How Can You Tell If You Actually Want Kids?
Our art was always different.
I grew up as the complete inversion of (and still somehow complement to) my cousin, spending many happy childhood afternoons coloring at her dining room table. While she drew pictures of her future family, I drew myself in front of a big red barn surrounded by animals or exploring stair-stepped city skylines dotted with windows. I’d glance at her Crayola masterpiece and quickly sketch in a partner and a couple kids on my own art, for good measure. Because we’re supposed to want a family, right? At least that’s what I thought.
When I got married, my partner and I discussed that we’d have kids “in five years.” Now, over six years later, I sound like a broken record. I’m instead finding joy in my hobbies, my friendships, my work, and of course—my rabbits. “In five years,” we still assure friends and family. But I’m not so sure anymore (though my aging body is telling me, well you better get sure real quick!).
Then there is the research about parental vs non-parental happiness, the taboos of parental regret, and the sustainability question. How in the actual world are you supposed to know whether or not you want children? It’s a privileged question to ask, to be sure, but a massively complex one.
It’s not all charts and peer-reviewed research, either. It’s also an emotional, spiritual, and financial decision—all of the most important -als. A family can look any which way under so many circumstances. It can include single parenthood, economic challenges, an infertility journey, unexpected guardianship, or loss. One decision results in a package deal—you are facilitating another human being’s existence in this world while also opening yourself up to numerous unknowns. And that includes the fact that deciding to have kids (or not) doesn’t always mean you’ll get the result you’d hoped for.
Maybe, I think, the fact that I read and think about this often is a sign that I should do it. Being a parent does sound magical. When I meet my friend’s kids, my heart bursts: There’s a mini version of one of my favorite people being raised by my favorite people! To watch so many of my friends become parents is one of the most inspiring experiences of my adult life.
But other times, I believe it’s that very hesitancy that’s telling me “nope, newp, not for you.” Is it fear or something else? Perhaps a perceived knowledge of what lies ahead? When I’m feeling most cynical, I wonder if the two aren’t so different.
But the scariest idea of all, I think, is that you just don’t know what you don’t know.
“I often wonder what the world would look like if anyone who said ‘I don’t know’ would just allow themself to accept that ‘I don’t know’ isn’t an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ and sit with any discomfort that arises,” says Dr. Stephanie Olarte, a licensed child and family psychologist in Maryland who is child-free by choice. It was a decision she made after being brutally honest with herself, and she invites others to do the same.
For her, the question was whether or not she could accept a reality in which her career was not most important in her life. Olarte works with children, teens, and their parents as they navigate mental health, but she didn’t feel the need to have children of her own, too. “I never wanted the love I have for my job to take a back seat. […] My career revolves around children and teens […] AND, I don’t feel any pull or yearning to have kids in my home. Both can be true no matter how confusing that is for other people.“
For Olarte, prioritizing a child-free life also meant considering the financial cost of child-rearing, as well as being open to every need a child may be born with or develop over time. Becoming a parent cannot be undone, Olarte notes—which is one of my greatest trepidations of all. But not having children has a little more wiggle room (even if parenting looks more like mentorship, fostering, or other guardianship). “If I get to my forties and decide, “damn…I wish I had kids,” I can find a way to make it happen,” she says. “I can probably even do this in my fifties. My current life circumstances are pretty reversible…”
For others though, there is deep joy and fulfillment in that irreversible decision, especially when it’s on your own timeline.
“Deciding to have kids or not is the most significant decision in one’s life,” says John Carnesecchi, a licensed clinical social worker and founder and Clinical Director of a private mental health practice in New York City. And, he notes, it’s a beautiful one. Cue the screeching brakes on my train of thought. It would be nice to leave a little bit of what I’ve learned in the mind of a fledgling person.
“Parenthood is a personal growth opportunity to pass along strong family values and teach the next generation,” he says. Carnesecchi, who has a 12-year-old daughter with his husband, offers a handful of helpful questions for making the decision that can serve as practical guided journal prompts.
Look at your goals, careers, and other endeavors, he encourages. “Will it fulfill [your] emotional desires and needs?” he asks. Maybe having children will bring you this emotional fulfillment, and maybe it won’t.
For Carnesecchi and his husband, the answer to whether or not to start a family was an enthusiastic yes. And while he admits they haven’t experienced the fear of missing out (another one of my worries), he notes that it’s normal. “It is a part of the transition to this new phase of your life. Letting go of the old life and reincarnating a new life.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows.
“Manage your expectations and prepare for the unknown,” Carnesecchi says. “The minute your baby is born, everything changes […] This phase of your life is overwhelming with various feelings of anxiety and being scared. It is ok and absolutely normal, especially being in uncharted territory.”
Carnesecchi advises possible-parents-to-be to practice feeling and accepting these complex emotions, while also practicing mindful self-care and breathing exercises as you navigate this phase. Even after welcoming a child into your home, it’s common to feel disrupted or to experience postpartum depression.
“The key to parenthood is not to lose yourself,” he says. Because despite all the change, there is still this truth: “You still are you. You still can enjoy the things you loved pre-children. Parenting is about balance.”
Ultimately, both Olarte and Carnesecci agree—therapy is a tool that can help you wade through the ambiguity. Because if you’re asking deeply whether or not you should have kids, like I am, it means you might be ready to face the answer with sincerity and grace.
“I wish more adults would embark on this journey with intention,” says Olarte in closing. “There is an overwhelming amount of pressure to conform and it saddens me to see people make such a big decision without fully examining what it means to have children. If nothing else, I would encourage people to compassionately and sincerely ask themselves why.”
If you’re hoping to read a bold acceptance of declaring myself child-free, or a shocking revelation of a newly-discovered pregnancy, this isn’t the story you were looking for. (Or maybe, your hopes for me tell you a little more about your hopes for yourself!) The kids question isn’t one I can answer for you—and it isn’t one you can answer for me. It’s a question even Cheryl Strayed finds encompasses some degree of loss on either end of the answer. Although, for the record, if you do have words of wisdom, please share in the comments.
Instead, I’ll leave you with the reminder that you’re not the only one staring at the blank page in front of you, wondering whether or not to sketch in a little babe. Maybe you’d rather draw in pets, creative aspirations, globe-trotting adventures; maybe a baby comes with! Or perhaps you’d rather give yourself space and not put pen to paper just yet. That’s valid, too.
Whatever and whenever you decide to draw, I hope that your creation is full of richness and vibrancy and life—whether that means you color in a few extra figures or not.
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits, or gaming.