“I don’t think I would… No. Sometimes, I do.”
Olivia,* was silent for a long moment. It hung between us, this silence.
Then, finally, “If I could wave a magic wand and make this all go away, I would.”
Were she talking about kidney stones, or credit card debt, we would all nod along, reassured by our shared suffering.
But for Olivia, mother of two, the “this” was her choice to have children.
For many, the choice to have children isn’t really a choice at all. It’s simply what one does. You get the job, you get the house, you pop out some babies and you call it a day. Making a conscious decision isn’t part of that equation.
If childbearing is part of an unthinking rite of passage, there is no psychic tension to be had. But for many who live in bustling urban centers, where joy and passion and fulfillment come in many forms, the decision to parent is not an easy one to make.
Then, there is the growing percentage of us who are wracked with ambivalence.
According to Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, anxiety and depression result from having too many choices at our disposal.
In his book, he writes, “Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.” (p. 74)
How do we grapple with those decisions that will forever change the course of our lives? I became curious about those who make a choice about childbearing and, in some ways, come to regret this choice.
In a society in which indecision is almost unbearable, what happens to those who struggle with ambivalence?
I decided to find out.
When I asked Dori why she agreed to speak with me about this topic, she said, “I regretted it almost as soon as I said it.”
Dori – mid 30’s, recently divorced – does not know what she wants.
She had always found herself unsure about the kids question. Then, over the course of her 8-year marriage to a man who wanted kids, she agreed. Six months into their process of trying to conceive, her husband declared that he wanted a divorce. Dori was not only devastated by the loss of her marriage, but she was now losing the sense of resolution she had come to about having a child.
During her marriage, Dori’s husband would become scared when her response to parenthood was, “I’m not sure.”
So, she buckled down, moving from a place of being unresolved to making a conscious decision about starting a family. Then, suddenly, she was single and divorced. For Dori, this experience was “jarring.”
She found herself, once again, on the fence.
“There are not many places where I can talk about being ambivalent,” Dori told me. “So many narratives don’t allow for that.”
Dori is smart, decisive and determined. Yet, in this realm, she simply cannot make up her mind. She describes the tension that arises with friends who cannot tolerate her ambivalence, who try to push her to come down on one side or another.
“It’s a dreadful place to be. There will be mourning no matter which decision I make.”
The relief that Dori felt when she finally made the decision to have a child resonates with a lot of ambivalently childfree people. In our culture, as long as a woman is in her childbearing years, we still assume she has yet to make a choice. Even if her decision is “no,” well…it’s not really no, until fertility is no longer an option.
So goes the narrative.
If you do not have a child, but the opportunity is still available, then the question remains. It is an agonizing purgatory that has only one escape – throw caution to the wind and try to conceive. Once this decision has been made, says the narrative, relief will follow.
Only, it won’t.
At least, it didn’t for Olivia, who is now in her early forties.
“It’s a bit like suicidal ideation,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes I just want to make it all go away.”
Olivia knew that she didn’t want to have children. And then, she became pregnant in her late twenties. She arrived at the abortion clinic and her resolve wavered. “I looked around and saw all of these pregnant teenagers and they were miserable. I was twenty-eight. I was not a child. I said to myself, I can do this.”
So, she decided to go through with it.
“I remember my sister called and said she would support me. I had this fantasy of what having a kid would be like. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful. We can take it to the beach! It will be so sweet and idyllic.’”
“That was a lie.”
I spoke of my fantasy that having a child makes the tension go away, as you no longer have to hold the question.
“No,” Olivia corrected me. “The tension just changes. There are endless choices and no right decisions. The tension is still there.”
There are days when she is okay. She loves her kids. She is delighted and surprised by the things they say. “They’re hilarious. They fucking kill me.”
And then there are the other days. “If you have kids, you can’t just undo it. You can’t kill them or abandon them or give them away… Well, most people won’t do that. There is just this desperate feeling. How to get out of this pain?”
Daily, Olivia wrestles with envy about the road not taken. “My having children answered that question for my sister. Once I had kids, she was relieved of the tension. She gets all the benefits, but she doesn’t have to really deal with the work.”
“The loss,” she says trailing off. “The loss is always there.”
Jackie, too, speaks poignantly of her loss. “I feel that, as an adult, that’s the one thing you’re supposed to do. I worry that I’ll feel incomplete. That I’ll always feel incomplete.”
Jackie is in her late forties. She made the decision not to have children due to a hereditary illness that she did not want to pass on.
“I wouldn’t change my decision, but I do feel sad about it.”
Jackie, too, brought into question my ideas that relief would inevitably come once a decision is made.
Well past her childbearing years and fulfilled in her professional and creative endeavors, Jackie still struggles with the loss. “The love you feel for your baby is inexplicable. I feel like I missed out on that.”
Like Dori, Jackie also feels the burden of social expectation. She speaks about the feelings of isolation that come with the decision not to have kids. All of her peers now have children and their lives revolve around family activities. Though Jackie plays an active role in the family activities of her closest friends, she continues to struggle with feelings of exclusion.
“I feel blamed. I’m defective. Like I did something wrong.”
There is little empathy for the woman who is childfree by choice. “They have this fantasy that I have this swinging, sex-filled, life. I’m idealizing them, and they’re idealizing me.”
Jackie spoke plainly of her own fantasies that work could fill the space of an unoccupied womb. “I try to soothe myself, to distract myself. I say that my business is my baby… It’s not true. It’s a semantic game that’s not very satisfying.”
She, like Dori, spoke of the friends who cannot tolerate her ongoing ambivalence. Jackie speaks of the unwanted assertions that she can “always adopt.”
“That’s not the point,” she says, frustration cracking her voice. “It doesn’t speak to my feelings.”
So, where does she land?
“I’m both content with my decision and uncomfortable with my decision.”
I was surprised to get a call from a lady friend, saying that her husband wanted to weigh in on this topic. Before this call, I had only heard from women.
Ben was sincere, direct and brutally honest about his experience. He always knew that he did not want to have kids. At the age of forty, he found that a woman that he had known for a little over a month was pregnant with his child.
Being the psychoanalytic therapist that I am, I pushed him on this. I wondered about the possibility of an unconscious motivation to resolve the pressure that comes with choosing not to have children by “accidentally” getting someone pregnant.
He chuckled quietly, “Of course, if it is my unconscious, there’s no way of knowing.”
But he was steadfast, “I had so many things that I wanted to do in my life. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. I was really content.”
Now, in his early fifties, with a two teenagers at home, Ben feels trapped. A heart-wrenching trap that is slowly sucking away the life he imagined for himself. The first child was an accident. The second, a choice.
“It’s hard to find my way through. Sometimes I feel hopeless and helpless.”
Ben wrestles with the daily interactions that come with parenthood. “How to get them to eat, that’s my job. Every day, multiple times a day. It’s like living with roommates that have no consideration. They fight. They hurt each other in ways that are long-lasting. The failures they experience, the bullying… There are fewer days that are good than bad.”
I know Ben. Ben is a good father. He is kind, disciplined, engaged. Yet for him, it feels like a failure. For someone who did not desperately want kids, whose entire life’s question is not answered via passion for his children, the loss is great.
“I wonder if, what people say, if it’s truly possible to accomplish great things in life and be a parent. You can’t do both. I’m not a good parent and I’m not good at anything else I do anymore. I am a mediocre version of myself.”
There are many who cite their kids as the one great joy in their lives. But what about those of us who have many joys, are fulfilled in many ways? How do we make the choice to toss in a complete unknown?
Both Olivia and Ben spoke of the narrative that they were given about what parenthood would be. For Olivia, it was epitomized by the idyllic fantasy of sunning on the beach with her toddler in tow. Ben, too, feels confused.
“That’s the version they present,” he says, speaking of the families he sees, the Facebook stories. “But you don’t really know the real version.”
I ask Ben about the fantasy that making a choice – whatever it is – removes the tension that comes with indecision. He, too, disabused me of this notion.
“I have come to terms with it, accepted it…” Ben began, but then he went on. “Some of the difficulties make it hard to stay in terms of it. I think to myself, ‘holy shit, how much worse do things get?’ I think we’ve bottomed out and then a new bottom comes.”
Sometimes Ben travels, not for work, simply for pleasure. In these times, he recognizes a sliver of his old self, his pre-father self. “When I go away, I see that that part of me is still there. It’s not lost…. One day things will turn back.”
Ben and his partner would joke, “Why don’t we just get in the car and drive away.”
And then, one day, he felt the pull for real – the desire to leave it all, his wife, his children – and he knew he needed help.
Every single participant spoke to me about the role their personal therapy played in tolerating the tension – the loss, the ambivalence, the mourning. Therapy was the one place where they could talk openly about their dilemma without being given advice or suggestions, where they could simply BE with their ambiguity.
When I asked Jackie why she wanted to be interviewed for this story, she said, “Others don’t want to talk about my regrets. I’m so happy that someone asked, made it okay to talk about something like this.”
Dori had a similar response, “There are not many places where I can talk about being ambivalent. It’s a hard topic.”
Today, it is unpopular to end an article with, “I don’t know.”
In a culture that pulls for absolutes – politics, fundamentalist religion, gender, sex – those who lie somewhere in the middle are scrutinized, attacked, blamed. We are suspicious of those who say, “I don’t know.”
When I started this piece, I thought I was asking, “How does one decide?”
Now, that I have come to the end, I see it wasn’t about that at all.
It seems I wanted to understand something about regret. I wanted to understand how one lives with the choices she makes. For every “yes” we murmur, we are – in so doing – annihilating the person we could have become.
The pressure to fix – get over, move on, resolve – is immense. Many of us pretend to be fully content with our choices – big and small – because it feels too painful to hold in mind the road not traveled. There is an illusion that if we don’t talk about our feelings of loss, they do not exist.
In 2008, upon decriminalizing child abandonment in Nebraska, a surprising thing happened. Parents began dropping off their kids – not their infants, but children of all ages, entire families even.
It is agonizing to leave the book open, to allow ourselves to imagine, “What if?” But, if, perchance a law is miswritten, we may be forced to confront what lies within, to confront the reality that even though we’ve gone through the motions of decision, perhaps, somewhere in there, we have yet to decide.
Despite her initial reluctance, Dori was glad to have spoken to me. “It opened a larger space for the middle – both ways appeal to me.”
Perhaps it’s not about making up our minds, but merely about having room to speak about our experiences, openly and without judgment – to say aloud, “I wish…” or “I regret…” or “If only…,” while finding a way to live with our choices.
*all names changed to protect confidentiality