“I’m afraid of losing my partner because he wants kids, and I don’t know what I want. I think I don’t want them.”
“I’m afraid of losing my identity, freedom, and comfort if I have children. Afraid of regretting it if I don’t.”
“I’ve always wanted to have a baby, but is it even ethical, knowing the environmental and political climate?”
“I need some peace and clarity from the torture of sitting on the fence for too long.”
This is just a sample of the questions, fears, and concerns I hear all the time from my clients. I’m a therapist who has dedicated my life to helping people figure out if they want to have children. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and have seen more clients than I can count of all stripes — men, women, single, married, and partnered people. People just out of a relationship and people just starting a relationship. People from ages 28 to 59. Our goal is to help people make possibly the biggest decision of their lives: whether or not they want to become a parent.
Most people who contact me say they feel like they’re the only one who can’t decide. I let them know immediately: They’re not the only one. Our society allows little room for ambivalence around this topic.
That’s because we, unfortunately, live in a pronatalist world where the unspoken message is that everyone should want children and should have them, the end. While the burgeoning child-free movement rejects this notion, as it should, the loudest voices from that group tend to articulate an assured decision to be child-free. They deserve everyone’s respect. But for many people, it’s hard to know what they really want. This can add another layer of shame because it can often seem like everyone else came to their decision with ease. Many assume that a time will come for each of us, at which point we’ll “just know.” Even though that is the case for some, it’s a myth to think it’s that way for everyone.
The sad truth is that most people who reach out to me have struggled with this decision for 10, 15, 20 years. That pains me to no end. Some people don’t realize they’re ambivalent because they’ve walked around with an assumption of either, “Of course, I’ll have kids one day,” or, “I’m never going to have kids.” Then one day, the decision has to be made due to age or time or a relationship is about to end or begin over this issue. From desperation, they have to make a decision. Fear instead of desire runs the show. Operating on fear is a lonely, excruciating process that leaves many immobilized. But when a decision is made from a place of desire, joy, or clarity, the experience is quite different.
The first thing I try to make very clear to all of my clients is that deciding to have children, raise children, or live a child-free life is a journey that’s unique to each person making those decisions. No one can tell you what’s right for you, yet society, family, and your own assumptions continue to influence these decisions and sometimes even demand a particular choice.
Of course, many stumble into a situation one way or the other: There are those who don’t want to be parents but end up loving the experience, and those who want children but never find themselves having them and love that experience as well. It’s wonderful when that happens, but chance is not the path to a fulfilled life. Making a conscious decision only after knowing what you want and why you want it is what real freedom is all about. In my opinion, if everyone paused and pondered whether or not motherhood or fatherhood was for them — no matter how certain or uncertain they felt about the answer — the experience they would have of coming to an ultimate decision would feel more expansive and have fewer fears attached to it.
The second thing I impress on my clients is that the main reason they feel stuck, no matter their circumstance, is because they’re trying to figure out what they want (their heart’s desire about parenthood) and what they’re going to do about it (make a decision) at the same time. The result is gridlock in your mind, and you cannot think your way out.
It’s important to know that a person’s desire and decision are not always the same, nor is the goal for them to be the same. The goal is to know your truth about each of them. You may want to become a parent and decide not to for a variety of reasons. You may realize you wanted to have had children by now but decide not to because it’s not what you want to do with your life at this point, a decision that doesn’t change the fact that you wanted to be a parent. Deciding to have kids may not have been your first choice, but you decide conscientiously to become a parent for other reasons (and not from a resentful place).
The most efficient way to make a decision is to actually put that decision-making pressure aside temporarily and focus only on your desire. Can you imagine an oasis where fear, judgment, and shame don’t exist? Where it’s not even considered? What if there is a place where there is no right or wrong, good or bad answer? Sound nice? I believe one needs to have their own private, uncensored process in that kind of environment to find out what they want.
I have had the great honor of providing that environment. And I want to help you create that environment for yourself.
For 30 years, I’ve led the undecided through a structured and ordered process where they gain the clarity they’re seeking. The cost of not deciding can be emotionally excruciating, with plans put on hold, which can have financial implications especially for women who hesitate to move forward in their careers “just in case” they want children. But there are ways to get unstuck and move forward,
Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Begin with deciding to take a designated break (one to three months) from any discussion about the topic with your partner. If you’re single, stop ruminating about it or talking about it with others. During this time, decide not to know what you want or what you’re going to do. No more thinking one way or the other.
2. Accept that indecision is more complex than what’s on the surface and not because something is wrong with you.
3. Stop trying to figure this out by making a pros and cons list. It will keep you stuck. If you’re doing it for the third or umpteenth time and you’re not getting anywhere, then doing it one more time is not the solution.
4. Make a list of three decisions that you’ve made because you knew in your gut it was the right decision for you. Write a few sentences on each one describing the sensation of how good it felt to have made them. This is the sensation you deserve to experience when you’re deciding “yes” to parenthood or “yes” to a child-free life.
5. Create separation between desire and decision by putting the decision to the sidelines until clarity of your desire is known. To do this, make a list of all your fears related to this decision. Then list all the specifics, or externals, in your life that you can’t stop thinking about (age, health, career, relationship status, etc.) Then put these two lists in an envelope and put that envelope out of sight. Do not look at it or entertain anything in it until you have clarity of your desire, and you know why you want what you want. The why is important, not because you owe anyone an explanation but because you need to know what is driving your desire from the inside out so that you can be honest with yourself.
6. Do some old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness writing with these prompts.
- “I’ve always thought that by now my life would look like ...” Then read what you just wrote and write about how it feels to read it.
- What verbal and nonverbal messages did you receive from your parents, community, religion, and society about you becoming a parent?
- Make the decision of yes to having/raising a baby and live with that decision for five days. During that time, write daily about how you feel about the decision you are pretending to have made. Don’t bargain with the decision. The more you can buy into having made the decision, the more information you’ll receive about yourself.
- Make the decision to live a child-free life for five days. During that time, write daily about how you feel about the decision you are pretending to have made. Don’t bargain with the decision. The more you can trick your mind into the decision being made, the more information you’ll receive about yourself.
- What would it take or what would have to happen in order for you to say “yes” to parenthood and feel good about it?
- What would it take or what would have to happen in order for you to say “yes” to a child-free life and feel good about it?
This time of exploration, without the pressure of having to make a decision, will help you discover your honest desire. Once you know what drives it from the inside out, you’re freed up to make a conscious decision about what you’re going to do. To entertain a decision prematurely (without complete clarity of desire) will only make your decision-making process more complicated than it needs to be and delay the peace and calm you so deserve.
It’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, even when you’re making conscious decisions, you still have to accept the universal truth that you cannot control the outcome of how your life will be, with or without children. Trying to do so by playing out every scenario will only cause you to suffer because it’s fundamentally unachievable.
What is 100 percent within your control is to trust that you’ll be okay, no matter the outcome, and you’ll get help if you need to.
You can only know how you want your life to unfold and do everything you can to have it unfold that way. However, if your imagined life does not come true, that doesn’t mean the story ends there and now you have to suffer.
Parenthood is neither a destiny nor a debate. There is no single right choice. Only you can know what’s right for you: You are the helmsperson of your life.
Ann Davidman is a licensed marriage and family therapist, parenthood clarity mentor, and author. She is the co-author of the book Motherhood — Is It for Me? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clarity with Denise L. Carlini. Men read this book as well (and change a few pronouns).