To have or not have children

I started this story, titled “Opting Out of Parenthood, With Finances in Mind” a little bit sad. I thought that money was a bad reason to have or not have children. Someone else (a friend, a farmer who can’t remember where she heard it) articulated the perspective I try for: Don’t postpone joy.

I think for those in a challenging avocation, the decision to have children is an ongoing question. If you have a job that you feel you can put on hold and come back to easily, that’s one thing. But in academics where time is always more valuable than even money (though its nice to be paid a living wage), the temptation to wait, and then discover it is too late, or too hard, or just not going to work for a 1000 reasons, is very sad. Alternatively, watching the people who have a stay-at-home partner climb ahead is frustrating, especially when you’re getting up in the middle of the night for a crying child (let alone bailing them out of jail for drug issues).

Yet the article is insightful, and a challenging to some main stream ideas. There are a number of good non-pecuniary quotes:

The number is actually the easier part of all. Deciding whether to have children is so difficult because it requires evaluating benefits you simply cannot know or understand unless you experience them firsthand.


Parenting involves lots of sacrifices, and that is partly why I am disinclined to try it. But choosing not to have children does not reflect selfishness, or at least no more than parents display in having children in the first place. People don’t decide to have children because those hypothetical offspring need someone to care for them; those children’s needs don’t exist until they are brought into the world.

In the end, although there is an emphasis about the financial aspects of parenthood, there are some well-reasoned points being made. It’s difficult to know what is truly in your heart. And one of the very hardest things to do is to live life without regrets (that’s courtesy of the Dalai Lama)

27 responses to “To have or not have children

  1. For me, the decision to have a baby was not a rational one, because who in their right mind would give up the ability to lay on the couch and do whatever you want whenever you want it for having to take care of someone who in the first year never even shows a sign of gratitude? And then I’m not even thinking about how much it costs. But on the other hand I wouldn’t have wanted to miss all the awesomeness that comes with a baby.

  2. And there’s always the possibility that you will have a child with special needs, who will not leave the house at 18. I was certain that my children would venture into the world at 18. Maybe 19. My husband and I had agreed that if an ultrasound showed something wrong we would abort. Everything was taken care of. Right? Wrong.
    The ultrasound missed the terrible problem, my son was born severely disabled, and he will live with us for as long as we can handle it. No one can prepare for that kind of emotional and financial cost. Therapy 7 times a week, a wheelchair, leg braces, full anaesthesia for teeth cleaning, special needs school, double the price for after-school care, seizures, hospitalizations, medication, co-pays are high even with health insurance.
    The chances that this will happen to you are exceedingly slim. But it will happen to some of us. And there’s no way to prepare. And sadly we don’t live in a state that is dedicated to taking care of the weakest amongst us, but our careers are here. Ultimately the best way for us to grant our son the highest quality of life possible is to work on our careers.

  3. @Makita, I cannot imagine how difficult this must be. My husband and I agreed to abort if there was something wrong. First because we are not young (22 year olds) and therefore our kid would not have us to support him as long. We agreed for the second as well, this was also due to age but because we didn’t think it was fair to the older one to be saddled with that kind of responsibility.

    I never wanted kids, I always thought I would be more like Barbara McClintock with her bevy of dogs and that they would find me dead with my face in an ethidium bromide gel. But my husband can be very convincing. In the end I think having kids has made me more grounded. I can be a very driven type A, take things way too seriously sort of person. This career is all about–“what have you done for me lately” and it can really get to you emotionally. Having kids has evened me out. And I think it is terrific for kids to see a mom who has a real passion for her work. Both my kids (11 and 15) are very supportive of my efforts, and actually think it is pretty cool to have a scientist in the family. And, in the end, if I can ever get another grant, they probably will find me dead in an ethidium bromide gel.

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  5. I am one of those who waited until it was too late. I will always always be filled with regret for that, and it is now just a matter of coping with it. When I look around me – at all of my friends from high-school through grad-school, it seems very few of us had children. I don’t know if it was by choice for the others (it is such a personal thing, we don’t talk about it), but it certainly wasn’t for me. Aside from that, it’s hard to imagine how I could have done anything differently. Pointless to look back now. For the yunguns who are putting it off – I recommend freezing embryos. Not eggs, embryos. Consider it a gift to your future self.

  6. I think having kids gives you a connection to and a stake in the world that stays strong as you age. Otherwise, as you get older, your friends and family all tend to get older too, more of them passing away as you get to the retirement years and beyond, and your skills and knowledge, while possibly always growing, may become less relevant to a changing world. It’s not just elder care, it’s having someone who cares at all about you, when you’re seventy or eighty or ninety, and having someone that you still care about. And when you have descendents, you leave a legacy that is more meaningful that more people’s work can possibly be a generation or two later.

    Those are the things that motivated me to have kids, and to me they are more important than money. Money can make you comfortable or uncomfortable, but having an investment in the world, having some skin in the game, in a sense, can motivate you to get out of your comfortable bed, in a way that I don’t think work always can.

  7. I have to say I really disagree with Mary. As someone without kids (and not going to have them), I reject the idea that you can’t have a connection or stake in the world without kids. My wife and I are in our 30s and have friendships with non-relatives from their 20s to their 80s. To me, it is being childless that keeps me outwardly engaged in the world and a wide variety of people, rather than insularly focused on my own children and family. Frankly, I have the time for real engagement beyond my work because I don’t have kids. This is my impression of all the older people I have met without kids as well.

    All of our legacy in the world is eventually zero. The vast majority of humans will leave no descendants on the the order of 1000s of years… a blink….that’s just population genetics. And what does it “mean” that they are genetically related to you? Your genetic contribution, like any kind of contribution, is fleeting and ephemeral. I don’t see why it should be privileged with more meaning. I care about future people who aren’t related to me the same way I care about current humans I am not related to… passionately and motivated to make change in the world.

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  9. That’s a really sad and important topic. Thank you!

    I can only say that kids are our best friends. It’s rather unlikely to randomly meet in life somebody who would share that much with you, as a person, in terms of personal traits, in terms of enjoying certain things, as your kids would (on average at least). Thanks to this whole genetics thing, having kids is all about sharing the world as you love it: not only because you bring them to the world, but also because they are likely to inherit from you your way of interacting with it, broadly speaking. And for scientists it’s a very important, very peculiar way. To some extant, the best way to find somebody to talk about the Universe, is actually to born them.

    And that’s why having kids relatively early is so important. For first several years they don’t even need money actually (they don’t care about money till a few years before college. They are perfectly fine to live on a median US salary, that is about a typical postdoc salary by the way), because they have no expectations. And later… who knows what would happen later. Maybe by the time you need money you would have it. If settlers were able to survive in the Wild West, why wouldn’t you? Money is not an issue. Time is an issue (in the US at least), but even this is kind of solvable.

    So this statement, about not postponing joy, is really important to me. Try to meet your kids while you both can still enjoy similar things. Try to overlap with them in time.

    And then for me there’s a whole separate topic here; the one that is kind of weird, and I’m not sure I can even explain it properly, but it’s about genetics, and science, and the future of the world as we know it. I mean, if all people with PhD refrain from reproduction for at least 2-3 generations, I’m afraid the genetic drift will become noticeable at the population level. And while it doesn’t affect me personally, it still makes me feel a bit uneasy for some reason. But again sorry if this last paragraph looks weird here.

  10. I once heard, on a radio talk by some important person whose name and expertise i have entirely forgotten, that the definition of ‘biological success’ was when you see your grandchildren. I am now waiting (increasingly anxiously) for grandchildren and I now know what he meant.

    This has nothing to do with rationality or decisions individuals might make, it is just an interesting statement that seems to fit with fundamental emotions I’m feeling at the moment.

    Otherwise, although I thought i would be fine if I never had kids – I am best friends with my adult kids now; but more so than I ever was with my own parents, which is interesting in itself, but not part of this discussion.

    Heart-felt support and a big cyber-hug for Makita and her family. Yes it could happen to any of us, as parents or grand-parents, I know others in similar situations, and you seem to be a very strong family. All the very best for your future.


  11. Can I just say that d. has so much wisdom and compassion? She should have her own blog!

  12. thanks anonymous, it is more fun and less hassle being a stirrer on other peoples’ blogs.


  13. I didn’t mean to imply that having kids is the only way to stay connected to the world. Just that losing that connection is a risk that we face (maybe bookish homebodies like me more than others) and that wanting to invest something of ourselves in the world is a good reason to have kids, to me. But there are other ways to invest in the world and the future, of course.

    Maybe I should only speak for myself. I’m an introvert, and maybe have a tendency toward self-absorption. For me, having a child has radically re-directed my attention, away from my cozy living room and the scientific puzzles I work on at work… I see the world through the eyes of someone who is seeing it for the first time right now, and I think about the future from the perspective of someone who, rather than being happily married and established in a career, has no guarantees and infinite possibilities. I think as I personally get older and the novelty wears off of more and more experiences, I personally would have a tendency to disengage further from the world, as I have seen some other, older adults do (including some with children.) But I think as long as I have a daughter, a “heart walking around outside my body,” I’ll never disengage completely. And I think if or when she has kids I’ll care about them because she cares about them, and they will be my legacy not because of the genetic material I share with them but because of the emotional investments and sacrifices I have made for my daughter, which give me an excuse to be proud of her achievements, and a stake in her investments, so that I can be proud of her kids’ achievements too…

    Also, I’m eight months pregnant with my second child right now, so I may have some need to justify the ridiculous discomfort I’m in and the productivity hit my career is taking.:-) It’s true that I can’t say I’m having this child because I love this child — I didn’t and couldn’t love her before she was conceived. What I loved was the idea of loving someone, I guess.

  14. @ Mary “… I see the world through the eyes of someone who is seeing it for the first time right now,”

    WOW what a powerful statement, and yes it is true. I started teaching for the first time when my son was about one, and I could just SEE how he was learning about the world and it helped me engage with my students, to see from their viewpoint. Then I went on to do quite a lot of educational research, later, but it was my son who taught me to be interested in it.


  15. Your kids are not/will not necessarily be your friends. My mother wanted me to be her friend; I never was. I moved far away and stayed away to escape her neediness. It’s true I visited to help out in emergencies, but if I had had young children of my own it would have been almost impossible to manage that, and my parents would have had to cope some other way. And we never got on well. If you love kids, or just love the idea of raising your own ones, that’s a good reason to have children, but don’t, for their sake, expect them to be your friends or to look after you when you are old. If all goes well, then maybe both will happen, and that’s lovely, but you shouldn’t count on it, not only because of the possibility Makita raises, but because personalities are individual, and you and your child might just not be people who get on. Or when you most need looking after, maybe your child has just had a special-needs baby, or taken a job halfway around the world, or the teenage grandchild has problems that need a parental presence. Or maybe tragedy strikes and you outlive your child. Only have children if you want to be a parent. Forget any possible far-future payoff. If you want friends, make them; if you want a comfortable old age, save your money. Children should be free to choose their own paths in the world, not pressured to fill their parents’ needs in return for having been born.

  16. Mary,
    thank you for a wonderful comment! You have mentioned that kids are “not just genetic material”, and I assume this is to some extent a reply to my previous post, but actually I fully agree with you, and, I mean, you have put it so much better than I would have hoped to explain it! Thank you! That’s exactly what I meant! This “I see the world through the eyes of someone who is seeing it for the first time right now”, and everything that goes afterwards.

    You know, sometimes people with kids accuse those who “opt out” as being selfish. And sometimes it happens the other way around: people say something like: “OK, you just don’t feel you are worthy enough as a person, so you are trying to achieve a subjective sense of immortality through leaving your progeny on Earth, so by having kids in fact you are acting more selfish. As you are in fact using them for your own personal satisfaction”. And I think it is not true, but I don’t quite understand, why. Of course the motivation to have kids is not “rational” in terms of hold mind coming to this conclusion, but probably it still can be explained in some way or another.

    And that’s why what you said is so important to me. When you see kids discovering the world around them, when you see their joy and interest, it kind of proves to you in some way that it was a good thing. Why it works better with your own kids? Probably because you just spend more time with them, or maybe to some extent because they are still somewhat similar to you. Or maybe because they believe you, at least while they are young, and thus share more with you, and accept you better. I’m not sure. Still it definitely works.

    On “kids being friends”: I still think it is rather likely that at least some of them will share certain interests with you. Not all of them, and not because you had come preconceived notions about what these traits should be, and not because you “raised them this way”. (It doesn’t work). But they can surprise you. And as for the rest of your comment: I think the thoughts that we put into this “friends” term may be slightly different, and it’s all the matter of how it evolves in time, etc. Being friends from 2 y.o. to 14 is one thing. From 14 to 20 it will be quite different. And say after 25 it will be different again. It’s three different tasks, and not all of them are probably equally rewarding, and one of the tricks for me with a parent will be to disengage at a proper speed, but I believe it’s doable. For me the notion of “being friends” exactly implies that there’s no “neediness”, no “use” component. And if you try to force it, it surely won’t happen. But if you give it a try, it may happen after all =)

    Also, a lot of your comments (about all kinds of personal situations or even tragedies that can happen) get less and less important if you consider a family with many kids. As you increase number of kids in the family, the probability of something going wrong increases, but surprisingly the impact on your life may kind of decrease. I say kind of because if one of 5 kids dies, it is still a tragedy, and it would be unfair to say that the loss is smaller only because the other 4 are alive. But at least some joy remains.

    Have you ever heard grownups saying something: “Why would not my parents have more kids? How can they now demand so much of me, when it was their decision to have only one child, and to have it late?” I definitely heard it: from those who are accused for leaving their parents alone at the old age just because they need to work in a different country; from gay people that don’t want to create a “normal family” and can not afford having kids, while their parents ask for grand-kids; from people who were forced into a field they don’t like just because they are the only child, and the parents want them to follow their steps… Well, I still think that 1 kid is usually better then 0. But 2 is also usually better then 1, and so on (for a while at least =)

    Sorry if I said something wrong again, as I probably did not mean it. I struggle with explaining myself. And this is not an easy topic.

  17. I like Mary’s posts more than anything I’ve read in a while. Thanks

  18. I find myself regretting that I only had one, and not the two I originally waffled over. It’s technically not too late but seriously unlikely at this point for a number of reasons. Still, I find myself quite often daydreaming about what I would do in the very unlikely event I should become pregnant again now that my first is just about 18. Would I “come to my senses” and take care of my health and career and run to the nearest clinic? Or would I do the motherhood journey all over again, despite the very real risk by now of Down’s syndrome and severe health problems for both of us?
    I was raised by people so religious that the idea of having an abortion even to women going through menopause in their 50s was unthinkable, and I knew several “change of life” babies. They all unflinchingly referred to them as “miracles”. None of them had jobs, of course – they all were expected to spend their entire lives in the kitchen, so what was one more, even as one approached age 60? Not like you were ever going to be doing anything besides cleaning house and cooking anyway, right? I don’t get on with my family very well.

  19. I have always figured that at some point, if you’re going to have kids, you *feel* like you want to have kids. I have never felt that way. I’m 28 – and I don’t think it would be right/wise to force the issue and start churning them out if, deep down, I don’t want them. I believe there is a reason I don’t want them in a fundamental, biology way.

  20. I agree with sivwatkins, which is why I have never understood why anyone wanted to criticize other people’s choices about whether to have one (or more), or to not. You want to or you don’t, really, and you might be afraid of making the wrong decision, or feel constrained in actualizing what you want, but for most of us, really deep down, you do want to be a parent, or do not have that deep desire to be a parent.

    The reasons all seem to come after one already has a sense of what that deep down feeling is; it’s why those reasons, rather than other ones, seem compelling. I had a kid because I really wanted to have a kid, had always wanted to. It had nothing to do with old age, or being friends, or any of this, although those are nice benefits that I hope for (the being friends and sharing interests part; I have a great pension plan, thanksverymuch).

    I also think reasons that are far-future directed are unfair to kids now. Don’t teach your 3 year old swimming and music because it allows them to be potentially better athletes and musicians in the future. Do it because it really is fun, today, to splash around in the water, regardless of what happens in the future. It really is fun now, to jump and dance and sing, without having to increase IQ or improve college prospects or job outcomes or any of that.

  21. yvr_fca_osl,
    I fully agree that to have kids, or not to have kids, is a personal decision, and there’s no point in “following one path”, if deep (or not so deep) inside you feel that it is not a right thing to do. But still I wonder why people with PhDs have less kids on average than people without; and why more people with PhD don’t have kids at all. Is it because they are honest and follow their heart and mind, while most people around don’t? Or is it because a passion for science somehow correlates with non-passion for family? Or is it still, at least to some degree, due to the fact that academia is more competitive, people are more invested, it takes longer to succeed, and the benefits / maternity leave / job sequrity / work-life balance are, so to say, suboptimal?..

    I can not get rid of a feeling that the discussion of personal choices, unique situations, and complexity of life, leads us away from a simple observation that most people in academia would probably still be quite happy to have some kids (and maybe more, and maybe earlier). But for some complex and carefully weighted reasons choose not to, or keep postponing the decision. My feeling is that while every story is unique, some common patterns still tend to emerge, and quite frequently it ends up being more about the design of academia as a system (gender inequality, two-body problem, inclusiveness, etc.), rather than about individual philosophy.

    And if it’s about the design, at least to some extent, then it immediately becomes actionable. And actually calls for action.

  22. I was one of the people who did not think they wanted kids – I had a husband who definitely felt the same (more from the point of view that he felt he would not be a good father and I agreed with him) Then we divorced when I was 40 and suddenly I realized that what held me back was his desires more than mine – I had been ambivalent. So with my new-found freedom, I adopted! and now I cannot imagine my life without my son. I am old enough to appreciate the wonder of him and young enough to still keep up with him (I was 46 when he came home)
    SO for all of you “young’uns” who say not now and then might end up saying “too late” – it never is really too late….

  23. I’m 29 and thinking that when my mum was my age, she was just about to get pregnant with me – and that scares the bajeezus outta me! I really can’t think of having children, partly because I’ve jsut gone back to school and can barely afford to feed myself and partyly because I really just don’t ‘get’ them. I broke up with my last partner because it got to that stage in the relationship where we were discussing serious future things. He wanted a big family and I wanted a pony!

    The MOST annoying thing though, is people telling me that I don’t know what the future holds, and when I meet the ‘right man’ I will want children so much I will spontaneously become pregnant! I have a great relationship with my parents, I had a great upbringing. But I just don’t want kids! why do people find that so hard to accept?

    Oh and I competely agree with Dame Eleanor Hull’s comment. I know too many people who heap these unrealistic expectations on their kids. Like they will be friends, that they will support them when they’re old, that they’ll provide grandkids, etc etc. Really irks me! what I love about my parents is that we are completely independent of each other. Yes we are close, and if you really push it I guess you could say we were friends. But we live on the opposite sides of the world and they rely on me for nothing. And I am very grateful for that!

  24. Agree with Maxh about independence and friendship – I think long term friendship comes when we DO NOT expect too much of the other (kids, parents, partner, cousins) – but accept the other for what they are, a miracle person in their own right, and look to see what great things they can achieve in whatever they choose to do – and overlook the niggly bits that are not like us. Then you are free to share the funny, the sad, the great experiences you have had together as a family.

    I have celebrated the differences between my kids, and them and me and all of us and my husband, because in my family I was expected to behave in certain ways and have certain interests and I just didn’t.

    Other friends and relatives of my generation have better relationships with their kids than we did with our parents. I don’t know how this permeates through a culture, but it certainly has seemed to with us.

  25. Arseny – I do agree that there is an issue with respect to academics. I know a number of older professors who have, in discussions over beer, told me that they had wanted kids, and why it didn’t happen, and how those reasons seem a lot less compelling now than they did at the time. I was not talking about that part so much as people who genuinely don’t have a desire to be parents feeling like they nevertheless have to weigh the options and consider it. If you really don’t want to, it is okay to just not want to. I hear a lot of people get told that they will change their mind someday, or that they have to have a kid to understand and then it will magically be all different. I don’t think that is the case, or that we should coerce people. Some people really do know that they don’t want to.

    I had kind #1 at the end of grad school, at a time that was maximally inconvenient with respect to professional advancement. But I had heard from enough people that I knew that playing the odds game would not work for me – if I waited till it did not diminish my odds for professional success, then I probably wouldn’t end up with a kid, or two (as I wanted). And now with kid #2 also, it is not professionally ideal (I am not tenured, although I do now have a fairly secure tt position).

    Some of us did appreciate the sheer encouragement to do the kid thing if we really wanted to, and just work as hard as we could on the professional front too. In my field, there has been what feels like a major tide change in the last five years or so, with the younger faculty who in past dcades would have waited or not had kids deciding to do it anyways, such that it is abruptly not as big a deal, and it is easier (though still not easy) to reduce the impact it has on one’s professional success (and the impact of one’s profession on one’s family).

    I also want to point out that while there is a peculiar set of issues that impact academics having kids, there are also a lot of issues that impact other people outside of academia having kids, too. I have high school friends who decided to have fewer kids than they really wanted, because of economic pressures, and because they couldn’t afford to take that much time of an hourly-wage job.

  26. As someone who wants children but probably won’t be able to have them I have to agree that waiting to decide isn’t necessarily a great idea if you want kids that are genetically yours. In the genetic lottery I wound up with a cervix that can’t hold up and requires a somewhat invasive surgery to attempt to keep things in for 9 months (though the bar they set is pretty low, they just want you to get to the viable point). And I’m one of the lucky ones because it only took two second trimester miscarriages to diagnose where many women are told to wait out three or four. To be fair, the surgery is fairly successful with the minority of the population who are candidates for it but the stakes are also pretty high.

    I don’t judge anyone on either end, except when they judge everyone who isn’t approaching procreation from their particular angle. In a way it is sort of lucky that I found myself in this particular quagmire while in my 20s because as I head into my 30s there are other considerations and obligations to factor in. It seems that it would really be beneficial to think about the topic of having kids earlier on the practical level. Not that you should have kids or you shouldn’t have kids because A thru Z but just, the topic is just as important as figuring out what career you want and on either side you’ll face a variety of struggles relating to that choice. But once you figure out your own motivations it is easier to find the strength to move forward with that particular conviction and see it through to its particular end. Putting off deciding to focus on other things doesn’t (from my experience) take away the sting when you have to finally make a decision. For a lot of folks the biological process is really straight forward which is wonderful. But for those who may need some sort of intervention either in conceiving at all or afterward it is really important to give the decision the time it deserves rather than putting it off.

    /soap box

    By the by, I loved reading everyone’s comments on their own choices and resulting experiences. Its nice seeing the variety of narratives that relate to next generation and how we as people involve ourselves in other people’s futures not just our own.

  27. Good point C.R. Lanei – you reminded me of all the ‘other’ adults who have been wonderful support-people or mentors to me since I was a child (some relatives, some family friends, many childless) … and also of those who have been role-models and mentors for my own kids.

    And I remember when a neighbour’s 13-yr-old daughter would come to my house every afternoon after school on the days I wasn’t working (I had very small kids then and she loved playing with them), and her Mum told me she was very glad that this girl had someone else to come and relate to as she was having a difficult time at home.

    It’s corny, I know but ‘it takes a village…..’ etc, even if it is now partly a virtual village.


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