by Amina Babirye in Lifestyle on 17th March, 2023
As a 33-year-old single, childless, Muslim woman living in London, I understand first-hand the cultural and religious pressures to settle down and start a family that worsens with every birthday after 25. I also understand, all too well, how when you reach 30 and have not yet ‘settled down’ that pressure is combined with what I call “the anxiety of declining fertility”, or reproductive FOMO if you like, and feeling alone in that experience. This external pressure and internal unrest can make for a miserable life experience.
Growing up, I was always told that getting married and having children was the ultimate goal for a Muslim woman. As I entered my mid-twenties, I realized that this path wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I thought. Despite the societal pressures, I focused on other areas of my life, like my career and personal development and built a wall between myself and singlehood-sadness. I was genuinely happy being single in my mid-late twenties. Especially because all the girls who got married before me didn’t make marriage look that appealing, in fact, they made it seem like a soul-sucking experience. Due to this, I held firm to the belief that it is better to be single and happy than married and miserable, and this belief carried me through my mid-late twenties.
Truth be told, I have never been a boy-crazy lovey-dovey person. I’ve always viewed men for a practical purpose, not a romantic one. However, one thing I have always loved and wanted for myself is children and as a practising Muslim, the only way I can have children is through marriage. So my desire to get married is rooted in my desire to have children and while I was still in peak fertility years, being unmarried did not bother me. However, when I passed 29 (the age when fertility starts to decline) and was un-wedded I started to feel the very real anxiety of declining fertility.
As I approached my mid-thirties, I began to feel the pressure more acutely. I actually feel physical symptoms of anxiety when thinking about my fertility. What makes it worse is as I am the only one of my friends who hasn’t started a family, I often feel lonely and isolated in my experience, especially when everyone around me is talking about their children and can not possibly understand what it feels like to literally feel your uterus dwindle every time you blow out birthday candles.
It’s an atypical fear that is hard to describe but I will try: Imagine you are standing in a field covered in fog and you don’t know what direction to turn, or what way to look. It’s not dark, there is a lot of light, but you still can’t see anything or figure out where you are going. You are unsure of what is beyond the fog and you are completely alone.
That is what the anxiety of declining fertility feels like.
We live in a modern world with modern options for having a baby, and I do a little research on each birthday of mine. But the research exacerbates the anxiety, because the options available are very expensive and emotionally torturous. I have watched several documentaries about IVF and “geriatric pregnancies” that have completely freaked me out. The thought that that could be my destiny fills my heart with dread and makes me spiral further into an anxious mess.
I try to tell myself that I am still young and my uterus still has hope but this fear is always at the back of my head. It’s a horrible thing to know that the thing you want most in the world is to have children but the state of your fertility is TBD. A woman 30 and below might not worry about her fertility and get married with the assumption that everything is fine. But a woman in her mid-30s will get married with the assumption that her fertility is compromised in some way. It’s a very lonely experience because this specific anxiety/fear is not widely spoken about. But it is so real and these feelings are valid, and it’s okay to feel them.
We discuss the struggle of married Muslim women with fertility issues, but not that of single Muslim women with undetermined fertility. Yet with more Muslim women struggling to find husbands, I know I must not be the only one who carries this secret fear. This article is a shout-out to all the mid-thirty and above single childless Muslim women out there (who want to become mothers). You are not alone, I see you, I understand your fears and I pray for your relief.
I reached out to fellow 30-something single Muslim women to break the fear of discussing this anxiety and through these conversations, I gained new perspectives on the topic.
Fatima, a 36-year-old single Muslim woman who has been unlucky in her search for a husband, confided that she is considering freezing her eggs to preserve her fertility and give herself more time to find a husband. However, the high cost of the procedure has been a significant barrier.
“Freezing my eggs would give me some peace of mind and alleviate some of the pressure I feel to find a partner,” Fatima explains. “But unfortunately, it’s just not something I can afford right now.”
After carrying out further research, I discovered that Fatima’s situation is not unique. Many women, particularly those from marginalized or minoritized ethnicity communities, face financial barriers to accessing reproductive healthcare services (1). In addition to the cost of the procedure itself, there are fees associated with consultation, medications, and storage. On average the treatment process of collecting and freezing your eggs costs around £3,350. On top of this, there will be the cost of medication, averaging £500 to £1,500, as well as the cost to store your eggs, which tends to cost around £125 to £350 each year (2). Not to mention the cost of fertilisation and implantation when you are ready to conceive. This is a cost that not every woman can afford.
Fatima’s struggles highlight the need for greater access to affordable reproductive healthcare services for women of all backgrounds. I asked Fatima if she felt religion, besides finances, was a barrier to her freezing her eggs.
“I don’t believe that freezing my eggs is in conflict with my faith,” Fatima says. “Allah knows best, but I know that Islam values individual choice, the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of science.”
While the decision to freeze one’s eggs is deeply personal, it is important to ensure that women have access to the resources and support they need to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. Fatima’s journey highlights the challenges faced by many women in balancing personal aspirations and socio-economic barriers.
Sara, a 34-year-old Muslim woman, also shared her story with me. She has never felt a strong desire to have children, yet she feels a sense of shame and guilt for not wanting to fulfil what she sees as a societal expectation.
“I know that as a Muslim woman, there is a strong cultural and religious expectation for me to marry and have children,” Sarah explains. “But the truth is, I’ve never felt a strong desire to have children. It’s never felt like a priority for me.”
Sara’s feelings are not uncommon, but the pressure to conform to traditional expectations around marriage and motherhood can be particularly strong within Muslim communities. Women are often seen as the primary caretakers of the family and are expected to prioritize family life over personal aspirations and be naturally maternal.
Despite these feelings, Sara remains committed to staying true to herself and her desires. She has sought support from other single women in similar situations, as well as from mental health professionals.
“I’ve come to realize that it’s okay to have different priorities and desires in life,” Sara says. “Just because I don’t want children doesn’t mean I’m any less of a Muslim or a woman.”
Sara’s journey highlights the importance of breaking down societal expectations and stereotypes around women’s roles and choices. While it can be challenging to go against the grain, it’s important for women to prioritize their own needs and desires, rather than feeling pressured to conform to traditional expectations.
Aisha, a 37-year-old woman, shared a similar story to mine. She has been struggling to find a suitable partner for marriage, despite actively seeking a partner through family and friends, as well as online matrimonial sites. Aisha has always dreamed of having a family one day, but as she gets older, she worries that her chances of finding a partner and having children are decreasing. Notwithstanding, Aisha remains hopeful and optimistic about her future.
“It can be difficult at times, especially when I see so many of my friends settling down and starting families,” Aisha shares. “But I try to stay positive and keep an open mind. I know that Allah has a plan for me and that everything happens for a reason.”
In addition to cultural pressures, Aisha has also had to navigate scientific evidence around fertility and age. As a woman in her mid-30s, she knows that her chances of conceiving naturally decrease with age.
“Science can be discouraging, but I try not to let it dictate my life or my decisions,” Aisha says. “I believe that there are many paths to motherhood, and I’m open to exploring all of them. If my destiny is to adopt, I’m ok with that. I don’t know how but I know I will be a mother someday in sha Allah.”
Aisha’s journey highlights the challenges faced by many single Muslim women in their mid-late-30s who dream of having a family one day and fight to remain hopeful and optimistic about their futures.
If you are a single Muslim woman in your mid-30s and above, whether you are considering freezing your eggs, adoption, waiting for a miracle or resolute in not having children it can be difficult to stay positive. Especially when you are constantly bombarded with messages from society telling you what you should be doing, and targeted internet ads for pregnancy tests and baby products.
I strive to remind myself that everyone’s journey is unique, and not reaching certain milestones at a particular age doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me or my uterus. I’m steering my focus away from human opinions with the knowledge that our understanding is limited, and ultimately only Allah knows what’s truly possible and what is best for me. As someone who wants to have children, for the sake of my sanity, I must believe that this experience is temporary and not allow it to define me. There is still so much life to be lived, and so many opportunities for growth and happiness. I must trust the timing of Al-Khaliq, the Creator and One whose timing and planning is perfect.
Most importantly, I refuse to let the anxiety of declining fertility push me to settle in my choice for a husband. I will not settle for a man who is bad for me just because I am worried I am losing fertile years and want a halal sperm donor. I have seen women do this and it has never ended well. I have to have faith that Allah will bring me the right person to start my family with and not settle for anything less than what I deserve.
I do not have a perfect solution for the anxiety of declining fertility, I know it will linger with me until the day I pee on a stick and it says positive (in sha Allah). I have days when I feel so hopeful that I will one day have a family and days when I feel like I should just be happy being the rich Auntie. It’s a lonely rollercoaster, however, the thing that soothes my soul and gives me comfort when I am spiralling in the fog of the unknown is the knowledge that my uterus is in Allah’s hands.
The knowledge that Allah is the best disposer of affairs is my anchor. When my anxiety is taking over I pray it away. I pray to Allah to compensate me for all the anxiety I have felt, the tears I have shed, and the shame I have endured with goodness in my future family. May Allah ease my worries, hasten my relief and make the outcome worth the wait. Ameen.
Amina, 33, London. Amina is a nutrition graduate with a passion for global health and social justice. She is passionate about food, public health, women’s health and community activism. Amina currently serves as Advocacy Officer for STOPAIDS, a UK-based health and human rights advocacy network working on the HIV response.