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The Undecided: no wonder more of us are unsure about parenthood

The Undecided: no wonder more of us are unsure about parenthood


by Sarah Macken
14th Sep 2022

As older millennials reach peak child-bearing age, it’s to a backdrop of a pandemic, war, climate anxiety and a skyrocketing cost of living. Is it little wonder that more and more of us are on the fence about parenthood?

Digital illustration by Marlene Wessels.

What do Katharine Hepburn, Tracee Ellis Ross and Gloria Steinem have in common? Apart from enjoying an enviable sense of personal style, all three have been vocal about how parenthood isn’t for them.

Personally, one of the most refreshingly honest arguments I’ve read against motherhood comes via the acerbic Hepburn: “I would have been a terrible mother, because I’m basically a very selfish human being.” Preach! But what if the decision to have children isn’t quite so easy?

Just as there are women praying for the safe delivery of an unborn baby or living in hope of the next IVF cycle, there are others who wake up every day consumed by the most life-altering decision we as human beings can make: should I have a child? Society has divided women into two teams – the breeders and the child-free (by choice and by consequence) but what about that unspoken grey area, that intersectional overlap in the Venn diagram of reproductive autonomy, the motley crew that is The Undecided? You don’t hear from them so often.

Trapped in a 50:50 stalemate, these are the women (and, oftentimes, men) suspended in a chasm that is the great parenting in between. Frozen? Not quite. Ruminating might be a better word. And we’re a growing cohort, apparently.

For some, it’s an ephemeral but daily soul search. A carousel of – potentially unrelinquished – future family moments that flits through your head while driving down the N11. For others, it simply boils down to the fact that the future chance of possibly regretting it isn’t a compelling enough decision to go through with it… they think.

“It can be as mercurial as wanting kids on a Monday and changing my mind by Tuesday,” says Sandra, a 33-year-old secondary school teacher from Louth. “I keep setting a date in my head to have made the decision by, then the date will come and go.”

Millennials certainly aren’t the first generation to doubt parenthood, but lately, it feels as if the odds are a little stacked against us. Think about it: as older millennials – that is, those aged between 33 and 40 – arrive at the peak parenting window, they do so in the shadow of the economic downturn. Fresh out of a pandemic. To a soundtrack of student loans, stagnant wages and a rising cost of living. In the midst of a mental health crisis. No wonder we’re on the fence. In fact, about a quarter of older millennials are delaying parenthood thanks to the pandemic, according to a recent study carried out by The Harris Poll for CNBC. Some are avoiding having children altogether.

Indeed, of the 19 per cent who say they want children less since the pandemic, the most common reason is that they don’t want to bring a child into the world right now, followed by uncertainty about the economy. It would be a very millennial trait to think we are the first generation to have any doubts. (Really, we’re not – but at least let us think we are special. We need that.) Perhaps, though, we are the first ones to do it consciously. Personally, I’ve always thought children would never be my thing; though the pandemic challenged that and now, at 34 years of age, I find myself poised somewhere in the middle.

What I’m experiencing is, according to psychologist and couples therapist Anna Nauka (SilverLiningTherapy.co), a response to our changing society. One that thinks of parenting as less of a natural step, and more of a conscious choice. “The model of womanhood has changed and the model of motherhood as fulfilment has changed,” she says. “It’s spurring conscious decision making and a conscious choice.”

The collective experience of millennials is one of choice. You could say it’s part of our DNA and sometimes, even, our downfall. Perhaps the singularity of parenthood challenges us so tremendously because it’s the one decision we can’t make à la carte. Then why do I feel so alone?

According to Ann Davidman, a parent clarity therapist, it’s because society has a rather black and white opinion about parenting – an unhealthy one, at that. Let’s face it: we live in a society that praises surety. The flipside of that is that doubt is often viewed as a weakness. Taking some time to figure out what’s right for you is never as sexy a soundbite, nor as appealing a proposition as someone who is steadfast in their opinion – and unafraid to share it. It’s why we hero-worship rock stars, politicians, cult leaders, celebrities who compose pithy Tweets.

Being undecided on parenthood, Davidman says, challenges a society geared towards pronatalism. “While the burgeoning child-free movement rejects this notion, as it should, the loudest voices from that group tend to articulate an assured decision to be child-free,” Davidman says. “For many people, it’s hard to know what they really want. This can add another layer of shame because it can often seem like everyone else came to their decision with ease.”

Then there’s recent events. War, a pandemic, climate change, overpopulation: the decision to bring a child into the world shouldn’t come down to moral semantics, but the last few years make the two indelibly intertwined. Especially if having one fewer child will save 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year, as a new study published in Environmental Research Letters revealed. This is a lynchpin of the #childfreebychoice movement, which believes bringing another human into an incredibly flawed and overpopulated world is irresponsible.

It is, as democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in 2019, down to “the scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult”. In other words, if we’re living on a vastly overpopulated planet that’s hurtling towards climate meltdown, should the privilege of parenting be reserved just for those who really want it, who are really sure? Is procreating when you’re on the fence more than selfish – hell, is it reckless?

“There’s never a right time to have a baby,” my wise – and child-free – friend tells me. When I think of myself and my two older siblings, each of us born on the threshold of every major recession in the last 50 years, that sentiment certainly rings true. Perhaps, like many things, in order to procreate you need tunnel vision to avoid utter overwhelm.

That there’s an expiration date on a woman’s fertility doesn’t help the collective anxiety. “For me, it feels like the egg timer is on and it’s going to consume me until I make this decision,” Sandra says. In spite of a male partner’s proclivity to be involved, from what Nauka has observed in heteronormative couples in a counselling setting, women are doing the soul-searching. As women are known for doing the guts of the emotional heavy-lifting in a relationship and family setting, this is a red flag. Is this a new layer of emotional labour for women? Nauka thinks so. “Very often, I think it’s a moment where women who are already doing emotional labour in the relationship are being landed with another key piece to do,” she says.

From another perspective, having doubts doesn’t mean you won’t go on to have a baby. Doubt is completely normal – even after you’ve made your choice.

Of all the things that struck me about my conversation with Nauka, it’s this: we need to normalise doubt. It’s not good or bad, it’s healthy and doesn’t mean, as Nauka puts it, “that you won’t be a good mother or that you shouldn’t be a mother”.

“We need to normalise decision making as a process,” Nauka says. “The one thing to come out of the last few years is that people are far more realistic about their desires and emotions.”

No matter where we land – selfish? A generation of childless snowflakes? Or a cohort with a considered approach to parenting? – if it’s an emotionally truer place, then that can only be a positive. And, if being a snowflake means taking my time to consider what’s right for me rather than what’s expected (while I have the bodily autonomy to do so), I’ll gladly take up that mantle.

This article originally appeared in the Summer issue of IMAGE Magazine, on sale now.

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