Turning 35 and Letting Go of Fear

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Today is my thirty-fifth birthday. Every year, I look back and reflect at the changes in my life over the past year. How I’ve grown and learned from the past year’s lessons.

The biggest change this year? How I’ve handled a big question that has dominated my life for the past few years, often relentlessly.

I’m turning 35. Shouldn’t I know whether I want a baby or not by now?

Readers often privately ask me if I’m planning to have a baby, and I always decline to answer. I get why they ask — I’m a woman they’ve grown to trust over the years. However, I don’t talk about this subject online because no matter what a woman in her mid-thirties without children says, she cannot win. 

Thirty-five and you want kids? Yikes, you’re running out of time!

Thirty-five and you don’t want kids? Wow, you’re a selfish person!

Thirty-five and you’re not sure if you want kids? How can you be so dumb as to not know yet?

I get enough of that already. You will not believe the number of male readers I have who mansplain that maybe I should get started on the kids, because did I know that women’s fertility begins to decline with age? (I roll my eyes and evoke Phoebe from Friends: “THIS IS BRAND NEW INFORMATION!!!”)

Let’s put an end to that here.

First off, the idea that it’s much more difficult for women to conceive after age 35 is massively overstated. Much of that data is based on French birth rates from 1670-1830. Seriously. I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but we are still using statistics that predate electricity and indoor plumbing, let alone modern medicine.

While fertility does decline with age, 40 is a far more significant hurdle than 35. And in spite of that, pregnancies at age 35 and older are labeled “advanced maternal age” or even “geriatric pregnancies.”

So why isn’t this better known? This misinformation too conveniently plays into a narrative that benefits the patriarchy. When women are led to believe that their fertility shuts down at age 35, they’re less likely to achieve in their careers. And when women intentionally hold themselves back from financial success, men are able to consolidate their power further.

“In short, the ‘baby panic’ — which has by no means abated since it hit me personally — is based largely on questionable data. We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb. In Dunson’s study of modern women, the difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points. Fertility does decrease with age, but the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child. And that, after all, is the whole point.” –Jean M. Twenge, The Atlantic

We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities. It took me awhile to realize I had been doing the same thing.

Kate in a yellow dress in front of a Statue of Liberty mural in SoHo, NYC

I moved to New York in 2016 because I was tired of being nomadic and ready for the next step. I had built a cool career and had traveled the world for five years, most of it solo. Now it was time to live in a city I loved, get into a relationship, and eventually have a family. Once moving to Manhattan, I jumped into the dating scene and tried to figure out how to balance my travels and a more settled life in the city.

I dated a lot of men. Mostly finance and tech dudes who ran and cycled in their free time. Mostly foreign-born men who came to New York for work, with a few Americans thrown in; the Europeans considered themselves centrists; the Americans, liberals. Most of them lived somewhere between the Upper East Side and the Lower East Side. All loved to travel. (It’s amazing how a composite of your dating habits forms over time, isn’t it?)

Each time, we would date for roughly three to five months and it would end when one or both of us realized that it was going nowhere. We would be stuck in a stasis of hey-it’s-Friday-so-let’s-go-to-dinner-and-then-back-to-your-place-because-you-don’t-like-to-come-to-Harlem-and-my-Sunday-mornings-belong-to-Zumba.

Let me be clear: these guys were and are lovely people. I had a great time with them and I’m still friendly with most of them. But it was frustrating to date guy after guy who indicated that he was ready for something serious, then a few months later would say that actually, now he was thinking he wanted a few more years before getting serious.

I hear the same thing happen with my single women friends in the city. Is it a New York thing? Is it an over 30 thing? Is it a 2019 thing? Probably a combination of all three. It’s hard to commit when it’s never been easier to look for something better.

As these men came and went, my biological clock grew louder and louder. Soon these thoughts were violently pervasive, stabbing me in the head 20 times a day. YOU FUCKED UP, KATE. YOU WAITED TOO LONG TO HAVE A BABY. YOU ARE CONTINUING TO FUCK IT UP AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NOW?

Kate sitting outside a restaurant in SoHo, NYC, in black and white.

I started seeing a therapist — something I’ve done on and off over the years. Stress and anxiety were starting to consume my life and I wanted a way to deal with it in a healthy way.

I started my sessions talking about other issues, but inevitably, my screaming biological clock came up. “I worry about this twenty times a day, at least,” I told her. “I can’t escape it.”

“You need to figure out a scenario where you would be happy without children or a relationship,” she told me.

Why was that so hard? I already have a life I love! I travel and I have a beautiful apartment and I built an awesome career from scratch.

I felt lighter after every therapy session, but it was so hard coming up with an image of what my life would look like without children. I could picture it intellectually, but I couldn’t make myself feel happy about it — it felt like no matter what my life would be, it would be filled with regret.

In the meantime, I was cutting my travels way back. Every time I met a guy that I thought had potential to be something serious, I would privately freak out, wondering if my travel schedule would drive us apart.

“If he can’t handle your travels, he’s not the right person for you,” my therapist told me.

“But if you go away for three weeks, you can’t expect someone you’re newly dating to just sit around and wait for you,” I pointed out.

How do you maintain a fledging relationship when you have to keep leaving the city? It was one thing to say I had a campaign or work assignment somewhere and needed the money in order to pay my rent, but what about the trips I did for fun? Was I a terrible person for wanting to travel somewhere for two weeks every other month while the person I was dating was stuck at home in his 9-5 job?

Over time, my travels dropped off more and more. I tried to fill my home life with more routines — more classes at the gym, more walks in Central Park, more podcasts to listen to, more coffees at Birch. I loved my routines, but felt the constant travel itch and wished I was on the road.

Kate sitting on a stoop in front of a red door with a diamond-shaped window in SoHo, NYC.

Around that time, my closest friends began to have kids. They mostly waited until their mid-thirties, making them perhaps a bit outside the norm in America. And while people often follow in their friends’ footsteps, the opposite happened to me. I started feeling doubts over whether parenthood was something I wanted.

Let me be clear — I love my friends’ kids to the moon and back. I adore them. They are some of the funniest, cutest, most special people in my life. I love spending time with them, cuddling them, singing and dancing with them, buying them far too many books. And I love spending time with my parent friends as much as before, even if our habits have changed so much since our twenties.

It was seeing the reality of raising a kid that held me back. There is never, ever any downtime. Your kid takes over every aspect of your life. It’s loud, it’s messy, you never get a decent night’s sleep. You’re expected to sacrifice everything. And my GOD is it expensive. Especially in New York City. And that’s not even getting into the reality of raising kids in America today, starting with active shooter drills in schools.

I would spend an afternoon with a kid — a baby, a toddler, an older kid — and have a blast. It would take me forever to give the kid back at the end of the day! But every single time, I would think to myself, “Man, that kid is amazing, but I’m so glad I don’t have one.”

It’s easy to think that sure, things will be different once it’s your own kid. You get that giant, all-consuming love that overpowers everything else. But that’s if you have a good kid, a healthy kid, a normal kid.

What if you end up with a kid with such severe special needs that he will never be able to take care of himself?

Nobody talks about that. And honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for being a parent to a child like that. Should that disqualify me from parenthood altogether?

So imagine these two scenarios swirling around in my head at all times. Worrying 20 times a day that my time was running out. Hanging out with my friends’ kids and loving it, then going home and thinking, “I’ve always wanted this, but I don’t know if I can do this.” It was like two storms hitting each other at the same time. It’s bad enough when you need to make a monumental decision; it’s worse while constantly being told that you’re running out of time.

Kate standing in a long gown in SoHo in black and white.

And then something remarkable happened.

I went to Antigua and spent a week surrounded by my travel friends. Nothing out of the ordinary happened — I mean, other than drinking a bottle of champagne every night, as it was an all-inclusive. It was just a damn good time and I don’t think a smile left my face once. I told myself, “I need to do more of this. More trips. More fun. More time with my travel friends.”

I came home, and realized with shock that I no longer cared whether I had a baby or not. The worries that had dominated my thoughts for years had just vanished. I was just so happy with my life as is. I shared this with my therapist; she told me I was glowing.

“It’s weird,” I told her. “It’s like it suddenly clicked into place when I was in Antigua. My brain got to the place it needed to be. If I don’t have kids, I will have an awesome life! The best life.”

“It doesn’t just happen like that,” she told me. “You’ve been doing the work all along. Maybe it took you that long to notice it.”

Maybe it did. Either way, it’s been a few months since then and the feeling hasn’t left me.

Kate standing in front of a column in a yellow dress in SoHo, NYC.

So if anyone were to ask me if I want to have kids or not, the official answer is that I could go either way. My mind isn’t made up, even as I turn 35. Some people will say I’m an idiot for not having decided yet. But that’s okay. The fear is no longer controlling my life. Whatever happens, I know I’ll have a fantastic life either way.

That’s when I met someone.

Someone who moves in my circles, works remotely in a creative job he loves, and lives the same kind of travel lifestyle that I do — in fact, he might travel even more than I do. It’s an enormous relief to be with someone who understands my life without explanation, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of destinations, who suggests we go to Mexico for a few months this winter, and who similarly could go either way when it comes to kids.

And that’s when it hit me — I should have been doing this all along. I thought it was enough to date men who loved to travel, who traveled adventurously, who traveled solo. It wasn’t. I needed to be dating someone who did all those things but also had the flexibility and desire to work from anywhere. It’s too big of a part of my life.

Also, he lives in a very cool city that is NOT New York.

I used to think that would be disqualifying.

So yes, things are going very well right now. Hell, this is the first time I’ve talked about my current romantic life on the internet for the first time in five years.

Kate in a yellow dress beneath the Balmain sign in SoHo, NYC

I remember the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie turns 35. She is set to have a big birthday dinner with lots of friends, but nobody shows up. They all have seemingly valid reasons, but it’s the pre-cell phone era and nobody can reach her.

She spends hours waiting alone in the restaurant. Then the staff apologetically ask her to pay $70 for her fancy birthday cake. Then while walking home, she trips and drops the cake in a construction site and the construction workers yell at her. She is utterly alone.

I almost never have birthday gatherings because most of my friends are away in August. I would rather have no celebration than invite 30 people to a bar and have only four show up.

This year is different, though. I get to have a two-country birthday for the first time ever today, thanks to a morning flight from Azerbaijan to Georgia, and this evening I get to celebrate with several of my blogger friends at the coolest restaurant in Tbilisi. Georgia has been at the top of my list for years, and I’m so happy that I get to enjoy it on my birthday!

I’m entering this new year with a curious mind, an open heart, and a grateful soul. I lost some friends this year, and I have other friends who are struggling. It’s made me all the more determined to live fully today.

We don’t know how much time we get — but we also don’t how many good years, or healthy years, we get. Don’t save that dream trip for retirement. Save up and go this year or next year.

Kate in a yellow dress walking down a street in SoHo, NYC.

And this is a travel blog, so of course we need a travel preview for the coming year! I already have some trips scheduled: Georgia and Armenia, then Newfoundland, in August. (Arriving in Armenia, I will achieve a new milestone — I’ll be eligible for the Travelers’ Century Club, having visited 100 of what they deem “countries and territories.” It’s a weird list. Some of my qualifications are places like Prince Edward Island, Srpska, and the Ionian Islands of Greece. But I’ll take it.)

In September I’ll be speaking at Borderless Live in London and appearing at the Social Travel Summit in Ravenna, Italy, and around those conferences I will be spending time in Puglia, Italy, then driving northward along Italy’s Adriatic coast to Slovenia, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

Other goals? I would like to get to the Arctic in 2020, and I would love to do more expedition cruises. I’d also like to continue working toward visiting 100 countries (Armenia will be #82) and all 20 of Italy’s regions (I’m at 12 now and will probably be at 18 by October).

If I had to guess which new countries I would be likeliest to visit this year, I would put my money on Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Israel and Palestine, Morocco, or Panama. But who knows? This time last year, Kenya and Guyana weren’t on my radar at all, but I made it to both!

I’m so grateful to be here today, surrounded by loved ones, still working in a career I built out of nothing. I’m grateful that you’re still here, my dear readers, and you care enough to hear what I have to say. Thank you for being here, today and every day.

Past Birthday Posts

What’s It Like to Turn 34?

Notes from the Brink of Age 32

30 Things I Didn’t Do Until I Turned 30

Here’s to Being Crazy In Your Twenties

28 Things I’ve Learned About Life, Love, and Happiness

Turning 27: A Leap of Faith

Reflections on Turning 26

What was turning 35 like for you? Share away!