By: Emma Buchanan
Illustrations by: Yvette Sin
Throughout this article, I use the idea of ‘womanhood’ and the ability to bear children synonymously, solely because the article is based on personal experience. This is not because I think these concepts are mutually exclusive - the conversation about the ‘biological clock’ extends to anyone with a uterus, regardless of their gender.
In addition, this article includes a discussion of adoption and the systems of adoption in Canada. For context and fuller understanding of said system, it is worth acknowledging that Indigenous children are overrepresented in Canadian foster care.
It’s 2007. I’m standing in line at a grocery store with my mom. I glimpse at the flashy tabloids on the stands next to the check-out. There, the stoic yet shocked face of 16-year-old Jamie-Lynn Spears stares back at me. “I’m Pregnant,” is splashed underneath in bold and bright lettering.
I was seven and I thought I knew how babies were made — but I was a little confused. If my memory serves, I had just met a family friend who had used a sperm donor. For some reason, my takeaway from that was that there was a baby pill. I saw my mom look at the magazine too, and I felt like she might make me stop watching Zoey 101.
“Don’t worry Mom,” I said, “she must have just taken the baby pill by accident.”
My mom then said five words to me that I’ll never forget. She looked me dead in the eyes and said:
“Emma, it takes two to tango.”
The biological clock didn’t start ticking then, or even when I got my first period years later (in Hawaii. I quite literally dove headfirst into womanhood). But somewhere along the way, my female friends were starting to think about wanting, or not wanting kids. They began favouring futures and partners that offered stability, factoring building a family. As I grew older, I moved away to university. Somewhere along the line I realized the clock was ticking.
Was I imagining things? Was this pressure in my own head? Or was this something that everyone dealt with that was not getting talked about? I turned to the women around me to start a tricky conversation.
Giulia’s legs are crossed like she’s meditating as we sit facing each other in her Murphy bed (yes, that means it folds into the wall.) I don’t ask many questions because she knows what this conversation is about — we’ve talked about this before.
When Giulia was twelve, she was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. The doctors told her parents she was hours away from dying, and her chances of avoiding permanent, life-changing disabilities were slim.
Giulia not only lived — she survived without any major brain damage, paralysis, hearing loss or memory loss. But she didn’t walk away unscathed.
When Giulia was thirteen, and after roughly two thirds of a year on her period, she went to the doctor.
“The doctor inform[ed] me that I may not be able to have kids because of how complicated things were,” she recalls.
Giulia had gone through meningitis “smack in the middle” of puberty. Though there was never an official diagnosis that her meningitis had caused infertility, sections of her brain associated with hormones might have been damaged because of it. Imagine what it’s like to be confronted with the reality of death at twelve and within the same year, confronted with the reality of planning your whole life. When that doctor told Giulia that she might never have kids, what were they implying for how she would live her life?
“I wonder if it was even necessary for me to hear it at the time,” she says. In retrospect, it feels weird to her that the doctor assumed her having kids was important enough to think about at thirteen.
Now, she looks out the window of her bedroom. They’re building a new condo across the street that will block her view of the city. We often laugh at the absurdity of all these buildings, all these lives suspended in glass boxes in the sky.
But “the biological clock” was never necessarily important to Giulia. She already had the idea of wanting to adopt even before contracting meningitis.
“When I was about seven years old, I just had a fondness for the idea of having the opportunity to adopt a kid from anywhere, at any age. The idea of being able to take somebody in that way and care for them and love them like my own felt more natural than having kids.”
The idea stuck with her, and she says she’s grateful because it meant the doctor’s news didn’t necessarily change a lot. Over the years she’s received subtle and not-so-subtle messages that she has deviated from the norm by being interested in adopting.
“I've struggled in conversation with most people, because it's usually seen as an alternative to having your own kids. And, in that case a lesser alternative, which is extremely unfortunate.”
During the times Giulia has brought adoption up, she’s heard things like ‘It's different ...that'll be challenging. Isn't it expensive? Why wouldn't you want to have your own kid?” The idea of adoption is “met with a sense of mourning” instead of the joy she feels towards it.
So, I pose a question I don’t have an answer to: Why is it the expectation to have kids biologically — to the point that it’s important enough to get kids to think about it when they’re young?
There is a world of people with different sexualities, different genders and different medical situations — why is there one set of expectations when it comes to kids?
“Having kids is seen as something that is almost like a rite of passage, which is so odd because it’s such a personal thing,” Giulia says.
“Something that personal shouldn't have expectations tied to it, because it's not fair.”
Five young women are huddled around the end of a table in a hospital cafeteria. They’re taking a lunch break during their hectic work day. It’s dreary outside, but they’re laughing loudly and having fun. They stick out like a sore thumb in the muted murmur with their matching pristine white shoes and blue scrubs.
One of those girls is my friend Sarah. She’s in her fourth and final year of nursing now. I phone her in British Columbia and ask her to reminisce about that lunch break during their first hospital clinical. Sarah remembers her classmate joking about how she wanted to be married and pregnant soon.
“We were talking about the first to get married in our group because that seems to be what we talk about,” Sarah says. “Both the girls we bet on got married first!”
Sarah goes to a private Christian university. She sat around the table, and at the time she laughed along, but privately she was set on being a “nursing spinster”: never dating in nursing school and not getting married.
Sarah and I have known each other since I was six and she was seven. Back in B.C. in our teen years, we would drive around in her since-retired minivan named “Big Bertha” to get McDonald’s and watch the sunset over the mountains. Trusty Bertha brought her back and forth from home, and all over the Greater Vancouver area to her nursing placements.
She used to joke about the normalcy of getting married on campus. Then, one morning in her first year of university, Sarah sat down at her 8 a.m. lab. There, glittering on her classmate’s finger in the fluorescent light was a massive diamond ring. It made putting on her medical glove difficult.
The professors asked about it, and Sarah’s classmate told the lab she got engaged that weekend.
“We all gathered around, excited for her,” Sarah says, “Our class all stopped for a second to look at it.” But Sarah was a little stunned. She was 18, and so was her classmate. Her classmate who now had a fiancé.
“I remember knowing that that was a stereotype of Christian universities. But I didn’t realize that it was actually a reality until that happened.”
It wasn’t the last time Sarah would see an engagement ring on campus.
“We have this running joke that I thought was a joke but isn't a joke because it's real. And it's called ‘ring by spring’.”
The joke, Sarah says, is that you get your ring by the spring of your fourth year. Which, for her, happens to be this semester. This summer there were three weddings and two engagements in four days. Just the weekend before I spoke to her, three couples got engaged. Sarah jokes that it’s an epidemic. We laugh. She pauses for the moment.
“I hope I’m not coming across with a connotation of judgment, because I'm just not at th[at] point. But all the power to you if that's where you are.”
Sarah remembers the time another classmate told her how she had put up Christmas decorations with her husband the night before. Sarah says she thought about what she had done the previous night — gone to Chipotle and fell asleep on her textbook.
It happens. I think of how stressed I am now as a student, let alone a student and a wife. I eat on paper towels way more often than I want to admit because I don’t want to do the dishes. The other day, I went to bed at the horrific hour of 6 a.m.
I’m not really in a state to plan a wedding right now. And I’m not alone. Sarah admits she’s never been much of a planner. In 2016, Sarah and most of my friends were seventeen and applying to dream schools and back up schools. As the date to graduation crept closer and closer, Sarah hadn’t finished her application anywhere. But I wasn’t really worried — I knew she always figured it out somehow. Although it took me a while to let go of my colour-coded planners and my ideas of how my life should go, Sarah had the right idea.
“I've always been fly by the seat of my pants,” she laughs. “You remember how I got into this program. I applied at two in the morning the night before applications were due.”
Now, she’s months away from becoming a Registered Nurse.
“It’s like I sneezed and here we are,” she says.
I think of her hospital stories — how she’s cared for so many people, worked so many long hours, studied rigorously for so many anatomy tests. When she tells these stories, her eyes light up, and I love hearing them even if I am super grossed out by most of them. In a lot of ways, she was made for this. And she had no plans to do anything else for all the years of her degree.
“I was so stubborn. I was so set on not dating in nursing school.” Sarah said she went to do a job, make close friendships and get out “free.” But she met someone, and things changed. Being in love was great, but for Sarah, it came with extra pressure.
It’s like living in two different worlds: when she goes home, she’s reminded that it’s okay not to be thinking about being married. When she’s back on campus, though, she says “getting engaged seems like a very realistic possibility.” And it doesn’t help when she’s inundated with engagement photos online.
“It just seems like what you do. Get a nice ring, get some cute couple photos, like those ones where the photographer hides in the bushes, when you're on the beach,” she laughs gently. “And you post it on Instagram.”
It’s walking a fine line, almost like the small suburban community where we grew up. We love what it gave us, we love its comfort and support, we love our families. And it would be lovely to stay in that suburb. It just wouldn’t be us.
Sarah pauses. She wants to find the right words to make it clear she’s not trashing the community or the people in it. I know I’m asking a lot of my friends to answer these probing questions. I know it’s difficult to focus on your own journey and self, when it seems like everything in our lives breeds and rewards competition of life stages. I know it’s tough to see people’s highlight reels one after the other, even if you’re happy for them.
“Because we live in a community where getting engaged is so commonplace,” she says. “I think we've almost negated the severity of marriage. I think we look at it very flippantly...it doesn't seem like the big deal it is.”
Sarah’s had to think about this commitment, head on. She’s thought about the logistics of a “forever roommate” and how the real world is so different from this tiny community where she grew up. She’s thought about all the pressures on a new marriage when you’re alone, together, for the first time. So she’s not looking to have a ring by spring, but she’s found another lifelong love: nursing.
“I’ve written a nursing bucket list, I want to travel the world. I want to get further education in nursing. I want to specialize. I have all these plans and dreams and that's what I entered this conversation with.”
She and her friend from Uganda have also had a dream that they’re going to buy a plot of land there and start a clinic.
So, Sarah and her classmates in those first-year classes might have had different dreams, but neither is better than the other. She appreciates both.
“It doesn't mean I don't want to be a mom, I totally do one day. But there's a lot that I want to do first.”
The priority for my mom in her twenties wasn’t marriage, it was getting an education. She got a three-year diploma in Civil Engineering Technology, and by the time she reached her late twenties, she was working and making her own money.
“I had decided that it probably wasn't going to happen, and that was okay. I was able to make a good living and seem to be able to take care of myself just fine.”
I phone her in B.C. She’s on the ferry to Vancouver Island. Midway through the call I hear some kids laughing in the background.
“It's funny, it was sort of a zen thing,” she says. “Once I let go it seemed to happen.”
My mom was 31 years old when she met my dad. In peak engineering romance, they met on a construction site. Legend says their first date was canoeing. I remember being younger and I asked how dad proposed, primed for some dramatic, romantic, over-the-top story. They told me matter-of-factly that they just agreed they should get married, and went to pick out the ring together. They’ve been married 27 years now. My mom went back to school to get her full Bachelor of Applied Science after she married my dad.
“I didn't have a lot of distractions. I had a married life at home and a working husband and things were very stable for me. And I had a good job every summer with my former employer, so it wasn't a hardship. I think it was probably easier than, in some ways, than being 18.”
She and a couple of the other older students “banded together” and they’re still friends to this day. My mom’s experience going back to school as a mature student is something I remind myself and anyone around me who feels overwhelmed — there’s lots of time, there’s many different ways to learn and grow.
She put off having kids in her thirties because she was loving her career and her job. (And from what I can tell, she was damn good at it.)
Then I came along. My parents joke that I was named Emma because they liked the sound of “Emma the Embryo.” When my mom had me, she was 41, so technically I was a “high risk” baby. And she had a miscarriage before me.
“I thought we were in the clear. But anyway, that's what nature does.”
Miscarriages are a part of life that often get shrouded in mystery and pain, but it’s a lot more common than you might think. I ask my mom what she would tell other women who’ve gone through it, and what she’s learned.
“You know, getting pregnant is a bit of a small miracle in itself, given all the odds stacked against it. So don't blame yourself. It's disappointing. But it's not the end. There's other ways to get children. And when you're young, you have plenty of time. Really, I was 42 when you were four months old.”
Nature does its own thing — and so does time. My mom miscarried once more after I was born, but she wasn’t nearly as far along as the first. “I went for an ultrasound and they didn't see a heartbeat,” she says.
I am always in awe of the ease with which my mom relives and processes painful memories. But in this case, it’s a lot easier to find ‘zen.’ Because if it wasn’t for the timing of everything, we might not have had my baby brother.
Mom and Dad went to visit our family doctor after the last miscarriage. The doctor asked mom what their next move was.
“I think he was expecting me to say fertility treatments. And I said, we're going to adopt, and he said, that's the right thing to do.”
So I got a baby brother with beautiful long eyelashes, and though my mom has never received any flack for it the way Giulia has — “nobody would dare” — it’s still worth a conversation. Because once you start noticing it, there’s a ton of little things in our world implying that biological is better. Like people asking about my brother’s “real” mom when our mom is as real, flesh and bone, as it gets.
It’s 2019. I’m running around Kerr Hall, click-clacking in my boots and stressed out about some assignment as always. I turn the corner and there’s a small child playing with a pay phone while his mom watches. I smile and the world slows for a moment.
I love that my mom lived her own life before she had me. She had a full career, and had given up on domestic life because she felt fulfilled on her own.
I learned from her how not to put up with bullshit. To me, my mom knew who she was and she didn’t let stuff that didn’t matter bother her. Don’t get me wrong, parents grow and learn too. But there was always something so settled and assuring about having older parents, no matter how much I teased them for it. At the same time, I’m sure Jamie-Lynn Spears is very happy with her daughter and wouldn’t do it any other way.
But I guess seeing that kid reminded me what I’m doing this all for. Whatever happens, whenever it happens in my life, I’m going through these years to grow into a fuller person. Growing into myself so I have a catalog of experience to draw from when my daughter asks for advice.
And maybe someday, I'll catch my daughter looking at a tabloid in some space-age automated grocery store. I’ll turn to her and tell her with sureness and wryness just how many it takes to tango.