pick the right person for me. I have deals with a few friends and family members that if they ever see me dating someone who seems like another jerk, they need to tell me immediately and not let me waste time trying to spare my feelings. I tend to only see the best in people and latch onto it, so I need to start being slightly more objective and honest with myself about misgivings, if the plan is to have a child with a man whom I hope to be the love of my life.
I know a lot of people who have chosen not to have children, and it seems like they have very happy, full lives. I also know a lot of single parents who are happier than they ever were in a relationship with their children’s parent. Maybe the universe has something different in mind for me than I’d always planned for myself. I know I will do my best to find the meaning and beauty in whatever iteration of family life or solitude I end up in, but I’d like it to be by choice and not by default. I have been saying for a while now that if I were still single when I turned 35 I’d adopt a cat, and I’m having commitment issues even with that. How will I know when it’s the right time to move on from plan A to something else? When do I stop looking for a life partner and just enjoy men’s company for what it is? Or does it just happen quietly one day, when some more time has passed, and I ask myself why I kept sabotaging relationships and clinging to my solitude, then decide I must not have wanted a family after all?
Fujikasa Satoko, Plant Growth, 2013, stoneware with matte translucent glaze, at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
I have spent most of my adult life trying to fix the things I think are wrong with me and trying to make my life better (it’s been one of the themes of this blog since 2014 at least). All of my goals for personal growth, improved health, financial stability, positive life experiences, cultivating relationships with truly good people, and aligning my existence with my values are directly compatible with meeting a soulmate and raising a family, so it’s not like I necessarily need to shift focus or do anything differently. If anything, I should probably focus more on them while I can, since I’m not sure I would be able to get a lot of exercise and meditation in with a newborn around.
I recently read the infinitely-quotable book How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, who always makes life seem so simple and gentle. He uses an extended metaphor of gardening for how to bring love from oneself out into the world to share with others. I was especially taken with a line on aspirations:
If you have a deep aspiration, a goal for your life, then your loving of others is part of this aspiration and not a distraction from it.
I’ve been thinking about this over and over, as I think about what goals I want to set for my 35th birthday. I need to adjust my mindset to one where love, and nurturing my relationships with love, are back at the center. If I want to bring love and family into my life, I need to make myself a garden where love can grow (both metaphorically and yuck, yes, physically). Whatever form that takes, I need to welcome it with gratitude, and I know I won’t get there any sooner by being impatient about it.
So this year I am going to try to actually celebrate, instead of grieve, and be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, instead of resentful that time passed with no more progress toward a family. I will try to enjoy the unanswered questions and unsettled conditions as mysteries of possibility yet to unfold. I’m going to keep trying to be more open and honest and present day to day, to be more of myself even when it would be easier to give up, curl into a ball, and make decisions I’ll regret years from now. I always tell other friends who are upset about being single that you can’t meet the love of your life until you’re both who and where you need to be, to be right for each other. So maybe it’s time to start taking my own advice and make the best of things as they are, instead of how I might wish them to be.
And maybe it’s time to look into adopting that cat.