Whether to have kids or not is a monumental decision, and the pros and cons are hard to predict or quantify. How do you decide? Borrowing ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help.
A while ago, a listener wrote in to ask a very existential question. She said:
I’m struggling with trying to decide whether to have kids or not. How do you make a decision like that?
On a personal note, right when she was asking this question, I was about to have my first child. This was coming at the end of about ten years of indecision—late-night back-and-forths with myself, ever-growing pros versus cons lists, moments of clarity immediately clouded by doubt …
So many thoughts and questions swirled through my mind. Would I be a good parent? Would having a child change my relationship with my partner? Would I miss out on a profound life experience if I didn’t have a child? And what might I miss out on if I did become a parent? Is it ethical to bring a child into the world to add another carbon footprint to the earth? Would my kid even like me? What if my hypothetical child doesn’t even want to be born? Will I regret my decision? Will my partner regret our decision?
This indecision reached such a fever pitch in my late 20s that I went to therapy specifically to ask the same question my listener asked: Should I have kids? How do I make a decision like that?
7 steps to help you decide whether or not to have a child
Whether or not to procreate is a monumental decision. It used to be taken for granted, especially for women, that one major marker of life success was to get married and have kids. Nowadays, it’s becoming increasingly common for people to be childfree by choice, both because we have less societal pressure to follow the traditional life trajectory, and because we (especially women) have much more autonomy and choice when it comes to other ways to lead fulfilling lives.
The question of whether to have kids is particularly difficult to make because the stakes are so high.
But sometimes having more choice can be paralyzing, because, with each additional option, we stand to miss out on more. (By the way, this is also part of why online dating is so stressful—with so many fish in the sea, committing to one means missing out on so many more). And the question of whether to have kids is particularly difficult to make because the stakes are so high. There is no return policy and the commitment is lifelong. But at the same time, the option to commit isn't open for very long, either, especially for women.
Thankfully, we can apply to this conundrum the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy—a type of psychotherapy developed by psychologist Steven Hayes that focuses on working with your emotions instead of against them. Some of today’s tips are based on elements from psychologist Russ Harris’s excellent book The Happiness Trap, which I recommend to anyone who feels stuck in some area of life.
Today’s tips apply not only to the dilemma of whether to have kids or not, but they also apply to other difficult decisions: whether to stay in a relationship, change careers, start your own venture, or confess a secret. Because grappling with all of these messy quandaries requires letting go of our conventional decision-making approaches.
1. Acknowledge that there's no perfect decision, then name your emotions
If there was a perfect decision—without any sacrifice, uncertainty, or potential for regret—then you wouldn’t have a dilemma. Searching for perfection guarantees that you’ll never make a decision, or that even if you do, you may spend forever doubting it after the fact. This is because no complex question has a perfect, simple answer.
Practice accepting imperfect options by allowing yourself to fully feel the emotions—yes, even the very uncomfortable ones—that come up when you picture the possible futures.
Accepting this will remove one of the biggest barriers you face. It’s easier said than done, but you can practice accepting imperfect options by allowing yourself to fully feel the emotions—yes, even the very uncomfortable ones—that come up when you picture the possible futures. Perhaps you feel warm fuzzies when you picture holding a baby and anxiety when you picture parenting a teenager (or vice versa). Or you feel liberation when you picture traveling without a child and feel lonely imagining Christmases without one. Or you feel a sense of hope imagining giving a child the type of childhood you would have wanted, and you feel fearful of giving her the same kind of childhood you had, instead.
It’s okay to have mixed feelings! Allow them to arise and name each.
2. Acknowledge that the decision is not 100% in your hands
Often, we plan and strategize major decisions—like whether to have kids—as if we have total control over the choice.
But I learned during my time working in a fertility clinic that this is often not the case. Some of my patients there had always known they wanted to be parents, and some had arrived at this decision after much deliberation, but all of them were there because biology and fate didn’t follow their plans.
By the same token, many people have had children they hadn't planned to have ... or hadn't planned to have when they did. That's another reminder that the universe doesn't always follow our best laid plans.
Your decision itself is only part of the equation. That means not as much of your future may ride on this choice as you’ve imagined.
And, of course, making a baby requires two people, or at least one person and a clinic. And that means you aren't the sole factor when it comes to whether having a baby will or will not happen.
Accepting your lack of complete control takes some of the pressure off your decision-making. After all, your decision itself is only part of the equation. That means not as much of your future may ride on this choice as you’ve imagined.
3. Let go of the pros and cons list
If you’re anything like me (that is, a little bit Type A), you’ve probably used pros and cons lists to make life decisions. For the decision of whether to have kids, I went above and beyond pros and cons, I also made a two-by-two matrix to gather up anecdotal data for each of these outcomes—people who had kids and loved it, people who had kids and regretted it, people who didn’t have kids and loved it, and people who didn’t have kids and regretted it. I scoured the Internet for everything from peer-reviewed research papers to Facebook comments and was able to find support for each of these four possibilities.
When the stakes are this high and irreversible, and there are powerful biological and psychological forces at work, it’s impossible to quantify items on that pros and cons list.
This pros and cons approach is not enough for making such an existential and emotional decision. When the stakes are this high and irreversible, and there are powerful biological and psychological forces at work, it’s impossible to quantify items on that pros and cons list. How many points is the freedom to live abroad worth? What about the chance to show a child how to build a snowman for the first time? Which type of regret is worth more points—the regret of missing out or the regret of a lifetime commitment that you end up not feeling well-suited for?
Let go of the pros and cons list. It may be helpful to start with one just to help organize your thoughts, but know that ultimately, this kind of decision is made with heavy input from your emotions.
Emotions are not less valuable than reasons.
This is not a bad thing. Emotions are not less valuable than reasons; they're the way your brain conveys the outcome of the complex calculations it does behind the scenes, outside of your conscious awareness. Your rational thinking organizes facts about the outside world, and your emotions tell you facts about yourself. The latter is just as important as the former if you’re making a life-changing decision.
4. Play the “if only…” game to identify what’s really stopping you
If you’ve already made a pros and cons list, you may notice that even though you’re making a show of putting down multiple items in each column, there are certain items that weigh on your mind much more than others.
Let’s try an experiment. Look at your list, or simply allow your mind to wander around this topic and come up with thoughts about having kids or not. See if there is an “if only” item. For example:
- If only my parents would accept me as I am, I wouldn’t want to have kids
- If only I didn’t worry about my financial future, I would have kids
- If only I felt like my life had purpose, I wouldn’t want to have kids
- If only I felt more secure with my partner, I would have kids
Notice that none of these items are directly about whether to have kids or not—they're actually about another important life dimension. They're ultimately about acceptance, financial security, having a sense of purpose, and feeling secure in your relationship. But these are the most important items to identify, because they show you:
- Whether you do (or don’t) actually want to have kids
- The real challenge that’s getting in the way of accepting what you want
5. Accept today’s choice and give yourself compassion
You may be seeing a theme here—acceptance is important at every step of the decision-making process. That includes accepting today’s choice.
It may not be your final decision, but it’s the one you’ve made for now.
And indecision is a choice! Every day you opt not to start down the path toward having a child is a day in which you've made a decision—just for today, you're not planning on having a child. It may not be your final decision, but it’s the one you’ve made for now. Making this commitment might feel scary, but it may also feel good to know that, each day, you land on solid ground with a decision, instead of forever feeling suspended in uncertainty.
Whatever uncertainty there is, don’t berate yourself for it. Being uncertain means that, at least, you are taking this monumental decision seriously. That's good enough for today.
6. Set a (flexible) final decision date
One of the toughest things about having a dilemma is that it seems to hang over you indefinitely. Some of my fertility clinic patients have said that even if the final verdict is not what they want—that is, the final attempt with IVF does not work and they will live childfree—it would be easier to just know and accept the outcome. Most people are fortunate enough to have more choice than these patients of mine, who deal with the heartbreak of both uncertainty and lack of control.
But we can learn from these brave would-be parents and borrow the idea of a "deadline." For example, you can say to yourself, "Instead of being tortured with this indecision forever, I will make a choice one way or another by January 1, 2023. If I haven't moved ahead with trying for a baby by then, I will, by default, have decided to not have kids."
This decision date may be informed by biological limitations—consult with your doctor for when would be a good age to start trying for a child if you were to want one (or more). Keep in mind that fertility preservation methods, such as egg freezing, are by no means guaranteed. They're not an insurance policy, more like a lottery ticket. Most frozen eggs will not be able to be turned into babies, and many women, even those with excellent frozen eggs, will not end up being able to conceive even with in-vitro fertilization.
In reality, the decision date you assign yourself may not end up having the clean if-then algorithm you hoped for. But you at least gave yourself a light at the end of the tunnel, an "out" of your quandary. You may decide to move that deadline further into the future depending on your circumstances (having a new partner, for example).
If you find yourself repeatedly moving your deadline, it's a sign that you're procrastinating on making the decision for some reason. In that case, repeat the above steps for a decision-making reset.
7. Trust yourself to be resilient
Circling back to the first tip: there is no perfect decision.
Decisions are often not made in a Eureka moment, but rather, borne out of many moments of reflection, courage, and self-compassion.
Whatever you decide, there will be difficulties to reckon with. But this doesn’t mean you can’t handle them! You’re resilient, and you will be able to overcome or work with whatever the future brings. Whether the future means having your heart broken by a teenager who tells you she hates you or growing distant from some of your friends who have kids when you don't ... you can survive it.
And know that you are capable of making the right decision for you. There might be multiple right or good decisions. You only need one of them to live a fulfilling life.
After trying the above tips, you may get a lightning flash of clarity. Wonderful! You've used your emotional and intellectual resources to shape the course of your future.
More likely, though, you'll have some new tools but still need more time to come to your forever decision. That's okay! Decisions are often not made in a Eureka moment, but rather, borne out of many moments of reflection, courage, and self-compassion.