How Do You Decide If You Want to Be a Mother?

Kayleen Schaefer
·10 min read

In my mid-30s, I started to do calculations with my age and how long I could possibly wait to try to get pregnant. They went like, “If I got pregnant in a year, I’d be 38 when the baby was born,” or, “If I got pregnant in two years, I’d be a mother at 39.” I was running these numbers even though I wasn't sure I wanted to be a mom. Basically, I wanted to see how much more time I had left to figure it out.

I read lots of articles about women’s fertility decreasing after 35, but they didn’t worry me much. I read an equal number of stories that said those statistics were overly scary, and I knew plenty of women who’d had kids after 35.

As I got closer to 40, I started to get nervous. If I wanted to have a biological child, I had to make this decision—and soon.

<cite class="credit">Dutton</cite>
Dutton

In the 1950s and for decades afterward, having a child was part of the script of life. Becoming a parent was the final step that meant you were officially a grown-up. That’s not true anymore. Today’s 30-somethings are defining adulthood differently. We can have children, or choose not to, and be mature people no matter what we decide.

Having a child is a personal choice—and one that can be delayed past women's prime fertile years through assisted reproductive science. Some women know they want kids, others know they don’t, but there are other women in the middle: those who just aren’t sure.

In the scope of what I could do with my life, whether to have a child is the decision I struggled with the most. I saw it as the only one I couldn’t take back. What I did for work, who I dated, where I lived, even who I married, all of that could be undone if it turned out I’d made the wrong choice. But a child would always be mine.

Muriel, a comedian and server in Los Angeles, has been married for five years, but doesn’t know if she wants to have kids. Her husband, Nick, suggested she stop taking birth control when she turned 36, which, when I interviewed her, would happen in a week. She countered that they start trying to conceive in another year, when she’s 37, but she knows that she’s just pushing it back because she’s not sure about having children.

Her ambivalence makes her feel guilty. Her mom was 24 when she had Muriel. “I’m 12 years older than that, and I still don’t know,” Muriel says.

She has friends who are sure they want kids, others who are positive they don’t, but she never talks to anyone who is uncertain, like her. The lack of discussion about this makes her paranoid about not having an answer. “It feels like an issue or a problem, like I’m being bad,” she says. “It’s like, Are you a child? You don’t know whether you want to have kids? How do you not know at this age? I’m not tripping about what type of adult I need to be by a certain age, but with the kid stuff, it’s like the beating of the ‘telltale heart.’”

Muriel and Nick talk through everything in their relationship, except whether they want to have kids. For a long time, they pushed off the conversation. They could decide later. But now that they’ve started to try to figure it out, they’re not as good at discussing it as they are everything else. The conversations tend to be short.

“I don’t know what I want,” Muriel tells him. “What do you want? Do you want to do this?”

Nick says, “Yeah, let’s have a baby.”

“But it doesn’t feel intentionally enthusiastic,” Muriel says. “It’s wishy-washy. I’m pretty intentional when I want to make something happen. Right now I’m more about: I like my apartment. I’m not going to move to Burbank.”

Because she feels so guilty about her uncertainty, she leans toward it meaning she shouldn’t have kids. If she doesn’t know by now if she wants them, she doesn’t deserve them and wouldn’t be a good mom anyway.

I wondered too: How could I know for sure that I wanted to raise a child?

I thought about how I was afraid having a child would slow down my career, and about how as a freelancer with unsteady earnings, I wasn't sure I could afford childcare.

But I was also starting to feel a tug that I wanted to be a mom, that it would be nice to help guide a small person through life.

So, as I got older and closer to an age when I assumed I'd no longer be able to have a biological child, I accepted my uncertainty. I couldn’t know for sure how it would go, but I wanted to try to get pregnant. My fear was still there, but so was my instinct that having a child was something I wanted to do with my life.

I had always told myself that I’d be comfortable being a single parent. I took care of my life myself. I should be able to do this on my own too.

But, when I knew I wanted to try to have a child, I also realized, after a string of sleepless nights, that I wanted to have a child with a partner.

I knew who I wanted that partner to be. That I missed my ex-boyfriend made sense. We dated for a long time when we were in our 20s, in a period that made us both better, and I felt so many ways about him: He was delightful, charming, magnetic, gorgeous, but also infuriating and crazy-​making.

He was comfortable one minute, unpredictable the next, and had a million other traits that made me both unable to get enough of him and terrified that his big personality might dominate mine.

Even though we weren’t in a romantic relationship, and lived in different cities, we had remained close, texting and visiting each other when we could. We had mutual friends we hung out with too. It was a complicated friendship, and one where I often cringed at how opinionated he was and how unwilling he was to try to make nice with everyone. But, just as often, it felt easy—I liked doing everything with him, even once marveling how much I enjoyed a trip we took to the store to stock the Airbnb I was staying at with toilet paper and laundry detergent. He let me use his Amazon Prime account; he encouraged me to set up an LLC for my freelance business. I called him when my pet fish died. He called me the morning he thought he was going to get laid off.

I thought he might want to come to New York. Maybe he’d be open to getting back together, to living with me, but I didn’t want him to if he wasn’t interested in also trying to have a child.

I decided to call him to ask him.

I was nervous beforehand. I was about to ask him if he wanted to move to New York and try to have a child with me. It was a lot to bring up on a phone call.

But he was expecting me. I texted him a few days before to see when he’d be free. On a Sunday afternoon we chatted a little about what we’d been up to since the last time we’d seen each other. Then I forced myself to be direct. Did he want to move in with me and try to have a child together? We talked for a long time. As we ended the call, he told me he needed to consider everything, but “it was really nice to hear your voice,” he said. I thought there was a good chance he would say yes.

Shortly after this conversation, he did. He didn’t move immediately. We saw each other twice before he brought all his stuff with him. When he arrived, it was with the understanding that we were going to make a home together and eventually try to have a child. We started by puzzling out how to be in the same place together, both in the physical space we were sharing and in what we wanted out of our lives. We’d been friends and dated on and off for a long time, but we’d never been so directly affected by each other. We had small differences, like me waking up immediately and him needing to snooze for what feels like 400 times. And we had bigger ones, like me being optimistic and not wanting to worry about the future and him being more concerned with being practical and prepared for things that might go wrong. We talked a lot. We also fought. All of it moved us toward being able to align ourselves in the present.

Sometimes I’m giddy about him being here. It feels like magic that he is. But I also know it isn’t. To come together we had to take our relationship seriously. We had to grab each other’s hands and agree to go the same way.

Muriel has lots of friends who have kids, but “the main difference is they really wanted to and they figured out a way,” she says. “They’re excited and happy. I think I would just be stressed.” Committing to trying to get pregnant, now or in a year or so, feels like she’d be going into a fight she doesn’t want to be in. “It all seems like joining a battlefield, going into survival mode, and trying to protect your eggs,” she says. “And then I can’t even think about what it would be like to have a baby. It just feels like a grenade.”

That she can’t visualize having biological children makes her most sure she doesn’t want to do it. “I can kind of picture doing better in my life and looking at adoption and fostering, but I just have a blank spot for what being pregnant and giving birth to a child would look like. I’m like, Where would that fit in?”

Some friends have encouraged Muriel to just try to get pregnant, to see what happens, but “that seems like a really bad idea,” she says. “I don’t want to take that risk. I do worry that I’m missing out on something. I’m human and I don’t want to miss out on the fundamental human thing. But my only conflict is that. I don’t have a conflict of ‘Oh, I wish I was sitting here with a baby on my lap.’”

I did not get pregnant immediately. I went through a year of fertility treatments, and a miscarriage, before I ended up where I am as I write this: as a mother of a baby boy.

I am lucky to have had both the money and health insurance for these treatments, and to have had my body respond to them. There were times when I was trying to get pregnant that I didn’t think I would be able to. I am wary of causing pain to anyone who is struggling with their own fertility, but during that time I tried to accept the uncertainty as part of the deal with having a choice. If I wasn’t able to have a successful pregnancy, that would have to be okay. I had needed time to sort out what I wanted and do it the way I was comfortable with.

I hadn't been ready before.

Adapted from the book But You're Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood by Kayleen Schaefer.

Kayleen Schaefer is a journalist and author of But You're Still So Young and Text Me When You Get Home. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue, and more. Follow her on Twitter @kayleener or Instagram @iknowkayleen.

Originally Appeared on Glamour