If you’re reading this article, you’re probably trying to decide whether or not you want to have kids–or you know someone who is. It can seem like everyone else has it all figured out. Some people are certain that they want to remain childfree forever, while others know for sure that they want to be parents.
But many people feel uncertain, and more people are waiting longer to make the decision (1). Understandably so. Deciding whether to parent is a tough decision that involves many factors. From your political and environmental concerns (2), to your financial situation, your relationship status and perspective on relationships, your specific health concerns, your ideals about what a family can look like, even your expectations of parenting (3) –all of these are valid considerations.
The decision is also time-sensitive: typically, the number of eggs in the ovaries gradually declines beginning at age 32 (4), people who become pregnant at 35 or older might need more frequent and/or specialized pregnancy care (5), and there are age limits for adoptive parents in many countries. Indecision can be stressful, time and energy-consuming for some people. Simply deciding can be liberating.
We’ve distilled some tips from experts and thinkers on the topic to help you navigate your decision:
1. Why do you want to become a parent?
Ask yourself: Why has the question of parenting come up at all? Is it your own curiosity about parenthood, or are there external factors?
Sometimes outside pressures can be obvious, like if your parents often express their desire to be grandparents. But it can also be subtle, for example if friends with children say things like “you’ll understand when you’re a parent”. It’s completely normal to want to meet other peoples’ expectations or avoid being left out. However, this is a major decision that should be based on your feelings alone (6, 7).
Difficulties in other areas of life and interpersonal relationships can also make parenting appealing. You might feel lonely, or feel that something is missing in your personal life or relationship. These are important issues to address, but they should be tackled separately from the question of whether to raise a child.
Thinking through and sorting out your own ideas about parenting, away from external pressures is an important step in making a decision (6).
2. Give yourself a break from thinking about it
The sense that time is running out might be contributing to the stress that makes the decision difficult. It may be tempting to make a quick decision to relieve the sense of panic, but good decision-making takes time (6).
You could decide to put the question aside for a short, reasonably specific time frame. If your mind wanders to the topic, try to consciously move on. Returning to the question after some time might allow new feelings to come up and give you a fresh perspective.
3. Focus on your feelings about parenting
It is important to figure out your fundamental desire before you make a decision: “Do I want to have kids?” instead of “What should I do?”. Once you have figured out the desire, you can return to the decision. Introspective writing is a good way to organize your thoughts and help you focus on what you want:
Keeping a journal can show you how you think and feel about things over time. Whenever you find yourself thinking about the parenting choice, write it down. Looking back you might find that your thoughts tend to favor one direction over the other. Writing in contrasting colors (green for pro-parenting, red for pro-childfree) will make it easier to identify where your mind goes more (6).
Imagine a life where you remain childfree, and then as a parent. Try to write about what it would be like to be a parent, including at different stages. This is a long-term decision, so consider what parenting would be like in the first years, when having a teenager, and then having a relationship with an adult child. Similarly, think about what it would be like to remain childfree at future stages in your life. How does each text make you feel? Does one lifepath seem more appealing than the other (6, 7)?
4. Get real life experience
The decision to parent is often abstract because we have little previous experience. Unlike other decisions, you cannot “try out” parenthood and then change your mind. But you can hang out with other people’s kids.
Many parents will be grateful for an offer to babysit. The more time you spend with children and parents, the better idea you will have of what parenting could be like for you. You might learn that you actually do enjoy being around children, or that you absolutely don’t. You might discover that the role of being a big cousin, an aunt or uncle, adequately fulfills your desire to have children in your life without the full responsibility of parenthood.
5. Return to the decision
Once you’ve figured out your desire, you can focus your attention on the decision and what steps to take to fulfill your desire.
Remaining childfree: You may have to have frank discussions with significant people in your life: express your feelings and intentions with them and ask that they support your decision. You can take practical steps to plan for a childfree life, seeking out meet-ups or online groups for childfree people can provide community when your peers are immersed in childcare.
Some people worry about growing old without the support of adult children, although this is never guaranteed. The decision to remain childfree might motivate you to build other important long-term relationships and support systems, or to take out insurance for elder-care.
Becoming a parent—Practical considerations may include:
Do I have time to care for a child?
What kind of support is available to me?
Can I afford a child’s needs?
What would having a child mean for my other relationships?
How will I become a parent? Can I become pregnant, co-parent, foster, or adopt? If I’m carrying the fetus, how do I feel about pregnancy itself? Can I access reproductive technologies (such as IVF, sperm donation, or egg-freezing)?
Do I need to address my own physical and/or mental health concerns?
It might help to take time to think about your relationship with your body, your mind, and your physical well-being. Pregnancy and parenting will demand your time and sleep, and can push your physical comfort zone.
The strong cultural pressure to become pregnant often leaves out some of the most important details–pregnancy can be dangerous, especially for people with certain chronic health conditions like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, or diabetes (8,9). Understanding how pregnancy could impact your body and mind may inform your decision (8,9). Talking to your healthcare provider about how pregnancy and parenthood could impact your current and future wellbeing (10) might give you a more realistic picture. If you’re considering trying to conceive, a preconception visit with your healthcare provider can help you understand what pregnancy will really mean for you individually. Your healthcare provider can tell you about pregnancy, birth, infant and postpartum care, as well as options to delay pregnancy.
You can also discuss your decision with a therapist, family planning counselor, or even a trusted friend or family member. You could speak to a social worker about adoption or foster care. Speak to parents in your life. Asking how they manage their resources, their children’s needs and their own, might help you assess your capacity to become a parent.
Even after deep introspection, you may still feel unresolved. Either decision involves loss. The feeling of having missed out, whether on the experience of parenting or on the opportunities of being childfree, can be difficult to accept. However, for those who are ambivalent, it may be that both decisions are equally valuable. Recognizing this might be freeing in itself.