The Decision To Not Have Children Is A Complicated One
The internal and external factors that influence a woman’s inability to bear children are well-documented. Irregular menstrual cycles. Endometriosis. Polycystic ovarian syndrome. Blocked fallopian tubes. Age-related fertility decline. Sperm issues. Stress. But the factors that lead some women to consciously forego motherhood are less widely discussed. And I think that’s because – at least in a lot of places – there are still unspoken expectations for what constitutes a successful life if you are a woman, and marriage and motherhood are right at the top of the list. So to arrive at the conclusion that the latter of those two things is not something you want for yourself, it’s easy to feel some sense of shame or guilt. This is wrong on a whole bunch of levels, but it’s a gentle reminder that for all the ways in which we’ve made progress to lead more autonomous lives, the opinions of others still hold weight.
When I asked readers to share the reasons that led them to decisively not want kids, there were some factors that came up more often than others – like climate change. For 32-year-old Sarah, the environmental toll of bringing new life into the world weighs too heavily on her mind: “We live in an over-populated society barely coping with the effects of climate change – a reality that we walked ourselves into. I couldn’t, in good faith, bring new life into the world knowing that I’d be leaving that child to clean up the mess I made long after I’m gone.”
There were women who acknowledged they felt a tension between the pull of motherhood and their desire to live an autonomous life. Samantha, who turns 28 this year, shared her internal struggle: “I’m currently in a loving relationship with all the makings for the classic family starter-kit: a good home, two stable jobs, a support network, and friends with children of their own. And, yes, sometimes my heart aches for motherhood, but I’m also acutely aware of all the sacrifices I would have to make – personally, professionally and financially. Should I really bring a child into a world that is already overpopulated by children who don’t have parents to care for them or a home to live in? It’s not like there’s a shortage of children needing families. I worry about the reasoning – my own reasoning. Is it enough to simply want a child to call your own, or should you only have one if you really need one? And how do you define “need”?”
On the other end of the spectrum, for women like Whitney the decision could not have been more clear: “I’ve never imagined myself having children and that has been a constant in my life. I find it incredibly patronising when people meet my response with sympathetic looks and comments like “Things will change.” or “Those hormones will kick in.” As if there’s an assumption that women aren’t in control of their bodies. It’s prehistoric and part of a much wider rhetoric that still requires us to challenge the collective hidden bias and underlying expectations that continue to box women in.” Those expectations were front and centre for TTC reader Amelia who grew up in a deeply religious household in Texas – a state where being a mother is taught and expected of all women: “I spent most of my childhood feeling at odds with those around me in terms of how I viewed the world and my future. I’ve always worried that if I were to have children I would pass down the anxiety and depression that I’ve had my entire life, and that my father suffers with also. The thought of passing my mental health challenges down to a child I love terrifies me. It feels like a selfish act.”
That word “selfish” came up a lot. Either readers felt selfish for not wanting children, or they were told they were selfish for being able to procreate and yet choosing not to. 31-year-old reader Sheryl, a research fellow in biomedical science, has been called selfish more times than she can count: “I spent the better part of my twenties studying towards a PhD. It is well-known that females in my field loose out when they go on maternity leave (arguably more so than in other professions) and find it harder to play catch-up in terms of research publications upon their return. Put simply, I’ve worked too hard to face even more adversity in my career. It’s hard to hold the viewpoints I do; I’ve been dumped by guys because I chose to put my career ahead of starting a family, but ultimately I know that a child would play second fiddle, and that’s a feeling I cannot shake.”
I found it particularly fascinating to hear all the ways in which a person’s childhood had so intrinsically affected the way they reconcile motherhood. 24-year-old Serris grew up in a very big, traditional, pacific island family, “…so I’ve always been around lots of children – my siblings as well as cousins and extended family – and yet it was still never something I was attracted to. I don’t feel that pull. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some pressure from my family; there’s always a relative asking when you’re going to get pregnant, but for me, I’m pretty excited about my future as “the cool aunty” who travels the world and buys the best presents for my nieces and nephews.” Amanda’s parents separated when she was 14 and her childhood has coloured the way she thinks about her future, “I had to step up and be a parental figure to my two younger siblings from the time I was 14; something that came with a huge amount of responsibility and pressure. I was cooking dinner, doing the washing – basically running the household. And I don’t want to do that again. Having spent almost half my life looking after others, I feel that my life is finally my own.” For Kellie, who has been in a same-sex relationship for the past four years, she’s conscious that even if she does change her mind about motherhood, her options are limited: “Dating a woman has, in itself, impacted my feelings around having a child mostly because it’s not as easy as saying “Maybe we’ll have kids down the track.” My girlfriend and I would need to be seriously committed to explore adoption and sperm donors.”
Regret weighs heavily on the minds of readers. What if I change my mind and suddenly it’s too late. What if I miss my window. What if I have choose to have my own child and then regret not adopting. The operative word here is: choice. All of this is about choices. And, sometimes, choice makes our lives harder because there is the fear of making the wrong one.
But, regardless, to choose is a privilege afforded to very few, as 25-year-old reader Kristen reminded me: “Being able to make the decision to have children or not is a privilege in my eyes – we are of the fortunate percentage, globally, who have access to first world reproductive healthcare and contraception. Similarly, we have access to fertility support for those who need it. The fact that we can choose to not have children is an incredibly lucky position to be in.”