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‘I’ve felt daunted by the decades that lie ahead, if I do indeed remain childfree: how will I generate meaning and momentum, entirely on my own steam?’ Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian
‘I’ve felt daunted by the decades that lie ahead, if I do indeed remain childfree: how will I generate meaning and momentum, entirely on my own steam?’ Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian

People say you’ll know – but will I regret not having children?

I’m scared of picking the wrong path. But we owe it to our future selves to truly consider what’s behind the question

I’m about to meet a friend for lunch when an ad catches my eye. It features a woman about my age, wearing a blazer and, like me, clutching a takeaway coffee cup. “Live today. Try later,” it reads. “You do you.”

The ad is for “free egg-freezing events”, limited spaces available. Like a mass harvesting, I think. The image stays with me as I alight the train.

Then I feel a sudden cramp, so painful that I momentarily lose my breath: my period’s coming.

A reminder that another one is gone – unfertilised, not frozen. Limited eggs available.

As a thirtysomething woman, the question of children – to have, or not to have – is one I’ll carry until, one way or the other, the train leaves the station for good.

I can count on one hand those friends who have always been certain that they want children. Now, they have them. The rest seem mired in uncertainty, waiting for the opportunity to arise – or pass. Even decisions don’t seem to readily stick.

All my life I’ve felt fairly sure that I don’t want children of my own. This is convenient, given that I’m 32 and single.

And yet, without my bringing it up, the question seems to keep rebounding on me, like signposts along a highway warning of the last chance to turn: am I sure?

It’s hard to feel sure of anything these days, let alone whether to take on the responsibility for another human life. 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record, and the future looks increasingly apocalyptic. My social media timelines are full of grief for the children dying in Gaza. Closer to home, the costs of housing, heating, childcare – everything – is rising. People have started prepping for doomsday.

Meanwhile, time keeps passing and, with it, my life. I’ve never forgotten being told by a fertility doctor I once interviewed for a story: “滨f you think about it, women have to get almost all their life events into a period of about 15 years: career, having children.”

I’ve felt keen resentment that men are granted the luxury of a longer window in which to decide, and left to do so on their own terms. And I’ve felt daunted by the decades that lie ahead, if I do indeed remain childfree: how will I generate meaning and momentum, entirely on my own steam?

The friend I’m meeting for lunch has a one-year-old. Over a glass of wine, she says she recently went six weeks almost entirely without sleep, while working full-time. She seems haunted by the memory. “滨 wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she says.

At the same time, she lights up while talking about her little boy. “滨t’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

The dismal daily news alerts, the baby boom within my circle, the steady release of my finite eggs: all of it seems to force the issue, reopening the question even when I’ve felt content to mark it closed.

“滨 think the first thing to do is validate your own ambivalence, or indecision, or indifference – whatever it is,” says Gina Rushton, from her darkening bedroom in Sydney. I’d spoken to her over Zoom that same morning to talk through her own mixed feelings about motherhood.

Rushton was 27 and, like me, erring on the side of not having children when, in 2019, she was rushed into emergency surgery with abdominal pain. A doctor informed Rushton that she had endometriosis, and her left ovary was “dead”. The diagnosis complicated her chances of conceiving, and prompted her to reconsider. Without it, Rushton tells me, “滨 probably would have put the decision off for as long as possible.”

As a journalist, her response was to report the subject out. Rushton spent a year writing her book The Parenthood Dilemma, which came out this year, unpicking the associated threads of fertility, climate anxiety and unequal parenting. Her goal, Rushton writes, was to understand how people decided to become parents “without living in permanent denial or perpetual dread”.

Living a good life in a complex world

“Because we’re socialized to believe that ‘you just know’ if you want kids or not, validating the idea that it is a question is really helpful,” she says. “From there, I think it becomes easier to sift through what your actual hopes and fears are.”

I had earlier sought counsel from that all-knowing modern-day oracle: Google. Search for “should I have a child”, and one name crops up repeatedly. For the past 30 years, the marriage and family therapist Ann Davidman has been running support groups for individuals who feel stuck in their indecision.

Her “parenthood clarity courses” help participants to figure out step by step what they actually want (Davidman’s emphasis) – rather than what they think they should want, or fear. Each program lasts three months. “滨 don’t think there’s any quicker way,” Davidman says, when I reach her over Zoom.

Davidman’s starting point is also to treat parenthood as a question, “not an assumption”. She sees it as an individual and deeply personal decision, to be interrogated outside of the question of a relationship. “滨 don’t treat it as a couples issue,” she says. “Really, 90% is about really trying to uncover what it is that you want for you, from within – not in reaction to childhood, or society, or something that doesn’t ever get challenged.”

Straight couples often join Davidman’s motherhood and fatherhood groups simultaneously but separately; same-sex couples are split up into different cohorts so that they can reach their own conclusions. Sometimes, Davidman says, partners end up realizing that they do want children – but not in that relationship.

Davidman’s method works by boosting self-knowledge, making our concerns and desires known. But what about those factors outside our control, like housing, childcare and the future of the planet?

A recent study, by researchers at University College London, found that stronger concerns about climate breakdown were associated with a desire for fewer children, or none at all.

woman carrying a baby under an umbrella during a heatwave
A recent study found that stronger concerns about climate breakdown were associated with a desire for fewer children, or none at all. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures/Getty Images

But, Davidman suggests, that might be a bit of a smokescreen. “Because the climate crisis is so obvious, it’s very easy to hang your hat on it,” she says. “You can talk about that till the cows come home; it doesn’t change the level of fear.”

What’s important is interrogating, and understanding your fear – because otherwise, Davidman says, “we are not thinking clearly”.

This process can help to clarify what you personally need before you can decide to become a parent, such as a financial safety net or a co-parent committed to sharing the load.

That was Davidman’s experience, decades ago. “滨 wanted children, but over the years, the conditions that I needed and wanted never came into place, and so at some point, I actually made the decision to get off that track and live childfree,” she says.

Clarity about a decision allows people to live without regret, Davidman explains. People fear picking the wrong path – but, if you’re clear on your reasons, “and don’t just sleepwalk into it”, it’s easier to travel, says Davidman. Deciding to have children, or not, doesn’t inoculate you against regret, she points out. “滨t’s still up to you to figure out how to have a fulfilling life.”

I’m reminded of a conversation I had, aged 19, with an older friend who was painfully aware of her biological clock.

She was unsure whether she wanted children, but felt such pressure that she would raise the question on first dates with men she’d just met.

Thirteen years later, I vividly remember thinking that I would only ever be open to children if I found myself in a suitable relationship; I would never seek out a partner specifically to go halves.

It was no passing thought, or idle judgment; it seems to spring from somewhere stable and essential deep within me. I’ve never questioned it since.

I think we’ve all had the odd realization like that, or are capable of them: thoughts that ring clear and true like a bell. The trouble, often, is hearing them above the noise.

At the end of her two-year investigation into parenthood, Rushton realized she’d been wrong. She thought she didn’t want to have a child because the “world is burning”. Now, she says, “滨 actually think that was kind of a cop-out.”

After all, we agree, the climate crisis hasn’t stopped us from taking international flights, or eating meat – or any of the other things that we really want to do.

Because of the dearth of ways of thinking and talking about choosing to remain childfree, it’s still more socially acceptable to invoke an apocalyptic future than it is to say that you value your independence, or getting eight hours of sleep every night.

“滨’m fucking terrified about the next 50 summers I have in Australia,” says Rushton. But, like her other doubts about parenting, “most of these questions aren’t resolved whether you have a kid or not.

“Every mum I know is anxious about climate change, or having issues with their partner, or thinking about gender roles. It’s less about ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and more about ‘What do I need to feel content in my decisions in a precarious future?’”

Rushton remains undecided about whether she’s going to have children – but she has more clarity about the question. Writing her book forced her to confront her ambient dread and uncover her “self-delusion”, she says.

shadows on wall of mother playing with her daughter
‘Only you can know what’s right for you,’ says Ann Davidman. Photograph: Oleg Breslavtsev/Getty Images

Readers have told her that it’s done the same for them, presenting them with prompts to reflect on alone or with their partner.

Davidman has also condensed her teachings into a book (written with Denise L Carlini, Davidman’s former partner, with whom she devised the course). But, she warns, it should be a personal process. “Only you can know what’s right for you,” she says. “That’s why interviewing other people about how they came to their decision isn’t really all that helpful.”

It can even add to your confusion. For all the increased awareness of family planning, fertility and the childfree movements, they are still not easy subjects to talk about, Davidman says.

Earlier in her career, the typical person who came to see her was in their late 30s or early 40s; they’re generally now in their early 30s, or sometimes even their 20s. “What hasn’t changed is that, to this day, people will say to me: ‘I thought I was the only one who didn’t know’.”

Whatever we decide, we’ll probably always wonder about the path not taken. Even people who are contentedly childfree will likely feel pangs of “What if?”, Rushton points out.

“We also all know mums who some days just want to be out with their friends having martinis, and can’t – that doesn’t mean they don’t love their children, or regret them.”

We can’t know the future, but we can honor the question – particularly when, amid creeping reproductive injustice, not everyone has the choice. “Some people think it’s neurotic and self-indulgent to dither over it this much,” says Rushton. “But I actually think it’s a deeply compassionate, altruistic thing to give this much thought to what kind of parent you’d be, and whether that’s the best thing for the child.”

For Davidman, what’s missing from the conversation is tolerance for ambivalence – “to be able to not know, without judgment”. And for those who do feel sure that they want a family, or don’t, it doesn’t hurt to inquire more deeply within.

“There’s never a risk in challenging certainty,” says Davidman, “because if something’s true, it will remain true.”

That’s why, as I enter into the final leg of my fertile years, I feel content to hold the question lightly – to remain open to those moments of clarity, and trust them.

“What everyone’s really trying to stave off here is regret,” says Rushton – but it’s hard to imagine yourself regretting a decision that’s considered, informed and feels true to you.

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