A good friend of mine recently told me that after many years of deliberating, she and her husband had finally decided — at 39 — not to have children. She went on to explain that it wasn’t worth the changes they’d have to make to their lives — where they lived, what they did for work, what felt possible. My reaction was simple, immediate and excited: “Congratulations,” I told her.
Of course whether this couple has children makes no difference to my life, but as a 38-year-old single woman, I know the weight of this choice. I’ve grappled with it myself for many years and am still wading through the murky, exhausting in-between. I can only imagine the freedom that comes once the choice is finally made, one way or the other.
“Wow,” my friend replied. “No one has ever responded that way.” Then there was a pause. “Thank you,” she said.
Having a child is one of the most celebrated milestones in our culture (with marriage trailing closely behind). I’m not diminishing the significance of bringing another human life into the world, but there’s so much that is worthy of celebration and the milestones we choose to celebrate signal the paths we value.
I’ve been asking myself nearly every day for the past five years if I want children and it still feels impossible to know. Because the question, despite the absurd nonchalance with which it’s often asked, is so rarely a binary “yes” or “no” but a constant weighing of trade-offs. This complexity only started to sink in for me in my mid-30s, when the question shifted from a hypothetical thought exercise to an immediate consideration of which actions had to be taken and which sacrifices would need to be made. In the hazy “before” of my 20s and early 30s, I simply assumed I’d have kids because there was no tangible cost to thinking this way.
But soon 31 turned into 33 which turned into 35 which turned into now. And the realities of the decision had to be considered. Was I ready to go back to a full-time corporate job and put my writing career on hold to cover expenses? Was I willing to spend every night enduring — more often than not — grueling online dates since I don’t have the desire, let alone the means, to raise a child on my own? Would I have to settle for a partnership of practicality given the timeline? Does my desire for kids outweigh my desire for flexibility and free time that I’ve worked so hard to secure?
The reality is, I would want kids if I had a loving and supportive partner or a ton of money. But I can’t deny that for now, my answer to all the above questions is no.
Most of my friends have now had their first child and many are onto their second. I’m not just happy but eager to celebrate them. And yet, for a long time, I couldn’t help but feel that my parent-friends were progressing along in the “right” way, the way worthy of celebration, while I was invariably doing something wrong, or at least not worthy of celebration.
I’ve gotten over this shame, or at least when I feel it creeping in, I can recognize that it has very little to do with my own beliefs and everything to do with expectations imposed on me. My 30s have been full of milestones I’m deeply proud of, even if they don’t fit neatly into the milestones we choose to celebrate publicly. It’s taken many years for me to extricate my own value system — around kids and much more — from our culture’s, which is still incessantly reinforcing a certain version of a successful life.
Today, motherhood is often wrapped in the language of empowerment and pretty Instagram photos, and is still disproportionately valued as the crowning achievement for women. Though having a child is significant for men, the celebrations and sacrifices are notably less pronounced than those surrounding women. The continued glorification of motherhood has the potential to flood childless women with shame but it isn’t great for mothers, either. When we choose to value motherhood above all else, the selfhoods of all women are compromised. And no one wins in a society that continues to hold a woman’s potential to bear children as her highest contribution.
The celebration of motherhood is many things but in some, very real sense it is the celebration to sacrifice elements of the self for someone else. Interestingly, there are similar threads to the celebration of marriage, which is also disproportionately significant for women. Our cultural norms are deeply woven with a rewards system based on women’s sacrifice, selflessness and the withholding of personal pleasure. We are only just starting to appreciate women’s choice to love their bodies in all sizes, to be single in the long term, to not live in the explicit service of someone else.
To choose not to sacrifice oneself for another person does not mean one is not driven to make a positive impact in the world. In many circumstances (including mine), the inclination to not have kids is motivated by a desire to have an impact in another way, through art or science or social change. Not that these are mutually exclusive, but these fields often pay less and for some, it is a real trade-off to consider.
There is also nothing wrong with a woman simply wanting to enjoy her life, finding meaning in her own pleasure. Men do it all the time without anyone so much as batting an eye. A man who is not explicitly in service of others is just living his life, while a woman doing the same is viewed as deviant.
Choosing not to have children is not simply choosing the absence of something, it is choosing the presence of something else. This other version of a life — one without children — looks very different for each person who chooses it, which makes it harder to brand as a specific milestone. Celebrating the decision not to have kids is the celebration of freedom and possibility, the terrifying, exhilarating potential of creating your own version of a life.
The choice of whether to have children is life-changing and major, no matter the outcome. When the decision is made, and rarely is it made lightly, we should celebrate whatever it is someone chooses, rather than place a value judgment on which path is more worthy.
Both paths are adventures, both have their costs and rewards, both are risky and exciting. The celebration is in deciding — the act of identifying one’s priorities and crafting a life with intention — not in the particulars of the decision.