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The Parenthood Dilemma

I think I’m reaching the point in life where just about every person of childbearing age is seriously having to consider (if they haven’t already had a child) whether or not they should or want to have children. I think I’m at that point and it’s my turn to make that consideration.

I’m 34 and I’m childless. I have two nieces, but it’s obviously not the same. I’ve never had a partner of any kind and at this point in my life, the idea of romantic relationships (pandemic notwithstanding) is still very foreign territory to me. I look back on my twenties, and I realize I was probably too messed up then (dealing with the depression and the anxiety and the low self-esteem) to handle a relationship, let alone having a child, even though now I know those were probably my best years biologically to do so. My thirties so far have been filled with so many obligations to others (especially caring for my mom when she was alive) and then the pandemic putting a speed bump on much of humanity that I’ve had no real opportunity to make a life or decisions for myself. My social life is nonexistent with the exception of online interactions over social media, so I have had no opportunities to meet anyone in a romantic sense. And honestly, I’ve gotten so used to being single that I wonder if I’d function well in a romantic relationship at all.

Then I think back on my interactions with kids over the years. There are times when I feel convinced that children hate me. I remember visiting an old friend of my mother’s many years ago, and her very young grandson was there that day. He couldn’t have been any more than three at the time, and I was maybe 12 or 13. I was tasked with keeping an eye on him while the adults were talking and hanging out, and the kid wanted absolutely nothing to do with me. He kept running from me, even though I was just trying to keep him calm. By the end of it all, I was starting to feel like he had driven me insane.

And then I think of when my neighbor tasked me with watching his ten-year-old daughter one summer while he was at work…that girl absolutely drove me crazy. For one thing, we had completely polar opposite personalities: she was a major extrovert while I am a major introvert; she was always full of energy, and while I’m already quite a low energy person, on top of this my mom was in the early stages of her illness at the time. This girl would be rambunctious and run me ragged with her games and constant talking, and just for funsies she’d sometimes go into dramatic hysterics (like locking herself in a bathroom and refusing to come out or pretending she had been possessed by a “spirit”) just to get a rise out of me, which would stress me out to the point of me being in tears. There were times afterwards where I’d actively question myself on whether my inability to have kids in my charge get along with me meant I was gonna make a terrible mother.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my niblings to the moon and back and I will always be there for them if they need me, but more often than not, children and I don’t necessarily mesh. I don’t get the same reaction from seeing babies that most women seem to do (go into absolute cute mode and baby talk). My mom got that reaction all the time when she’d see a baby. I feel upset inside when I overhear a small child comment on the size of my rear end in a grocery store (which has happened to me). I’m so used to being alone that the prospect of having a partner, let alone a child, scares me.

Sometimes I question if I even have that so-called “maternal instinct”. I’ve been called highly sensitive and can be a bit of an empath, but caring for my mother (which in many ways was like taking care of a child) came with its own set of challenges. I sometimes found it hard to show compassion and patience with her, when my mind was feeling tired and exhausted. Could I possibly handle two decades of that with a child? Am I gonna be one of those parents who doesn’t have enough mindfulness to make sure their child doesn’t fall into a dangerous situation and I end up harming them, or worse? Would I end up as strict as my parents were with me and have my child sometimes resent me for over sheltering them?

(Side note: my parents had a rule that I couldn’t date until I was 16, and even though there were a couple of interested boys before that age, I begrudgingly stood by it. I sometimes wonder if that was partially responsible for my romantic failings in life.)

And what if I have the same genes that caused my mother to develop Alzheimer’s? Would I want to put that burden on my own child to care for me when I’m not in a position to take care of myself? It took two of us (me and my dad) to care for her, and I wonder what would have happened if I had managed to build my own life, family, and career before the illness really took hold of her? Would my dad have still been able to care for her at home? Or would he have had to look into outside assistance? What if my piece of the puzzle that is our family had fit in a different section, one where I was making a puzzle of my own?

I’m torn about whether I think motherhood is a good choice for me. There is part of me that would love to have that experience of raising a child, knowing that I had a part in hopefully making them a loving, compassionate human being. But I think about my niblings, especially my nieces, and I know that I can make a positive impact on their lives without having to be their parent…or even a parent.

I had kind of told myself that if I didn’t have a child by age 35, that I likely would not want to have a child at all. That age is now one year away, and I don’t see my life changing significantly enough for motherhood to happen. I feel like I’m entering a period of mourning.

The risks that go with being pregnant get higher past the age of 35; the risk of chromosomal abnormalities and all the conditions that come with those occurring goes up, the risks of the pregnant person developing complications like preeclampsia goes up. Pregnancy is already a dangerous thing to go through, and not every person of childbearing age wants to put their body through that process. (I say “person” rather than “woman” because some trans men and non-binary people do choose to keep the reproductive organs they were born with in order to bear a child naturally. It’s important to include their experiences as well.) I want to know that if my time as a functioning member of society are numbered because of any potential genes for Alzheimer’s, that I want to spend that time feeling happy and content with how my life is going.

My mom was 34 when she gave birth to me, and 37 when she had my brother. She was a wonderful mother and it worked for her…but I’m now the same age that my mother was when she had me…and I don’t know if I’m meant to be a mother. It breaks my heart having to write that. I’m crying as I write that. This is a dilemma that so many people have to go through, especially as they approach middle age. Society places so much value on people who choose to become parents: most religious groups see them as more worthy of their god or gods’ love, governments usually give parents some sort of tax break, and society in general seems to appreciate people who become parents more than those who don’t.

I’m probably going to have to make some tough choices for myself over the next few years. I’m not completely ruling out the possibility of having a child in the next few years, it’s just that I’m realizing that the possibility is becoming less and less likely for me. I feel kind of sad coming to that realization. I feel like it’s another life goal that I set for myself that I know I’ll be failing at. And that’s what hurts me more than anything else. That by not necessarily wanting to have children, I feel like I’m failing myself and failing at life.

I’m feeling angry at the cards that life dealt me and knowing that the draw probably won’t get much better. I feel like I deserved better, but all the good hands have already been played and that I’m on the verge of going to the rail. (For those of you unfamiliar with poker terms, “going to the rail” means losing all your money in a poker game, being eliminated, and becoming a spectator watching from the sidelines.) I deserve to be happy, but for whatever reason it hasn’t happened. Trying to stay positive in this gets really hard sometime. I’ll be okay physically, but this is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Am I a bad person for treating this realization like a mourning period? Have you ever been in this position of trying to figure out whether or not you want children? How did you end up handling it? Did you end up feeling fulfilled with your decision about having children, whether you did end up having children or not? I hope I’m not feeling alone.

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