On not having children, and having doubts.

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Recently a writer told me that she was feeling ambivalent about having children. She said she wasn’t planning to have kids, but her friends were having some, and now she was starting to feel doubts. She asked if I had any advice for her.

I don’t have a dog, yet, but I’ve been looking. Ryan and I have an invisible dog, Chipotle — we sometimes take her for walks with us. Often Chipotle rides in the back seat of the car when we drive to the lake. Chipotle, my invisible dog, likes to run four feet ahead of me when I jog through forest trails; she pauses now and then, so I can catch up to her.

Sometimes, I also enjoy daydreaming about having a cat.

My point is, I have never imagined having a child of my own. So that’s where this advice is going to come from.

I don’t know what writing would feel like for me if I were a mother right now. Certainly I’d be more afraid about financial security. Probably I would have to hire child care, at least part time, to get my writing done. I am content and happy about my decision not to have kids (current political and environmental situation notwithstanding). 

Also, almost all of my dearest friends have children, and many of them love parenting with the whole of their being — I can see it. Some of them are writers. They seem happy with their decision, too.

So: there’s clearly no right or wrong answer here. Therefore, I’ll give some advice on the biggest argument I’ve heard for parenting (at least in our privileged Western culture, now that childhood exists as a concept, and people don’t have children to create more possible income) — which is, of course, giving love.

Parenting is one way to practice giving unconditional love. But it is not the only way.

In my meditation practice (which I don’t write about much, I know, but maybe I will write more about one day), I do it the way Thich Nhat Hahn teaches it, which has to do with paying attention to your breath and sending love out, with your mind. You start out small — with yourself — and then practice going bigger, to people you know and love, strangers, and eventually even hard-to-love people.

When I started understanding love the way Buddhists know it, I began to see that when you’re careful and vigilant, everything you do can be an act of unconditional love. Parents feel this love, for sure. But I can feel it when I’m writing, too. And when I spend time with Ryan. When I talk to my friends. Gardening. Being in nature. Paying attention — to anything, including myself.

What if the question is not should one have kids, but — how can one love?

Would that relieve some of the pressure, and soothe some of the doubt?

For instance: when your writing doesn’t feel good or quality enough, what if you treated this as a flag to give it more love? Instead of turning away and doing something else. Same thing when someone really gets on your nerves. Or when you’re frustrated with something your partner is doing, or not doing.

The crunchy times, the uncertain times — these are the very times when we get to see what happens when we act differently toward the situation. Like an ideal parent, one might say.

Doubt and confusion are painful feelings, just like grief, anger or fear.

You don’t want to make a decision based on anger or fear; you don’t want to make a decision because of doubt, either.

When you feel doubt, it’s actually a call for stillness, rest, and care. Give it some love!

When we have doubtful, angsty, dissatisfied feelings, that’s an invitation for us to get quiet and clear. It’s not always time to change course, or add something else to our life, just so we don’t have to feel that feeling.

This past year, staying clear and not changing course meant finishing writing my book, even though I didn’t know if it was any good at all. The closer I got to finishing it, the more doubts came up for me.

The funny thing is, if I didn’t listen to specific doubts about my writing, they would pop up in other categories: doubts about where we are living (did we do the right thing, buying this barn?) doubts about my lifestyle (am I too isolated? Should I join more community organizations?) doubts about the writing school (am I reaching the right people? Is online learning a good thing?) — you name it. The confusion wanted to take hold of me, wherever it could gain purchase.

If you’re embarking on your literary life and you get hit with a case of the doubts (Should I really write this book? Should I really move to another apartment? Should I really take this job? Should I really not have kids?), know that there might not be a problem you have to solve right now.

Before you make any decisions, try this:

Be aware of your confusion as a swirling feeling. Sit with it for 7 minutes. Stay calm as you watch it bustle around you.

Imagine you’re a small furry animal: you’re freaked out because you’re in a noisy, unfamiliar place, and it smells like fear. Be nice to yourself, and say soothing things to that furry little guy.

Should you have children? I don’t know. You certainly don’t have to have them. Life can be good with them and without them.

Should you be writing? I don’t know. You certainly don’t have to write. Or do you?

Love and clarity,

Sarah Selecky


ps. Here is a reading and listening list for other writers who are feeling doubts about having children:

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.


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24 comments

Sara (Barrett) Harris

*is often, not if often*
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Sara. <3 <3 <3
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Amanda. Much love to you. xo S
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Kathy. xoxo
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Sara (Barrett) Harris

I really, really liked that. I thought you said some very wise things that helped me. I am doubtful a lot, and "What would Love do?" if often the way I try to make peace with myself and my choices. Very helpful. Thank you, Sarah.
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Thank you, Eliza, for this wise comment. Thank you for reading, and for being here. xo, S
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Yes, those are 5 persuasive arguments, and I'm sure there are many more, for both sides! My wish is that people who are feeling confused give themselves permission to leave the debate behind, and go to the field beyond "for" and "against", where they can find peace, no matter what.
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Yes yes yes to everything you just said, Kristin! And huge congratulations on finding a way to balance and mediate these relationships (parent/child and writer/writing). Your comment is so inspiring!
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<3 <3 <3
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<3 <3 <3
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Thank you, Ophira! I love your thoughts on how to be with children in rich ways, without becoming a parent. So, so true. I love the little ones in my life, and I love learning how we get to make our relationships unique. xo S
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Thank you, Ali. I'm sure that the material you've collected during these years is enriched by the experiences you've had parenting -- right? And now you get to write from there, and go places in your work that might have been unfathomable to you before now... Have a beautiful holiday, and thank you for reading. xoxo S
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Thank you, Shannon. I love the tattoo analogy, and will be quoting you on that, I am sure. :)
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Kathy Martens

Ahhhh Eliza... A fellow empty-nester. I feel you, sister. I feel you. Best not to blink, for it passes like the snapping of fingers.
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Kathy Martens

Sarah, Thank you for this generous and insightful article. Wonderful food for thought delivered with beautiful empathy and wisdom. A question for all times: "How can one love?" Indeed. Love you! xo
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Thank you. I needed to read this so much right now.
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I used to have serious doubts about having children. But now I happen to think that every woman should have at least one child. Here are my reasons for it: 1. It satisfies your primal/tribal instinct of recreation. There’s a time in your life that you feel that instinct quite strongly. 2. It teaches you unconditional love. There’s no other way anybody could teach me, a pretty selfish person, how to love unconditionally. The more difficult your kid is, one of mine was, the better teacher they are. 2. It teaches you how to put someone else’s interest before your own. 4. It makes you a better person. A child teaches you to be patient, forgiving, understanding and generous. These are qualities that make you a better person, and the more we improve ourselves, individually, the better the society and by extension, the world becomes. 5. Once that first child is born you fall in love with it, and all doubts vanish.
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This topic so close to my heart. I was always deeply ambivalent about having kids. I could always picture life with children, and without them. Neither option seemed better or worse than the other. I didn't have a strong pull towards mothering or pregnancy or babies in general, though, even when I was pregnant this time last year. It really wasn't until my baby was here that I understood how good life could be having a child to love unconditionally. Honestly, though, one of my biggest fears after I found out I was pregnant was that I would let go of my writing (I actually had someone tell me that once. "If you have a baby, you'll never have time to write again." This was years before I was pregnant, and came to me from a woman who had a small child and was not in any capacity a creative writer. But it stuck with me and turned into a very real fear.) Everett is now ten months old. Last weekend I finished the third draft of my novel, which I've been working on for over three years, and sent it off to beta readers. For months I worked on revising it while he napped. I also didn't go back to work like I had planned, but there were a number of factors in that decision, health problems being one of them. And my desire to spend my time focused on the cool little kid we had created. And to write. I don't feel ambivalent anymore, but I seriously understand how hard it is to feel that way as a woman in your childbearing years, especially when you have other women around you who know for certain that they definitely do or do not want kids. Ambivalence, or just not being sure, isn't wrong. Whatever you choose for your life is ok. And you CAN still write, if you want to!
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Dear Sarah, what a great way of looking at any kind of uncertainty. I’m a writer but didn’t really start until my children were all at school and I was in my 40s. I have no regrets about having my children but sometimes wonder if I could have started writing earlier.... Have a wonderful Christmas and thank you for all your great advice and writing prompts. Ali x
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Sarah, this is beautiful and so insightful. What’s especially poignant to me is the idea of paying more attention to where the doubts are, where the confusion, unease, and dissatisfaction are, all the more so when they’re in areas that matter to us, as one would (and I try to - I have two kids) with parenting. Thank you. I’m new to mindfulness and receiving these lessons and reminders is incredibly powerful. Plus, for your reader: if you like being around kids but don’t want to parent, there are so many other ways to be involved and make a difference in the lives of kids - mentoring, bonding with friends’ kids or neighborhood kids, teaching like Sarah does, reading stories or just witnessing them tell their stories and make sense of the world. One thing I’m learning as a parent is that it truly takes a village to raise a child, and most of us no longer live in villages. Love, patient attention, and care make life fuller and better anywhere they come from.
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Thank you for this insight <3
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Eliza MacLeod

Having children is like a moment. It is when they are born and you hold them gently in your arms and feel the beauty of this tiny creature. But it is only a moment. And certainly, when they have grown up and moved on to their own lives, you realize that it was all; infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, just a moment. It is true that a person is wise to be comfortable with and without children as letting them go is much harder than deciding to have them in the first place. We are without our children for most of our adult lives. "Having" them is a part of the road that requires an alternate route perhaps, down a road with a few bumps and hills but lovely scenery and interesting vistas along with a few hair-pin turns and cliff-side passages. Then it's back onto the main road, ourselves again and it would be much more pleasant if we are happy with ourselves, and good company to ourselves. Writing, or anything else, can happen at any time. Children are a short passage and do require our attention and focus. But honestly, it is so short. The pens and paper, the paintbrushes, the wood-shops, the tech devices, the yoga mats, the classrooms, libraries, workshops... will all be there when we need them later, when we are back to being "ourselves" again, on our own, children dispersed, wishing them sweet dreams in foreign lands (and literally this time.)
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Beautifully said! And I can see how you can take the furry animal principle and apply it to almost any situation. I have children, Twins, one who says she wants children and one who doesn’t. Two of my sisters don’t want kids. Bravo for knowing that and living your own great life. Someone once told me having kids is like getting a tattoo on your forehead. You better be damn sure. Thanks for the morning wisdom.
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Sarah, you wise soul. Thank you unconditionally for this posting. It is beautiful. It makes all of my doubts feel less doubtful. I am 33, getting married soon, I still have some time to decide, but yet, the societal pressure and the constant babies being born all around me is overwhelming. I feel overwhelmed. But when I go home to my future-husband and my dog, I feel so at peace. And I need to appreciate that feeling and remember that feeling when I start to have doubts :) Thank you SO, so so much. And thank you to the helpful commenters as well.
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