How People Decide Whether to Have Children

A guide for those on the fence

Isabel Caliva and her husband, Frank, had already “kicked the can down the road.” The can, in their case, was the kid conversation; the road was Caliva’s fertile years. Frank had always said he wanted lots of kids. Caliva, who was in her early 30s, thought maybe one or two would be nice, but she was mostly undecided. They had a nice life, with plenty of free time that allowed for trips to Portugal, Paris, and Hawaii.

“I wasn’t feeling the pull the same way my friends were describing,” she told me recently. “I thought, maybe this isn’t gonna be the thing for me. Maybe it’s just going to be the two of us.”

At times, she wondered if her lack of baby fever should be cause for concern. She took her worries to the Internet, where she came across a post on the Rumpus’ “Dear Sugar” advice column titled, “The Ghost Ship that Didn’t Carry Us.” The letter was from a 41-year-old man who was also on the fence about kids: “Things like quiet, free time, spontaneous travel, pockets of non-obligation,” he wrote. “I really value them.”

Cheryl Strayed, the author of the column, wrote back that each person has a life and a “sister life” they’ll never know—the “ghost ship” of the title. “The clear desire for a baby isn’t an accurate gauge for you,” she wrote. Instead, she recommended “thinking deeply about your choices and actions from the stance of your future self.” In other words, think about what you’ll regret later.

“The Rumpus post helped me understand that no matter what I chose, there was going to be a loss,” Caliva said. Her ghost ship would either be a carefree life or the experience of parenthood. “That was freeing. It changed my perspective from having to make the right choice to just deciding.”

Caliva liked the column so much she sent it to several of her friends.

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The question of whether to have kids has puzzled me my entire adult life, in part because my reflexive reaction to the thought is “not again.”

There is a large age gap between me and my younger brother, and I was put in charge of minding him during many school breaks and holidays.

My brother was an easy-going preschooler. He pronounced “L”s as “W”s and wore a blanket like a Batman cape—the full “adorable kid” experience. Still, I was struck by how difficult it was to keep him entertained. I don’t possess the goofy sense of humor that charms the under-five crowd. I didn’t understand how to infuse excitement into otherwise boring activities like coloring or baking. We ended up watching a lot of TV, separately. I was so miserable that, one summer, I jumped at the chance to take a job filing papers in an office.

The experience of my teens left me feeling like parenting is, at worst, pure drudgery, and at best, feigning enthusiasm for someone who lacks a theory of mind. The problem is, I can’t tell if this is because 14-year-olds aren’t meant to be full-time nannies or because I’m just not a kid person. And having one seems like a high-stakes way to find out.

Last fall, I posed the question—Why did you choose to have children?—on our reader blog, and the responses rolled in. In all my colleague Rosa Inocencio Smith and I collected and analyzed the emails from 42 readers, who were about evenly split between deciding to have kids and not to. (Caliva was one of them; she gave us permission to use her name and story.) To spoil the big takeaway, there doesn’t appear to be one “maternal instinct,” and not just because half of all pregnancies are unplanned. For some, parenthood is a hard-boiled belief; for others, it’s a switch that flips after a crisis. Other times, it’s just a feeling you get.