Motherhood: never is ok



On Monday, Cassie explained how the reproductive choices available to her felt like both a blessing and a curse. “I want to want a child,” she said, while admitting that, as of yet, she doesn’t. She’s not sure what to do.

I can’t (and won’t) tell Cassie what to do. The thing about the decision to have a baby or not is that there’s no right answer. Whichever path you take will become your life, and you’ll make it work. There’s no way to know for sure which choices will make your life most satisfying, and so, as Tim Kreider writes in his seminal essay, the Referendum, “We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated.”

As someone who’s childless by choice, I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Though I’ve never longed for a child of my own, I know that I’m forgoing a powerful human experience, and once in a while I wonder if that should bother me, before assuring myself that it doesn’t, because I’m also missing out on the inverted exorcist, the terrible twos, and the chance to fill my house with a bunch of sticky plastic crap.

The question of baby or no baby touches on one of the most fundamental  decisions we face as adults—how will we focus our attention? Because no matter how wealthy or successful you become, your time and energy remain fixed and finite resources. Life offers an almost infinite variety of possible experiences, and the hard truth is that it’s simply not possible to experience them all.

Growing up, I was primed to view life choices as my right, but I was, perhaps, under-prepared for the actual decision-making. That having choices meant eventually making them and actually closing some of the very doors I wanted the option to open came as a shock.

I’d always believed I could have it all—a husband, a child, a career, a full travel schedule, an active social life, and an endless array of personal pursuits. And it’s true that women of my generation really can have all those things, but they can’t have them all, 100 percent, at the same time. Every hour spent changing diapers or leading a board meeting or commuting to work or meeting a deadline is an hour you’re not reading a novel or writing one or reading to your child or learning to salsa dance. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, and so we set priorities and make choices.

For me, that has meant saying no to motherhood. There are at least 100 reasons not to have kids, but in my mind, it really came down to this: how do I want to spend my 30’s and 40’s? And my honest answer is, not engaged in the exhausting work of raising a child.

Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, caught tons of grief when she declared in the New York Times, “I love my husband more than I love my children,” but I understand what she means and feel the same way about the children I will never have.

I love my husband, and I don’t long for interlopers in our marriage. I like that lingering in bed together in the early sunshine and sharing leisurely breakfasts while discussing the morning newspaper are not special occasions for us, but regular pleasures that don’t require any pre-planning. At a recent women’s weekend, a mother friend remarked how wonderful it was to sleep past eight am. Last time she’d slept that late uninterrupted, she’d jumped out of bed in a panic, wondering why her kids hadn’t rousted her yet. (Turned out, they were occupied googling images of “boobies.”) Her story made me chuckle, but it also made me grateful that my life is fully my own.

Without children to care for, my husband and I can focus our attention on ourselves, and I doubt we would have achieved the marital happiness and intimacy we currently possess if the time we now devote to one another was instead spent hustling to get kids ready for school or supervising homework sessions.

Some people consider it selfish for people like us to decide not to sacrifice our autonomy for the children we’ve chosen not to conceive, but I’ve never understood this logic.

The idea that it’s noble for my mother to devote her life to nurturing me and my needs and yet selfish for me to apply myself to the very same task is exactly the kind of sexist judgment we need to move past.

As Lionel Shriver, writes in her Maybe Baby essay,  “There’s a crude logic to the idea that your own life has to be worth living on its merits, without having to redeem itself by producing another; someone’s life has to be worth something for its own sake, or all of human existence is pointless.”

I’m not one of those militant “childfree by choice” people who complain every time they’re forced to share a public space with children. I like kids. I enjoy their company, and I’m happy for my friends who have them. I don’t want to change anyone’s mind about having children. But please don’t call it “starting a family”—my husband and I are a family too, and we don’t need children to make us complete.

In fact, research shows that childfree couples are happier than those with kids.  An eight-year study of more than 200 couples found that marital satisfaction dropped following the birth of their first child, and a 2005 study concluded that, “There is no type of parent who reports less depression than nonparents.” A widely discussed survey of more than 900 working Texas mothers asked them to rate the enjoyableness of 19 routine activities. These mothers ranked child care as less pleasurable than 15 other activities, including preparing meals, shopping and housework.

What about all those mothers who insist that their kids are the best thing that ever happened to them? “Children are the best thing in a parent’s life,” Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, told one reporter “but only because they tend to get rid of every source of joy we had before they came along.”

In a provocative 2010 New York magazine feature, Jennifer Senior discusses a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies published in 2003 by psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge. “Not only did they find that couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids; they found that every successive generation was more put out by having them than the last—our current one most of all.”

Researchers have a hypothesis to explain this. Previous generations went from being children themselves to becoming spouses and new parents in their first independent households, without ever experiencing the unencumbered lives that most people now enjoy in their 20’s. In other words, people who delay childbearing get a taste of child-free adult living, and so they know what they’re missing.

Given the data, childlessness seems like a reasonable choice, yet there remains the worry that Cassie expressed—will she regret not having kids? Probably not if they aren’t something she’s always longed for. Laura Carroll, author of Families of Two, has interviewed thousands of childfree people and says, “not one person has spoken of regret. Instead they talk about the regret they would have if they had had kids.” But while this is true of the deliberately child-free, it may not hold for people who find themselves involuntarily childless.

And while most parents trumpet the virtues of parenthood, some do regret their decision to procreate. In 1975, Ann Landers asked her readers with children, “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” A whopping 70 percent of respondents said no. For obvious reasons (no one wants their child to feel unloved or unwanted) parental regret remains a taboo topic, yet the internet has given parents a chance to finally vent their true feelings anonymously. I imagine these parents are in the minority, but that’s doesn’t make their experiences less valid.

What about Cassie’s other worry, “If we don’t reproduce, who will take care of us? Who will visit us when we’re old?” These are important questions, but children aren’t necessarily the answer. Studies suggest that elderly people who are childless are no worse off than their parent peers. A 2011 study of nearly 500 Swedish 85-year-olds concluded that both parents and childless people this age were “equally likely to end up in institutional care, to have friends close by and to be in contact with neighbours.” Middle-aged and elderly people without children aren’t lonelier, unhappier or more depressed, nor are they less satisfied with their lives than those who are parents.

Social interaction, whether from family or friends, keeps us vibrant at any age, and these social ties don’t have to involve family. As one of my happily child-free friends told me recently, “It will probably be a lot better to have friends around us in our dotage instead of children or relatives with all the attendant emotional baggage that family ties can create.”

Expecting your children to take care of you as you age straps them with a huge financial and emotional burden. I’d rather save the $221,190 I’d spend raising a child over the next seventeen years to pay for care in my golden years.

Of course decisions about whether to have kids rarely come down to money. Instead, they take us to the mythical stadium that Cameron describes in her motherhood post.

When I was a child, my mother gave me a record album titled, Free to Be You and Me. The title song spoke of a land where “you and me are free to be you and me.” Now that my generation has entered into that fabled land, we face a challenge that our feminist forebears probably didn’t anticipate–deciding which me we want to be. I have chosen to be nobody’s mother, and it’s a choice that feels exactly right.




Photos: couple by Adwriter. Cartwheel by setaysha.

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22 thoughts on “Motherhood: never is ok

  1. Very cogent arguments, and well said. I was so on the fence that I waited till my late 30s to have kids. In the end, I think having kids actually enhanced our marriage, but cannot deny that the 20 years spent raising them has been one of personal loss of time for oneself and one’s friends. if you are both working parents,and have a large and close family, the time and energy left for oneself and for those outside the family is very small. As my kids get older we’re starting to enjoy nights out, weekends alone and time with ourselves again, and it is really wonderful.

    Love the pic!


  2. What matters is realizing the decision that’s right for you. It seems like you’ve done that! And that will be helpful to others who may not be up for the rigors of parenting.

    I made the opposite choice and could not be happier that I did. To me, raising children is the greatest adventure in life. The amount of love and fulfillment I get through being a mother makes that lost $221,190 feel like a bargain! The experience is priceless.

    I trust that you’ll feel the same about your decision, too – there is never any one right answer to these questions!

  3. Non-parents like to point to the happiness research to pat themselves on the back, but reality seems to be a bit more complex. As a nice contrast, right before reading this, I saw another post on happiness & kids:

    The relationship between kids & happiness is complex with a lot of confounding factors. Some of the other posts in this motherhood series were wonderful, but I don’t get the point of trying to defend one’s personal decision based on social science studies of diverse groups.

  4. “There’s a crude logic to the idea that your own life has to be worth living on its merits, without having to redeem itself by producing another; someone’s life has to be worth something for its own sake, or all of human existence is pointless.”

    I’m so glad to have read this. I have wrestled with this line of thinking often as I try to find my work/child-rearing balance.

  5. Lucky for you, your parents didn’t think the same way. And hopefully, they have other children to provide them with grandchildren.

  6. Thank you so much, Christie, this is wonderful. You are always inspiring me to make changes for the better–and now I’m inspired to devote more attention to our first family of two.

  7. I’ve seen the survey of Texan mothers reported lots of places, and I think there may be a big problem with the data. “Child care” to me [and I suspect to the women who took the survey] means doing the chores you have to do for your kids: diapers, cooking, cleaning, etc. — a very biased selection of the time a parent spends with their kids. It doesn’t include the fun parts: dancing, playing games, helping/watching them learn new things, etc.

    Those parts are pretty great, and I suspect they’re not represented in the survey data as you [and everyone else] are presenting it.

  8. I appreciate all the thoughtful comments.

    @Carol: I couldn’t agree more re: what matters is realizing the decision that’s right for you. I’m glad that not everyone goes child-free, because I enjoy my friends’ children.

    @Bsci and @Amos: Happiness is a difficult thing to measure. But those of us without children are often told that we’d be happier with children, and there simply isn’t good evidence for that. I am not arguing that parents aren’t happy, and I am absolutely convinced that parents find happiness in their children. But the actual day to day realities of raising a child or children can be very stressful and difficult, and I think it’s ok to acknowledge that, especially if doing so could take pressure off parents to be happy in every moment of parenthood. You can hate doing diapers or and still love your child.

    @Steve: my parents have told me they are quite ok with no grandchildren. Thankfully they have full lives without them.

    @Jessica: I think of it like those instructions they give you on planes. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help the child. Women should be able to mother without losing themselves or their autonomy. And women like you and Cameron are showing how possible that is.

  9. Christie, you’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of yours and Dave’s decision not to have kids. While I applaud your confidence and support your choice, I offer a challenge: make your argument without relying on the low-hanging fruit (pointing out the obvious drawbacks of parenthood) or lobbying veiled insults at people with kids. Changing diapers and enduring temper tantrums are obvious drudgery that come with having kids, but parenthood is much more complex and interesting than dealing with those tasks. Rather than posit your choice as a referendum on who is happier, why don’t you explore how your child-free decision/life has shaped you as a person and writer? That would be a more interesting and much more illuminating essay to read.

  10. Christie, You’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of yours and your husband’s decision not to have kids. While I applaud your confidence and support your choice, I offer you a challenge: to write about this topic without relying on the “low-hanging fruit” like the drudgery of diaper changes and temper tantrums and the child-free bliss of reading the Sunday paper in bed for as long as you’d like. Parenthood is much more complex, interesting and rewarding than you give it credit for, and I think your essay could be more profound and interesting if instead of focusing on which group is happier (with kids or the kid free) you explored how your own choices have informed your growth and development as a person, professional, woman, wife. Otherwise, this topic risks being a polarizing one seeped in judgement and justification. Yawn. I’m more interested in what people get out of the choices they make in their life—whether or not I make those same choices.

  11. Oops! Sorry for the duplicate comments. Must be my mommy brain :). The first I tried to post on my iPhone and it hadn’t posted when I wrote the second. Apologies.

  12. I think your decision to not have kids is both commendable and responsible. Even though I am a parent, I don’t ever think couples should have children just because it’s what every one else does. I had no intention of having a child as early into my marriage as I did, nor was I even sure I ever wanted children, but sometimes, nature has a way of working those decisions out for you.

    Before I had a child, I thought many of the same things as you, that my life would be consumed with child care. That a cup of coffee and relaxation in the morning wouldn’t happen for another 18 years. But it’s just not that way. A relaxing breakfast for me is listening to my two year-old explain the way he sees the world.

    I sleep an uninterrupted 8 hours every night. If our son wakes up before 8 am, he’ll just come in and quietly get in bed with us until we wake up. There’s no violent altercation from a kid screaming they want breakfast.

    In the evening when I get home, I love to sit next to my son in a chair, reading a book on my Kindle while he does the same. Of course there are going to be some sacrifices here and there, but I’ve never felt that I was selling out complete autonomy and veiling it in sacrifice for my child.

    I have no idea whether or not I would be ‘happier’ without my son. I’m sure without him, I would have gotten along perfectly well in the world. But I know that now, I could never imagine a world without him. And watching the development of a toddler is by far the most interesting and incredible journey I’ve ever been on. Through it, I’ve learned humility, I’ve learned to not take myself so seriously all the time, and I’ve learned perspective. But it’s not a journey for everyone. Not at all.

    Loving a child, I’ve found, can’t be quantified through a study. I’m a very cerebral thinker. I go through many steps of logic before making a decision. Before I had my son, I kept thinking of all the reasons why having a kid was not a good idea. And I even thought that through my wife’s pregnancy. But in the end, the first time I laid eyes on him, the amount of just…primal…love, overshadowed any doubts I had about being a parent and going through this life-altering change.

    I agree with Rachel above. It’s easy to pick off the low-hanging fruit of parenting. No amount of social research can accurately depict the biological love we have for our offspring.

  13. Great post. I hope we can get to a place where couples are not automatically expected to have children, and that both choices are supported. My husband and I plan to have kids someday, but I also consider the two of us a family right now. We’re not any less a family because we don’t have small children running around. Also, I’d rather people decide to have children because they truly want them, not because they feel social pressure to have them.

  14. What is the point–what’s the point of your life? Will you matter, will anyone care about your 70 or 80 odd years on earth? Will your delusions about your writing and “career” mean anything to anyone in a generation or two. You and everything you touched and thought will be forgotten. Wake up. Ignoring or resisting the most fundamental, evolutionary drive of a human being under the cloth of the most drippy mumbo jumbo about “a full travel schedule, an active social life, and an endless array of personal pursuits” is the height of pathetic immaturity so common among so-called educated white women these days. How have we come to this insanity? I can only imagine the weenie to whom you’re married.

  15. Thank you for your thoughtful essay. Bottom line, we are all going to die and be forgotten. A trip to a cemetery is a great reminder of this. Just because your memory is prolonged by a generation or two does not negate the fact that you will be forgotten for all eternity at some point.

    My husband and I never had kids and couldn’t be happier with our decision. Death is inevitable and the infinite ways in which one can live a meaningful life is infinite. Anyone that thinks there is a formula is surely misguided. I am not worried about being lonely at 70 or 80 because I am happy and content just being me. Thoughtless responses like “Enough’s” are a pretty good indicator of someone that is clearly unhappy.

  16. The issue is hardly happiness. One can be “happy” sitting in their own waste plastering walls with feces if the illness, drugs, or delusions are powerful enough. Or one can be happy, pretending their writing and travels and social activities are anything other than ridding yourself of another day.

    I’m talking about the point of existence, which is the propagation of one’s genes. It begins and ends there, whether we like it or not. If you pass on your genes, you succeed. It’s as black and white as that. That simple. We build families, villages, societies and civilizations based on that stark truth. The rest is rationalization and pleasantry.

  17. I’m talking about the point of existence, which is the propagation of one’s genes.

    Not sure which is more amusing: that someone would believe this, or that they would believe it with such conviction as to make the argument as you have.

    But to the contrary, the “point of existence” is what you make of it. If you want to take a truly reductive point of view, there is no point in existing–up to and including “passing on your genes”. Life is a pointless exercise in biological processes.

    You may as well end it now.

  18. @Enough, there is no point to existence. Propagation is just something that has emerged. The algorithm for its success is emotional love/lust leading to procreation leading to emotional love for the offspring.

    But it doesn’t always work so well, in the same way that an awful lot of sea turtles die on the beach right after they hatch, eaten by pelicans.

    As long as a lot of people continue having children, the species will propagate. But even if everyone stopped today, does it matter? It just means our species will go exctint. It doesn’t mean life will end.

  19. Sorry for being an evolutionist.

    Obviously, I’m making the point in extreme, but I see no alternative to getting through the foggy silliness of the article.

  20. @Enough, your argument is what is silly. The human race is in no danger of dying out because a few people decide not to have kids. And most people, unless they’re a Homer or a Shakespeare, will be completely forgotten
    in a few generations anyway regardless of whether they had kids or not. You act like the childfree are betraying the purpose of evolution without recognizing that evolution has no point. Breeding just for the sake of breeding even if it makes you miserable? What kind of like is that?

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