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Reviewed by Harriet

‘Every millennial woman should have this on her bookshelf’ says Pandora Sykes on the front of Nell Frizzell’s new book. New in the sense that it’s just been published, rather than because she’s written other books already. This is her first, though she’s been a successful columnist for the Guardian, Vogue (‘Bringing up Baby’) and Vice among others. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed any of Frizzell’s columns, you’ll recognise the tone and content of The Panic Years. In the recent Guardian and Vogue it will be pregnancy or child care, while in Vice it’s often food related: see ‘I Ate a Chicken Curry Pancake So You Don’t Have To’ for example. Frizzell’s writing is honest, personal, witty, ironic, and sometimes moving too. So I hoped for more of the same in The Panic Years, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

But what are the panic years, I hear you asking. Frizzell has invented the term to describe the period in a woman’s life – roughly between 28 and 40 – when she is faced with life-changing decisions. Some of these may be reversible: changing your job or your partner, getting married, moving to a different country. Only one is irreversible: ‘These years are compelled by the eternal question: should I have a baby, and, if so, when, how, why, and with whom?’ This, she argues, has become the major preoccupation for women of her generation – millennial women. Women who are trying to establish their careers, who may not be in a committed relationship but who want their child to have two stable parents, and who are increasingly aware that time is running out. 

All of these were major concerns for Frizzell, who couldn’t forget that her own mother had her menopause at 40. She had woken up on her 28th birthday with the realisation that she’d just lost her home, ended a six-year relationship and was struggling to support herself with free-lance journalism. What did she want out of life, and was a baby to be part of it? It was only when she started opening up to friends, or even strangers, about her quandary that she realised that she was far from alone in entering the panic years. This book is an account of how she navigated these treacherous waters.

The story of the five years between that bleak awakening and that of her 33rd birthday, when she woke up next to a man she loved and a two-week-old baby by her side, is told in frequently hilarious, sometimes excruciating and even painful detail. First there’s the search for a partner. Eschewing dating apps, Frizzell opts for inviting men she’s attracted to for a camping weekend. This is actually a pretty good idea, in my opinion – you’d certainly find out more about a man after two uncomfortable nights under canvas than you would during awkward drinks in a wine bar and a possible one-night stand. But after getting dumped on Crewe station by a man who, infuriatingly, wants children but not a girlfriend, ending up mortified and frustrated by a man who’d rather sit in the car than have sex with her, and discovering a man who she’d had a great night with was actually a conspiracy theorist with an unhealthy interest in YouTube videos, she wonders if this method is going to work out.

The tide finally turns, not on a camping weekend, but after an invitation from a man she doesn’t know to join volunteering a trip to a Calais refugee camp. This is Nick, who turns out to be just the man she’s hoped to meet one day. There’s only one problem:

despite the fact that in every way that mattered, Nick and I were ideally suited, despite the fact that we were honest with each other from the start, despite the fact that I knew in my bones that he was the one for me, I eventually realised, over the tentative course of the following year, that Nick didn’t want a baby.

This is not exactly a cliff-hanger, in the sense that we’ve known from the start that a baby does get born, but the rest of the book tells the story of the journey it took to get there. There’s counselling involved (something that’s been a feature of Frizzell’s entire adult life), a six-month stay in Berlin during which she flaunted her freedom on Instagram knowing full well the effect it would have on ‘all the grey-faced, swollen, claustrophobic new mothers at home’, major decisions about contraception. And yes, finally Nick agrees and Frizzell is pregnant. End of story? No. There’s the pregnancy to endure and then there’s the birth – involving a 40-hour-long labour, recounted in a chapter that is somehow both painful and hilarious to read. If that were not enough, the instant love for her son that Frizzell assumed would materialise failed to do so. Instead there was doubt, rage, exhaustion and fear.  Love did come, but it took its time.

Frizzell’s intention, so the blurb tells us, is to offer ‘both an arm round the shoulder and a campaign to start a conversation’. I’ve made it sound as if it’s all about Frizzell’s personal angst, but she hopes that bringing these issues into the open will help other women in her age group to feel less alone. There are also some interesting and helpful thoughts about feminism and the shameful fact that businesses don’t offer free childcare to their employees, about the potentially dangerous effects of the contraceptive pill (depression and weight gain, even possible suicide), and the need for the NHS to reinvest in maternity services.

When I told my daughter I was going to review this book, she said ‘but you’re not the demographic’.  Of course this is quite true. I married young, and two children later, my family was complete at 27. So panic years of the kind Frizzell describes here passed me by completely.  But that doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable or thought-provoking. It actually provides both a rather grim picture of the society we now live in, one in which the lack of support for women with children forces them to choose between career and babies, but it provides a lot of laughter and enjoyment along the way. I’m not sure if this qualifies as a first-world problem, but Frizzell does acknowledge that she’s writing from the perspective of white privilege. That doesn’t diminish its interest, and I hope it may provide some comfort and reassurance to others who are struggling with similar issues.

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Harriet is co-founder and joint editor of Shiny New Books

Nell Frizzell, The Panic Years: dates, doubts and the mother of all decisions (Transworld, 2021). 978-1787632837, 328pp., paperback.

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