A few weeks ago the New York Times ran a piece entitled, “When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug, and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again.” In the vacuum of decisive information around this pandemic, I’ve been obsessively consuming articles like these. After more than 100 days isolating in my apartment, I’m starved for any intel about when it might be safe to see friends and family again. The Times piece divided activities into three categories: things we should be able to do this summer (get a haircut, see a doctor for a nonurgent appointment), things we probably won’t be able to do immediately (ride the subway, attend a small dinner party), and things that likely won’t be safe for a year or more. As I scanned that list, I mostly felt relief, until my eyes landed on one item in the year-plus category: “Go out with someone you don’t know well”—epidemiologist-speak, apparently, for “date.”
A pit formed in my stomach, and I did some back-of-the-envelope math: I’m almost 37 now; will I be 38 before it might be safe to resume dating? And how old will I be when I meet someone exciting, fall in love, form the kind of relationship where we trust each other enough to make lifelong decisions together?
Did 500 epidemiologists in the New York Times just low-key inform me that I’m never going to have a baby?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of becoming a mother. I remember a particular conversation in eighth grade, eating lunch with a circle of friends in Ms. Ciecierski’s empty classroom, when someone asked, “What would you do today if you knew the world was ending tomorrow?” (The topic felt more hypothetical then.) My best friend at the time said she would go parasailing. When it was my turn, I said I’d adopt a child. Even at 13, the feeling of wanting to be a parent was already sharply tangible.
That feeling hasn’t dimmed. I’ve imagined the names of my future children, the way I’d decorate their bedrooms (murals of friendly jungles and starry skies). I’ve thought about taking them to their first Mets game with my father, about singing civil rights songs in the car like we did when I was a kid, about establishing a tradition whereby I pull them out of school on a random day to go on an adventure. I’ve dreamed of their faces.
My desire to become a mother, though, never hinged on whether or not I’d find a partner with whom to have biological children. Some traumas in my early life have made me hesitant to meet people with that aim in mind, so while I date, I’ve largely been happy to keep my romantic life more casual as I’ve prioritized deep friendships and professional ambitions. Once I hit my thirties, it seemed every friend I knew who wasn’t having children was freezing her eggs or struggling with infertility. I know the adoption process can be just as difficult, but in my mind—especially if it was something I’d be undertaking alone—I wanted to choose the path where I was most likely to have a child at the end. Being pregnant and giving birth never felt particularly important to me. I’ve longed for the actual act of parenting, not a biological link.
So I was shocked when I found myself thinking about those epidemiologists’ predictions hours, days, weeks after I read them. Seeing my dwindling chances of biological motherhood spelled out so bleakly in black-and-white—even if I had always thought it wasn’t for me—was, in a word, jarring. I always imagined how I would have kids would be my choice, not a flip-of-a-coin outcome of circumstances so far beyond my control.
In the prepandemic age, if I had wanted to increase my odds of finding a romantic partner, the obvious first step would be to go on more dates. But that’s a lot trickier when meeting someone in some chance encounter is completely off the table. (Who leaves any brush with the outside world to chance anymore?) And my experience on dating apps over the past few months, which I had dabbled in before, has been catastrophically depressing. If my matches didn’t immediately suggest breaking quarantine to have no-strings-attached sex (are they kidding? They’re never kidding), then we get stuck in a vortex of unhappy small talk: “What’s new with you?” Nothing. Nothing is new with me or anyone and probably never will be again. Even potentially promising connections crumble quickly under the weight of the knowledge that none of us has any idea when it might be possible to meet “for real.”
That overwhelming sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what will be safe and when, has pervaded nearly every moment of these months of isolation. Los Angeles, where I live, is now in Phase 3 of reopening, which means I can get a massage, a manicure, or even a tattoo—but when can my writing group get together for dinner, laughing over cocktails until the wee hours? When can I plan for the thrill of slicking on bright lipstick before a casual date, knowing it won’t be hidden by a mask? Which phase of recovery allows for a first kiss?
At a time when a question as simple as “What will I eat for dinner, and where will I buy it?” carries life-and-death stakes, it’s understandable that we would all be focused on short-term thinking. But after I read that article in the Times, I began to reckon with the long-term questions I’d been avoiding: How will this pandemic impact the rest of my life? How will these months in isolation (and the emotional impact of training our brains to view every stranger as a threat) irrevocably alter our individual and collective futures?
For many women, the immediate answer is that COVID is causing them to reconsider how quickly they want to have children—or whether they want them at all. According to a new survey by the Guttmacher Institute, “About one third of women said that they wanted to either delay childbearing or even have fewer children than they had prior to the pandemic.” And who can blame them? Think of the health risks of undertaking pregnancy in the middle of a pandemic, with all the attendant doctor visits and potential exposure, never mind the actual act of parenting in a world where consistent access to schools, daycares, and basic social support systems is constantly in question.
Even as someone who desperately wants a child, I don’t want to have a baby right this instant. The notion of becoming a first-time single parent is a nonstarter for me—I wouldn’t even consider it. And yet, with the knowledge that this pandemic may inexorably alter my chance to have children in the future, my need to do so now feels suddenly like a matter of desperate importance. In this matter—as with seeing friends, family, or going on a date—my logical brain and desire to stay physically safe during a pandemic are at war with my deepest emotional needs. It feels like a conflict where no matter how hard I struggle, the only thing I can do is lose.
There’s a part of me that simply wants to close my eyes and wait for this time in my life—in all our lives—to be over. All this loneliness and rage, our personal grief mingling with overwhelming collective mourning, the agony of losses we can’t yet begin to understand even as we live through them. In some ways, it would be easier to imagine this time as lost, or irretrievable. A discrete thing we can mark with a beginning and an end—and if it’s terrible that we can never get back these months, then at least it’s tremendously relieving that we can know that they will, someday, be over.
When I first read that Times article and was hit with a shockwave of anguish as I mourned the loss of a future I didn’t even fully know I wanted, I chalked this up as yet one more terrible moment of quarantine that I would happily forget as soon as possible. But to do that—to ignore this inflection point and the impact it could have on my future—would be to continue on a path of avoidance. While it might not feel like we have much control right now, the truth is I have two very distinct choices: I can either let my life continue apace and passively discover whether this pandemic means I’ll never have children, or I can decide that this is something I want. And I can begin to take steps to make it happen.
I can’t know for certain how this pandemic will affect the course of my life—not yet, and probably not ever. But I can know my own mind, and my own heart. I can deepen and reconnect with my desire to become a mother, and revisit why adoption has always felt like such a meaningful choice for me. And if I’m not ready to let the door close completely on the notion of having a biological child with a romantic partner—well, then I can do everything in my power to kick that door back open, as far as life will let me.
The notion of falling in love and having a baby feels terribly far afield right now—so do baseball games and murals, road trips and adventures. But no matter what 500 epidemiologists in the New York Times have to say about it, I believe there is joy in our futures—joy as expansive and boundless as the sadness we feel now. After all, the epidemiologists said we can bring in our mail without fear as soon as this summer. In a world where love letters are possible, who knows what could come next?
Kate Stayman-London is a novelist, screenwriter, and political strategist based in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, One to Watch, is available now.
Originally Appeared on Glamour