What If You Just Don’t Know If You Want Kids?

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I was super excited when my friend told me she was pregnant last year. Not because I knew she’d always wanted to be a parent, but because she hadn’t. In fact, she spent most of her life unsure. She wasn’t closed off to the possibility of motherhood, but she wasn’t all that into the idea, either. Her husband really wanted kids, though, and she was in her mid-30s, so they finally went for it. Selfishly, I was thrilled to watch a real-time experiment unfold: What happens when a woman who’s ambivalent about motherhood decides to get knocked up?

Many women are certain they want kids someday. A smaller number are positive they don’t. But there’s another group that isn’t the subject of many hand-wringing studies or best-selling books: the ambivalent. The ones who vacillate between “I don’t feel compelled to have children” and “What if I regret not having had children?"

A few of the formerly ambivalent (like Rebecca Walker and Ayelet Waldman) have written memoirs after they decided to have kids. But mostly, articles about fertility contain the sentence “I’d always wanted children,” and the happily childless often don’t cop to feeling parental urges at all. The fact that college-educated women are having babies later and later is typically described as “delayed motherhood” — implying that these women have been certain all along that they would one day become parents, and simply put it off. The fertility struggles of these women are incredibly well-documented, perhaps because they make for cautionary tales about the social consequences of focusing on career first.

But many women aren’t delaying — they’re debating. For them, motherhood is not an inevitability put off by a long search for the perfect partner. They are genuinely confused about whether or not they want kids. Not now, not someday, but ever. Maybe this is why so many couples who know better opt for the risky pull-out method. “Not everyone is decisive when it comes to knowing when to start having kids — or, if you want more than one kid, when the time is right to try for another,” wrote Slate’s Amanda Marcotte. “For some, it becomes easier to just be inconsistent with contraception or switch to less effective methods and let fate make the decisions for you.” A study last year found that people who were ambivalent about pregnancy were more likely to use no contraception.

“A lot of women on the fence feel like they should be feeling a deep longing to raise a child, and the truth is they don’t,” says Laura Carroll, author of The Baby Matrix. There’s really no evidence, she says, that women have a biological urge to procreate. Humans are the only animal that can choose whether or not to spawn. When you joke that your ovaries are jumping, it’s really your brain thinking, I’d like to be a mother someday. You’re emotionally — not biologically — processing all those cute baby photos on Instagram.

It would certainly be easier if there were a definitive biological drive pushing all women to become mothers. For most of us, it’s far more complicated than that. “Looking back, I never wanted kids,” says Jill Uchiyama, a 46-year-old filmmaker and teacher. “I think there was a moment when I did, because I was married and because I was so in love with my husband. That was the closest I got to really wanting it to happen. But it wasn’t strong enough to make it happen.”

Separating your baseline personal desires from other factors, like the relationship you’re in at the moment or where your career stands, is a phenomenally difficult task. Not to mention the societal pressure. Despite the ever-increasing feminist influence on the mainstream, conventional wisdom still says that motherhood is womanity’s highest calling — just ask every CEO who refers to her kids as her greatest achievement. At the same time, young women get a loud and clear message that parenthood is tough. Really tough. Books like Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time top the best-seller list. Blunt headlines explain that women pay a major penalty at work for becoming mothers. Even the parenting-related clickbait is scary: "100 Reasons Not to Have Kids." Throw in a few wine-drunk conversations with friends who are parents about their sleepless, sexless lives, and who wouldn’t be at least a little bit ambivalent?

“When we decide to have a child, we cut ourselves off from the freedom and other satisfactions of child-free living,” wrote psychoanalyst Merle Bombardieri in her surprisingly still-relevant 1981 guide, The Baby Decision. “Similarly, the decision to remain child-free means that we must give up the intimacy and joys of parenting. By not deciding, we hold onto the illusion that we can have it both ways — that we don't have to give up anything. Nor do we face the risk of discovering that we've made the wrong decision." Even if we’re aware that “having it all” is a corporate-feminist myth, it’s the decision to have kids that throws this fact into stark relief.

The ambivalent may spend years waiting for a certain set of circumstances — meeting the right mate, finding a different job, facing an unplanned pregnancy, inheriting millions of dollars — to push them over the edge and make them realize, definitively, that they do or don’t want kids. The academic research refers to this as “a particular constellation of fantasies and defenses.” But “fantasies” is probably an apt term. Most parents will tell you it’s never exactly the right time to have a kid. You just have to go for it if you really want children.

Carroll says ambivalent women should come to terms with the fact that maybe they’re just not that into motherhood. If they can’t decide, “more often than not, the desire isn’t that strong,” she told me. “They have to come to terms with that. A lot of women who keep pushing it off, the truth is they’re pushing it off because it’s not that important.”

I thought of my friend, the formerly ambivalent childless woman, who is now a mom. She told me recently that the stuff she feared isn’t as bad as she thought it would be, and the stuff she was excited about is way better. Even if she didn’t prioritize motherhood, and even if she didn’t get the predictions quite right, she’s clearly happy she took the plunge. And of course lots of child-free people are happy they didn’t. The point, I think, is that other people’s stories actually aren’t that helpful.

A reader of Cheryl Strayed’s "Dear Sugar" advice column once wrote in to ask whether he and his wife should have kids. They were happy already, he wrote, and didn’t feel anything was missing. But they didn’t want to regret never having kids. She advised him to try and visualize two lives, one with children and one without: “One is the life you’ll have, the other is the one you won’t. Switch them around in your head and see how it feels. Which affects you on a visceral level? Which won’t let you go? Which is ruled by fear? Which is ruled by desire? Which makes you want to close your eyes and jump and which makes you want to turn and run?”

For the ambivalent — at least, those who aren’t willing to play birth-control roulette — this sort of soul-searching seems to be the only way out. And it’s probably worth doing right away, rather than waiting for waning fertility or for a particular constellation of fantasies to come true and make the choice clear. “Part of getting through ambivalence,” Carroll says, “is to start sorting out what’s true and what’s myth, and sitting with your own naked feelings.”