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How the pandemic made our personal lives feel like one daunting to-do list

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I entered the pandemic aged 31 still riding the crest of the just-entered-my-thirties wave. I was unfazed about future plans, and not giving much thought to the next decade of my life. Somewhere between the second and third national lockdown in the UK, I felt that calm begin to ebb, and a deluge of panic rush over me. A list was forming in my mind — a daunting to-do list of my biggest hopes and desires for the next five to 10 years of my life. 

For me, that checklist consists of the following: boyfriend, baby, buy a home. (Nothing major, then.) As lockdown begins to lift in the UK and stay-at-home orders ease elsewhere, many people are totting up what they want to do with their future — whether that’s considering a career change, seeking help with mental health, or taking the plunge on something you’ve wanted to do for a long time. The list of possibilities is endless. 

My own alliterative shopping list loomed large in my head as I sat in my flat during lockdown, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of those wants, and my feelings of powerlessness to move my life forward in a meaningful way. I thought long and hard about the contents of that list: Do I really want these things for myself? Does the very existence of this list stem from internalised patriarchal values and capitalist structures that I’m being told I should want? My list doesn’t end with the three Bs, of course. In among those three major life milestones are my myriad professional goals that occupy my brain on a daily basis. And with that comes even more incessant self-questioning: Can you actually afford to start a family? Are you doing enough to move your ambitions forward? Shouldn’t you have already achieved X, Y, Z by your age? 

Nell Frizzell, author of The Panic Years: Dates, Doubts, and the Mother of All Decisions, defines the phase I’m in as the ‘panic years’: “the tumult of time, hormones, social pressure, and maternal hunger that smacks into many women like a train at the end of their twenties and early thirties.” It’s important to note that not all women experience ‘panic years’ and, with a partner or not, not every woman wants or is able to have children. The pressures women face are unique to each individual and can be profoundly impacted by factors like racial identity, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status, and the systems of oppression that exist in our culture. 

Now approaching my 33rd birthday, I can faithfully say I’m smack bang in my panic years. But there’s a unique agitation that comes with being in the midst of a global pandemic while freaking out about your hopes and dreams for the future. I spoke to Frizzell about life currently feeling like one massive to-do list and what we can do to make things a little less stressful for ourselves.

It makes complete sense, Frizzell tells me, that lockdown or stay-at-home orders have amplified the feelings of pressure and fear for women in their panic years — but also for anyone at an important crossroads in their life. “We’ve just taken away job security, health security, the ability to see our family and friends, we’ve suddenly had our mortality brought into sharper focus than we probably ever have done, certainly for my generation in our lifetimes. If that didn’t make the shopping feel a bit more high octane than what would? How could you not?” For people with wishlists full of future goals similar to mine, the very nature of lockdown has cranked up the heat because we haven’t been able to move our lives forward in meaningful ways — be that by being prevented access to IVF due to the pandemic, being furloughed, made redundant, or experiencing pandemic-related financial issues, not having access to healthcare that you need, not being able to date in the traditional sense or even legally have sex due to government restrictions.

There is no universality to our experiences of living through a pandemic — people’s privilege (or lack thereof) shapes how difficult or easy they have found the past year. Some have experienced life-changing trauma during this time, with studies actually showing half going on to experience post-traumatic growth and feelings of optimism about the future. For others at key junctures in their lives, the pandemic has amplified the stress that comes with major life changes. 

“Suddenly everything seems much more stressful than it should do, basically,” says Frizzell. “Whether you are single and wondering if you are going to be able to meet someone; whether you are in a relationship and are unsure if that’s a relationship that is going to sustain you for the next chapter of your life; whether you have just broken up with someone and you’re having to grieve that in a completely odd social situation where you can’t actually have any sort of face-to-face time with your normal support network; whether you’ve just had a baby, and all the things that you thought would be in place when you got pregnant have disappeared; whether you are a new parent and you can’t even go to a midwife appointment.”

While things might seem overwhelming for anyone with a long list they want to achieve, Frizzell wants people to remain optimistic. “I do think that there will be a period of adjustment and change after people have been vaccinated and things are somewhat under control,” she says. The dating pool will also see some changes too, predicts Frizzell. “There’ll be lots of people coming out with long term relationships, there’ll be a lot of divorces, and a lot of separation. There’ll be movement in the market, as my friend likes to say,” she says. “She’s single and obviously all of her dates have been weird Regency period promenades. We laugh about the summer where all the heartbroken will come out into the fields and scamper.”

I described to Frizzell the anxiety I feel about my own shopping list right now and why certain items feel more urgent than others. “Meeting someone and falling in love and buying a flat can happen at 70, it can happen at 50, it can happen at 40, it can happen at 20. But having a baby is something that you only have finite amount of time to do,” says Frizzell. To learn more about the science behind fertility, this BBC explainer is a good start

Personal thoughts like “Oh my god, how much longer have I got?” and “Is this going to happen for me?” can be sad and scary to contend with, says Frizzell, but the reason they feel like insurmountable problems could stem from how our society is structured. “The reason it feels like a problem is because, unfortunately, in this country and in this culture we have organised things like work, relationships, dating, money, and housing in such a way that makes that ‘biological deadline’ really difficult and really stressful,” she says. “The reasons that we’re waiting longer are partly systemic.” In writing about these structural issues in her book, Frizzell wants to underscore how unfair it is that people feel they’re compromising their securities by getting pregnant. 

Ask yourself whether you need to do everything on your list immediately and simultaneously, or whether some things can wait or be achieved separately. “Don’t feel pressured to do it all at once. I think some some things can wait and some things can’t. And some things get lumped in together. We often talk about boyfriends and baby in one breath. But those are two separate things and they don’t have to go alongside each other,” says Frizzell. With the rise of the single positivity movement, people are redefining being single as a symbol of power, and exploring single-by-choice parenting

Frizzell recommends making a priority of things that might feel like they’re time-sensitive — and for some people, this might be becoming a parent. She suggests that during lockdown people may have been given a glimpse into the possibility of having children, “that they are ready to make that sort of shift in tempo that becoming a parent necessitates,” where they may not have been sure it would work in their lives before. It’s worth noting here that parenting in a pandemic has been unimaginably difficult for many people. 

“If all you want is to have a baby, it might be worth thinking about whether you necessarily need to do that within a relationship, whether you need to do that with someone you’re romantically involved with, whether you need to be pregnant. There are other ways of having a child in your life and there are other forms of family that don’t look like the kind of cisgender heterosexual norm that we see everywhere,” she says. 

“I’ve got two or three friends now who are having either a IUI artificial insemination, or doing IVF on their own privately, because they have decided that they want to have babies. And they’re in their thirties, they want to do that, and if they meet someone once they’re a mother, that’s nice, but they don’t need to meet someone and then have that person’s baby, they can have a baby and then meet someone.”

If you have really been feeling the pressure of “running out of time” or perhaps even been feeling like an outlier among your peers, it’s worth sitting with that feeling and figuring out where that comes from. “That feeling is often more complicated by the sense of being out of sync. So if you are in a peer group where everyone got pregnant at 24, you will probably feel like you’re running out of time at 23, right?” says Frizzell. “But I was in a social group where most people were having children in their early thirties. So the sense of running out of time is not numerical, it’s not actually according to what age you are, it’s according to what age everyone around you is when they’re doing the things that you think you should be doing.” 

That sense of judging yourself against your peers has been further complicated this past year because of the simple fact that we haven’t seen our friends very much, if at all. We’re finding out our friends’ big life news via Instagram. As many of us are acutely aware, Instagram lends itself well to self-comparison because it tends to flatten everyone’s life experiences into two-dimensional glossy posts that only show the version of ourselves we want others to see. But at the very same time, spending a lot of time alone and away from our friendship groups means many people might also feel freer to do their own thing, to work to their own deadlines without the interference of other people’s opinions. “In some ways, it is slightly better because everyone is slightly doing their own thing at the moment, so it’s less febrile that feeling of being left behind,” says Frizzell. 

But here’s one rather comforting thought for those of us who’ve been feeling stressed over the significant act of making a list at all: the very fact you have a list that you’re quietly totting up in your head could be something that really counts in your favour, no matter what’s on it. “In your post-lockdown shopping list, if you’re honest about what that list is, then you are streets ahead, because you will tune out the people who are not interested in the things that you want to or only looking for other people that can be ambivalent alongside them,” says Frizzell.  

I asked Frizzell if she has any advice for women in their panic years who might be feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of their list. Firstly, she reminded me that the list doesn’t stop once you cross off a few pretty major milestones. In fact, as many will already be aware, we have a tendency to constantly shift the goalposts for ourselves. “I have a three year old, but I would really like to have another baby, I would really like to buy a house, I would really like to get another book deal. The shopping list doesn’t unfortunately end when you have a partner and your first child,” says Frizzell. “As someone who’s on the other side of the Grand Canyon, shouting back at you, I have to say [the list] does slightly keep going.”

As the shutters begin to be lifted on lockdown and stay-at-home orders, life is a strange mix of excitement and overwhelm. Seeing friends for the first time in months, starting to date again, and getting to work on a few of those things on your list can be hugely daunting. But as Frizzell rightly points out, just having that list is a huge achievement in itself. Knowing what you want from the next decade, identifying which of those things you want most will prove invaluable in your quest to try and get those things. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will your future be. 

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