- The Panic Years, by Nell Frizzell. Bantam Press, $29.99.
In 2021, there is a seemingly endless variety of reasons to feel panicked. Climate change, COVID-19, the decline of the global economy, and the rise of increasingly polarised extreme political ideologies are just a few good causes of anxiety. Being a 30-something woman panicking about having children feels somewhat banal in contrast, yet it's the entire focus of the new book from British writer Nell Frizzell, The Panic Years.
Based on Frizzell's premise, as a 31-year-old heterosexual woman, I should be in the epicentre of my "panic years", a period of a woman's life when she is reckoning with her fertility and the realistic lifestyle compromises inherent to having children. The panic is apparently induced by either a desire to have children but the lack of means to do so (which the author assumes includes a male partner and sufficient finances), or an uncertainty around having children.
Frizzell explores the concept of the panic years through the lens of her late 20s and early 30s, a time when she finds herself suddenly single and watching her friends couple up, get married and announce pregnancies. These friends become the punctuation marks in a narrative that is so un-self-aware that it borders on parody.
Frizzell describes sobbing for hours after learning that her closest friend is pregnant, announcing to her parents with tears that she will never give them a grandchild (a declaration based solely on the fact that she is single at that particular point in time), and eventually hysterically begging her partner to agree to have children, while literally clutching his leg and soaking it with her tears until he gives in.
It's not exactly a picture of a well-balanced woman, and it has to be assumed that in an attempt to write an irreverent, engaging and moving book, Frizzell has instead created a caricature of a baby-obsessed young woman with such an astounding lack of perspective that she's impossible to relate to.
Crucially though, as a young woman myself in her early 30s, it's a picture of a woman that I don't feel is familiar to me. Where are all these baby-obsessed millennials Frizzell refers to? Because I haven't met any in my extensive circles, and we're supposedly the exact demographic who should be hitting the peak of our panic years.
In fact, if Frizzell had extended her thesis out from her own very specific attitude to motherhood, and done qualitative research through interviews of other women at a similar point in life, she may have found that her experiences and attitudes are not as universal as she assumes.
Arguably, there are as many young women who are decisively choosing not to have children as there are who want children, and even more who are quite content to leave that decision to later - not "panicked" by their biological clock, but in command of it.
It's this mismatch in the book's premise and the more complex reality that niggles at the reader, and it isn't helped by the gratuitously "quirky" writing.
Throughout the book, there are passages which read like lists of images that the author clearly thinks illustrates her carefree, youthful energy, but which to me read like pretentious diatribes trying to paint the picture of originality where there actually is none.
When contrasted with the banality of the conundrum at the heart of the book, these passages merely highlight the privilege and lack of perspective Frizzell brings to her central narrative.
Ultimately, this is a book about a very middle-class question. Having children is not always a matter of choice, especially in communities where a lack of income, access to family planning, healthcare, and secure employment means that there are more factors to consider than whether or not your next Tinder date will work out for long enough to get pregnant.
There are opportunities throughout the narrative for Frizzell to explore this question (such as a visit to a refugee camp, or encounter with a homeless man), but her self-absorption means they float by, other peoples' difficult circumstances becoming window-dressing to her own endless navel-gazing.
If one really tries to see beyond the selfishness and vanity that litter the pages of this book, you can almost glimpse insight lurking within the narrative. There are allusions to the pressure placed on women to manage having and raising children around the demands of a working life without adjusting the expectations of their output at all given their new responsibilities. Some of the scenes where Frizzell contemplates the shift in friendships and identity through aging are poignant, and highly relatable.
But ultimately, this felt like an attempt to turn the insights of a decent 1500-word essay into a book, when the former would have sufficed.
- Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging.