Reporter's Notebook

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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Weighing the Pros and Cons of Parenthood

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.

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.

Sebastien Nogier / Reuters

For our next few readers, one of the most important factors in the decision to have children was the person they’d be having children with. Tanya and her husband had different plans about parenthood at first:

Briefly, I babysat for hundreds of hours when I was a teen and grew to hate children. My husband and I never discussed whether we would have them before marriage, but for our third wedding anniversary, I cried and blubbered (over a few beers) that if he wanted children, he should leave me because I wasn't inclined toward motherhood. He said that although he would like having kids, he would never leave me, he loved our life, and we would just get more dogs. :)

For our fifth anniversary, I gave him prenatal vitamins as a gesture because I’d turned the corner. I knew I wanted the relationship that comes with adult children (my husband and I have great bonds with our parents). Plus, I’d decided that my real problem was with children under the age of 10, and I knew my husband would be a good enough parent to make up for my shortcomings as the mother of younger kids. It turns out I’ve loved every age that my two sons have been (oldest is 19, youngest is 16) and it was a great decision.

Other readers have also described their partners’ parenting skills and desire for kids as the final, most concrete factor that made them ready to take on parenthood. Katherine was on the fence about kids, but wanted to try the “adventure” of parenthood, and “thought my husband, who knew he wanted a child, would make a fantastic father.” Karine Bell was likewise ambivalent until she met her now-husband, who told her on their first date that he “couldn’t wait to become a father”:

He was just oozing with great-dad qualities. I’ve always said that I never knew I wanted children, until I knew that I wanted children with him: I wanted to co-create life with this amazing man.

And yet, a split decision about parenthood between two people who otherwise want to spend their lives together can also cause a great deal of tension and heartache. At 18, this reader was “madly in love” and sure she wanted kids with her 24-year-old partner, until an “oops” pregnancy made her realize she might not be ready:

The intensity of the relationship was replaced with stress and drama—a roller-coaster ride of do we keep or not keep this child? I decided no, he convinced me yes, and he got the baby girl he hoped for. Ultimately, this led to the destruction of our relationship.

Luckily, she adds of her daughter, “my oops was the best oops I ever made.” Meanwhile, this 44-year-old reader is currently conflicted:

I was married before, young, and had two miscarriages in my twenties. I figured that I would never have a baby and that was that. After I met a fabulous man in my mid-late thirties, I told him I couldn’t have kids. He seemed fine with that and glibly said we could adopt. Fast-forward to after we got married and it became apparent that he wanted to have children.

Reuters

When my colleague Olga wrote last month about how people decide whether to have children, she talked to a woman named Isabel Caliva, who’d been on the fence about parenthood until she read a Rumpus advice column that helped her think about the choice in terms of what losses she’d most regret later. For Isabel, that was a relief: “It changed my perspective from having to make the right choice to just deciding.”

But while parenthood is a deeply personal decision, it doesn’t just affect one person. And some readers faced a wrenching choice when they had to weigh their own desire for children or for a child-free life against potentially losing or damaging relationships with their significant others. One grandmother writes:

I became pregnant and delivered a child at age 28, five years into my marriage. Both my husband and I were thrilled at the time and still are delighted with our wonderful, loving, and successful daughter. The conflict came with the decision to have another child. We had talked about multiple children before marriage at at a very young age. After the birth of our daughter my husband was adamant: No more children. He “didn’t want the added responsibility.” I was hurt and shocked but deferred to his decision.

Now, at age 67, I wish I had another child and possibly more grandchildren. It has not changed my view of life, and I still am married to the same man, and I love him still. But I regret that decision, or at least that I did not resolve my feelings then.

Another reader ended a relationship over a disagreement like this one—and although she doesn’t regret it, her life has changed in ways she didn’t expect:

I never wanted kids growing up, but every single last person told me a switch would flip when I was in my late 20s because that’s what happens with women. I believed it, and when I met the love of my life who did want kids, I didn’t see it as an insurmountable issue. After all, I was supposed to change.

I moved in with my ex when we were 22 and the kids issue seemed light-years away—until it wasn’t. When we hit 29, the issue of whether or not to have kids came to a crisis point. He desperately wanted three or four kids, and I couldn’t stand the thought. It took us a year of arguing to finally decide to separate, and it was very traumatic since it was our only relationship issue.

Plot twist: I now want kids.