As I watched my older sister succumb to alcoholism througout my twenties, the idea of having children seemed more and more absurd. How could I bring a child into a world filled with so much misery and pain?
When I started dating my current boyfriend, I never thought that the desire to breed would creep back into my consciousness. It did, big time. But professional goals and financial constraints have kept us from “pulling the goalie” to date, even though, at 33, I’m smack in the middle of my childbearing prime, and just past the ideal decade for egg-freezing. The truth is, I have no idea when, if ever, we’ll know that the time is “right.”
Thanks to a decrease in societal pressure and advances in birth control and fertility extension, women are now better positioned than ever to decide if they want children. But are we better equipped to decide when we want them?
Today, more and more young women are deciding that they don’t want kids. At the same time, those who do seem to get tripped up by factors such as finances, career goals, and, of course, finding the right partner. In striving to set the perfect stage (for a play we’re not even 100 percent sure we’re going to produce), we may be waiting for a “right time” that doesn’t exist. And while we’re busy second-guessing and weighing all the options, our prime reproductive years are passing us by.
In speaking to 30-something women for whom pregnancy is a real possibility (meaning that they’re healthy and either married or in a serious long-term relationship), I discovered a lot of familiar indecision.
Olivia Weidman, a 32-year-old insurance executive, says she would happily assume the role of stay-at-home mom because her husband’s salary is enough to support them and she isn’t passionate about her job. But in spite of financial security and the pangs she feels when she sees a Facebook feed plastered with baby photos, Weidman says, “I’m not ready to stop popping my daily pill. I want more time alone with my husband before kids change our lives for good.”
Charlotte O’Donnell, a 37-year-old financial saleswoman, claims she’s wanted children all her life. After years of dating, fielding reminders about her aging eggs from her OBGYN, watching her brother’s brood grow up, and saving money, O’Donnell is finally in a relationship with the right man. But when asked when she plans to get pregnant, she’s noncommittal: “We’ll start trying when it’s the right time for us as a couple.”
Others feel the pull of career more acutely. Though she and her live-in boyfriend of two years “want to start a family more than they want a clean loft,” 33-year-old novelist Margaux Froley is similarly unprepared to commit. “I absolutely refuse to walk away from the career that I have scraped and clawed my way to over the last ten years,” she says. Many of Froley’s career-oriented friends are freezing their eggs—a procedure outside the bounds of most people’s bank accounts—and she’s considering following suit.
The social and scientific advancements that let us delay pregnancy are a luxury. But does the power to buy time ultimately help or hurt us? In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz writes that at a certain point “choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.” So those of us who feel like we have to consider every alternative may end up paralyzed in the process. And it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to make a “right” or “wrong” choice when it comes to starting a family.
Thirty-three-year-old science writer Cassandra Willyard explains in “Motherhood: Indecision 2012”, that although she’s grateful to live in an era in which women aren’t obligated to procreate, she sees having the option as a blessing and a curse. “While my brain leisurely mulls the pros and cons, my womb beeps like a smoke alarm low on batteries,” she writes. During a night out, Willyard finally suggests to her husband that they resolve their baby debate (“should we or shouldn’t we?”) by playing rock-paper-scissors.
This much uncertainty from women well-equipped to make a choice indicates that all the medical and societal advances in the world aren’t making it much easier to feel confident in the decision to start a family. With so much at stake (your financial future, your career prospects, your marriage, the list goes on) it’s easy to understand why many women hesitate before taking the plunge—and then hesitate some more.
Ultimately, the biological itch to have babies may not be enough to make the decision for us. Kayt Sukel, author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships, says, “I’m not sure that neuroscience has really honed in on what the biological drive to procreate is. Mother Nature thought our sex drives would take care of it—and the biology hasn’t evolved to really recognize birth control enough to try to counteract it.” Over time, Sukel says, this might change.
For now, it appears that having options is wrapping women in a kind of adult security blanket—one that’s warm and fuzzy with the possibility of babies someday, until it unravels. We all have to make the irrevocable, life-altering kids-or-no-kids decision at some point. And if we put it off for too long, it may be too late.