To Be, or Not to Be, a Parent
by Dan Neuharth, PhD
Dr. Dan: I'm a 38-year-old single professional woman. Until recently, I had always assumed I would experience childbirth and motherhood. But I like my life as it is and, although a suitable romantic prospect is currently lacking, if Mr. Right showed up tomorrow I'd like to spend at least five years enjoying couplehood before baby makes three. I know adoption is always an option, but I worry that if I let my biological window close, I'll regret it. The pressure from my parents and relatives is intense. They say things like, "You'd make such a great parent," "Who will take care of you when you are old?" and "Think of the people who want babies and can't have them." How can I find peace with my choice?
Dear Marcie: You are not alone. One in five American women age 35 and older do not have children, the largest percentage of women in history. Individuals and couples without children tend to view themselves in one of three ways:
a) "Childfree," meaning they have chosen their status
If you are childfree, you know all too well that your choice may spark disapproval from others who deem you "selfish," "immature," or "strange." You may feel pressure from your parents (who perhaps had children without questioning it and assume that you will do so as well) or relatives who want a niece, nephew or grandchild. Well-meaning friends who are thrilled at being parents may not understand how you can forego the experience.
Choosing not to parent is as courageous as choosing to parent. Many adults don't want to sacrifice quality of life or make the compromises necessary for parenting. Just because you can have a child doesn't mean you should; life is about thoughtfully prioritizing among our choices. When parents come to resent parenting, the emotional costs to parent and child can be staggering.
When people say you'd "make a great parent," take it to mean that you have the qualities of a good mentor, guide or leader. You can use those qualities to enhance the lives of people of all ages. As for the specter of loneliness in old age, keep in mind that millions of elderly parents have children who rarely call or visit. Most elderly rely on whatever social community or extended "family" they have built, children or not.
When people say, "What about the couples who want children but can't have them?" they are hitting your guilt button. While we can have great compassion for adults who ache to be parents and cannot, each person must live her or his own life.
Being child-free is hardly a ticket to misery. A 1997 Arizona State University study found that marital happiness for couples who have children tends to drop starting with the birth of a first child and does not recover until the last child leaves home. The study found that childfree couples suffer no such drop in marital satisfaction.
If it becomes tiresome to hear the question "Why don't you have children?" experiment with comebacks ranging from the lighthearted ("I don't need one, my husband already acts like a child") to the flip ("My, what an incredibly rude question").
Your job is to make a choice that best honors you. Ask yourself:
Questions like these can help you clarify your values, fears, and hopes. There is an excellent online questionnaire on this topic.
Many people who have concerns prior to parenting nonetheless find greater rewards and fewer drawbacks than they'd anticipated. These parents will tell you, "I never knew I could be this happy." They have a point: life-altering decisions are often made in the presence of trepidation and mixed feelings. Good decisions can be made without putting to rest every single concern in advance.
At the same time, you owe it to yourself to explore your hesitations. Your doubts may carry messages that need to be heard. For example, if you hesitate to have children because you're afraid of repeating abusive behavior your parents may have used or because you don't feel ready, explore further. These feelings may protect you from acting prematurely, or they may lead you to put extra effort into being a better parent. If you think you "should" have children to please your parents or to ward off loneliness in old age, go deeper. You may be romanticizing parenthood. Fears, shoulds, and unrealistic notions can lead to poor choices. Your potential children deserve better.
If you're childless more by circumstance than by choice, either of two paths may bring you more happiness: a) Make changing the circumstances a top priority (i.e.: find new ways to meet an appropriate mate; brainstorm on how to alter your living or financial situation; address any medical conditions); or, b) Make childfree status your choice. Just as it's more empowering to be a parent by design rather than by mistake, it's more empowering to be childless by choice rather than by default.
Ask yourself if your circumstances serve as excuses to avoid making a difficult choice. For example, if you lack an "ideal" mate, remember that no mate is perfect. Obtaining intimacy often requires compromise and giving up ironclad "pre-conditions."
With time, you're likely to make peace with any path you take. Humans are adaptive. By 2010, an estimated 31 million married couples won't have children. As a result, "family" will likely be redefined to include non-related members as well as blood ties. Such a redefinition may foster richer connections between the elderly and the young, related or not - just as in multigenerational households prominent in past decades.
Resources on this Topic
If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World