In September last year, a few months before I turned 37, I started a list. It’s called “Reasons I Don’t Want to Have a Baby”:
Goodbye to weekend lie-ins
Might ruin my relationship with my husband. What if it makes us fall out of love with each other?
Bringing a child into a world that is getting too hot, too angry and too divided
Our families live in a different country
No more impromptu cocktails, yoga, solo trips to the movies or lazy Sundays
When I hear a toddler screeching on the street, I flinch
Fear of parent and baby groups.
A solid list, in my view, and one that I could add to. But I’m not ready to accept that kids aren’t for me. In fact, I have another list, “Reasons I Do Want to Have a Baby”:
Kids are fun, weird and interesting
To snuggle a baby of my own and sniff their soft, little head
To experience the excitement of waking up your kids on Christmas morning
When I’m old, my children will visit me and I can make them roast dinners
I’m obsessed with baby name lists
To experience what it feels like to be pregnant, give birth and love something you and your partner have made
Are these good reasons? Bad ones? I don’t know. And not knowing is beginning to stress me out. I’ve always hoped that intuition would kick in when the time was right. But as I get older - and increasingly aware that I don’t have much time to dither - I feel more confused than ever.
As my pros and cons list has so far failed to edge me towards a decision, I realise I need some help. I decided to make a plan and seek advice from people who make a living through helping others make choices: a psychic, a philosopher, and reproductive rights activists … and my mom.
Ruth Chang’s advice boils down to a simple principle: when it comes to big life decisions, choices are often hard because neither option is better than the other. But we have the power to make an option better and more appealing for ourselves.
“The key is to plump for a choice and commit to it,” she says. “By doing so it becomes the better choice because we work hard to instill it with value. By committing, we can make something the right choice for us.
“When you commit to a certain type of life, hard choices become fewer because you are on that path.”
Chang is a chair of jurisprudence at Oxford University and has been a professor of philosophy for 20 years. I find her via a TED talk on how to make hard decisions that has been viewed more than seven million times. (I may have Googled “how to make hard decisions”.)
After getting hundreds of emails asking her for advice - commonly from men asking if they should break up with their girlfriends - Chang observed that most of the people she talks to actually just want permission. But letting go of the idea that someone or something will swoop in and tell you what to do forces us to properly consider our values, and the reasons we want to do something in the first place, which gives you a more active role in your choice.
“Lots of people do the pro-cons thing until the cows come home, then they are stuck. You should quit trying to find out which is better… You have the power to throw yourself behind an option and add value to it,” she says.
It sounds straightforward, and I’m all for taking control of my situation rather than waiting for a divine hunch, but how do I actually do the committing part? The reason I’m doing all of this is because I can’t commit to something.
Chang compares making a commitment to reading a novel and immersing yourself in an alternative world.
“You have to tele-transport yourself into a world where you have a child. It’s not just the dry information, it’s emotional too. For big choices that are hard, it’s important to get all the aspects of that alternative reality.”
I’m not sure about this teleporting idea, but I give it a try anyway. In the morning when I snooze my alarm, on the subway after work, I think about my future self and picture a baby in it. I try it the other way too. No babies. No toddlers. No teenagers.
It’s become quite a habit, and I am surprised to find my mind going to the baby version of life most often. Is this what committing feels like?
The activist and ethics professor
A colleague recommends I talk to Frances Kissling, president of The Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy, former president of Catholics for Choice and an activist who has campaigned across reproductive rights, religion and women’s rights since the 1970s.
When we talk, she’s in Mexico co-teaching reproductive health ethics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has a class coming up on children and family that will explore all the questions I’m interested in: should you have children? Why should you have children? Do you need reasons? What rights do children who are going to be brought into the world have?
Kissling knew she never wanted to have children, and was sterilized at 33. At 76, it’s a choice she’s never regretted.
For her, it’s a mistake to ignore the world around us when thinking about starting a family. “Many friends and I feel a certain relief that we are not leaving behind, in this world, children to suffer with climate change, lack of water, some of the dystopian views of where the world will go in the future.”
Asking what future my child would have is important, according to Kissling. “You do have to think about the rights of the children you will bring into the world and have some sense of confidence that they will be able to flourish, and not have an excessive amount of suffering.”
I also need to take a long look at myself and ask if I’m fit to be a parent. “How prepared are you to lead a life in which some of the freedoms you have will be lost?” she asks. “What kind of contributions do you see yourself making to the world as you come along in life, and are children compatible with those?”
But for all my attention to our warming, divisive world and worries about stepping away from a lifestyle that I enjoy, Kissling admits it is hard to ignore our evolutionary instincts to reproduce.
“If someone is thinking ‘I really really want to have children, but worry it’s bad for the earth’, you are likely to be unhappy if you follow that worry through. Not many people have the distance to avoid the evolutionary urge to procreate. You have to be careful not to overthink this desire.”
Her advice is to think about and write down the values that are important to you - both in terms of raising children and the contribution you want to make to the world - and the kind of life you will be able to give to a child. She also says to check the list every year to see if you still feel the same way.
Finally, some homework. I need to hang out with some parents and their kids. “If you want to be a writer, you talk to other writers. Observe people you know with children in similar circumstances to your own. Not only talk to your friends, spend the day or borrow the kid for a weekend. See how it feels.”
Diana’s reading room is a window-front shop right on the street, the kind with a big neon sign and crystals on every surface. Through the blinds, you can see people walking by as you sit down to share your most intimate concerns and desires. I suddenly realise I am feeling nervous.
We start with a tarot reading. As soon as Diana starts flipping over cards, she tells me she sees a significant change coming, possibly a change in my environment.She taps at a card which depicts a kind of puppet on a string.
“You don’t feel fulfilled. You’re being minimized and not fulfilling your potential. You have lost your way. Not yet found your calling. But I see greatness.”
We talk a little about my work life but I remember the task at hand. I bite the bullet: do you see a baby in my future?
“I see a blocker. I do see you as a mother. I do see a family in your future, but you feel the time isn’t right for you. You still have more to do.”
A flash of anxiety hits. A block? Diana asks: “Did something happen 10 years ago? A miscarriage or an abortion?” I tell her that I did have an abortion in 2009. Back then, it wasn’t a tough decision to make. I was in my mid-twenties, about to start my first job at a national newspaper. I knew so clearly what I wanted.
She nods and asks me what’s on my mind. I tell her I can’t decide if I want a baby. I love living in New York, but can’t reconcile my current life with being a mom.
While I’m skeptical about this whole experience, her last statement resonates: she’s right, the time and place isn’t right for me. I know Diana has no magical powers; she’s merely good at observing people, their tone and mood. I’m a woman of a certain age, in a certain Brooklyn neighborhood, I have an accent - she can easily make some assumptions about me, my life and the reasons I’m popping to see a psychic after work on a Thursday.
But it’s helpful to hear all this outside of my own head. It was a good way to frame some of the questions and options I’ve been considering too. Diana’s observations forced me to think beyond the “should I or shouldn’t I” question and consider areas such as where and when do I want one, and what do I need to get done first.
My mom reminds me of a conversation we had a decade ago.
“You once asked me if I would be upset if you never had kids, when you were living in London in your 20s,” she says.
I did? I’d totally forgotten about that. What did you say?
“I said: no, it’s your choice. You have got to do what’s right for yourself. I’d like grandkids, but you don’t do it for me you do it for you. You are doing what you want to do with your life, that’s more important to me.”
My mom, Beverley, had me when she was 21, and my younger brother, Steven, four years later. She was the eldest of three, often tasked with looking after her younger siblings. She never doubted she wanted to be a mom and start her family young.
She did as her mother had done, and what most of her friends were doing at the time. “I never really pre-thought it. It was a normal thing,” she says. “The careers weren’t quite so intense and attractive for women as they are now. Whereas you were more career orientated. You had more options going for you.”
I tell my mom about my list and my quest to advance my decision-making skills. Her advice from 10 years ago still stands.
“Think about why you’d want them,” she says. “If that reason is something you are doing for yourself, fair enough, but it shouldn’t be something you are doing for the family.”
Knowing how much I value my independence and freedom, she also urges me to think about how different my life would be as a mom. “Look at your friends that have got kids and how their lives are different to your own. They are life changing. If you’re having children, you’ve got to put them first.”
She knows me too well, and can see how much I enjoy my lifestyle. I have friends with kids who continue to live fun, fulfilled lives. They seem tired, sure, but they’re still the same people I knew and loved. I also have friends whose lives seem to have become smaller, and this is where Frances Kissling’s advice starts to come to life. If I do this, I’ll lose freedoms, but by being deliberate about the way I want to bring up a family, perhaps it’s not impossible to set my own terms.
Also, I’m not adverse to change. Change wakes us up and keeps us on our toes.
With so much talk about the sacrifices parents have to make, I wonder what my mom liked most about having kids.
“It’s amazing how close you feel to that little tiny person that you bring into the world,” she tells me. “The unconditional love that is there between you, having a little person dependent on you, and in a way you are dependent on them too. It’s great watching them grow up and see what life they make for themselves.”
No wonder my mom never thought twice about having kids. As this advice proves, she’s selfless and loving in ways that I’m not sure I can be. But, does she think I would be a good mom?
Even though I’m quite selfish?
“You would be a good mom. You’d have to adapt but it’s clear you love kids. You get along with them. They are very fun and adorable but very demanding too.”
For a long time, until I started my list last year, I thought it was unlikely I would have children. Not because I felt strongly that I didn’t want to but rather I didn’t feel strongly that I did. I was taking that as a sign that it might not be for me. Surely, with something this life changing, I should really want to do it?
“No, that’s not the way to go,” my mom says. “That would be an obsession. For you, it’s like an added bonus. Like ice cream on your apple pie. You would enjoy life either way.”
Reflecting on this advice, I realise I don’t feel any pressure from my family, or anyone else, to do this. But this fortifying conversation with my mom, this glimpse into her past, my past and possibly my future too, was an affecting experience. Hearing her describe the emotional rewards of motherhood tugged at my sluggish maternal instincts, the ones that have been woken up by all the teleporting suggested by Ruth Chang.
This is the sort of conversation I wouldn’t mind having with a child of my own one day. And like that, I’ve gone from my 50/50 stalemate to a 70/30.