6 Questions To Ask Yourself If You're Not Sure You Want Kids

Photographed by Renell Medrano.
How many major life decisions are you expected to “just know” in advance? You put time and growth into your career — and sometimes change course. Choosing a partner can take a lifetime of trial-and-error. So why is it women are expected to “just know” whether they’ll someday want kids?
Feeling indecisive, and feeling bad about yourself because of it, only makes finding clarity even more difficult. If you’re ambivalent, you’re definitely not alone. After more than 25 years of helping women make this life-defining decision, and listening to them describe how tortured they feel for not knowing one way or the other, I can tell you there are more of you than you know.
Part of the difficulty for many people is getting bogged down in the how part of the decision, as in, how might a child come into my life? Before you can entertain whether you’ll someday have a biological child; adopt; become a single parent, part-time parent, co-parent, or step-parent, you need to know if you want to become a parent at all. You need to know whether you want to raise the next generation and why. The why is important — not because you owe anyone an explanation or need to defend your position, but so that you know what’s driving your desire.
And turning to your friends or loved ones won’t necessarily help. When people don’t know whether they want kids or would rather pursue a childfree life, they tend to poll people, and then the question becomes more of a debate about which choice is “better.” This may include looking at external factors, such as your age, career, where you live, whether you’re partnered or single, whether you have a certain amount of money saved, and so forth. But this line of thinking doesn’t get you any closer to knowing what you want.
Others can only tell you about their experience; no one can tell you what it will be like for you, just as no one can tell you what’s true for you. The six questions ahead can get you closer to knowing what is.
Ann Davidman, co-author with Denise L. Carlini Motherhood—Is It For Me? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clarity, is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She offers pre-parenting consultations for couples and individuals, as well as Motherhood Clarity Courses based on the book.
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Do I want to want kids?

1. Do I want to want kids?

You might feel pressure from family, your partner, friends, or society in general to want children (or to NOT want them!). Feeling pressured in one particular direction could mean you’ve bought into the concept that a right or wrong decision exists — and that you don’t feel entitled to choose what’s true for you.

But block everyone else out for a minute. Do you know what you want to want? Do you want to want children? Do you want to want to live a childfree life? Or, do you want to want to just know what’s right for you (knowing that either path will be fine)?

It’s possible that the answer to all three questions is I don’t know; even acknowledging that is a good place to start. The goal here is being honest with yourself. You don’t have to share your answers with anyone; the point is to look inside and notice what’s there.

What if there isn’t a right or wrong, moral or immoral, good or bad decision? If you can pause long enough to hang out in the place of knowing what you want to want, you might experience a break from the pressure. When you can feel a little internal spaciousness, you’re more open to allowing new information to come to you. See if you can truthfully identify where your desire lands on a continuum between yes and no to wanting kids, even if it’s in the middle, then let it go for now. Remember: What you want isn’t necessarily what you’ll decide. This is not about making a final decision.
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Am I waiting for a sign?

2. Am I waiting for a sign?

If you’re waiting for a sign to tell you what you should do, or waiting for a feeling that’s supposed to magically appear, you can stop waiting. You’re not going to get your answer that way. The answer is not outside of you; it’s inside of you.

Many people believe that if you want kids you’re supposed to feel a certain way. Some believe that you’re supposed to just know, and if you don’t then you shouldn’t do it. Some believe you’re supposed to feel some strong, maternal drive inside to want children (perhaps connected to whether you liked playing with dolls as a child?). Some women want to raise children but say they don’t feel especially “maternal.” Or they're waiting for a choice to “feel good,” as if the right decision were the one that felt good and exciting.

But guess what: It might not feel good. Not all truthful, good choices feel good. Choices often involve loss, which can feel sad and disappointing. Your ultimate decision could feel true and sad at the same time.

When you choose yes to one thing you are choosing no to something else. Yes to motherhood or to a childfree life — either way — leaves you facing the loss of the other choice. Your feelings can be mixed, so give yourself space to recognize that mixed feelings can be a sign that something is right, not wrong.

You might realize that you don’t want kids, for example, when all along you thought you were supposed to want them; if so, then you may grieve for having lived all this time believing something that wasn’t true. You might feel relieved that you know your truth and that you’re ready to move forward with that truth, while also feeling sad at the loss of a belief that was most likely imposed on you by others.

So let go of the expectation that you’ll “just know.” Not everyone feels excitement. Some people feel neutral, yet they know what they want. Some are truly fine with either direction. Excitement, intensity, a yearning (what some have called “maternal instinct”) are not the goals. The goal is to know your truth.
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Do I feel worthy of love?

3. Do I feel worthy of love?

Your immediate reaction might be “Of course,” and of course you’d be correct. You’re certainly worthy of love, but to answer this question honestly you’ll need to pause a bit longer. You may know that you are loved, but that doesn’t always translate to feeling lovable or to feeling worthy of love.

How did your parents let you know you mattered to them when you were young? It doesn’t take much to help a child grow up with self-worth or self-esteem, and it doesn’t take much to inadvertently squash a young person’s self-esteem. Many wounds that we experience as children were unintended, yet the wounds exist. And they can block your ability to know what you want. If your self-worth wasn’t nourished, it could play a larger role in deciding about kids than you realize.

You might have been cared for and told you were loved as a child, but still not feel lovable. If you received mixed messages, you might not feel worthy of love even though you know you are. A lack of self-worth can lead to not feeling entitled to want what you want. It can also lead to feeling judged quite easily. It can leave you looking outside for validation of your lovability. It might lead you to wanting a child or children, so that at least they’ll love you (quite a burden for those kids, by the way). The result can be that you don’t feel deserving or entitled to want what you want, and this can get in the way of knowing whether you truly want children.

You want to strive for unshakeable self-worth and feeling loveable. Before you can make a life-defining choice, you have to know your choices are important. You have to know that you matter.
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How are my decision-making skills?

4. How are my decision-making skills?

Whether someone asks you to pass the salt, go to a movie, or work late, you need to know what you want before you can say yes or no to the request. Don’t underestimate how important this is.

If you think you’re naturally a “bad decision-maker,” I’d argue that point. It’s more likely that no one taught you how to make decisions, or that you grew up in an environment where you had to focus on what others around you needed instead of them focusing on your needs. In our book, my co-author and I talk about making decisions as a two-step process. The first step is to notice the request and how you feel about it, and the second step is to decide what you’ll do.

This practice — pausing after a request is made before you decide yes or no to it — helps you separate your desire from your decision and allows you to notice that the answers to each step are not always the same. This practice also helps you learn what drives your decisions. Is it what you want or what you think you should want, or are you trying to control an outcome?

The accumulated experience of this practice will help you build the internal muscle of knowing what you want while enabling you to think about possible conditions you might want to put on your yes or no decision.
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What conditions would I need to be met?

5. What conditions would I need to be met?

After you get clear on your desire, think about what needs to change internally or externally for you to say yes to kids or yes to a childfree life and feel good about your decision.

Perhaps you feel like you’d have to change jobs in order to travel less, or to access a better parental leave policy before you'd feel comfortable having a baby. Maybe you want to work out your finances and know for sure you can afford the childcare needed for you to continue in your career, or you’d want to move closer to friends or relatives to know a support system is in reach.

Perhaps in order to decide yes to a childfree life you'd need a partner who is onboard with no kids; or you'd want to pursue longterm or permanent contraceptive measures so the conversation wouldn't even be on the table. Your decision may or may not have conditions, but don’t start with this question; it’s worth substantial consideration but only after you’ve spent time discovering your desire. And remember: Some conditions can be met while others can’t. But if you’re aware of what they are, then you can negotiate whether you want to choose having children or a childfree life either way.
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What will I do?

6. What will I do?

Once you’ve explored your desire, and you are crystal clear on what you want and why, then you can consider your decision — but not a minute sooner.

There isn’t one way to be a mother. You can hate being a mom yet do a great job; love being a mother but do a lousy job; be mediocre at motherhood but raise a child with high self-esteem; be a mother for all the wrong reasons and turn out a healthy child; become a mother for all the right reasons and turn out a child filled with angst and low self-esteem, and this list goes on and on. Pretty stressful, right? That’s why you shouldn’t even consider these outcomes unless you know the truth of the decision you want to make.

Once you have clarity, you can look at the various methods for becoming a mother, or all the ways you can go about living your childfree life. You might already know that you want to adopt, either before or after you have a child biologically. You might choose reproductive medical intervention. Some women want their own biological child but don’t want to be pregnant, so they hire a surrogate. Some don’t want kids but want to experience pregnancy, so they act as a surrogate for others.

Whatever you decide, take the time to know the why behind your choice — not because you owe anyone an explanation, but because you owe yourself honesty. Ultimately this leads to having a satisfied and fulfilled life, which by itself is a wonderful achievement. And while there may not be one perfect way to decide if you want kids, I do believe that in being more conscientious about how you go about it, you’ll know yourself better. And as a result, you’ll be a better parent — one who applies that wisdom to your parenting — or you’ll choose a childfree life that will be more fulfilling for the very same reason.

Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.

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