Need to know
I’m afraid of losing my freedom and my sleep.
People say it’s life’s greatest experience – what if I miss out on that?
I don’t want to hold my partner back from something important to them.
I’m not sure if I would be a good enough parent.
These are just a few of the sorts of concerns I hear from people when they reach out to me for help with deciding whether or not to have children. I immediately let them know that they’re not alone in their worries or uncertainty.
To many people, it seems as if you should just know whether you want to become a parent. It’s true that some people will say they’ve always known what they wanted. But I have 30 years of experience counselling individuals who have found that they cannot decide one way or the other, and who often feel tormented by their stuckness. Many have already witnessed their friends or others make this big decision. They just want to be able to decide and move forward with their lives, and they don’t understand why they can’t.
If you are struggling with not knowing, I promise you: there is nothing wrong with you. Unfortunately, there are few places to explore this kind of uncertainty without judgment. People are typically conditioned to think about parenthood as a given, not as a question. It’s likely that you were never encouraged to ask yourself: Is parenthood for me? You probably weren’t told that it’s a very personal decision that only you can make. I’ve discovered that some people don’t even mention their indecision to friends for fear of being ridiculed or told that they should just go ahead with it. To this day, when someone reaches out to me, they say: I’m so relieved to find out that I’m not the only one who didn’t know. Since people commonly believe that the answer should just come to them, they often feel confused and worried when it doesn’t.
Perhaps you thought you’d know by now whether you want to become a parent, but you’re still just not sure. Maybe you are planning to marry someone, and the answer to the parenthood question is critical for them. Or your parents keep reminding you that you’re not getting any younger and that they want grandchildren. Situations like these can create a lot of pressure to figure out what you want. It’s possible that you feel compelled to decide soon because you’re worried about your fertility. Or maybe you have time to decide but just want to make a conscientious choice.
Whatever the case may be for you, you deserve to receive the message that parenthood is neither destiny nor a debate – and there is no single right choice. There is only the right choice for you. I’ve written this Guide to help you gain the clarity you’ll need to arrive at that choice.
To decide, you must first explore what you desire
If you feel stuck in indecision, it’s likely that you are merging two concepts together that need to be kept separate. These concepts are desire and decision. When you simultaneously think about what you want and what you are going to do about it, the result is often mental gridlock.
Desire here means what you know, deep in your heart, that you want for yourself. It might be experienced as a strong feeling, or it might feel quiet and subtle, but it comes from within you. It is not a reaction to something outside of you. After exploring their inner desire, people sometimes find that it mostly points them either toward parenthood or toward a childfree life. Sometimes people discover that their desire is neutral on the question of parenthood. This does not mean they don’t know what they want; it means that they can see a good life either way.
Navigating a decision is much easier when you’ve clarified what you really want and why. Once you have done so, some possible outcomes might be:
- You realise that you do want to be a parent (ie, it’s not just that you think you should), and you decide that you will plan to have a child.
- You determine that you actually don’t want to have children, so you decide not to.
- You want to have a child but decide that you will do so only under certain conditions.
- You realise you wanted to have become a parent by now, but you decide that it’s not what is best for you today. Both can be true.
- You desire a childfree life but decide to become a parent for personal reasons. Perhaps it’s what your partner wants, for example, and you decide – deliberately, and without resentment – that you are on board. Conversely, you might wish to become a parent but ultimately decide not to (eg, because your partner doesn’t want to, and the relationship is more important to you than parenthood).
I once worked with a woman who felt that motherhood wasn’t for her because she didn’t want to replicate how her mother did it. It was painful for her to witness her mother sacrifice so much of her life, knowing that her mother wanted to do other things for herself. This woman did not want to sacrifice her own life for a child. But, after she faced what she had internalised about her mother’s choices, she realised that she could be a different kind of mother if she chose motherhood. She ultimately decided to become a parent, and to be the best parent she could be while also taking good care of herself.
Another person I worked with loved the idea of family, and the idea of having a child appealed to him. However, he realised that the reality of parenthood was not something that he was interested in being responsible for. Despite his desire to have a child, his decision was ‘no’. He and his partner (who supported either decision) were relieved and happy to move on with plans that they had put on hold until a decision was made. If he ever encounters a happy family with children and experiences some longing, he will be able to recall why he made the decision he did. The sense of loss, I suspect, would be short-lived.
With this level of self-awareness, you will be less likely to say to yourself, down the road: What was I thinking? You will already know what you were thinking. If you take the time to pause and ponder the question of whether to become a parent or not, the result is likely to make you a better parent if you choose parenthood, or to enrich your life if you choose a childfree path.
What follows is a roadmap to help you move closer to the truth of your desire so that you can make a decision that’s right for you. I recommend that you take your time and complete the exercises in the order they are listed. The suggestions I’ll provide might seem counterintuitive, but they have given many people a reprieve from the anxiety that they’ve carried for so long, and they can help you find a way forward, too.
What to do
Start by deciding that you don’t know
Your first step is to accept that you don’t yet know whether you want to become a parent, and you don’t deserve any blame for that.
Decide to not know on purpose. By deciding that you don’t know what you want, you put yourself in the most open position to receive new information. This will help to stop you from going back and forth between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Even if you have an inkling of what you want, it’s best to keep it at bay for a period of time. What I tell people is that, if something is true, it’ll remain true. There is no risk in temporarily putting aside a truth to gain more information.
You want to avoid looking for final answers as you engage in the reflective exercises that follow. Commit to a moratorium on discussing the topic with anyone – even your partner – throughout this time. This might seem counterintuitive, especially to those who share everything with their partner or to those who tend to process their thoughts in conversation with others. It’s necessary, though, because it’s easy to get derailed from your own process by someone else’s fears or reactions. Even their enthusiasm can derail you. The answers you seek are internal.
Those who initially struggle with this recommendation quickly discover its helpfulness. It helps to quiet the noise outside of you so that you can connect with yourself. It doesn’t take long to feel the relief of having permission to engage in your own private, uncensored process.
List your externals and fears
Externals are all the things that keep pulling at you to think about them constantly. They will be different for each person. Here are some examples:
- Age: you might be worried about time running out for having a baby; or, you might not want a 10-year-old when you’re 45 or 50.
- Relationship status: you might be afraid to rock the boat in a relationship that is going well, or you might be single and not want to be a single parent.
- Career: you may need a certain number of years before you advance to the position you want.
- Finances: you might want more savings before embarking upon raising children.
- Health concerns: you might have a condition that could flare up if you get pregnant; or, you may have a history of illness in your family and are concerned about passing it along.
- You might have global concerns on your mind as well, such as the climate crisis and overpopulation.
These are just some of many possible externals. List the ones that come to mind for you.
Then list any other fears and beliefs related to the question of parenthood that you’ve been perseverating over. For example, fear of regret (due to having children or not having children), fear of losing freedom, fear of pregnancy, the belief that one can have a rich life only if they have children, etc.
Once you have your list, place it in a box or envelope, and put it away and out of sight. No matter how significant these items are to you, they are irrelevant for now. They might be relevant when it comes time to decide, but right now you are focused on discovering your desire. Entertaining them prematurely only keeps anxiety present and clarity of desire at bay.
Write freely about your life, yourself, and your parents
Now that you’ve created some internal spaciousness, you are ready for some exercises that will help bring unconsidered beliefs and assumptions to the foreground. The prompts that follow invite you to engage in some stream-of-consciousness writing – meaning, just write what comes to mind.
If you are new to this kind of writing, the best thing to do is set a timer for five minutes, and write. If after that time passes you want to write more, then set it again for five minutes. Write for as long as you wish. Please do not simply take long walks and think about these prompts: if you only think about them, your thoughts will tend to loop around. Writing on paper or typing on your computer will allow for new thoughts to come forward. Even speaking into a recorder is better than just thinking to yourself.
There is no need to think about how you’ll answer these prompts ahead of time. Your writing does not even need to make clear sense. Trust that your mind is on your side and will present you with information that needs your attention. Respond to as many of the prompts as you can, over whatever period of time feels comfortable for you:
- Finish this statement by writing what comes to mind:
I always thought that by now my life would look like…
- Write a letter from your adult self to your four-year-old self.
Dear [your name], You are precious, and this is what I want you to know about who you are…
- What did you enjoy about being young? What was challenging about being young?
- Who had the greatest positive influence on you while growing up? Why?
- Write a letter to your parent(s), who will never see this letter. It’s for your benefit and healing.
Dear Parent(s), I know you did the best you could in raising me. This is what I appreciate about all that you did, and this is what was hard for me…
- Then, imagine that your parent is responding to what you said, from a place of open-heartedness and love. This is not what you imagine your parent could write but more like a fantasy parent responding to you.
Dear [your name], Thank you for telling me all that you did…
- What verbal and non-verbal messages have you received about becoming a parent?
People often say to me, after finishing these exercises: ‘I didn’t expect to write that.’ This is the beauty of stream-of-consciousness writing. The idea is that a piece of information will likely come forward that needs your attention. For example, you might realise you’re harbouring more anger about your parents than you thought, and it’s getting in the way of your thinking clearly about whether or not you want to become a parent. Or you might discover other relevant feelings that you want to clear up.
Once you’ve completed the writing exercises above – either after finishing each prompt, or after finishing all the prompts – there are some reflective questions you can ask yourself to help you more carefully consider what you’ve written. First, read aloud what you wrote (or listen, if you made a recording of your response). Then, ask:
- What do I feel as I read/hear this?
- Do any words or phrases feel more charged than others?
- Have I ever felt this way before? If so, how far back in my life did I feel this way?
- Does anything that I’ve said surprise me?
- Is there anything here that I might want to discuss (at a later date) with a psychotherapist, counsellor, coach, mentor, spiritual advisor or supportive friend?
Pretend that you have made a decision
Spend one to three days pretending you’ve decided to live a childfree life. The more you can trick yourself into thinking as if this decision is true and final, the more you’ll get out of the exercise. You don’t have to pretend to like the decision, you just need to pretend to have made it. Spending up to several days with this choice will allow feelings, thoughts and reactions to come forward that are unlikely to if you just spend a few minutes thinking about one possibility and then another.
Notice your reactions to the imagined decision during this time, and write about them. For example, you might feel relief one day, only to feel distraught another day. You might feel a sense of panic because you don’t know what else you’ll do if you don’t have a child. Do not draw any conclusions based on your reactions. Treat them as information that needs to percolate.
Then, write a letter to the baby that you’ll never meet:
Dear Baby, I’ve decided to live a childfree life, and I wanted you to know a few things about my decision… [here, just write whatever comes to mind, whether it seems to make sense or not]
After that period of one to three days has passed, spend one to three days pretending you’ve decided to become a parent. Track your feelings and thoughts as you did in the first scenario.
Then, write a letter to the baby that you will meet:
Dear Baby, I’ve decided to become a parent, which means you and I will meet each other very soon. I want to tell you a few things about my decision…
Once these exercises are complete, it can be helpful to revisit what you’ve written in both scenarios, asking yourself the reflective questions from the end of the previous section (starting with ‘What do I feel as I read/hear this?’)
After you’ve reflected on what you wrote, give yourself some time to let your reactions settle. Then ask yourself out loud, maybe even looking in a mirror: do you want to be a parent? Do you want to raise a child? Breathe and sit with your first reactions. Then write about where you’re at and how it feels to have discovered new information. Do you feel closer to knowing your desire?
Ask, what would it take to say ‘yes’?
Let a day or two pass. Come back to choosing to not know for sure what your desire or your decision is. Pay attention to all the feelings that have surfaced after doing all the writing. Then write out your answers to these two final prompts:
- What would it take to say ‘yes’ to a childfree life, and feel good about it?
- What would it take to say ‘yes’ to parenthood, and feel good about it?
Hopefully, at this point, you’ll have discovered enough clarity to know what your next step might be. You might be ready to entertain a decision. For some people, there is a natural evolution that occurs, and they know what they’re going to do and what needs to be in place to move forward. Some are ready to explore all their options with their partner to see if they are both on the same page. You might need more time to let your feelings and thoughts percolate before you decide. You may find that you still don’t know what you want, but you have a better sense of why you don’t know. Some people realise that there is something they need to do before they can fully know their desire, such as repairing a relationship with a parent, or starting to heal from not feeling worthy of love.
After you feel that you’ve gotten what you can from the exercises, you might want to revisit your externals and fears, the ones you listed and put away earlier. This is optional. The most important thing to know about revisiting them is that you should know why you are doing it. Your intention may be, for instance, to see if you feel differently – as in, less reactive – about them now that you have explored your desire further. Some of them might not have the charge they had previously. They might still be relevant to your decision but feel less scary. And some just won’t feel all that relevant any more.
Key points – How to know if you want to be a parent
- It’s OK to be undecided about whether to become a parent. While it might seem as if you should just know, many people grapple with this very personal question.
- To decide, you must first explore what you desire. Investigating what you really want – your intrinsic desire, not a reaction to something outside you – can make a decision easier to navigate.
- Start by deciding that you don’t know. By accepting that you’re not sure if you want to become a parent or not, you put yourself in a better position to receive new insights.
- List your externals and fears. They might include concerns about age, finances or relationship status, fear of regret, or other worries you’ve fixated on. Temporarily set aside this list.
- Write freely about your life, yourself, and your parents. Writing exercises on these themes can help bring relevant, sometimes surprising information to your attention.
- Pretend that you have made a decision. Spend a day or more thinking as if you have decided one way – and then pretend the opposite. Observe your reactions in each case.
- Ask, what would it take to say ‘yes’? Write down what you would need to feel good about becoming a parent, and the same if you stayed childfree.
How to talk with a partner about your stance on parenthood
If you currently have a romantic partner, then once you feel clearer about your own desire related to whether to become a parent, you’ll want to share what you have learned. You and your partner might see eye to eye and, together, know what to do next. But what if that is not the case?
Don’t make the mistake of simply trying to influence your partner by telling them they would be a great parent or, conversely, emphasising how great your life is now without children. Before you begin to entertain a decision with your partner, each of you needs to be standing firm in knowing yourself and understanding what you want. From this place, you are likely to be able to see more options and be more open to hearing what your partner wants. Once you have started or completed the exercises in the What to Do section above, I recommend that you ask your partner to do the same.
Then, set aside time so that you can have a deliberate discussion. You want to begin with each of you being able to articulate what you want and why, without interruption. Go out of your way to listen and understand your partner from their point of view without making them feel ‘wrong’. Agree ahead of time that a decision is not what’s being discussed. At this point, you are only spending time sharing your desires with each other. You might want to set a timer so that you each have 10 minutes to talk without interruptions.
After you’ve listened to what your partner has said, you want to be able to repeat back to them what they want and why they want it, so that they can say ‘yes, that’s accurate’, or so they can clarify. Feeling seen by one another during this conversation is critical. For some people, it’s more important to feel seen than to get exactly what they want. The key is to listen and not fall into the trap of trying to convince them to take your position.
For many people, once they feel their partner understands why they want what they want, and truly feel seen, there is a softening toward additional options. I worked with a couple where one person wanted eight children. This was a dream he’d had his entire life. His partner never wanted to be pregnant and did not want to be a parent to a baby, but was open to being a parent. You might shake your head and think there was no way for them to come together – but after each person explored what their desire was really about, they actually came up with something that worked for both of them. He realised that what mattered most to him was being a father, not having his own biological children or having a particular number of children. Their story ended happily with them foster-adopting two teen brothers who were refugees.
Not all stories end in harmony, and I’ve helped couples have conscious breakups over this issue. For some, there is no coming together: each person wants something different for their life and doesn’t want to stand in the way of what their partner wants. Even though there is love between them, they end up agreeing that the relationship needs to end, and they say goodbye. They grieve the loss and move on.
Ultimately, the goal isn’t for others to feel good about your decision to become a parent or to live childfree. The goal is for you to feel good about your decision. You want your decision to come from an internal place of knowing, not as a reaction to forces outside of you. Only you can know what’s true for you.
Links & books
If you want more hands-on help, then check out my website, where you’ll see options for classes for women and men. The Motherhood Clarity Course and Fatherhood Clarity Course truly help people feel less isolated.
If you feel disciplined enough to work through a 12-week self-help book, then check out the book Motherhood – Is It for Me? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clarity (2016), which I co-authored with Denise L Carlini. This link will also provide you with the 13 guided visualisations from the book that you can listen to for free. If you prefer a Spanish-language version, our book was recently translated by Edith Esquivel Eguiguren.
If you find that our book isn’t a good fit, then see if Merle Bombardieri’s book The Baby Decision (2nd edition, 2016) works better for you. Bombardieri, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, has been helping people with this decision for more than 30 years.
If you feel you’re leaning toward a childfree life and want to feel more connected to a community of women, check out the website The NotMom.
The WeAreChildFree website is another wonderful community that embraces individuals and couples who live childfree lives no matter how they got there.
If you find yourself living a childless or childfree life by chance or circumstance and not by choice, you’ll find a welcoming community at Gateway Women.
If you want to understand the history and tenets of pronatalism – a set of beliefs and practices that encourage people to have children – I recommend Laura Carroll’s book, The Baby Matrix (2012). She does an excellent job of explaining why such beliefs are so ingrained in us.
Often, people discover that one of the reasons they can’t decide is that they have unhealthy boundaries due to patterns of codependency. I recommend the book The New Codependency (2009) by Melody Beattie to all who want to understand what healthy boundaries are and how to achieve them.