The central films of my adolescence were grotesque miracle plays about the trouble with death (Blade Runner) and reproduction (Alien and its first sequel). Both fictional universes are about struggling with sex and death — their meanings, but especially their rough edges and hard limits. I’ve watched Blade Runner every six months or so since I was 16, which should tell you everything you need to know to understand my relationship with time. Time only matters, after all, because we die.
We are biological creatures who change dramatically over our lifespans, though, so there’s more than one hard limit in our experience of time. Thirty-five, for example, means something particular to some women — to most women, I suspect, who’ve considered having children biologically. Hit 35 and you’re suddenly in weird waters: the wind drops away and everything gets quiet.
Because here is the fact, the thing we’re up against, the way you set your back against a wall: on a graph, the line of an average woman’s fertility follows a gentle curve downward from her mid-twenties until it crosses 35 and falls off like somebody dropped the pen. The math is so pure it looks faked. Sure, you might be the exception, might be able to have kids until you’re nearly 50, but for most women who want to have a child, 35 means you’re out of time to make other choices.
The biological hard lines become visible when they conflict with mass culture and individual desire. I live in the US, where childcare is complicated and horrifically expensive, and where the safety nets are thin and badly made. The tradeoff for women is ugly as hell: do your work young or your career suffers; have your kids young or maybe not at all. (The Health and Lifestyle sections of papers like The New York Times are bloated with breathless, down-talking articles featuring feckless Professional Women Who Put It Off Too Long.)
The hard line, for me, is here. And by all cultural accounts, I should be either driven by a consuming mammal desire to have a baby now or relieved, like my friends who’ve chosen not to bear children and can begin to imagine relaxing about contraception. But I’m neither of those things: I’m lucidly, crisply pissed off. This is the penalty for managing, somehow, to avoid the waves of chemical transformation that smooth the edges of biological changes by making us want them.
The night before I turned thirteen, I was too upset to sleep. Surrounded by the images of American teendom, of teen movies and teen magazines, and wrapped in the daisy chain of moral panics that made up our evangelical Sunday sermons, I was terrified. (My memory doesn’t go far enough back for me to remember not having sleeping trouble, and all those hours staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling had provided plenty of time to think.)
Even the word “teenager” made me clammy, that nasal whine of “teeeeeen” bearing down like the giant mosquito of banality. I wanted to claw back the irresistible change that turned my female classmates into slow-blinking girl cartoons, that would ruin my relationship with my parents, that would obviously destroy my ability to think clearly. I’d seen The Body Snatchers in all its blank-faced 1950s Red Scare brilliance, and I wanted to stay myself.
Somehow, magically, I did. The hormone-fueled existential apocalypse didn’t happen, maybe in part because I resisted it so hard. I grew up, but I didn’t get bodysnatched or brainwiped or develop a sudden taste for TV-preacher’s-wife makeup. My refusal to desire the transition made my adolescence stranger, I think — like going through brain surgery awake — but I experienced the strangeness as reassurance that I hadn’t failed. (Years later, I realized it was that snarling resistance to the leash-tug of adolescent culture that marked out the geeks of my generation from the others.)
Fifteen years later, a familiar dread crept in as I watched my female peers get possessed, one by one, by the idea of babies. Not the actual babies (which were fine, and often charming) but the longing that was strong enough to make them cry at their desks with wanting. I sympathized with their pain, but unconsciously recoiled from hard-wiring made suddenly visible, as jarring as the sight of Bishop’s milky android blood.
As the conversations around me turned to attachment parenting and the virtues of moving closer to grandparents, I kept stomping up the path to a life more like the one I wanted. I joked uneasily with my partner about the Baby Rabies as a cover for the fear that I would one day wake up transformed, all my self-ness undone by the single-minded desire for a child.
It didn’t happen. I like other people’s kids and want some of my own, but the maternal undertow never did more than graze along the tips of my toes.
But now there is this thing marked “35.” And with each year, it’s been less like something to put my back against and more like something I can’t turn my back on. Instead of being overcome with longing, I’ve felt the oncoming deadline like a piece of glass in my shoe, a thing that trips up my planning and makes me sorefooted and unsure and angry.
Of course, 35 is also the halfway point in that approximate lifespan we can all hope for while secretly expecting to exceed. It could be a chance to take stock, to breathe instead of panic — a grown-up acceptance. But the trick required to re-frame hard limits eludes me. I’m full of hope, but I still want control. I want choices.
(I want more life, fucker.)
It’s inefficient to resent my physical limits — those posed by illness and the ones we all face. But I’d rather have the resentment than the bodysnatch; I’d rather hit this line unanesthetized and send up a flare from here, marking territory women don’t discuss but must surely feel.
I woke up in Wellington the morning I turned 35 and went down to the water at the city harbor to dangle my legs in the ocean — my birthday’s in winter, the worst weather of the year, but in New Zealand it was high summer. After awhile, a flat, dark shadow moved through the water. Startlingly big, a ray or a skate, swimming under my feet, but much deeper. It was so unexpected and beautiful and strange, and I sat there in the too-bright sun and nothing could have been more apt.
Image by Flickr user Patrick Johanneson, used under a Creative Commons license.
Erin Kissane is a reader, writer, editor, and web geek. She edits a magazine and works on online editorial, publishing, and journalism projects during the day and writes blog posts, love letters, and drafts of novels at night. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and two mostly charming cats.