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The Panic Years: In search of motherhood

Book review: Journalist Nell Frizzell wanted a baby but her bodyclock was a time bomb

The Panic Years
The Panic Years
Author: Nell Frizzell
ISBN-13: 9781787632837
Publisher: Bantam Press
Guideline Price: £14.99

"Fertility is such a difficult feminist issue because our biology hasn't caught up with our politics." In her bracing debut, The Panic Years, journalist Nell Frizzell examines the period in a woman's life where she can have children, and the many dilemmas, heartaches and joys that spring from that.

Frizzell’s warts-and-all approach goes deep into her subject matter, using her own life, and the experience of peers and friends, to give us a raw, affecting and important book on what it means to be a woman in today’s society.

She also refers to her titular thesis as “the Flux,” which works well to describe the passage of time and the swirly decision-making that comes with it: “Something between adolescence and menopause, a personal crisis, a transformation.”

If you've ever needed an antidote to the sentimentalised, Hallmark version of female fertility and motherhood, this book has it in spades

During this period of a woman’s life, which ranges from mid-20s to early 40s, most choices, from postcode to partner to career, will be underpinned by one irreversible decision: whether or not to have a child.

Similar in subject matter to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, The Panic Years is not about the decision itself, or rather it is not, like Heti’s autofiction, about the agonising indecision. She wants a baby but hasn’t found someone to do it with. This conundrum gives the book its tension. As we learn about the many different types of women out there – women who get pregnant early or accidentally, who have abortions, who are childfree by choice – Frizzell’s own desire for a baby is the beating heart of the book.

Heartfelt

We know from the beginning that she eventually becomes a mother, but the journey along the way makes for fascinating reading. Her writing style tends towards excess. Frizzell gives an extraordinary amount of detail about everyday events. For the most part this works to bring us a fresh and heartfelt account of one woman trying to stay sane in the pursuit of something that everyone else around her seems to be able to do.

Take her best friend Alice, who announces her pregnancy in a cafe one morning, while the author is viciously (and hilariously) hungover. The news becomes “a focal point of panic, nostalgia, grief, longing, uncertainty and confusion … Of course, you feel happy for your friend. Or, most of the time you do.” If you’ve ever needed an antidote to the sentimentalised, Hallmark version of female fertility and motherhood, this book has it in spades.

A UK-based freelance journalist, Frizzell has written for the Guardian, Vice, the Telegraph and Grazia, among others. Her first book is not new in its scope – authors such as Anne Enright and Rachel Cusk have written masterful memoirs on similar subjects – and it must hold its own against some remarkable contemporary publications on the female experience.

In Ireland alone, writers Sinéad Gleeson, Emilie Pine and Doireann Ní Ghríofa come to mind. Closer to home for Frizzell, The Panic Years recalls another journalist, Paula Cocozza, whose debut novel How to Be Human also considered the question of motherhood in unflinching, original detail.

Frizzell is well able to keep up with her contemporaries. Her book is full of realistic, visceral details on everything from pregnancy FoMo, to the horrors (and joys) of giving birth, to her love for her son William, and the stark realities of caring for a newborn who won’t stop crying: “I was being pushed to the very edge of myself and I wasn’t sure how long I could cling on.”

Clear on every page of is the author’s desire to educate and include. Even the title stems from a desire to come up with a phrase that can be easily named, and therefore widely discussed: “That there are several words for adolescence in every major European language and not a single one for this second transformative time in a woman’s life speaks of two things: that language often lets us down, and that we have never really taken this period seriously.”

Interesting research backs up her theories, on everything from the side effects of the contraceptive pill and scaremongering about female fertility, to the cold hard facts of biology that cannot be ignored: “About 10 per cent of people will miscarry at age twenty, compared with 90 per cent or more at forty-five years of age or older.”

The crux of the Flux, according to the author, is that whether you have a baby or not, there will always be times when the grass is greener. Her book therefore is not just an exploration of what it means to be a woman, but also what it means to be alive: “To live in a human body is to exist in a state of uncertainty.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts

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