Weighing the Pros and Cons of Parenthood

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Now that the wave of reader reactions to last month’s presidential election has slowed, we’re circling back to our discussion about the decision to become a parent—a choice that some people in the U.S. may be even more unsure about now, in the general climate of uncertainty following Trump’s unexpected win. To start us off, this recently married reader shares her dilemma:

As I was warned, the questions about when we are having kids started immediately after the wedding. Growing up, I always anticipated having a child, and having benefited from a young extended family (my grandmother was 44 when I was born), I was adamant that I wanted to be done having children by 30. As that cutoff age rapidly approaches, however, I'm more acutely feeling the realities of potentially being a mother and questioning whether parenthood is truly best for our family.

The cons to being parents, at least in how easy it is to articulate them, seem to outweigh the pros. My husband is fortunate in the sense that he loves what he does, but at certain times of year, his schedule is brutal (i.e., out-of-town travel, 12+ hour days, no days off for months on end). I don't have the financial luxury nor the desire not to work, and I worry that the strain of more or less being a single parent for parts of the year is beyond me and would create resentment in my relationship.

Another tally in the “against” column is selfish self-preservation. In 2012, I received a long-overdue diagnosis of anxiety, which generally manifests itself in obsessions about physical safety, as well as separation anxiety. While currently manageable with consistency in routine and medication, I am fearful that my anxiety would be exacerbated by a child, both in the sense of the chemical changes accompanying pregnancy and the life to follow. For my well-being among other reasons, we have discussed adoption, but that doesn't circumvent the fact that caring and worrying are two sides of the same coin for me.

And yet, my husband and I are both nurturers by nature. Presently, while my husband channels his caregiving into his work in as a health-care provider, I dote on our puppy (and the cat when he lets me), but that does not satiate my longing to be a parent. While the reasons not to choose the path of parenthood are clear and not insignificant to us, it's impossible not to acknowledge the visceral urge to raise a child.

I’m years away from even considering parenthood myself, but I can relate to this reader’s worries: I was the “nurturing” one in my group of college friends, and the women I knew who didn’t want kids of their own used to joke that I’d have to have godchildren for them. But a couple years later, during a particularly rough period of anxiety and depression, I started questioning the idea that I would make a good mother; I worried that I wouldn’t be able to care for my future kids, or that I’d pass the scarier parts of my psyche on to them. That possibility—that I might not actually be capable of something I always assumed was a part of my personality and would be part of my future—was pretty frightening, even though at the time it was purely hypothetical.

Has your mental or physical health been a factor in deciding whether to have kids? Or, if you’re already a parent, how have you managed health conditions on top of that very demanding job? I’d like to hear about your experience.

As for the other practical concerns our reader mentions, another reader, Mike, dealt with some of those issues on his way to becoming a father—a story with many twists and turns:

My wife and I met and got married in our mid-30s, a somewhat later age than what is common. At the time we had no inclinations for children. I held a “never say never” position, but my wife was flat-out against it.

That changed when my wife (my fiancée at the time) accidentally got pregnant right after we got engaged.

It’s likely that she got pregnant BECAUSE we got engaged, really. After much deliberation, we decided we were going to go through with it all. We started moving up our wedding plans so that she wouldn't be showing at the wedding. We were old-school like that!

After a month or two she ended up miscarrying, which was rather traumatic for the both of us, mostly her. We experienced how taboo that subject is. Miscarriage seems to be treated as a secret shame or pain for those who go through with it, with little honesty about how common it is. It was tough, but it brought us closer as we became our own support group.

Speaking of that taboo subject, a number of our readers have shared their experiences with miscarriages here, while others have described how their struggles to conceive have affected their marriages. Mike continues:

We decided to take things easy for a while; we just worked and went out and continued to plan our wedding. But about six months into our marriage, we felt stagnant. Our relationship was great and strong, but we just felt like our lives were aimless and pointless. We talked for a while and figured out that it was because we were now chemically wired to have a child: We had accepted and embraced the thought of having a kid even though it was completely unplanned and inconvenient. When the pregnancy went away, our biological desire to procreate was still there.

We mulled over the details of “when,” but we soon realized that no one is really "ready" to have a kid, even when it's planned. So we decided to just go for it and figure it out afterwards. We were in our late 30s by then and had gotten over trying to control life.

In the background, my job was going away and I was going to be laid off with a decent severance package. And on the day after my last day of work, my wife told me she was pregnant!

She was still working for a while and between my severance pay and modest retirement package (that I forgot I had even signed up for!) we were able to pay the bills. It helped greatly, too, that we live in Oregon and had most of our costs covered by the Oregon Health Plan.

It was tough, but it was the best decision of our lives, and it's amazing how illogical the decision was. I'm usually very pragmatic but that stuff doesn't matter when evolutionary biology makes a decision for you. I'm glad we were irrational!

Jim and his wife, on the other hand, tried to be very rational about their decision:

I personally have thought long and hard about what, at its core, the human condition is. After some deliberation it quickly becomes apparent (to me) that one key component of the human condition is procreation. In order to propagate the human species, we need to make more humans, otherwise what is it all for?

So, with the inevitability of children in mind, my thinking then drifted towards, “In what circumstances would raising a child be most enjoyable?” In the end my wife and I decided that having children no later than 30 but no younger than 26 would be best. This is for several reasons:

(1) Increase the probability of avoiding difficulties that are typically associated with conception at a late age,

(2) make sure we could be financially stable to support our children, and

(3) be young enough to enjoy the time we'll have with them as they grow older.

As an aside, now matter how much you plan, you always get a curveball thrown your way. We planned on having two children, however, when visiting our doctor for the first sonogram of child #2 we found out that we are actually having child #2 and #3! That's what makes being human so amazing, the uncertainty in life.

We’ve heard from many parents who have said the same: that they didn’t expect or plan to have kids (or to have as many as they did), but are grateful that it happened. But for others, there are many other sides to the story. If you wanted kids but decided against it for practical reasons, how have you come to terms with the choice? Or, if a child came into your life at what turned out to be an impractical time, have you experienced regrets about becoming a parent? We’d like to hear your stories (anonymously if you prefer): hello@theatlantic.com.