mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to most pressing existential conundrums. This week, Charlie Squire unpacks the fallacy of “biological clocks.”
dear mixed feelings,
I'm 29 and on track to becoming a professor. I'll be in school and subbing for a while. I want kids. I know I'll have them when I'm ready, but so much of me thinks that I'll be too old, or too busy. I used to hate the term biological clock, but lately I feel like it's really been ticking. How do I get over the fact I'm doing some work first to give my kids a steady future, while also worrying I'm running out of time? — Wendy, she/her
It would be ridiculous to assume one could earn a Master’s or doctoral degree, complete a post-doc, fellowship, or a residency, find a full-time appointment in your field, work long enough to feel comfortable taking time off to start a family, and still be young enough to have biological children.
Wait. That’s not true.
I was an accidental baby, born on a Wednesday, eight pounds and six ounces, when my mother was forty-five years old. My brother was born fifteen months before. By that time, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, an MD in a male-dominated specialization, completed a residency, completed a fellowship, and was working as a doctor and researcher at the largest hospital-based pediatric research program in the world (very girl boss, slay queen, etc.). She became a single mother five years later and raised my brother and I alone.
Our relationship is complicated, as mother-daughter relationships tend to be. But I’ve always admired her commitment to her career (especially as a woman who was born in the 1950s) and I’ve never felt her age itself has hindered my own development or upbringing. Though our household lacked pop music, clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch, living grandparents, and non-PBS cartoons, being the child of older parents has afforded me privileges I hold near and dear to my heart. I have been an excellent dinner party conversationalist since childhood, I learned my vocabulary from backseat broadcasts of Fresh Air, and I’ve had my fair share of great pickings through the best decades of vintage clothing.
So, first of all—congratulations! It takes a lot of work to become a professor and to establish your voice in an academic field, so I want to commend you for your dedication and drive. Second, I think your concern for your future is predicated on very real hopes and anxieties. However, I can’t tell you how to “get over” these feelings, because they’re a real and constructive emotional response to a complicated situation. What I can offer is a bit of advice on aging, academia, and building a family.
build your community now
Though my relationship with my mother wasn’t affected by her age, I can’t say the same for her career. Life is a series of compromises, and the choice to continue working full- or part-time versus dedicating yourself to raising a child full-time is one without a clear answer, regardless of your career path…or even your gender. Working as a professor is a demanding, time-consuming role. Our idyllic image of academics as people who deliver twice-weekly, transformative philosophy seminars and spend the rest of their days reading Henry James while puffing on a wooden pipe is an antiquated notion; academia is becoming an increasingly precarious labour field. A 2022 study from the American Association of University Professors found that over 53% of universities have replaced tenure-track positions with contingent faculty appointments, a sharp rise from the 17.2% in 2004, and an article from the Washington Post reports that half of all part-time faculty in the US earn less than $28,000 a year.
A key concern of yours is ensuring you’re at a point of financial and career stability before you decide to have children, but the unfortunate reality is that stability isn’t promised even after you become a professor. It doesn’t mean you can’t have children though. One of the best things you can do for your future children is this: join a union. Being a family means being part of a collective unit, so why not prep with a hands-on crash-course on collective bargaining? Non-tenure-track faculty at my alma mater, Skidmore College, recently voted to unionize, and similar efforts are currently being undertaken at NYU and Harvard. If you’re still in graduate school, look at joining (or starting) a graduate student union. Not only do these organizations fight for better labor conditions for families — like job security, work-life balance, and healthcare — they also allow you to take part in a collective display of solidarity, which can be an important way to build a better future for your potential children and teach them about the importance of compassion and teamwork.
time is a construct
I know you said you hate to use the term “biological clock”— I think many women would agree with you. After all, not only is it demeaning, but it’s a poor metaphor given that our “biological clocks” don’t have hands that spin in endless circles. Instead, our natural biology is treated more like a countdown timer. We’re taught to think of our bodies as things that only diminish in value with the passage of time, their worth defined by our ability to produce families or surplus value. Conceiving gets harder with age, yes. But with time often comes financial stability, and certainly wisdom and patience. With time comes deeper intimacy with friends and lovers. With time comes a keener sense of reflection and self-reflection. These things will not inhibit your ability to start a family, but strengthen them.
I think it’s worth noting that we use the phrase “biological clock” almost exclusively to signify the time someone can most easily conceive. Conception is only one step towards becoming a parent, and while I understand where your anxieties are coming from, I’d encourage you to step back and think about the fact that you have about fifteen years to decide to take that first step.
There are a host of technologies available to extend the period of your life in which you are able to conceive, which may reduce some of the pressure and anxiety you’re facing. At the same time, I’d encourage all of us to think critically about these technologies — they relieve that anxiety, yes, but where does this pressure come from? In part, the genuine desire to start a family and become a parent. But (at least in the United States), we live with a for-profit healthcare system that capitalizes off of our natural anxieties that time is ticking and we’re approaching the end of something.
In 2006, the childbirth industry either made — if you are an insurance agent — or cost — if you are a parent — eighty-six billion dollars. Treatments like Invitro Fertilization Therapy are framed as inherently liberatory, but subjecting the mind and the body to an exhausting, invasive, and expensive procedure to expand the “privilege” of birthing biological children doesn’t strike me as undoubtedly progressive. In the 1987 journal article “Towards a Feminist Assessment of Reproductive Technology,” which contemplates the bioethics of the then-nascent practice of IVF, scholars Lene Koch, and Janine Morgall write, “Although a technology-oriented assessment of IVF may show us future possibilities, we must remember what [Corlann Gee] Bush said: every technology has a valence, and the valence of IVF seems to be control. Control with reproduction, probably very often to the benefit of the individual woman, but in the long-term perspective IVF increases the control over which women should bear children, and what type of children they should be.”
With any angle into the conversation of biological childbearing, my goal is only this: to perhaps illuminate lines of thinking you may not have explored before. Should your life lead you to a place where you are considering assisted reproductive methods, I encourage you to do so armed with knowledge.
question, learn, fuck up
Someone will always be happy to sell you a fantasy — whether it’s the corporate grindset contingent on LinkedIn or the Does It All (And Still Remains Beautiful) mommy blogger in your PTA or FYP. The question of “can women ever really have it all?” feels dated to say, or even to think (didn’t we ponder it enough with The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Ally McBeal?), and yet still it weighs heavy on our minds. When you think about your future, your family, your body, and your time, it’s tempting to entertain the question with an optimistic yes or a cautious no, but my recommendation is to throw away the question altogether.
Here’s the truth: there will never be a right time. There will never be a right choice. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll improperly balance all of the different parts of our lives, we’ll give something too much attention and give something else too little. You’ll miss a softball practice and a tenure review meeting, you’ll feel like you had kids too soon sometimes and you’ll feel like you didn’t wait long enough other times. You might feel both of these things in the same week, or even on the same day. What matters is that you feel passionately about the work you do and that you feel passionately about raising a human being; if you are able to embed love, compassion, humility, and a sense of humour into all of your ambitions, you cannot “fail,” even when you misstep.
To be a role model means being part of a community, thinking beyond your individual interests, teaching others to be themselves and to move through the world with kindness and thoughtfulness. Many parents do this (and just as many do not), but so do teachers and rabbis and coaches and mentors of all sorts. I’d encourage you to look into family-centered reunification practices in foster care and community-oriented childrearing. If you’re looking for homework, I recommend Melinda Cooper’s Family Values (which I recently checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library). It unpacks why the nuclear family is such an enduring institution in neoliberal economies, and how rethinking parenting can be a radical act. This way you can choose to have biological children with your knowledge of family and parenting deeply enriched from hearing a multitude of perspectives. Whatever you do, do it with love and kindness and fierce advocacy for a better future.
Mother’s Day is coming up. I never know what to get my own mother. She likes paperback detective novels, lapsang souchong tea, taking care of her chickens, falling asleep on the couch while watching Saturday Night Live, and emailing me links to articles in The New York Times. She still works more than forty hours a week, bouncing between teaching, practising psychiatry, and doing advocacy work in D.C. for universal healthcare. She will always have a midwestern air that I’ll never understand, and I’d assume she feels the same way about my East Coast ice. Maybe, like every year, I’ll spend hours scouring local florists’ websites until I find the right floral arrangement: something with succulents and branches that isn’t too feminine or romantic, while also feeling warm and unpretentious. And probably, like every year, I’ll write the same card, only two words, the only two words I can think to write: Thank you.
With love — Charlie Squire
i grew up with older parents too and its lovely to hear abt the other side of it beyond the fear - the wisdom, intimacy ... thank u 💛
I had my children early (at age 25 and 27) while going to law school and for most of it as a single parent. My life was stressful, chaotic and
mostly joyful. When I started working I always felt as if I was not doing justice to one role (mother) or the other (lawyer). My daughters both delayed having their children (one son each) born when my older daughter was pop