Welcome to”Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Twice a month, he’ll answer your questions about your relationships, your job (or jobs), your family (or families), your passions, fears and more. Please send your questions to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
I am a married woman in her early 40’s who always pictured myself having children. I thought that when I heard my biological clock ticking I would deal with it. But … no alarm bells have been ringing. I see friends and family with kids, and I am not envious. I really love my life and my career, and my husband and I have a very happy marriage. I still don’t want children, yet writing that kind of surprises me.
Here’s the thing I’ve realized: Either way, it almost feels like a death — either the death of my happy life as I know it (if I chose to do IVF, which I really don’t want to do) or the death of the abstract dream I once had about children. My husband and I are both very aligned on not wanting kids. He says, and I agree, “I know that a part of me will always be sad about not having children, and I’ve come to accept this feeling will never go away. As I get older, I expect this sadness to grow as I see my family’s and friends’ children grow into adulthood. I’ll always wonder, ‘What if?'”
Any suggestions for how to settle this internal wrestling match, or perhaps grieve the lost opportunities? I am worried I might wake up in five years, thinking, “Oh my god, how did I not make time for that?!”
Childless but Happy
Dear Childless but Happy,
There is no bigger decision we make in life than whether to have or adopt a child. Yet the pressure we put on women — and men, to a lesser extent — to procreate is so profound. The only real decision that most of us are supposed to make is not whether to have children but when to have them. You must get asked if you have kids all the time, and I can only imagine how difficult it is to reply with a “no” followed by an entirely non-ironic “pregnant” pause in anticipation of the explanation that your rogue behavior demands. Saying “We’re happy without them” will do little to quell your questioner’s confusion because surely the imperative to have children outweighs your desire to be happy.
It does not.
Research into voluntarily child-free couples demonstrates that for “mutual postponer couples” like you and your husband (namely, couples who do not have a strong conviction against having children but who don’t want them currently and repeatedly punt the decision down the road), the decision to postpone and even forgo parenting is motivated precisely by the strength of their partnership. In other words, you’re happy in your current life and you’re prioritizing your relationship over parenting.
Even so, massive societal expectations and “what-if” ponderings will, at times, make you feel like you’re having an “internal wrestling match,” and you want to know how to settle it. To be honest, it sounds like the match has already been settled. When you say “I see friends and family with kids, and I am not envious. I really love my life and my career … I still don’t want children,” you do not sound ambivalent. Rather, you sound concerned about how to manage the potential emotional consequences of a decision you’ve basically made.
Your husband sounds like he’s also made his way to accepting that you two will not have kids, but he too is concerned about the future emotional challenges. As an aside, I was pleased you included your husband’s perspective. Men’s voices are often left out of these discussions, as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of research on voluntarily childless couples is focused exclusively on women. Women should, of course, be at the forefront of the issue but, as your husband reminds us, the ramifications for men can be profound as well.
Your second question was what to do if you “wake up in five years thinking, “Oh my god, how did I not make time for that?!” I do want to point out in five years you could potentially still have a child or you could adopt. But assuming you don’t, there are steps you can take now to reduce the intensity and duration of future regrets. And there are also things you can do in the future to manage regrets when they arise.
One of the factors that can make us regret past decisions is it’s hard to recall the full array of complex reasoning and emotional considerations that went into making them, making them seem less thought-out and compelling than they actually were. Therefore, I suggest you and your husband fully articulate your reasons and considerations for not having children, and document them. Having a deeply considered framework of considerations will also help you create meaning around your decision so it makes sense in the larger context of your lives.
Specifically, write or film a message to your future selves in which you fully explain your thinking and the broad and nuanced factors that went into it. Be sure to include practical considerations (for ex., having children would mean “the death of my happy life as I know it”), emotional ones (“I see friends and family with kids, and I don’t feel envious”) and psychological ones (“I want to maintain my freedom”). Indeed, a study of intentionally childfree women found that maintaining a sense of freedom was their primary reason for not having kids. It also found that since nurturing can be a key aspect in a woman’s sense of identity, women in the study tended to expand the “mothering metaphor” to include contributions to their communities and their experience of purpose and belonging in the world at large. When you have moments of regret in the future, watch the video or go over the document to remind yourself why you made the choice you did and how deeply thought through your decision was.
Even so, you’ll still have moments that evoke the the pain of “what might have been”. When you see friends weeping with pride at their daughter’s graduation or when they show you the “handprint card” that their three-year-old made for a birthday, you’re going to experience an emotional ache. You’ll feel sad, and you’ll feel a sense of grief for the children you might have had. Such moments are unavoidable and they will hurt, but you and your husband will get through them together.
As long as you don’t get lost in them.
Many childfree patients in my practice have such “What if” moments, and the images that come up for them have one thing in common — they’re overly idyllic. They see only perfect snapshots or idealized highlight reels, which make their emotional ache far greater. It’s important to balance out such visualizations with more realistic depictions of parenthood. For every smiling bride you envision, visualize a baby screaming her head off at 3 AM while coating you with projectile vomit. For every happy, card-making preschooler you imagine, picture one having an epic tantrum on the filthy floor of the supermarket while other people stare judgmentally. Parenting is an enormously complicated experience with incredible highs and lows. If you’re going to grieve, you must grieve both.
Your husband is worried about his sadness growing with time, and that’s a concern many child-free couples have. What will old age be like without children to visit or care for you? Are you condemning yourselves to feeling lonely and depressed later in life?
No. In fact, a study of over 600 85-year-old men and women found no difference in emotional health between those who did and those who did not have children.
Making a decision about whether or not to have children is a gut-wrenching process and one that puts you on a collision course with potential regrets and sadness, no matter what you decide. But you and your husband have what many couples can only wish for: a loving marriage and a great life. And while you will likely have painful “what-if” moments in the future, what will get you through them is exactly what makes your life so good now — that you have each other.
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Watch his TED Talk on emotional first aid here: