There are books and consultants to help you figure out if you want a child, writes Hannah Seligson.
For most of her 30s, Katie Wilson was pretty certain she did not want children. But at 36, there was a looming sense that her fertility window was closing and a wave of anxiety set in about her and her husband’s once-firm decision to remain child free.
“I was having panic attacks, and it was this horrible uncertainty to go through,” Wilson, now 40, said in a phone interview. To gain some peace of mind, she didn’t seek out traditional one-on-one counseling but instead traveled from Washington, DC, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend a one-day workshop called the Baby Decision, facilitated by Merle Bombardieri, a clinical social worker in Lexington, Massachusetts, and the author of a book on the subject.
The introspection and exercises led Wilson back to her original decision to not have a child. “It stopped the swirling, but it made me realize it’s not psychologically unhealthy or rare to have second thoughts about a decision.”
As more women delay having children while paid leave and affordable child care options remain elusive, the default expectation for committed couples to have children has given way to a new stage of waffling about whether to procreate. In this era of declining fertility rates coupled with the rise of nontraditional families, it’s no longer so straightforward for most anyone whether an individual or a couple looking in the mirror sees a parent.
“The pendulum is swinging toward more focus on this gray area,” said Bombardieri, whose practice for the last 30 years has focused primarily on those who are uncertain about having children. “There used to be a lot of either/or, either parenthood is wonderful or it’s terrible.” But now there are many in the messy middle, caught between the poles of making one of life’s most important, and irreversible, decisions.
This period of adulthood, usually in one’s 30s, when the childbearing decision becomes unavoidable, is a kind of existential rite of passage for many urban professionals. Not surprisingly, a support network of specialist coaches and therapists has sprung up to meet the needs of this cohort.
There are motherhood clarity mentors, which is what Ann Davidman, one of the pioneers in the field, calls herself. And while society has come a long way in accepting those who are child free, those who counsel these undecideds say there is a tremendous amount of shame people feel for not knowing. “Society doesn’t like ambivalence,” Davidman said.
The zeitgeist barometer of parenting existentialism, however, indicates an uptick. There are more cultural ruminations on being unsure, like a Wiki How on the subject (How to Decide Whether Or Not to Have a Baby). And in Sheila Heti’s recently published book “Motherhood,” the protagonist wrestles throughout with the titular topic.
“It was something running in the background of my life,” Heti, 41, wrote in an email. The book captures the angst and flip-flopping with passages like: “How can we know how it will go for us, us ambivalent women of thirty-seven. On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them.” (Heti does not have children.)
And it’s not only women who are grappling. Mike Birbiglia’s latest sold-out show, “The New One,” is an 80-minute autobiographical monologue that tackles his indecision about becoming a father. Along the way he explores all the reasons to avoid progeny and the ways in which a child will ruin his life. (Spoiler alert: Birbiglia is now a father.)
But for every comedian and writer who has emerged from baby purgatory and lived to tell the tale, an anguished soul (or 10) remains, searching for an answer. Davidman, who has a practice in Oakland, California, and runs online groups, describes her clientele as ranging across the wavering spectrum.
The term “waverers” captures those who are pregnant but not excited about becoming a parent, those who are 50 percent certain they want a child, and those who are 99 percent sure in their decision. Davidman said the key to clarity is not focusing on external factors, such as being scared of pregnancy or childbirth, concerned about money, or family and societal pressures.
In fact, during the four-month course, participants are not allowed to discuss the topic with their families or significant others.
“You need permission not to deal with other people’s fears and projections and to figure about what drives you internally,” said Davidman, who, along with Denise L Carlini, wrote “Motherhood — Is It for Me? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clarity,” which includes guided visualization and an exercise of writing a letter to your unborn child.
For many, however, age, health and resources are often central to the issue of whether to become a parent. Can, then, or should, these life circumstances be suspended during the deliberations?
“I was really wrapped up in this as a financial decision,” said Abigail Donahue, 36. She was spurred to sign up for Davidman’s class because when she was in her early 30s she started to resent all the social pressure to have a family as she was enjoying her carefree routine: traveling, studying sleeping and going to dinner whenever she wanted.
“I was caught in a loop of ‘it’s too expensive so I probably shouldn’t have a baby,’” said Donahue, who is the mother of a 10-week-old. “But in that loop I was missing the fact that I did want a baby.” Other participants who were fearing the financial strain, she says, decided not to become parents.
Some questions, however, are unanswerable. Such as: Will I regret my decision to have kids? Bombardieri tells patients to think about which choice they will regret the least. “There is no such thing as 100 percent certainty,” she said.
Others wonder if they’re prepared for the ultimate roll-of-the-dice decision that could yield a sick or disabled child. Bombardieri takes it on empirically. “I think statistics can be reassuring if people are terrified, and looking at the probabilities of those outcomes.”
And there isn’t always a big aha moment, but rather a slow process of clarity that comes months, sometimes years, later. Sarah Trent, 36, still wasn’t sure what she wanted at the end of the monthslong one-on-one counseling sessions she had via Skype with Davidman.
Nevertheless Trent emerged with a clearer sense of what she wanted for herself versus what society was expecting of her. The choice eventually did come into focus: Trent, who lives in Rwanda, is pregnant with her first child and due in December.
Then there are those who change their minds and end up tapping into their intuition. Donahue started out leaning toward not having a baby. Now, she said, “when I’m feeling especially sleep deprived and overwhelmed, it feels good to remember how deliberately I chose this.