Choosing to Parent

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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?
Ė Marcie

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
b) "Childless," meaning they have no children by default or circumstance, but don't accept or like their status
c) Somewhere in between, often struggling with strong, mixed feelings as the clock ticks

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:

bulletWhat are the biggest reasons you want to become a parent?
bulletWhat are the biggest reasons you hesitate to become a parent?
bulletHave you spent much time around children? What was the experience like?
bulletAre you willing to make the needed financial, social and emotional compromises?
bulletWhat might you miss most if you became a parent?
bulletWhat might you miss most if you do not become a parent?

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


Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness Laurie Lisle
Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood Camille Peri & Kate Moses,
The Eight Seasons of Parenthood  Barbara Unell & Jerry Wyckoff
Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness Elaine May
Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women Without Children Terri Casey
Wanting a Child Jill Bialoski & Helen Schulman
Bearing Life: Womenís Writings on Childlessness Rochelle Ratner
The Chosen Lives of Childfree Men Patricia Lunneborg
Infertility and Involuntary Childlessness: Helping Couples Cope Beth Cooper-Hilbert
Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again Jean & Michael Carter
The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless Elinor Burkett
Will You Be a Mother? Women Who Choose to Say No Jane Bartlett
Unwomanly Conduct: The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness Carolyn Morrell
Childless By Choice: A Feminist Anthology Irene Reti
The Worth of a Child Thomas Murray
Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity Mardy Ireland
The Girlfriends' Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood Vicki Iovine
Itís Not the Glass Ceiling, Itís the Sticky Floor: And Other Things Our Daughters Should Know About Marriage, Work and Motherhood Karen Engberg
Sleeping Through the Night...And Other Lies Sandi Shelton


Other Ask Dr. Dan Columns:

Coping with Controllers Self-centered People Live Your Dreams Get Out of Your Way 'Uh-Oh' Birthdays Balanced Parenting Choosing to Parent

Back to directory of archived "Ask Dr. Dan" columns

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This column is designed for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for psychotherapy or a visit to a mental health professional. If you experience abnormal anxiety, depression, or serious emotional or situational difficulties, please seek professional help immediately

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If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

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