By Raina Lipsitz
A friend recently showed me a photo she’d taken of a poster in a bus station: “Dear 30-year-old Amy,” it said, “It’s time to look into freezing your eggs. Love, 42-year-old Amy.” I laughed and rolled my eyes, but at the same time I felt a tiny clutch of fear: would my 42-year-old self forgive 30-year-old me for laughing at the poster’s message?
My younger brother and his fiancee went to Buffalo last weekend for his fiancee’s bridal shower. When they came back, they were full of news about various relatives. “Jimmy wants to know if you’re engaged yet,” said my brother. “Well, I’m not,” I said, smiling. “You’re gonna love this,” my brother continued. “He says you’re getting up there. He says you’ve only got a couple of years left.”
Jimmy is a cousin of mine who knocked up his girlfriend at age 25. He wasn’t ready for fatherhood, but he accepted his new role with the grim fatalism of young Catholics everywhere. For Jimmy and other relatives of mine, this is the natural order of things: meet young, make a mistake, and spend the rest of your life pretending it wasn’t a mistake. This has worked out fine for some of them. It doesn’t seem to be working out so well for Jimmy.
Still, unplanned fatherhood strikes him as far less tragic than the accidental childlessness he thinks I’m headed for. Once upon a time—and even today, in some parts of the world—unmarried women were seen as “old maids” at the age of 23. These days, at least in some parts of America, you’re allowed not to panic until you hit 28. I’m in a better position than many to resist this cultural narrative: I’m educated and I live in New York, where “growing up” is defined not by parenthood but by whether or not you’ve appeared in a national magazine or purchased an apartment. And I’m lucky to know a number of happy, successful unmarried and/or childless women who are in no way tragic or pitiable. But I’d be lying if I said posters like the one my friend showed me and comments like Jimmy’s don’t bother me.
Most women I know (myself included) feel like failures in some respect: we fail to exercise enough, eat healthily, get promoted, earn more money, get a date, get a ring, get pregnant. But wouldn’t it be better to question why we want these things than to berate ourselves for failing to “achieve” them? “What are you saying? That I should get married to someone right away in case he’s about to die?” Meg Ryan’s character asks a friend in “When Harry Met Sally.” The friend’s answer? “At least you could say you were married.”
Maybe I’ve just seen too many (self-aware, accomplished) women my age (and younger) driven batty by this kind of pressure. I’ve listened to smart women make self-denigrating comments about not finding a husband which accept the premise that they are worthless without one. And it has made me want to opt out of this whole conversation. Because if you give ‘em an inch, the patriarchy and its handmaidens will take a mile: to admit to feeling lonely, on occasion, let alone to yearn openly for a partner and a houseful of kids, is to risk becoming a poster girl for anti-feminist forces, an object lesson, a cautionary tale: “This, ladies, is what happens when you spend your twenties reading Sisterhood is Powerful and ranting about misogyny.” You wind up a 30-year-old spinster.
Many people still see wanting kids as “natural” and not wanting them (or not having them) as freakish and sad. I don’t. When I was younger, I dreamed of having a conventional life, but living it in an unconventional way: I’d have a husband but I wouldn’t take his name; I’d have a baby but I wouldn’t let motherhood define me. I’d have my cake and eat it, too. I believe that’s still possible. I also believe that if I don’t get married or have babies—or if I don’t do it “on time,” i.e., by the time I’m 32, since I’ve already missed the socially enforced deadline of 30—I’ll still have a good life.
This is what privilege of the kind I’m lucky to have (including money, education, health care, and citizenship in a democracy) guarantees us: more choices, and more freedom. Sometimes it’s lonely or scary or sad, but mostly it’s wonderful. Even privileged people don’t control as much about our lives as many of us wish we could. But despite what those whose self-esteem depends on keeping women riddled with angst and self-doubt want us to believe, life does not have to dead-end in domestic drudgery or lonely spinsterhood. It’s an infinitely changeable choose-your-own-adventure story. And as long as you’re kind to other people and committed to a cause or belief system that does no harm and might even change the world for the better, there’s no such thing as running out of time.