Ambivalence, grace, and the choice to have kids

No one ever asks a man, “Are you planning on having children?” But it’s a question that is often lobbed at women between the ages of 20 and 40. And it’s a question that I often ask myself. Am I going to have children?

Ann Friedman’s recent piece on women’s ambivalence toward having children struck a chord with me. Like the women Friedman characterizes, I am open to having children, but I’m also not sure if I particularly want them. I find that many of my childless friends express a similar sentiment. It is, perhaps, one of the first times in history in which women have felt confident enough to say such things out loud.

Growing up, I never envisioned myself as a mother. I did not play with dolls or play-act at breastfeeding or other mothering activities. At a young age, I was teased, by my older female relatives, for my considerable lack of maternal instinct. I preferred reading and bossing my peers around; I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. I baby-sat often in my teens, and even now, I am still quite adept at diapering an infant, but I never particularly loved watching other people’s children. Unlike many of my female friends, I never begged to hold people’s babies; I didn’t know what to do with them. I preferred the solemn six-year-olds to the babies every time.

Partially because I’ve never imagined myself as a mother, I find the joys and trials of parenting very difficult to envision. As an outsider, I just see all of the sleep-deprived, home-bound, strung-out young parents โ€” who, by the way, are doing incredible jobs at raising their children with great love and daily sacrifice โ€” and think, “Why would I want that?” Because I’ve never experienced or even witnessed these parenting highs (naturally, because they surely occur in the intimate, private moments between parent and child), they seem so foreign when mothers describe them to me.

Furthermore, I also wonder, what is the point of having children? On a purely rational and self-preserving level, it’s so that we can have someone take care of us when we are old, because our beloved dogs won’t be able to afford our retirement homes. On the evolutionary level, it’s so that we can push our genes (regardless of whether they are genes worth preserving) onto the next generation and thereby further the human race โ€” despite the fact that the world is already grossly overpopulated with our species. It’s the emotional level that I don’t understand. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a compelling reason for children from the emotional or psychological perspective. Surely that reason exists; I’m just not sure what it is. (If you are a parent, chime in!)

I reject the notion that because I have a womb, I ought to fill it with offspring. Further, I roundly reject the notion that God will love me more if I procreate. I am deeply opposed to any denomination or branch of theology that asserts that the more children you have, the holier you are. This is an incredibly short-sighted, reductionist, and offensive stance.

I am so glad that many people have decided to become parents. I know so many wonderful, loving, shining exemplars of mothers and fathers, and I know they do good, hard work every day to raise their little humans. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to join their throng.

In intimate moments, this is a conversation that comes up often among the women I know. I said all of these things, the sentiments above, to Tara, one of the best mothers I know, and was a little fearful to hear her reaction. Tara is one of those gloriously sympathetic human beings who was born to be a mother. She is smart and compassionate and sacrificial; her kids are her pride and joy, and for good reason (they’re amazing little kids). She seems to really revel in motherhood, in this beautiful, awe-inspiring way.

And so I was worried, to say all of these things to her. But this is what she said: “Abby, if you do have kids, that is great. God will give you the grace to be a great mom. And if you don’t have kids? That’s OK too. God will give you the grace for that too.”

It was such a simple sentiment, but it brought me to tears. No one has ever said that to me before. To receive such grace! And especially from a Christian mom, who have, up until this point, always said that I need to stop being so fearful, so selfish, so cold-hearted. To be told, regardless of what you do with your uterus, you are loved and accepted. I have been waiting so long to hear this from someone. It brings me to tears even now, just writing about it.

I have always assumed that I would have children, because that is what you do when you are a married person (and when, in my case, you are married to a person who wants children). But I feel no great fervor for child-rearing. And I am OK with languishing in this ambivalence for now. I have a few more years before the demands of biology start to become urgent. And then to wait, to receive grace for whatever comes.

10 thoughts on “Ambivalence, grace, and the choice to have kids

  1. I am a mother Abby, of two amazing children, one you know well. I am NOT saying that a woman cannot be complete without children, not at all. What I am saying is if you are looking for a reason why the world around you thinks it is important for you to have children, I have some very good reasons. My children taught me so much about life and about who I am and who I can be. I have no expectations of them caring for me when I cannot. They have given me the most incredible joy and the heaviest heart aches. My children opened up my small world. They fill my life, even today as young adults, I cannot imagine life without them. My beautiful daughter brings excitement, knowledge and insight that I never would have found on my own. She has taught me to think outside the norm, to not blindly believe in what the world passes on from generation to generation as the only truth. My son is teaching me to find the true meaning of forgiveness and unconditional love. All that my children have taught me and are still teaching me makes me a different person, a better person. I believe that if you decide not to have children it is your right to live your life without them. Not everyone needs children to grow, my daughter is a perfect example You need to to do what ever it is God is asking of you, not what the world wants. God will bless you with or without rug rats

    1. Thanks for your sweet comment, Kathy, and for sharing your experience. How lovely to have such great children (and Kandyce certainly is that!). I also loved your expression that they opened up your small world. A lovely thought.

  2. I understand your ambivalence about having children. When I picture caring for a newborn, a two-year-old, or even a five-year-old, my heart doesn’t leap with joy or excitement or maternal instinct. It kind of leaps with dread. I work with three-year-olds and I do adore them, but I’m not excited for the motherhood stages that involve potty-training and breast-feeding. Uck! But then I picture a life 20-30 years down the road, and having grandchildren, and my grown child with whom I can spend family holidays – that’s when I covet a child. I want another generation to lean on (I plan to NEVER ask them for money as far as is humanly possible), to pass on my limited wisdom and provide a leaning post of support and to be with as a family. Then, I am so ready for a child of my own.

    So, I know I come out on the other side than you are. But I wanted to say I hear your ambivalence and understand it. Best of luck with the decision. : )

  3. Yes, yes, yes. I also identified with Ann Friedman’s article (I read her column every week!) and thank you for writing this. My husband says he’s always known that he wants to be a father someday, and I always respond, “But what you mean you’ve always known? How is that possible?” In my ambivalence, I can’t begin to understand his certainty. I’m also terrified that the equal partnership we’ve built will fall apart under the pressure to conform to more traditional gender roles if we have children, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable fear. But hopefully God’s grace will cover that too, no matter what we decide.

  4. Please know that anything I say here is said in absolute love.
    This topic is very near and dear to my heart for many reasons–one reason simply that I DID always want to be a mother, though once becoming one I felt like I was dying. I am not a natural mother, not at all how you describe your friend Tara, for instance. I am not compassionate and sympathetic and sacrificial (though I’d like to be), and I’ll venture to say that my children aren’t amazing (though I love them more than anything, of course).
    But here’s the thing. Having children is making me into a person–a better person–that I could never hope to be without them. Not that my womanhood is fulfilled in having children, not that I can’t become a better person without children– but there’s something about having children that changes someone in a different way. I have learned more of Christ in motherhood than anywhere else. I hope that doesn’t sound trite to you.
    I’ll end by saying this: I’m not sure you can understand the “reasons” for having children unless you have them, especially emotional reasons. That must be experienced.
    My vote: have babies!! ๐Ÿ™‚ You will certainly be disappointed and sleep deprived, but you will never, never regret it.

  5. I have mostly been ambivalent about having children. There was a short period right after I was married when my friends started having babies and I got a bit swept away thinking I might want one after all. Then I got divorced. Then I entered a long-term relationship with a man who already had a son and who unequivocally did not want any more kids. I had to explore the topic more than I ever had before, to be certain that I really and truly would be content to remain childless. I was very interested in international adoption for a while during this time of reflection. When this eight year relationship ended recently, as I approach 40, I wondered if I would have some resentment for what I unchose by choosing him. I don’t. I am absolutely happy raising my ginger dogs and enjoying unfettered independence. I will leave the baby-having to others.

  6. “But I feel no great fervor for child-rearing. And I am OK with languishing in this ambivalence for now. I have a few more years before the demands of biology start to become urgent. And then to wait, to receive grace for whatever comes.”

    Wow, It’s as if you pulled my thoughts straight from heart/mind. Everything you said is EXACTLY what Charles and I have been talking about over the past few months. It could just be that these twelve months of our lives have been ridiculously, abnormally stressful & the mere thought of a child sends me into an unsolicited panic. But honestly, I just don’t see my heart ever softening or changing toward the idea of having a baby(babies). I think for a long time, I just assumed I would because, well, that’s what you’re “supposed” to do: You go to college. You start your career. You get married, You procreate. But now? Now, my mindset and what I’ve believed for so long is totally shifting, and I’m seeing it shift within the thoughts of a lot of our peers, too. All this is to say, it’s very comforting to know others are sharing these same sentiments – thank you or your honest any openness!

  7. I go back a forth all the time- but mostly I just wonder if not having kids will be a huge regret. An incredible experience missed out on. But for shortsighted me, spending all my time with Paul is so fulfilling and exciting and exhilarating that I honestly don’t want to share myself with children. At least not right now. And I don’t like the idea of having kids to take care of us in the future. If we do have kids I won’t put any expectation on them to take care of us because I want to respect their individuality and personal freedom more than anything. I’m sure that somehow, down the road all will be taken care of anyways, with or without kids. So I really loved what your friend said about God giving us the grace to get through childless years if, or when it hurts. It’s so comforting in the years of not knowing the future.

    I loved reading your thoughts on having kids, and I just love your blog in general- such a fun read! Thanks Abby ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Hi I’m a new user and new to the whole
    Blogging scene. It’s nice to see a prominent female perspective on the internet, especially with the one here that is extremely sophisticated and poignant.

    As a male I continually ask both myself and some of my friends if they have plans to have children. As a 23 year old I wish to have children because I see it, even if it is a misguided view, as the “next step in becoming an adult and the next step on my life plan.” But perhaps we should also consider who is doing the question asking. Aren’t most women asked by other women if they want to have children? Most likely. Do men ask other men the same question? More often than you’d think, at about the age frame (20-30). But many men most likely will not ask women because they see it as a gender biased question in their mind, unless they have a very close female friend. I would also think asking a woman is primarily because they are the baby producers; they carry the fetus to term, deliver the baby, supply the baby with nutrients and sustenance both in and out of the womb, and, in many psychological studies, have a deeper and more connected bond with their offspring than the father, since many women see a child as both an extension of themselves and an extension of their own soul.

    While I’ve endeavored to answer many of your questions, I certainly hope I haven’t offended you in any way. Mine is but one opinion in a sea of many.

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