We talk a lot about babies, but what about making the choice not to have children? Would you consider that? Here, five readers reveal their fascinating reasons...
Even asking the question "Why don't you want kids?" makes a statement. "People are still expected to provide reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them," wrote Christine Overall in the New York Times. "It's assumed that if individuals do not have children it is because they are infertile, too selfish or have just not yet gotten around to it. In any case, they owe their interlocutor an explanation. On the other hand, no one says to the proud parents of a newborn, Why did you choose to have that child? What are your reasons? The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought or justification."
Funnily enough, my mom's husband—who, as a retired psychology professor, is unfailingly philosophical—turned to me one morning at breakfast when I was pregnant with Toby. "Why do you want to have a baby?" he asked me. "It's just like having a pet." After thinking about it, I laughed; he was kind of right. In the past, families may have needed kids to help work on the farm and that kind of thing, but for us there was no real reason to have a baby. I just wanted children in such a deep way that it felt separate from rational analysis.
But what if you don't feel that way? Many people don't—in fact, nearly one-in-five American women now ends her childbearing years without giving birth, up from one-in-ten in the 1970s, according to a 2010 Pew study. Of course some of those women may have wanted children and couldn't have them for whatever reason; but others simply chose not to.
Here, five wonderful readers spoke to me on the phone about why they've decided—definitively—not to have kids...
Jean, 31, Portland, married
“I’d be the biggest basketcase mother.”
I get stressed out easily. When I was little, I was the kid who freaked out when my brother went to high school because I thought he’d start doing drugs! I get really anxious about people I care about. When I got older, I realized that the fewer people I get really attached to, the less anxious I get. I’ve loved my husband since I was 14, and when we finally got married I felt like I'd won the lottery. He’s the first person I’ve been truly attached to other than my parents and brother, and that brought on a whole new level of anxiousness. I realized how much that would get amplified if I had kids. I’d be an emotional wreck. If my kids went to school and got teased, I wouldn’t be able to handle that. I think about the teenage years; oh my gosh, I would probably die. I want to spare myself that.
It’s about knowing yourself well enough to know what is best and what you can handle. Right now we have a cat, and it’s perfect. In couple years, when we slow down, we get a dog. And they won’t turn on me and tell me they hate me when they’re 12.
When my friends had kids, I felt that emotional hormonal rush like, “Oh, I need to have a baby.” But the logical part of my brain was like, “No, you shouldn’t.” Still, I feel that twinge. It’s really hard because you do have to be honest. I love kids. I do want them. But I’ve chosen to not have them. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. I had to look at myself honestly and think, oh my gosh, I would be the biggest basketcase mom. You want to make the decision from your good-choice-making brain, not the I-need-to-be-a-mama side of your brain.
It’s weird because if you say you don’t want to have kids, everyone assumes you’re selfish or not nurturing or not compassionate. For me, that that’s not the case. I still have that strong desire to nurture something. I tell my husband, I still need something to take care of. I need to get some chickens.
Christina, 38, NYC, in a relationship
“I didn’t want to end up like my mom.”
I didn't have the happiest childhood with two parents who loved and respected each other, so the idea of having a husband and children was never one of my life goals. The women who fascinated me the most were the ones who never married and never had kids and got to travel everywhere and live life on their own terms. My mother said repeatedly that she ruined her life by getting married and having a child (thanks, Mom!).
As a single person, my mother worked for Pan Am and loved it. But then she got married and moved across the country. And my dad wasn’t exactly Husband Of The Year. So all of a sudden she’s stuck with an alcoholic philandering husband and a kid in the California suburbs. She would have been so much happier as a single career woman, versus a stay-at-home mom in the ’burbs.
If I’d grown up in a family where being married was the best thing that ever happened to them and having a child was the second best thing, I might feel differently. But I don’t know…I always knew I didn’t want to end up like my mom. The whole image of having a husband and a kid isn’t always rosy.
The women I looked up to were the ones who didn’t have to do the family thing. They were so well-traveled and glamorous. And they seemed happy even if other people looked down on them. People in my family would say, “Oh, there’s Aunt Connie, she’s the spinster.” But she seemed perfectly happy to me!
Alexandra, 30, NYC, married
“I want to have a grown-up life.”
Growing up, you figure that you’re going to have kids. But one day in my early twenties, it kind of dawned on me: Who says I have to? What if I didn’t? I never had that overwhelming desire to have kids, like lots of women seem to.
When I met my husband, we fell madly in love, and we both admitted early on that we didn’t want children. People say you’ll regret it at Thanksgiving when you’re 50 and you’re not surrounded by family, but to be honest, I’d rather be sitting at Thanksgiving with my husband.
I like the idea of grown-up activities. It’s not like I have a specific hobby, I just really like the grown-up life. If I’m not going to recitals, that’s ok with me. I want to be married, not married with a child.
Still, I’m one of those people who gaze at every single baby photo on Facebook. It’s not that I hate children; that’s just not the life that I want. When my first really good friend had her baby, I cried out of sheer joy for her. But it actually strengthened my feelings about not wanting to have children because I felt overwhelming pride for her but no jealousy.
I read all these stories, like Moms Unite! And I kind of want to be like, Women Unite! I feel like I’m part of a minority. Why can’t we all help each other and be nice to each other? You don’t always have to identify yourself with a group. You can just be a person.
Muriel, 26, Atlanta, in a relationship
“I have different priorities.”
Deciding not to have kids is tough to talk about. It’s like being a teenager and feeling self-conscious about your body. When you say, I don’t want kids, people look at you in a certain way. You think, oh my god, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I should have just smiled and nodded. You feel that same awkward teenage feeling, like my legs are too long, I’m too tall, I have acne.
I was on the fence for a while. My mom wanted grandkids, so I went back and forth… procreation, human beings, evolution...I thought about all of that. But in the end, it wasn’t right for me.
For some people, parenthood is their calling. I respect that. Whereas for other people, it’s not in their personality. Some people are meant to be artists, some people are meant to work in finance, some people are meant to be parents. And some people aren’t. You don’t want someone who is bad with numbers dealing with your IRA.
People say, what do you mean you don’t want to have kids? This is the pinnacle of your existence! This is what we’re here for! And I’m like, I’m sorry, it isn’t. My friends are like, when are you getting married and having kids? That’s when you’re an adult. But I’m like, no, I’m a homeowner, I have a good job, I travel, I have a car…I’m a grown-up!
Remember that Atlantic article about having it all? She defined "having it all" as having a job, marriage and kids. But in the end we’re all different people. Our “all” is not the same for everyone. My “all” might be, I want to travel and visit the entire continent of Asia. For you, it might be you want to have three kids, one boy and two girls. For another person, it might mean working for the Peace Corps for the next 15 years. We’re all different people, we all have different dreams, so it’s kind of sad that we’re all placed under the same umbrella.
I don’t have that feeling that I want to have babies. I have other priorities in my life. I have friends where even though their kid just pooped all over them, they’re like, this is the greatest joy I’ve ever had. But I’m not that person.
I first told my mom on my birthday, because I figured then she couldn’t yell at me. She was taken aback and sad at first, but really supportive once she heard my reasons.
If you decide not to have kids, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. We all have free will; we should all be able to make our decisions regardless of other people’s beliefs. You have the right to do whatever you need to do to chase your dreams and love your life.
Cat, 30, Brooklyn, married
“I never had that maternal calling.”
My entire life, I knew that having kids wasn’t for me. I really think it comes down to human biology. Most people have an urge to create a copy of themselves. But I never felt that way.
It’s such a major life change. It’s not something that anyone should enter into flippantly. If you met a base jumper, they wouldn’t be like, come on, base jump! What do you have to lose? And having a kid, it’s at least 25 years of life, most of your money, potentially affects your body and relationship…for people who harass you about it, it doesn’t make sense.
When my brother had a kid, I was like, what will I do? I honestly don’t enjoy the company of children 90% of the time. But fortunately I had some really great aunts in my family, so I was like, I want to be a good aunt. Partially because my brother has really different political views, so I wanted to imprint mine on them as much as possible!
One day, my mom was like, are you sure? Are you really serious? I was like, Mom, I’ve thought about this a lot. Now she steps up and says, Catherine’s going to be the very best aunt.
When I met my husband, we talked about it early on. He feels the exact same way that I do. However, I’ve seen women who say no, no, no, but then they reach their thirties and they’re frantic to have a kid. So I told my husband that if my opinions ever started changing, we should have some talk-down speeches ready for me. And when my husband wanted to be a high-school teacher, I imagined him getting soft, so we made up some talk-down speeches for him, too, just in case! But we haven’t needed them.
More than anything, we’ve never felt a calling. There are three positions people should probably feel a calling for: any sort of religious leadership, teaching or childrearing. People shouldn’t do it because of expectations or because their parents did it. They’re such influential roles; no one should take those positions lightly.
Another reason to choose not to have children is financial. My friend Corrie took financial concerns into account when deciding whether or not to have a baby, and the New York Times just published an essay about opting out of parenthood with finances in mind.
What about you? Where do you fall on the scale? Were you born to be a mother? Do you definitely not want kids? Or somewhere in between? I'd love to hear your thoughts...and thank you to these wonderful women for bravely and honestly sharing their insights!
P.S. My friend Corrie's fascinating essay about trying to decide whether or not to have a baby.
(Top photo of Spencer Tracy with Katharine Hepburn, who never had kids)