Growing up, I wanted kids the same way I wanted a house in the suburbs and a white Rolls Royce in the driveway and whatever else my schoolyard game of MASH predicted about my future. Which is to say, I didn’t really want kids, I just assumed they came with the territory of adulthood. Some people know from their first Cabbage Patch kid that parenthood is for them, but for me, it was as hypothetical as growing up to be an astronaut.
As I got older, the idea of having children has remained as distant as going to space. Sometimes if I squint I can see what my life would look like with a kid, and my husband and I have talked names, schools, and parenting theories. But that oomph that makes people want to be parents has yet to hit me, and maybe it never will.
The “child-free” movement, and its child-ambivalent offshoots, have gained more attention in the past years, and it’s become a somewhat more acceptable thing to admit you just don’t want kids. But there are still people it’s difficult to talk about that choice with. Namely, moms.
“No one [in my family] takes me seriously when I say I don’t have any interest in kids, and it always prompts the tired ‘You’ll grow out of it,'” says Haley, 26. Haley says she can’t remember ever wanting kids, but didn’t realize it was such a fraught choice until a few years ago. “In college, it became way more apparent to me that if I had kids, there would be a good chance that it would mean giving up a lot of the autonomy and freedom I had wanted my whole life—not just because women are often the primary caregivers, but because kids shift your priorities in huge ways. I can’t really imagine wanting children of my own, as much as I like kids in general.”
Alison, 36, grew up around Boston, and for a long time assumed she would have kids. But as she got older, she realized her “feelings about having a child range from indifference to dread,” and she and her husband decided it wasn’t for them. Alison grew up with a supportive mother, who she says always provided for her and her sister after her parents got divorced. But telling her mother that her feelings on having children had changed suddenly made her mother worry. “Now that I’ve given her a definite ‘No’ she’s shifted from vague impatience to actual worry,” said Alison. “She’s concerned I’m making a horrible mistake—she has childless friends haunted by regret!”
There’s also the argument that just having kids will make you love it, even if you’re anxious about it before. “My mom has always been very outspoken about how having children was the most wonderful and definitive thing in her life,” said Kat, 33. “As her child, I’m flattered by that, but it also does create a feeling that I might be missing out on something necessary to have the best life possible.” Alison was given the same argument from her mother, who said she didn’t care about children until she had them, which left Alison feeling “like I should just have lied to her and said I was still on the fence and hoped that eventually the topic fizzled out on its own.”
Jess*, from New York, got the same reaction from her mother when she said she was more interested in adoption or fostering a child than getting pregnant. “She was aghast. It felt like I’d told my dad, Mike Pence, that I was gay,” said Jess.
Having a child is a deeply personal decision. It’s also one that is complicated by societal (read: patriarchal) pressures–women are socialized to be caretakers, to believe that motherhood is an inherent part of womanhood. (There’s an entire slogan on Etsy saying that “only the best moms get promoted to grandmas,” as if a child’s choice to have children is a comment on one’s parenting.) Still, can you really tell your own mother to stay out of it?
Bea Arthur, a therapist and psychologist, says it’s important to understand where parents are coming from. “Being from Ghana, family is really important in our culture,” she says of her own parents, “so if you have kids, your kids take care of you because there’s no social security. So my mom is like, ‘I just want someone to take care of you.’ I know where they’re coming from, but that’s the only way they understand emotional support.”
She cautions not to confuse the goal of acceptance with validation. “This generation was encouraged to be very expressive, and they feel like ‘you need to hear me and validate me,” she said. “And parents are from different generations, different worlds it can feel like. So you need to see how you can talk to each other and relate to each other beyond these conditions. Can you still love each other, even if you don’t agree with what the other one wants?”
Some moms will recognize that having children is a personal choice. For Jill, 30, who is single and genderqueer, the conversation has been relatively easy. “She’s always been very understanding and accepting of my position about having kids, even though I know she’d love to have a grandchild. But she always reiterates that it’s 100% my choice, and has told me that it’s better to regret not having kids than it is to regret having them.”
Kat’s mom was also supportive, even though “there might have been some surprise, because I enjoy kids generally.” But she advises spinning the news as a positive choice you’ve made about your own life, rather than an experience you’ll be deprived of. “Moms like knowing their kids are happy. If you can show her you’ve made a choice that makes you feel excited about your future and content in the present, she’s likely to get on board.” Arthur agrees, saying if you “lead with why it’s about for you, and why it’s not about them,” and that you’re telling them this because you value honesty in your relationship. They may not take it as personally.
But for moms who do take the choice personally, it’s important to remember that their reaction is Not About You. When Haley brings up her and her partner’s disinterest in parenthood to their mothers, she says it’s usually met with an eye roll or anxiety about not having grandkids. But she says firm, hoping her mother will realize that “no one is out here choosing to not have kids because they want to spite or victimize their parents, or because they don’t like children. Children are expensive, heart-wrenching, lovely, fulfilling nightmares. They aren’t for everyone, even perfect adjusted adults who generally like children.”
In general, though, understand that you may not agree. “It would probably help if we all worked a little harder to keep each others’ context in mind. The world that I’m in is very different than what my mom was navigating when she had my sister and I,” said Alison. And it’s possible to help your mother deal with her disappointment or shock without succumbing to pressure. “You may not be able to keep your mom from guilting you over your choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one for you,” says Haley. “Be gentle with moms, and yourself—everyone’s lives look different.”