The Panic Years examines the pleasures and politics of motherhood from a feminist lens
By Lyndsey Brennan
British journalist Nell Frizzell was 30 years old, single and hungover from a night of gin and dancing on the morning her best friend took her to breakfast and told her she was pregnant.
Upon hearing the news, Frizzell wrote, “Her words seemed to run aground like a boat on gravel. My heart hit a double. My face turned to sand and immediately slid right off my head.”
“I wept,” she continued, recalling the confusing mix of excitement, shock and grief that surged in her at that moment. “I wanted to hold her up into the sky and scream in her honor. I wanted her to become unpregnant. I wanted to be pregnant too.”
Frizzell’s reaction is comical, bizarre, embarrassing and selfish — but in it, I see my own reaction to my best friend’s pregnancy announcement. This is something Frizzell does so well throughout her memoir, The Panic Years, which was released on Feb. 9. She verbalizes emotions and ideas around motherhood that I once found un-verbalizable.
This conversation with her best friend kickstarted what Frizzell calls the Panic Years, an era between adolescence and menopause where a woman’s awareness of her ticking biological clock creates in her an urgency that dictates almost every decision she makes regarding her career, relationships, finances and location.
Women need language to identify and navigate this period of their lives, Frizzell argues. By taking us along on a 250-page journey through the therapy sessions, breakups, baby showers, doctor’s appointments, and pregnancy tests of her own Panic Years, Frizzell aims to help readers find words for theirs.
In the memoir, Frizzell positions herself as a playful and wise big sister — sometimes profane, sometimes vulnerable, but always entertaining — weaving personal stories and epiphanies with scholarship around the history, science and politics of motherhood.
Given her background as a parenting columnist for British Vogue, Frizzell is not afraid to debunk myths around male libido, IVF and geriatric pregnancy. She’s not shy about asking hard questions like, “What does it mean for a working woman in an unaffordable country facing a climate disaster to commit to […] the future of a child?” And she doesn’t back away from discussing taboos like mothers who feel no emotional attachment to their child, or mothers who confess an urge to hurt or abandon their child.
Watching her systematically dismantle and inspect facets of the Panic Years one by one — all through a self-aware, aggressively feminist lens — was a delight on par with watching AOC take former Rep. Ted Yoho down a peg.
The ground the book covers is ambitious. The first third of the book hits on what discourages women from becoming mothers — baggage from abusive parents, a partner’s disinterest in kids, or the feeling you have to choose between a career and a baby. In the middle portion, she recounts the laborious process of persuading her boyfriend Nick to try to conceive. The final third presents the saga of her son’s delivery — by far, one of the funniest and most moving accounts I’ve read of birth — and addresses issues Frizzell encountered in her first year raising her son like breastfeeding, postnatal depression and parental leave.
Frizzell is at her best when she’s sharing scenes from her personal life. In these moments, her writing is poetic, vulnerable and humorous at once. For instance, during the frustrating 48 hours Frizzell spends in labor “feeling the ocean inside [her] trying to escape through [her] spine,” she is turned away from the hospital twice because she wasn’t dilated enough.
On the third try, she is fully dilated, and you can almost hear her triumphant cackle breaking into relief: “I had done it. I had fucking done it. … I had finally, finally stretched myself open like the mouth of a river, and I was ready.”
Later, she marvels at both the miraculous and mundane elements present during a birth experience that “lasted two days and took me to the very edge of myself.”
“They were going to let me and this tiny, helpless creature go out into the cold, autumn tang of real-world air,” she wrote of her amazement. “Nick and I had walked in there as two people, bound together by love and fear and need and thought. We were leaving as a family.”
One aspect of the book I found off-putting was the moments where Frizzell uses language plus-size women might find demeaning and fatphobic. For instance, in an interview, a friend who had done IVF explains to Frizzell that the procedures made her feel “bovine, like a bloated, seeping farm animal being dragged around.”
At another point, when Frizzell describes her experience of taking birth control pills, she said she felt “sad, fat, lonely, cloudy, unresponsive, sexless, and bovine.”
It is clear to me that no self-aware plus-size editor looked at this book before it went to print, because if they had, they would have advocated for removing degrading language that equates fatness with being animalistic or repulsive. The book had many imaginative descriptions of pregnancy that celebrated everyone, regardless of body type. These could have stood on their own. Instead, the editors missed an opportunity to make the book inclusive.
Some readers may also point out that Frizzell got pregnant fairly quickly on her second try. While the book does include a few anecdotes about friends or public figures who took a long time to get pregnant, it may have benefitted even more from interviews with people who couldn’t get pregnant at all and eventually gave up.
In spite of these problems, Frizzell has written a phenomenal book about a hallmark of a person’s 20s, 30s, and 40s: the decision to become a parent. Whether the reader has children, is hoping for them, or falls into the parenting-is-not-for-me camp, the book is a wonderful primer for navigating the questions that arise during the Panic Years.
I also think The Panic Years can help friends who are on different paths (“the breeders and the child-free” or “the hedonists and homemakers,” as Frizzell calls them) better understand and support each other.
Lyndsey Brennan is Cleveland native, writer, and graduate student in the journalism master’s program at Kent State.