Reporting on Parenthood Has Made Me Nervous About Having Kids

I’m excited to be a dad someday. But after seeing how stressed and under-supported American parents are, I’m also apprehensive.

An illustration of wooden children's toys, one of which has a worried emoji face on it
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

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When people ask me what I cover as a journalist, they are usually amused to learn that I write about parenting without having kids myself. This fact is less amusing to me, but I typically just laugh along and say something about how the job is pretty useful preparation. It certainly has been a phenomenal education, but also a sobering one. Over these years of reporting on parenting, I’ve become more worried about actually doing it myself someday.

Like many people, I’ve always just assumed that I wanted to become a parent. In my 20s, I suppose I considered the possibility of not having kids—perhaps because that’s a prime phase of life for considering possibilities—but by the time I started this job four years ago, at age 27, I was fairly certain I’d become a parent eventually.

Statistically, most American adults want to have kids, but over the past few decades, the percentage who say they don’t has been rising slightly. Sarah Hayford, a sociologist at Ohio State University, told me that one factor is that not wanting to be a parent has become more socially acceptable, but she also thinks that the cost of having kids, high cultural expectations for parenting, and concern over bringing a child into a troubled world all play a role too.

I’m sure I would have had these concerns even if I weren’t a parenting reporter, but covering this beat has given me nonstop exposure to these and other challenges of parenting. When I started this job, the first book I read to orient myself was All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by my now-colleague Jennifer Senior. A quote from one interview in the book that still sticks out to me is that, in terms of happiness and life satisfaction, parenthood is a “high-cost/high-reward activity.” When I read the book four years ago, the rewards were apparent to me (and still are). What’s changed is how clearly I can see the costs. I’m still excited, but also apprehensive—sometimes I feel like I know too much. (I know, I know, the parents who are reading this are probably thinking, You have no idea.)

I have been confronted with constant reminders of what’s ahead for me if I have kids one day, in the form of research indicating that people who have kids are less happy in a day-to-day sense and documenting parents’ “sleep deficit relative to the childless” when their kids are little. My interviews with parents over the years, and particularly during the pandemic, have regularly revealed how frantic and overwhelmed the parents of young children are. Despite everything I can’t possibly know about parenting before actually doing it, the experience of immersing myself in the world of other people’s families has allowed me to at least glimpse a portrait of my future, nerve-shot self.

But what worries me more than the inherent stress of parenting are the norms and policies that seem set up to make it harder. I’ve written about how “intensive” parenting, a hands-on, highly involved approach to child-rearing, has become a nationwide cultural ideal in the United States. This parenting style can be tiring, and it feeds into the pressure people—especially moms—feel to make every parenting decision “correctly” for fear that their child will suffer emotionally or even financially later in life. People can try to resist this way of thinking—and I certainly will try—but as a reporter, I’ve come to understand how ingrained it is in American culture.

I’ve also seen how, in the U.S., these high expectations come coupled with a lack of societal support. Around the world, many of America’s peer countries are structured to be much more supportive of parents—for example, by providing paid parental leave, subsidizing affordable child care, and keeping the cost of giving birth low. As a parent, I will be quite fortunate by American standards—I have a steady job, a predictable schedule, and access to paternity leave—and I recognize that dads generally bear fewer of the costs of parenthood than moms do. But the U.S. makes having children unnecessarily expensive and burdensome for anyone.

That especially applies to working parents. Rachel Margolis, a sociologist at Canada’s Western University who studies family dynamics, told me that she might not have had a kid if she hadn’t moved from the U.S. to Canada. “I found myself living in a place that was way more open to children and supportive of parents working than I had seen before,” she told me. “Everyone kind of expected here that professors take leave and have kids and take vacation in the summer and all these things that intense academics [in the U.S.] don’t always do.” Meanwhile, after reporting on families and work in the U.S., I’m worried about raising kids in a society that expects people to give 100 percent of themselves to their job and 100 percent of themselves to their family without telling them how to reconcile those expectations.

I’m also worried about how gender inequality plays out in the household when kids are added to it. I have written about how different-sex couples (usually inequitably) divide chores and care work, and am hyperaware of the fact that even egalitarian relationships tend to become much less so after the arrival of a baby. Moreover, I know that, on average, dads spend more time with male children than female children and moms more often do chores with their daughters than with their sons. Seeing these patterns ahead of time is like having a set of driving directions that tells you all the wrong turns to avoid—which is empowering but also daunting when you know that many other well-intentioned people take the wrong turns anyway.

This bundle of worries isn’t enough to dissuade me from having children, but it still weighs on me. So I recently talked through my concerns with a couple of people who, not long ago, were in a position similar to the one I’m in now: As academic researchers studying family, they were well informed on the nature of parenting before they decided to have kids themselves.

They said my fears were valid, but they also thought that they were surmountable (with the exception of the U.S.’s lackluster policies, which I obviously can’t do much about—Margolis’s advice there was just to try “not to dwell on it so much”). For instance, in her own life, Margolis saw other parents agonize over whether they were parenting “correctly,” and she tried, mostly successfully, to bypass that angst. When her daughter was really young—a time when parental anxiety can be particularly high—she made a point of not socializing too much with groups of moms who had kids the same age, because she found that often led to conversations about the “right” way to do things.

William Scarborough, a sociologist at the University of North Texas who studies gender and family, told me he was optimistic about my ability to be a genuinely equal contributor at home, in spite of all cultural pressures to the contrary, in part because he’s been one himself. “I wanted to become really good at changing diapers and soothing my crying baby,” he told me, “because I knew from the [research] literature that [when] fathers don’t establish that baseline knowledge, it creates a snowball effect where Mom becomes the expert and the de facto caregiver.” (For the record, his wife confirmed to me, for a previous article, that he contributes as much at home as he says he does.) Scarborough said that understanding the gender inequality of parenting in advance “made me such a better parent—I’m so grateful for it.” I’m hoping that my own familiarity with these patterns will help me break them too.

As for the sleep deprivation and stress that come with having young children, the good news, Margolis noted, is that parenting tends to get much less demanding over time. In her view, the research on parenting as well as media coverage of it pays a lot of attention to the difficulty of those early years. “Kids get bigger pretty fast,” she said. “I’m not saying that parenting is easy now that my kid is 7, but it’s a whole lot easier.” In other words, although I might understandably fixate on that first, arduous stretch of parenting, I should bear in mind that it’s temporary.

When I asked Scarborough about his own decision to become a parent, he said that the conundrum he and his wife faced was: How are we going to make it work? We’re already working so much in our careers, and a child requires an enormous amount of work. Personally, I have been wondering the same thing, so I asked him how it’s gone, years after they made their decision. “It’s working,” he said—and the time and energy he’s channeled into fatherhood has been “transformational” for him.

Talking with these experts didn’t neutralize my worries, but it did alter my relationship to them a bit. Maybe I don’t know “too much” about parenting but just the right amount. Worry can be a burden, but also a sort of clarifying gift. In the case of parenthood, apprehension seems as healthy as excitement: Both are signs that you understand what you’re getting yourself into.