I never set out to make a radio doc about my private crisis – about staring down 40, and being single and childless and baffled by my life. I didn't even really want to talk about it with family and friends. So if you'd told me six months ago that I'd produce something this personal, I wouldn't have believed you.
But here's the thing: sometimes you don't go looking for a story, sometimes a story finds you.
In the year or so leading up to my 39th birthday, I kept winding up in coffee shops with women my age, having the same conversation over and over again. Everywhere I turned, there were smart, successful women who hadn't found a partner or a family life, and felt like time was running out. Acquaintances, friends, colleagues – it didn't seem to matter. Give them a cup of coffee and half an hour, and they'd inevitably open up about this "39 problem." They all articulated the same frustration. As daughters of the feminist revolution, we'd been told that we didn't need to seek out marriage and motherhood. Our job was to go to school, get a career, fulfil our potential. The rest would fall into place.
But lots of times it didn't. And as we lived this new narrative out, it dawned on us that the timeline didn't make sense. Exactly how were we supposed to push in our careers – with long office hours and around-the-clock smart phone accessibility – and at the same time find someone to build a life with, and then marry them and get pregnant and care for small children? It concentrated too many life events in our early 30s. There were some who managed to do it, of course. But the women who hit all those milestones, before the magic age of 35, seemed to lead ridiculously frantic lives.
And the rest of us? We woke up at 39, in a complete and utter panic.
Something significant was going on with our generation. There was a story to be told here. And as a journalist, I wasn't about to walk away from that.
So I started interviewing women across the country. First my friends, and then their friends, and then friends of those friends.
I was moved by how brave these women were, going on tape – how much they shared.
Around that same time, This American Life alumni Alex Blumberg came to speak to The Doc Project, giving a presentation to a packed auditorium at CBC Toronto. He made an offhand comment that stuck with me. He said that radio was one of the few places in society where people speak openly about their feelings.
I realized that every single day, I asked that of people. Every day as a producer at CBC Radio, I encouraged people to take that risk, assuring them that telling their story would mean something. That their unique, deeply personal – often painful – experiences would have wider resonance.
Now that the tables were turned, how could I refuse to tell my own story?
So I did it. Nervously. Reluctantly. But without holding back.
I was unprepared for the response. In the weeks since 39 has aired, I've been inundated with messages from across Canada – texts and e-mails and phone calls and Tweets. I've heard from single, childless women who say they feel less alone. From married women and working mothers who related. From same-sex couples struggling to balance the demands of work and family, and from single, childless men coping with their own crises.
It's shown me how powerful vulnerability is. How embracing our humanity, flaws and all, opens the door for greater connection. And how, at its heart, that's what good radio is all about.