My partner of the last seven years and I have always been fairly ambivalent about the idea of having children. However, over the last couple of years, notably since the birth of my youngest nephew, I have found myself wavering. My sister emigrated before she had children and I now feel a profound sadness that I can only have a limited involvement in their childhoods. The feelings have become so strong that looking at photos of them causes me to well up.
If I were to tell my partner straight out that I wanted a child, I think he would probably agree to go ahead, but my own feelings are so mixed that there’s little point even raising the subject. (My partner doesn’t know how to handle emotional uncertainty whereas I have found that if I take and present a position on something, discussion is much easier.)
There are the usual concerns about finances, work, and whether we would be any good at being parents, but fundamentally, my mixed feelings stem from my belief that we are coming into an era of huge uncertainty – climate change is a reality and is likely to cause huge upheaval and mass migration of peoples, resources are becoming more scarce and I think the search for them will eventually lead to (greater) armed conflict.
Species are becoming extinct at an accelerating rate and populism and insularity are on the rise. It’s not a matter of whether these things will happen, because they are happening now, but rather how bad they will be and whether we can do anything to halt or mitigate them.
While my partner and I are in the extremely fortunate position, unlike so many others, of having our own home, decent jobs and loving families, in many respects I feel that it would be unfair of me to bring a child into what I see as in all likelihood a precarious future. If I were in my 20s, I would simply wait it out to see whether the next years bring any change but I am now 36 and don’t have that time. Should I just concentrate on being the best aunt I can and support my nieces and nephews through whatever the future throws at them?
It’s great you are giving this so much thought, but you are looking, pretty much, at the worst-case scenario. And that did make me wonder, if you did have children, if you would always look at every event or outing they went on, like this. I never knew the meaning of the word worry until I had children but there are times when you do need the confidence to take a perspective on things and let go a little.
I consulted Lucy Johnson, a psychotherapist (psychotherapy.org.uk), and she was struck by “the depth of sadness you feel over not seeing your nieces and nephews. I wondered whether it was easier to acknowledge your longing for them, than be able to acknowledge your longing for a child of your own?” I also wondered about a sense of loss at your sister emigrating and what you felt that left you with? We were struck by how “alone you seem in this decision. While it sounds as if your partner finds uncertainty unsettling, you will be parenting together and one of the first acts of parenting is making the choice to have the baby together.”
Deciding to have the baby is really only the first big step you take together as parents – will you also be alone in the others, having to “present a position” to your partner? I wondered – and I say this really tentatively – if this wasn’t just a question of having children, but having children with this man? You made no hint of this and it’s sheer conjecture on my part, but it is something I feel is worth mentioning. There is very much just one viewpoint coming from your letter. Perhaps your partner could actually give you some perspective on this? If he really can’t, will you in effect be, emotionally, parenting solo?
The fact that you are ambivalent is incredibly sensible. The choice to have a child is a big one, but because it’s so big, it’s easy to paralyse oneself by the negative what-ifs. What is harder to factor in, to imagine, are the “wows”.
“What I felt was missing from your letter is hope,” says Johnson. “Women get pregnant in all sorts of desperate circumstances and in doing so, either consciously or unconsciously, they are choosing life over potential death. I wonder whether, on some level, your worry about climate change is a cover for some deeper ambivalence.”
Obviously no one can make this decision for you (both), but Johnson suggests: “I wonder if, in making your decision, it might help you to move from the global to the personal, and explore the areas that you have more control over: for instance, how does the thought of creating space in your life for a child feel? What would it mean for your career or your relationship?”
I also think that, to really come to a decision that is right for you you need to think not only of what happens if you do have a child, but also what it means for you if you don’t. “How would you feel,” asks Johnson, “if you decided not to have a child, and action on climate change did keep the global temperature at safe levels?”
Ultimately, try to forget about everything else for a moment and think: “Where do I want to be in 10 years and who do I want to be with me?” Really, that bit is all you have any control over.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 24th February 2017.