It was bound to happen: One day, women would awake from the fog of cultural myth-making to realize that having kids is in fact a lot of work, work that was bound to fall disproportionately on them—maybe even too much work, all said, if you want to get other stuff done or have a low-key existence. And they would decide to wait. Maybe forever. That time has come.
The idea that #notallwomen want kids is, of course, not news. It's out there. It's a popular essay topic, a subject of much study and debate, and a known quantity at this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of articulate women everywhere to give visibility to this totally understandable position. Just as some women simply know their whole lives that they want to be mothers one day, others know with just as much certainty that it's not for them. Being among the latter is beyond annoying, because you are peppered with well-meaning doubt-mongering for much of your life: You never know, they say, you might change your mind. Or, You'll see, it'll happen to you one day.
But a harder to articulate messy middle exists here, too, ladies for whom those nagging doubts are, in fact, reality: The women who simply don't know if they want kids or not. Who might change their minds. Who really aren't sure. They can make it perplexing for everyone, because there is no certainty—or at least, none that lasts for very long. Pregnancy ambivalence is real.
Such types are the subject of a New York piece about the increasing number of women who, for a variety of reasons, are uncertain about procreating and could see it going both ways. What is interesting about these women is that they are paired with men who are totally sure they do want kids, and the issue challenges the stability of their unions. Bryce R. Covert explores the relationship between Lauren Rankin and her boyfriend, Jason. They've been together for five happy years, aside from the looming deadline to procreate or bust. Covert writes:
Conventional wisdom would cast this as a baby-hungry woman up against a skittish man, but Lauren's predicament is exactly the opposite.
"We've both known from the beginning of our relationship that he's always wanted kids, always wanted a family, and I've always been ambivalent as hell about it," she said. She's wary of the responsibility and commitment of having a child. But life events have forced the issue. She's 29 and he's 34, and he wants to have children before he gets to 40. More pressing is that Asbury Park — a four-hour round trip every day. Jason is willing to move somewhere more convenient, but only if they can agree that children are in the future. "That's the ultimatum," she said.
Covert writes about the increasing number of women who aren't sure or don't want kids these days as compared to men:
In a nationally representative survey of single, childless people in 2011, more men than women said they wanted kids. (On the other hand, more women reported seeking independence in their relationships, personal space, interests, and hobbies.) A different poll from 2013 echoed those findings, with more than 80 percent of men saying they'd always wanted to be a father or at least thought they would be someday. Just 70 percent of women felt the same.
She credits a number of factors in this shift, such as greater reproductive control and changing attitudes, but the more intriguing factor is the simple acknowledgement by more and more women that having kids is going to fall more on them, even when men say they will totally pull their weight:
The majority of today's young people of both genders seek an egalitarian split in work and family responsibilities. But even if both partners want it, women are aware that they probably won't get it. Achieving equality in the home is easier said than done: In a 2011 survey of fathers, 65 percent said they believed both parents should spend an equal amount of time on child-rearing. But when asked about their realities, 64 percent said their wives provided more care. "I think before you have kids it's a lot easier for men to imagine combining work and family," [sociologist Stephanie] Coontz said. "There's work involved with having kids that women can anticipate better than men. We saw our moms do it."
And I should add that we saw our moms do it, but we also see other women do it every single day, and know intimately of their complaints.
Full disclosure: I count myself formerly among this group. I was a woman who had no real plans to have kids. I could imagine a version of my life with them with the right person, but an equally great version without them. I wasn't necessarily going to go out of my way to have a kid later in life even if I eventually decided I did want kids but discovered it was "too late." And I knew that I was basically fine either way, but leaning more toward never doing it.
A mixture of things that contributed to this stance: A difficult upbringing, a fear of never having enough money to give a child a stable life, and a fear of giving up my whole identity and career to it. But a big, huge part of it was honestly the fear of not finding the sort of man who I believed without the shadow of a doubt would truly, actually, really, measurably throw all in with me when it came to dividing the work of raising a child and running a house. I had some great boyfriends and everything, but even the best were not equipped or willing to commit to the egalitarian vision I had in mind.
I also know all sorts of women with men who fancy themselves progressive/liberal/feminist-leaning, but I have seen those relationships play out with children, and the women near-universally do all the things, and are secretly resentful about it, and that's the best-case scenario. I knew I would not even settle for a 60/40 split on division of kid labor.
And then there was the childcare issue, as Covert notes:
The work of raising children also comes with virtually no support. American mothers aren't guaranteed paid maternity leave or paid sick leave and are offered virtually no help in affording the exorbitant cost of child care. They also face widespread discrimination and a hit to their incomes just for becoming a mom.
For these reasons I feel enormously lucky to have had a wonderful experience with motherhood with a truly supportive partner. But it's also why I would never have more than one kid. This balance is too tenuous as it is because of the costs and negotiating required; I am quite sure I have tempted fate enough as it is already.
And to be clear, Covert notes, the ambivalence isn't always about women fearing their partner won't step up. Often it's that the women are all too aware of hard they've worked to set their lives up in a pleasing, fulfilling way—they don't want to tempt that fate, either.
She speaks with Jennifer, who is early 30s, and says she doesn't want to rule anything out, but she's "acutely aware of the trade-offs" of having children. She likes, for instance, complex adult meals and reading on Sundays (RIP, old life). She's also a planner, and fears the chaos of a kid adds 1000 percent to the equation.
Then there's Lynne, whose husband wants kids for sure, and who hoped that in spite of her concerns—rough childhood, mental illness in her family, fear of giving up her career/life—that her feelings would eventually match his. But a late period scare answered the question for her: She didn't want a baby. Lynne told Covert:
"Even in a progressive, liberal, feminist household like ours, there was still that idea that the woman will stay home and the guy will keep working … or that a man's work isn't going to be compromised." At one point, she asked if he would consider quitting his job to be a stay-at-home father given how much he wanted a baby. "That just wasn't the plan he had in mind," she said.
"I just want to have a life and enjoy it and determine, as much as anyone can, which way it goes," she said. "I want to be able to read a book at the café for a couple of hours if that's what I feel like doing."
There are myriad other reasons women are ambivalent about childrearing beyond the autonomy issue. Courtney Y. fears that as a black woman, she would be terrified to have a black son in this climate. For other women, it's the upheaval. Or lack of maternity leave. And for many it's just waiting for some feeling to kick in that may never come. Lauren Rankin says it's like being stuck in a Choose Your Own Adventure book and not knowing which path to take.
In my case, it all worked out, and I feel that I got the best of both worlds: An enriched experience as a person on earth caring for another person, and greater clarity about my goals that actually helped me get my life together and focus more clearly on the life and career I wanted. But it would be absurd for me or any of us to assume that this will be the case for anyone else. As long as the particulars of childcare and career and flexibility are a gamble for women more than men, more and more of us are going to opt out of this dance. The upside is that maybe then we will have the collective leverage to fix the system.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.