Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Deciding to Become a Parent or Not: Your Stories
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Readers who are on the fence about whether to have kids—along with parents and child-free folks who have already made the decision—discuss their personal pros, cons, and gut-level reactions to the idea of parenthood. Read the article inspired by this discussion here.

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Staying Child-Free Because of Mental-Health Concerns

I asked in a previous note, “Has your mental or physical health been a factor in deciding whether to have kids?” A reader responds with a resounding “YES”:

I was raised by an extremely anxious mother who never had the self-awareness to realize her anxiety levels weren’t normal, so she never had the will to seek therapy or other self-care—beyond expecting everyone around her to help soothe her irrational fears. As an only child, it was very difficult to deal with her helicopter parenting and need for constant contact because “otherwise I worry.”

As an adult, I realize that I inherited her same level of anxiety—but I have spent a lifetime developing strategies and practices (with the help of therapy) to manage it in a healthy way and reduce the burden on my partner and others around me. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain, just based on how much I worry about our dogs, that having children would exacerbate my anxiety in ways I would probably not be able to control, and in a way that is likely to burden my children—just the way my mom burdened me.

Another reader, Liz, also feared that her mental health issues would burden a child:

I’m 48, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 21, when I went through my first psychiatric hospitalization. The following years brought more hospitalizations and medications and electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatments). This all happened during a time when I knew I was supposed to be thinking about family and children.

Xinhua / Reuters

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.

Ollanta Humala, the former president of Peru, holds his five-month-old son during a TV interview before his 2011 election. Mariana Bazo / Reuters

Many of you have responded to Olga’s call for stories about why you decided to have kids or not. One mother writes, “I know what it’s like to be undecided”:

When I was 37, my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for six years on and off. We were really on the fence—try fertility treatments, or just live an unencumbered child-free life? Both options seemed okay.

I’m afraid this sounds selfish, but more than legacy or any other reason, I wanted to know firsthand what it was like to be a parent. It felt like I’d be missing out on a huge part of the human experience if my husband and I chose not to have a child.

Anyway, we took the necessary fertility measures, had a baby, and being a mother to this little boy is so much better than I could have imagined. Sometimes I think about how close we came to giving up on parenthood and I can’t believe it.

Of course, fertility measures can be costly and stressful, as our readers who have shared their experience with infertility can attest. If money was the deciding factor in your choice about parenthood, we’d like to hear about it.

For this next reader, it took some firsthand experience with childrearing to decide she didn’t want any biological kids of her own:

I never really gave it much thought: I assumed I’d have kids some day when I was older and married, just like everyone else. When I started dating my now-husband, who has kids, I thought it would be fine—I had worked as a nanny and thought I was good with kids. But I wasn't, and it was horrible.

The never-ending stream of chores that somehow quadrupled when they came to visit was overwhelming. I was clearing breakfast while trying to make lunch and wash ridiculous quantities of clothes, while the TV blared cartoon music and someone would be shouting “Daddy, watch me do this!” I am not a crier, but several times during each visit, I went into a bathroom and allowed myself a quick three-minute sob fest.

It was exhausting, and it would repeat day after day. I enjoyed none of it; I just grimly set to get through the days. When they’d go home, I would burst out in tears from relief.

And they weren’t bad kids! They were completely normal, well-behaved children who just needed to be taken care of by the adults. I have no illusions that my own kids would somehow be easier or better. Probably worse.

That’s when I started thinking: I don’t want this.

U.S. citizen Gordon Lake (R), his Spanish husband Manuel Santos, and their baby Carmen attend a news conference in Bangkok on April 29, 2016, after winning an appeal for parental rights over a baby born through a Thai mother before the Thai ban on commercial surrogacy came into effect last year. Jorge Silva / Reuters

Just call me the Ken Bone of procreation. I am hopelessly undecided about whether to have kids, even though it’s getting to be pretty late in the game, so to speak. My lists of pros and cons for both sides are equally lengthy—but something tells me the ultra-rational approach isn’t the right one here. Because of my job, I know all the stats about parenthood; I’ve read all the studies; I’ve even sat in on parenting classes. I still have no idea.

Unplanned pregnancies are at their lowest level in 30 years, which means increasingly, parenthood is a choice people make. And it’s one of the most important choices a person does make. The internet is filled with stories of people weighing the decision and concluding they are glad they had kids after all, or that remaining childless was ultimately best for them. (There’s also a smaller number of people who admit they regret having kids.) But there’s not as much out there about how people—those for whom parenthood was a choice—actually made that choice.

And so, like Bone, I stand before you, very torn, slightly nervous, and with an earnest question on my mind: What made you decide to have kids?

To begin a new reader discussion in Notes, we are interested in learning what ultimately made you throw the switch toward parenthood (or not). Was there a single moment that made up your mind, or was it something you gradually realized about yourself? Was it a partner’s opposition that made the difference, or your family’s insistence? Was it cost? Career plans? Or perhaps even a religious motivation? We’re especially interested in hearing from people who were on the fence about having kids, but jumped off it.

(No need to send us stories of how cute your kids are—though we’re sure it’s true. For this discussion, unlike in actual parenthood, the choice is more important than the outcomes. And if pregnancy isn’t a choice for you because of infertility, we are going to explore that issue as well, in an upcoming discussion. Update: It’s here.)

So, how did you make the choice to have children? And if you’re still weighing the decision, what major factors are you considering? Please send us your thoughts and personal experiences: hello@theatlantic.com.