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Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Baby or Not? Reflections on the Baby Decision

Struggling to decide whether to have children or not?  My friend and writer Michelle Hebert-Boyd responded to my invitation to write about personal reflections on the decision that she and many women struggle with daily: choose children and motherhood... or choose a child-free life.  

I recently listened to a Guardian podcast  called “Maybe Baby: Should I Have a Child or Not?”. In it, the host Leah Green spoke to various people (women, for the most part) to understand how people come to the decision to have a baby or to remain child-free. As someone who struggled to become a mother and has since struggled to raise a child with special needs, I found myself nodding my heads to the points raised in this podcast. Where were these questions a decade ago, I wondered, when I was ready (or not) to have a baby? Why aren’t women better supported in making what is, arguably, the biggest decision they can face? As with any type of choice that relates to women’s reproductive health, it seems the discussion of whether to have a child or to remain child-free is still one that is based on rigid gender assumptions, and gets talked about mostly in whispers, amongst other women. This podcast gave me hope that we can raise the discussion above a whisper, and start to explore the options in front of us with confidence and support.

The podcast included interviews with people who explained their choices and how they arrived at them. I was struck by the fact that the voices of all of those interviewed – whether they’d had a child or had chosen to remain child-free – held a fear that their choice would be judged. It’s clear that judgement and societal expectations play a huge role in influencing how these decisions get made, and that it’s typically women who feel they have to defend them, even if a couple has reached the decision together.

As one woman in the podcast says, the realization that having a baby or remaining child-free is actually a choice is life-changing.  Yes, most of us have access to birth control, and we’ve given thought to preventing pregnancies. But it’s most often with the notion that we’re merely putting something off, and we’ll get around to having a baby sooner or later, at some point in the dim future.  Having a baby is an idea to which girls are socialized for from the earliest age, with baby dolls and nurturing role-plays. But the idea that we might not only just put the decision off, but make a completely different decision…well, that does fly in the face of how most girls are still socialized. Having a baby is the just the default expectation society holds for women – especially for cisgendered women in heterosexual relationships. People still assume that if you don’t have a baby, there must have been a medical reason that prevented you from doing so. It’s not typically seen as a choice.

Many women are sure, from an early age, that they don’t want to have a child., for a whole constellation of reasons. Still, as the podcast points out, they are often told they’ll change their minds; they just haven’t found the right person, or ‘those hormones’ will kick in eventually and they’ll be full of regret. This is, frankly, sexist crap, and assumes that there is only one way to be female. Just because you have a uterus doesn’t mean you need to use it to grow a baby, any more than having hair means you need to grow it into a long braid.

We are more than the sum or our organs. We’re the sum of our choices.

For others, the decision to have a child or to remain child-free is harder to make. We struggle because many of us haven’t found the tools to help work through this decision. It’s a choose your own adventure book, and the stakes are high. Both paths are filled with uncertainty. Happiness isn’t assured, either with children or child-free. And once we’ve made our choice, we don’t get to relax, because the paths aren’t straight or smooth. It’s just a lot more decisions, a lot more obstacles, either way – that’s life. That’s why it’s so important to be clear about what choice you want to make, and what is important to you, before choosing either adventure.

Having a baby or deciding to remain child-free is a very individual choice, and there is a story behind everyone’s decision. There’s no magic formula to tell us what to do. For someone who is as much of a planner as me, that was unsettling. I wished I could shake my Magic 8 Ball and get definitive advice. I wish, in retrospect, that I’d had access to a life coach like Beth Follini.  Beth’s coaching fills a unique niche – she helps people work through the choices in front of them where having a baby is concerned, helping them to ultimately understand themselves better and to find the path that is right for them. Using evidence-based tools, Beth leads her clients through self-inquiry, exploring their fears, hopes, and goals. She doesn’t steer them in any one direction; the choice is the client’s to make. Beth stands with people, encouraging them and challenging them, while they stand at the cross-roads.

I’ve stood at that crossroads myself, although the paths weren’t as well defined for me. I don’t think I even knew what questions to ask. Maybe I didn’t know that I could ask questions. I was in my mid-30s, and felt the pressure of social expectations and my own biology. I felt I didn’t have a lot of time to make a decision. To some extent, more than a dozen years ago, I didn’t really feel there was a decision to be made. Most people I knew had children. The few who didn’t were perfectly happy and fulfilled, but it was still very much seen as an ‘other’ choice back in the early 2000s.

My partner and I had talked about having children, before we got married. Neither of us felt strongly it was a must-do thing. Nor did either of us feel it was a must-avoid. We were somewhere in the middle, bobbing in a sea of ambiguity and expectation. We’d only just gotten married. I had a job I loved, and for the first time in my Gen X life, I had money to travel and have fun with. I wasn’t sure, really, how a baby would fit into that mix. I remember feeling a bit resigned to it…like, “If that’s what fate has in store for me, fine; if not, fine.” It was the biggest decision I’d had to make in my life, and I felt completely unprepared to make it. Looking back, I wonder if I understood that it really was a choice.

I’m a planner and a journalist. I like to research things, to ask questions and make lists of pros and cons. I prepare cost-benefit analysis spreadsheets for the most mundane of things. Beth Follini would say I approach things from my head. For a variety of reasons, over the years I’ve learned not to trust the advice my heart gives me. The head is about facts, and logical arguments, and data. The heart, I’ve found, can lead to Really Bad Decisions. It’s the one whispering in your ear, telling you to hurry up and decide before it’s too late. It’s the one that taunts you with FOMO, regret, and all the ‘what ifs’. Its whispers can be very loud, especially in the wee hours of the morning, when the head isn’t sharp enough to fight back.

I remember being on a business trip a week before my 34th birthday, feeling quite consumed by the choice in front of me: baby or not? What did I want my life to look like? After my meetings one evening, I found myself wandering into a bookstore, drawn to the huge section on all things baby-related, hoping to find something – anything – that would help me clarify my feelings. There were hundreds of books in this very-large section. There were books on fertility, pregnancy, baby names, infancy, toddlerhood. There was a much, much smaller section on women’s health. But there were no books, at all, about actually deciding to have a baby or to remain child-free. There was lots of advice on how to get pregnant and what to do after that. There was nothing to help me figure out if that’s the path I actually wanted to take.

I bought a book about fertility and a copy of I Don’t Know How She Does It and walked out of the store. My head felt defeated. My heart felt triumphant.

It wasn’t until my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage that the questions came into focus for me. The miscarriage had been emotionally devastating and physically exhausting. Like the decision to have a child or to remain child-free, miscarriage isn’t something that gets talked about as much as it should. I am someone who has succeeded at most things I’ve tried, so I felt like an enormous failure for not being able to do this most basic human function. There was always innuendo from others about what I’d done to cause it (it’s possible I imagined some of that innuendo, since I was so good at blaming myself for what I might have done or not done). Then, there was the inevitable comment, most typically from older relatives:

“At least you know you can get pregnant. You can always try again.”

If I’d felt ambivalent about having a baby, the miscarriage forced me to examine my feelings. Did I even want to try this again? Was I willing to risk that a miscarriage might happen again? If I said no…how would that feel? What would a child-free future look like?

For the next few months, my partner and I talked through all these questions and more. We decided that if we couldn’t have a child, that would be fine. We weren’t going to pursue IVF or adoption. We wanted a baby, but not at any cost. We decided that we’d be okay with whichever path opened up in front of us.

With my biological clock ticking loudly, I revisited the question just a year after my first child’s birth. Should I have another? Time was running out. There was another, more difficult miscarriage. My second child’s birth resulted in a life-or-death situation for both of us, and a warning that I shouldn’t have any more children. I remember feeling relieved that the decision-making was taken out of my hands. I was done.

There were times, over the years, that I’ve questioned whether the path I chose was right. Like the women interviewed in the Guardian’s podcast, I could list a dozen reasons why daily life with children felt kind of awful, sometimes. But also like the women in the podcast, I was ultimately happy with the path I’d taken. Both my head and my heart were sure, though, that I would have been equally okay with a child-free path. Having the opportunity to explore those questions and personal values was critical to finding peace.

Another issue that features heavily in the podcast is one that parents are sometimes loathe to admit: the fear of risk. The fear that Something Will Be Wrong. The fear that the future we’ve envisioned as a happy family with happy, perfect children won’t materialize. And what will happen then?

I can attest that children with special needs take a real toll on parents’ emotions and well-being, as well as their relationships. There is a higher rate of divorce and relationship breakdown among families with kids with special needs. The financial and emotional burden can overwhelm you.

And yet, there is no such thing as perfection in life, no matter what path you choose. You just never know. You might have a physically ‘perfect’ baby placed in your arms seconds after birth, but you don’t know what’s going on in that baby’s brain. Brain-based diseases, mental illnesses, and developmental issues may take years to show up, requiring you to become a completely different parent than you’ve been. You throw the script out the window and start over.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t risk to remaining child-free, of course. Relationships still break down. One of you can become sick or injured. Life is rarely what we think it will be, no matter how much planning or thought we put into it. There is no ‘safe’ road.

Yet, when the podcast’s host asked parents of kids who had mental health challenges or special needs whether they had regrets, they said no – not regret, really; more of a reflection that life could be easier than it is. As a parent of a child with special needs, I understood this. There is a peculiar sadness, almost a nostalgia, for what life could have been – for the typically-developing child in the happy family that could have been. Do I regret my choice? Overall, no. But would I have chosen THIS? No, probably not.  Few of us willingly choose the difficult paths. Most of us aren’t given the tools to think through everything eventuality in front of us. That’s why the work that Beth Follini does to help people sort through their feelings, hopes, and preparedness is so critical. It’s not about making people choose one path over another, or scaring people with worse-case scenarios. It’s about helping people feel as prepared as possible to make informed decisions about the road ahead, and to own those decisions with confidence – no matter what life throws at you.

The Guardian podcast is one of the few forums I’ve heard raise the issue of whether a mother feels mentally okay to have a child. After that first miscarriage, the hormonal flood from pregnancy and the miscarriage left me with a debilitating, month-long migraine. That gave me a lot of time to lie in bed and think. One of the things I thought about was whether I was mentally healthy enough to be a parent. I’d had an eating disorder in my 20s and had fought hard to maintain recovery. Would pregnancy’s changes to my body set me back? What if I didn’t lose the weight after pregnancy – was  I prepared for that? What if I passed the eating disorder (which has a strong genetic component) along to my child? I remember hoping I didn’t have a girl, so that the body image issues wouldn’t be as strong. (Spoiler alert: my first child is a girl, and my second child – the boy- is the one who is more prone to body image issues. The universe mocks me, truly.).

We owe it to ourselves, as women, to recognize and talk about the choice to be made. We need to think hard on those choices and evaluate our options. We need to be able to reach the best, most informed choice for us – not for our partners, not for our parents or friends, and not for society. Because at the end of the day, during those long sleepless nights (or the long stretches in the psychiatric emergency room with a child in distress), it’s us, not society, who is raising this child and living through the experience.

I haven’t heard many honest discussions about the decision to have a baby or remain child-free, to be honest, and I found this one quite balanced (although it was presented from a fairly cisgendered perspective, and there was little mention of the gendered parenting roles that may play into women’s decisions around having a baby). More voices from the ‘child-free’ path would have been helpful. Just as there is no one typical experience in having a child, there is no one typical child-free experience. People who make the choice to remain child-free are too often viewed as selfish or flawed. Hearing more about their stories and choices will help remove that stigma, which then frees women to truly see the choices in front of them. Discussions like this one hosted by the Guardian shine a spotlight on the real lack of support for ‘choice’ women have in making decisions about having a baby.

At the end of the day, the decision whether to have a baby or to remain child-free is one with no easy answer. With either path, there’s no way to know what it will look or feel like, whether we’ll have regrets, or whether we’re up for the challenge. But that’s life. The uncertainty is what makes it equal parts awful and exhilarating. The choice is a very personal one, but needs to be seen in the context of the broader social discussions about how women are valued and expected to behave in society.

For more information on coaching support for your baby decisions, contact Beth Follini at and visit her website at

By Michelle Hebert Boyd

Michelle Hébert Boyd is a writer, editor, and social policy consultant based in Nova Scotia, Canada. She blogs about parenting, mental health and gender issues at You can find out more about her writing services or hire her as a writing coach at  Michelle Hebert Boyd

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