SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Sarah McCammon. Some people are born knowing they want to be parents. Others are sure they never do. But for a lot of folks, knowing when it's the right time to have a baby and if it's even the right thing for your life is a tough decision.
JILL LOGUIDICE: I know I love kids. I just don't know if I want to do the 24/7 of parenthood. There's no return policy on kids.
JOSH VILORIA: I didn't want to be too old to have an active lifestyle with my kids. So, like, I want to be able to play sports with them or, you know, go snowboarding...
CASEY SHEA: Back to the - I don't really know. Like, I think that I do want kids, but I don't know if I want kids in this world.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ultimately, when I reach all of those goals, then that would be a time where I know I can start pursuing adoption or creating a family.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's just like, well, you know, what if that's not what I want? You know, what if I don't want to have that?
EVELYN WONG: I wasn't the kind of woman who always wanted to be a mom or who imagined a giant family. But it just seemed like something everyone else did when you got married, so I did, too.
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MCCAMMON: There are so many things to think about when you're thinking about when and whether to become a parent. And that can create this sense of tension that can be really difficult to untangle. We can't untangle it for you, but in this episode of LIFE KIT, we're going to talk about a few of the factors that shape that decision and suggest a plan for resolving some of the tension.
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MCCAMMON: Let's start with writer and journalist Nell Frizzell. She's the author of the new book "The Panic Years."
NELL FRIZZELL: (Reading) This is an anatomy of my own panic years.
MCCAMMON: We asked her to read a passage from it because it sums up so much. Frizzell's book, she says, isn't a guide to finding the right partner or how to get pregnant or the best way to raise a child.
FRIZZELL: (Reading) It's about what happens when you're heading towards the grown-up cutlery and matching sheets of adult life and wondering if you should have a baby, if you only want one because you're brought up to want one or if you've ever been able to have one if you tried. It's about trying to establish a career before you disappear into maternity leave. It's about wanting stability while your friendship group splinters into the parents and the not-parents. It's about not just looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend but a potential parent for your theoretical child. It's about fertility, gender inequality and social stigma. It's about why you find yourself doing the panicked math that if you meet someone and you date for a year, and if it takes two years to get pregnant, but if you were to aim for this job and if your period started at 13 and your mom's eggs ran out at 40, until suddenly you're not doing math anymore but asking something bold and blank and unending. Who am I, and what do I want from life?
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MCCAMMON: So all of that is takeaway one. Ask yourself what you really want. In her book, Frizzell explores the questions she says that she and many other people, especially women, have asked themselves while making this crucial life decision. Frizzell says you have to start by digging deep into your feelings.
FRIZZELL: To be absolutely honest about what you want in the world is terrifying because you open yourself up to the disappointment that you're not going to get it.
MCCAMMON: Ann Davidman, who describes herself as a motherhood clarity mentor and as a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that process can leave people feeling muddled as they try to think and feel their way through.
ANN DAVIDMAN: I think the biggest obstacle for everyone, no matter their circumstance, is that when they're trying to figure out what they want, what their desire is about becoming a parent and what they're going to do about it at the same time, it creates gridlock in their mind.
MCCAMMON: Now, Frizzell says working through that gridlock is uncomfortable but necessary.
FRIZZELL: If you want to see - if you admit to someone that you - that there is something that is burningly important, you then have to confront the fact that not getting it will make you desperately sad. But without admitting what you want, how on earth are you ever going to get it, and how is anyone else ever going to help you achieve it?
SAYIDA PEPRAH: Well, in general, I think timing is important. Do they feel ready and lined up with the decision to have a baby? Because a lot of times, people move with pressures - family pressures, biological clock pressures - that maybe don't match up what their circumstances are and how they really feel. Like, do you feel like this is your time?
MCCAMMON: Dr. Sayida Peprah is a licensed clinical psychologist and a doula.
PEPRAH: And then them matching that with the practicals of their life is the hardest part because we do tend to live in a society that doesn't create space for maternity and the perinatal experience. And so you've got to factor in the world and your desire. But you can do it if you have the support, especially, and if you have sort of the mindset to think about it in advance. It can make it easier.
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MCCAMMON: Before our next takeaway, let's take a look at some of the factors that can make this decision so emotional and complex. And we should say first it's a decision that's only sort of in our control. Contraception, abortion, modern medicine can all make it seem like having or not having a child is totally up to us. But it's not. Our partners make choices. Our bodies fail us. And medicine isn't perfect.
For people who want a baby, one of the most unforgiving realities to consider is the limitations of fertility, the fact that if you want a child in the most common way humans have typically done that, there's a finite amount of time to get it done.
MARLINA MANSOUR: My name is Marlina Mansour, and I am a pharmacist. I did always know that I wanted to have kids. I think initially, I was wanting to push the child deadline to kind of as close to that magical 35-year-old number as I could. And now I'm thinking maybe sooner than later is better.
MCCAMMON: Biologically speaking, yeah, that is generally the case. It doesn't take a fertility doctor to tell you that it's easier to get pregnant earlier in adulthood rather than later.
AIMEE EYVAZZADEH: So my name is Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, and I'm a fertility expert here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have a lot of patients who come to me because they are fertility-curious. They're interested in learning about their fertility levels so that they can learn more about what the future holds for them when it comes to baby-making.
MCCAMMON: Women face a substantial drop-off in fertility starting around age 35 and an even more precipitous decline around 40, and the risk of pregnancy-related complications also increases with age. Male fertility also declines with age, although medical experts say it's less dramatic and less predictable. Dr. Aimee, as she's known, says there are ways to extend that timeline through modern medicine, but only so far.
EYVAZZADEH: It is 100% of us will become infertile. We'll all run out of eggs. We have not discovered a Botox for our ovaries. I wish. And my patients look amazing. They come in in their 40s, and I have to tell them that they are in perimenopause or in menopause. And that's heartbreaking for me.
MCCAMMON: Another limiting factor for most people is finances. Having a baby, not to mention raising a child, can have a huge impact on the family budget, especially now, when many people are facing layoffs and other financial effects of the pandemic. Erica Sandberg is the author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan For New And Growing Families."
ERICA SANDBERG: A child is going to be the most important expense. And I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to call a child an expense. But the child is going to be the most important expense that you have. So take that, take all those costs that are wrapped up in that beautiful little bundle of joy, which you have - right? - and recognize that that comes first and how everything else is going to come second to that. But that doesn't mean that you just ignore your other bills.
MCCAMMON: When you're thinking about having a child, you're thinking about the world as it is now and the way it may be far into the future. Ashley Joslyn (ph) lives in Pennsylvania with her wife. She says they've been thinking about having kids since they were dating.
ASHLEY JOSLYN: As a lesbian, it has to be a conscious choice and can be very expensive very quickly.
MCCAMMON: They're worried about their finances and the state of the world their child would grow up in.
JOSLYN: On top of that, climate change is a huge factor. What kind of world are we leaving to our children? Have we reached the climate tipping point? I'm in my mid-30s. My wife is 40. I always thought that we would have children, but I'm increasingly unsure. And that makes me sad.
MCCAMMON: Therapist Ann Davidman says those are real concerns, and different people will resolve them in different ways.
DAVIDMAN: For some people, they're just clear. Forget it. I'm not doing this. Everyone is going to react differently. And whether it is a climate crisis, whether it's a pandemic, whether it's overpopulation - which 30 years ago, that's what people were talking about was overpopulation. They weren't talking about climate. But no matter what it is, these are - they're very real. But they are externals. And when you are clear on what you want and why, you face them differently.
MCCAMMON: Davidman says those external factors are real and worth thinking about.
DAVIDMAN: The pandemic, climate crisis - these are real. And, yes, they have to be considered. But being in reaction to them isn't going to give you clarity. And so first, you do have to decide what you want. Then you can look at your life, the world and decide what you want to do about it.
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MCCAMMON: For some families, the answer might be having fewer kids than planned or not having children at all. The thought of even being pregnant during a pandemic and all of the health and logistical concerns that go with it is enough to give some potential parents second thoughts. For others, the feelings brought into focus by the challenges the world is facing right now might actually motivate starting a family. Marlina Mansour, the pharmacist from San Diego, says she and her husband had wanted to check a lot of boxes, as she puts it, and do things like travel more before having kids. But the pandemic has shifted her perspective on parenthood a little bit.
MANSOUR: And I think with the pandemic, it just kind of put things in priority. Like, for us, I think the thing that we've missed most wasn't actually the travel, but it was actually spending time with family.
MCCAMMON: Mansour says they are fortunate to have maintained a stable income during the pandemic, and they're able to rethink their timeline now.
If fertility and finances and, you know, the state of the world aren't enough to think about when thinking about having a baby, for people of color, the decision can be even more difficult. Dr. Sayida Peprah also runs a nonprofit called Diversity Uplifts Inc., which focuses on supporting health care providers who work with communities of color. People of color face worse outcomes for infant and maternal mortality as a result of factors including systemic racism. Peprah says it's crucial to find a trusted provider who's culturally competent and who makes you feel respected and empowered in making health care decisions.
PEPRAH: I've heard people more than I ever had before say that they are wondering if they should have a baby, given the statistics around, you know, Black infant mortality, Black maternal mortality. But I think I always want them to know that the way to mitigate that is not to have fear about having a baby. The way to mitigate it is to make sure you understand what your concerns are and align yourself with providers and a support team that can make sure that you are supported in the ways that you want. It's very possible. I see it every single day, women of color achieving amazing birth outcomes.
MCCAMMON: Peprah says she advises all of her patients who are thinking through decisions about family planning to take an inventory of all the people, sometimes a vast web of them, who'd be part of a child's life.
PEPRAH: Get it all on the table from the beginning. What are all your feelings? What are your partner's feelings? If there's anybody else significant in your immediate family that might have feelings, just get it all on the table so you can sort of see what you're dealing with and then get support around that.
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MCCAMMON: So that's takeaway two. If you're thinking about having a baby, look at your support network and figure out who will be there for you if you decide to parent, including your partner, if you have one, your family, friends and health care providers, and how friendly your workplace culture is to new parents. As people sort through whether or not they want to get pregnant, Peprah suggests spending some time with parents and asking them honest questions about the entire experience.
PEPRAH: Why don't we talk to some other, you know, people close to you who have a similar lifestyle who have a baby, and have real conversations with them about anything that comes to mind? People tend to be a bit in isolation in general when they're, you know, in their maternity time. And so people don't know a lot of things. So then this is the time to actually ask the questions, even see if you could go to a mommy group and sit in.
MCCAMMON: If you're on the fence because you're worried about money, finance expert Erica Sandberg advises making a budget - writing all of your potential expenses down and taking a clear-eyed look at what having a child would really cost, and then make an honest assessment. That might mean waiting. Or, she says, it could mean looking for ways to tighten your budget or earn extra income.
SANDBERG: And there are no perfects, so get rid of that idea. Oh, just get rid of that idea altogether. It's very rarely a situation where you're going to go, oh, my gosh, I'm the perfect age, and I've got the perfect amount of money and all of that. So good enough is sometimes good enough.
MCCAMMON: That's tip No. 3 - assess your finances. Write it all down. If you are preparing to get pregnant, and particularly if you're thinking about waiting for a better time, Dr. Aimee says it's worth starting a conversation with your doctor about ways you might be able to prolong your fertility or at least be more informed about it.
EYVAZZADEH: I feel like everyone, no matter what your sexual orientation, should have that preconception visit with a reproductive specialist, your OB-GYN, fertility doctor to basically go through the five tests. Should I get my tubes checked? Have I had an ultrasound done? What does the sperm source look like? Have I done all my hormone check and preconception panel? And am I genetically compatible with the sperm source? So I feel like those questions should be answered by everybody.
MCCAMMON: She says talk to your doctor about your fertility, what your current hormone levels mean and what your options are. You may decide to wait. Or, she says, you may want to take some action soon.
EYVAZZADEH: So what I tell people is, look; if there's a chance that you might want to have a baby with your own eggs, freeze them now. If there's a chance that you would have a baby without a partner, if you're heterosexual, consider making embryos so that you don't have fertility regret. However, I do think it's important even if people don't choose to do a fertility preservation procedure, having the conversation brings peace to themselves.
MCCAMMON: We should say here egg and embryo freezing is a good option for some people, but it's not the only option. It's not foolproof, and it is expensive, but it can buy some time. So that's tip four if you're considering having a baby. Assess your fertility.
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MCCAMMON: For some people, though, there's no struggle over the question of whether or not to have children.
D'ANNA KAPUSTA: My name is D'Anna Kapusta. I live in Detroit, Mich., with my husband.
JOSHUA KAPUSTA: And I am that husband, Joshua Kapusta.
MCCAMMON: The Kapustas are in their mid-30s. She owns a salon, and he's an engineer. And they both say they feel really sure they don't want to have kids.
D KAPUSTA: I have nothing else to think about. I think I speak for both of us when I say that it wasn't really a hard decision - for me, at least.
J KAPUSTA: So we had that conversation very early on. You know, just what are your life goals? What are your thoughts about children? And I was surprised. And, you know, I love D'Anna for it that we were on the same page.
MCCAMMON: Both grew up with younger siblings, and neither wanted children of their own. But sometimes they say they do feel social pressure. D'Anna says that external pressure can feel particularly intense for her as a woman.
D KAPUSTA: But, you know, you get married, you buy a house, and then you immediately start to try for kids. And it just feels like any deviation from that script, and people think that you're weird or out of the norm or maybe that there's something wrong with you.
MCCAMMON: When she counsels her patients, Dr. Peprah says she wants them to know there's nothing wrong with deciding not to be a parent.
PEPRAH: Everything's OK. Like, there's no - people worry that, like, I'm going to get to a point, and then I'm going to - if you get to a point and you're 60 and you're lonely, you can foster children. And they will love you, and you'll be a great caretaker, and you'll have had all the time in the world to have patience, and you'll be, like, amazing, you know, if you want to. There's always opportunities to care and nurture little people (laughter), you know?
MCCAMMON: That brings us to our fifth tip for deciding whether to have a child. Know that whatever you decide to do is OK as long as it's the right decision for you. And there are many ways to become a parent or to care for other people, and they're all valuable. Peprah says there are trade-offs, whatever the decision - the possibility of regretting not having children versus the options foreclosed by having a baby or multiple babies. And it's important to weigh it all.
PEPRAH: This is where I really encourage people to go into their - you know, their deep spiritual practice, whether they pray, whether they, you know, align with spiritual concepts that really can center them in a sense of grounding for themselves where they feel peace because peace is where you want to start everything from if you can, and so whatever that looks like to them. But if they can't, I don't ever really recommend that people do anything when they're not in peace because that - it indicates something.
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MCCAMMON: Nell Frizzell says whatever you do, there will probably be some second thoughts. After some time with an indecisive partner who finally came around, Frizzell has a toddler now. But she remembers what it was like to worry that someday she'd look at moms with their strollers and feel she was missing out.
FRIZZELL: We are all so scared of regret. But I can tell you - and this is a huge taboo - that as a parent you do also suffer regret. You sometimes look into your own pram in the supermarket and think, what the hell have I done? And so don't let that dictate the way you're living your life in the moment because there is going to be a wonder and a sense of anxiety about the path you didn't take, whichever one you do. And if you have a strong inkling either way and it feels like something that you cannot move on from, then you're right. You're correct.
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MCCAMMON: So to recap, we can't tell you whether to have a baby or how many kids to have, but here are some things to think about.
First, be honest. Face your feelings, even the difficult ones, with yourself and with your partner or spouse if you have one. Ask yourself what you want.
Second, gather your support network and determine how much help you'd have and what help you'd need. That includes finding a health care provider who respects you and your unique needs and life circumstances and can come alongside you.
Third tip - assess your finances in detail and make decisions about what's really important and what's possible.
No. 4 - assess your fertility. Find a doctor who can talk to you about where you are in your life and your reproductive options and decide if there are steps you need to take today.
Five - know that this is your decision and whatever you decide to do is deserving of respect. You don't have to follow anyone's life script but yours.
So here's my two cents. I have two kids. One was planned, one was not. They're both great. Sometimes I wish I'd had more. Sometimes I wonder, like Nell, what on earth I'm doing. So good luck to you, whatever you decide.
If you're still trying to sort through this decision, we asked our listeners for their advice, and here's what they said.
ASHLEY THOMPSON: It's super tiring and stressful and hard and - but then at the end of the day, like, you just have this overwhelming feeling of love and emotion for this human being that totally relies on you, and there's nothing else like it.
J KAPUSTA: So many other things you can do to help children and help us as a culture and community. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to be a parent to do it. It does have its hurdles, not following the script, if you will, but I don't feel lesser for it. I think we're perfectly happy as we are.
WONG: If I had any advice for folks who are interested in becoming parents, it would be please, please spend less time on Amazon doing the baby registries and more time thinking through your own childhoods and what kind of parent you want to be.
VILORIA: I'd mention to prospective parents - is there's such a wide range of experiences you could have. Like, we were really lucky in that we were successful on the first try. You could fall anywhere in that spectrum, even to, like, adoption. And just be open-minded to all of the different possibilities that you could have.
WONG: Having people who you love unequivocally and who you brought into the world is a wonderful thing. But I also believe very firmly that if you don't have kids, there's other ways you can pour love and be loved as well.
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MCCAMMON: Special thanks to all the listeners who contributed to this story - Marlina Mansour, Nichole Howell (ph), Ashley Joslyn, D'Anna and Joshua Kapusta, Jill LoGuidice (ph), Justine Rivero and Josh Viloria, Casey Shae (ph), Monique Skaggs (ph), Ashley Thompson (ph) and Evelyn Wong (ph).
For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics from how to set boundaries with family to how to move on a budget, plus episodes on parenting, health, finances and more. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from listener Jack Messpore (ph).
JACK MESSPORE: My little hack is when reheating rice, you can actually set a cube of ice on top of the rice, put it in the microwave. It'll rehydrate your rice. So something about the molecular compound does not actually melt the ice and make your rice soupy.
MCCAMMON: Do you have a random tip? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or send us a voice memo at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Andee Tagle and edited by Meghan Keane. Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo are our digital editors, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Sarah McCammon. Thanks for listening.
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