I acknowledge the horrible timing what with Baby’s birthday right around the corner, but this topic has come up a few times in podcasts that I’ve been listening to and so I wanted to put in my two cents in regards to “parenting ambivalence”. Some of what I’m about to say may sound familiar if you’ve read my very first post, but I’d like to delve deeper.
Okay, as far as I see it, there are two ends of the parenting spectrum. There are women who absolutely, positively want to have children and knew it from the first time they played house as a little girl and who start trying to conceive as soon as their situation allows (or maybe even earlier). Then on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are women who don’t want to have children at all and enjoy their childless lifestyle with not one sliver of regret. When I was a pre-teen, I started out on the first end of the spectrum and couldn’t understand why anyone would choose a childless lifestyle. I mean, who doesn’t want a cute little baby to take care of?!? My mother, to this day, reminds me that I was dead set on having 10 kids (four biological and six adopted). It wasn’t until I was a young teenager and had to babysit four siblings (approximate ages: 18 months, 2 years, 5 years and 6 years) that I realized just how much work a large family would be and I should probably re-evaluate my long-term family plans.
By the time I entered college, I had lowered my number and had decided that I only wanted four kids (three biological and one adopted), but it didn’t take long before I added a caveat: “I’d like 1-4 kids, depending on how much childbirth hurts”. Through those four years, I had thought I’d start trying to conceive shortly after graduation so that the husband and I would both be in our 20s when we had our first kid; I had romanticized the idea of being young, spry parents. However when graduation came, I realized I was not ready to take the plunge into parenthood and put those plans on the back burner. And this is where the parenting ambivalence began for me.
After graduation, the husband and I moved to DC and bought a condo right in the downtown area, centrally located to everything. We could walk to bars, restaurants, museums (yes, I listed bars first, for a reason!). We could metro to the airport and walk to the train station, which meant weekend trips could easily happen last minute. It was a great time. We went out when we wanted, we traveled when and where we wanted. The only person we had to answer to was ourselves and each other. Every so often the topic of parenting came up and although we had both began the marriage assuming that children would happen quickly for us, we started swaying toward the other end of the spectrum. We had grown to like our childless lifestyle and began to think about what our life would be like should we choose to stay that way. We’d have more money, for one. Prenatal care and delivery of a baby is super expensive (even if you have good insurance, you still end up paying a lot by way of increased monthly premiums). Then you have costs after the baby arrives: diapers, formula, childcare, and more can easily approach $12,000 in the first year alone! If we didn’t have kids, we could save that $12,000+ and go on a swanky vacation, or use it toward a house down payment or a new car. The more we thought about it, the more attractive growing up and old together without children became.
But there was something that kept nagging me: regret. What if I turned 60, well past my child-bearing years, and realized I had missed out on something. Having had several family members pass away in rapid succession in the preceding years, I found myself imagining my own last days. Who would be there? If I outlived my husband, would I live out my years alone in an assisted living facility paid for by remaining IRA funds? Morbid, I know, but valid. By not having children, I was opting out of seeing my child get married, have his or her own children and, eventually, take care of me in my old age. That was a scary idea for me.
Then there was curiosity. What exactly did it feel like to have a real, living being inside of your body, kicking at you from the inside? What did labor and delivery feel like? What would a child with half of my genetic make-up look like? What would it feel like to have a person love you unconditionally no matter what (at least until the teenage angst kicked in)? And parenting! I used to look at parents in the supermarket or other public places and think, “If that was my child, I would do XYZ differently” or “my child would never do that”. Even before Baby was a sparkle in her parents eyes, I had a “formula” of parenting techniques that would result in a well-adjusted, moderately successful, contributing member of society. So I was curious as to whether or not that formula would stand up to real-world testing.
When I turned 25, I experienced the lesser-known quarter-life crisis and worried about where my life was headed. There were a lot of decisions that would need to be made in the not-so-distant future so I needed to determine what path I wanted to take. Did I want to continue developing my career in a position that paid well but had no benefits, purchase a larger, not-so-child-friendly home, and work on paying down my exorbitant student loan debt so that the husband and I could live the swanky life. OR. Did I want to start pinching pennies, move to a place we could grow a family in, and find a new job that would support me in my decision to have children (i.e. a job that had maternity pay)? The husband had similar forks in the road regarding his career paths.
At 25, I felt like I was being pressured into making a choice, when I wasn’t quite ready to commit either way. In an ideal world where we all lived happy and healthy to 150, I would have stayed childless until 60 and then, after I’d paid off all my debt, owned a 3000 sq. ft. home and traveled the majority of the world, I would settle down and have three children and have no regrets. But this wasn’t an ideal world and I had a finite amount of time to decide.
In the end, I obviously chose parenthood as I was much more comfortable knowing than not knowing. But my views on the topic have still stayed the same: I’m still ambivalent about it. I mean, yes, of course, I love my daughter. But I do miss my life before I had her, when I could sleep in every morning, spend four hours playing video games, or could just leave the house at the drop of a hat without worrying about whether I needed a babysitter or not. I find that I identify more with women who are childless by choice then those who want 2-3 kids. If you read my post on miscarriage, you may think that these two posts (this paragraph, especially) are contradicting of each other, but I don’t think so. Before I had Baby the curiosity I had mentioned above was still there. So with each miscarriage, I was left with an even stronger desire to see what the grass on the other side looked like. Now I’m on that other side, I’m not curious anymore. So if I were talking to my 25-year-old self, I could tell her with absolute certainty that I would find happiness with whatever choice I made. Both lifestyles have their pros and cons, and each is very different from the other but neither is better. I’m grateful to know Baby as an individual and to have the opportunity to help her in her journey to adulthood, but being a mother in and of itself isn’t what gives my life meaning. Parenthood doesn’t define me. And that’s what parenting ambivalence is all about, for me at least: You can see your life both ways and feel comfortable with whatever the outcome.
At this point, I could give my advice as to whether people who are experiencing parenting ambivalence should have kids or not (this podcast suggests you abstain from conceiving), but that’s a personal decision that I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. If you are on the fence and can’t decide, all you can do is keep thinking about it and discussing it with your partner.
I would like to end with this though: Admitting parenting ambivalence, especially as a mother, or admitting the desire to not have children can be a controversial topic. Mothers who, like me, don’t paint parenthood as the best life experience on earth tend to be called bad mothers or selfish individuals. And you don’t have to have had children to experience this. I mean, just look at how this one woman was treated when she publicly decided to abstain from parenthood. So it’s no wonder that women who aren’t sold on parenthood can feel ashamed or embarrassed about their decisions. It’s my hope that by sharing my story and experiences, women (and men) who are ambivalent can find more confidence in their decision, or lack therof.
And that’s my two cents.