The Right Decision Is the One You Make

Friday, February 17, 2017 - 5:00 am

The Right Decision Is the One You Make

I’ve had so many huge-hearted, professionally passionate girlfriends (straight and queer) asking me for my thoughts about whether to have kids lately. As readers of the column know, I’ve got two — six months and three years old, and both as cute and disruptive as they come. I don’t really believe in “advice,” at least on matters as wide and deep and complex as this one, but I do feel like I can offer this piece of earned wisdom: choosing whether to have a kid or not is one of the most important choices you could possibly make, and it’s also one of those which you have to make with a preposterous paucity of information.

Will your kid be easy going or super intense? What kinds of disabilities or challenges might your kid face? Will you like mothering? How will your partner, if you have one, respond to the experience? Will you feel less motivated by work or will becoming a mother just fuel your passion for what you do professionally even more?

You have to decide yes or no without having the answers to a single one of these questions, and so many more. Isn’t that insane? When you decided what kind of blender you were going to buy, you had more information than you do now. As you approach one of the most profound crossroads in any human life, you show up with a backpack lead-heavy with the unknown and you have zero visibility on what’s ahead. You’re like a Sherpa with a blindfold on.

But here’s what I love about that insane reality — it puts you in touch with a core truth about life, one that we mostly manage to pretend doesn’t exist while we’re Google-ing and Yelp-ing and dishing with our friends and whatever other forms of exhaustive research we do to make ourselves feel well-informed and, most importantly, in control. (I’m especially looking at you maximizers.)

You aren’t in control.

If you decide to have a kid, you’re not in control. Oh boy, are you not. When you decide to become a parent, you essentially put your dangerously enlarged heart in harm’s way. You sign on the dotted line for endless tedium and maximal vulnerability. And you have no clue what you are doing, even if you read all the books.

And you know what? If you decide not to have a kid, you are also not in control. You’ll fall in love all the same — with a partner, with a circle of beautiful friends, with somebody else’s kid (aunties are the best). You’ll be no stranger to loss. Just as parents inevitably wonder how their days would have been shaped without little ones, you’ll wonder how your days would have been shaped with them.

We’re all peering over the fence, wondering what the path not taken is really like. You aren’t in control no matter what you decide. Accepting that is frightening, but also liberating — a bit like setting that lead-heavy backpack down and deciding to step forward purposefully with your view obscured and a smile of serenity on your face.

Which is all to say, don’t avoid having kids because you want to be in control and don’t have them because you want to be in control. We parents aren’t really authority figures — we’re just really good at pretending that we know what we’re doing. And having a kid doesn’t make you a legit adult — it just satisfies the people with this stupidly narrow definition of adulthood, or more specifically, womanhood. But on the flip side, not having kids doesn’t mean your life is going to be drama-free. “This thing called life,” as the late, great Prince put it, isn’t easy even if you completely avoid toddlers. It just isn’t.

I decided to have kids because my husband made me. Just kidding. Sort of. Most accurately, I decided to have kids when I was a kid. Something at the center of who I am, something totally irrational and intuitive, always knew I wanted to become a mother.

Yet, when I suddenly found myself in my 30s, with a husband who said he was ready to have kids, I in no way, shape, or form felt ready. For the record, I don’t actually believe anyone is ever “ready” to have kids. Not even my husband. Not a cell in my body said, “Yes, this is the time.” Instead, I just kept looking at all of the ways in which I’d painstakingly built a life that I loved, and pre-grieving the fact that I was going to ruin everything. Just kidding. Sort of.

But he’s very persuasive and I’m ultimately a rip-the-band-aid-off kind of gal, so here we are. Having kids did ruin a lot for me. I can’t travel like I used to; besides the pain in the ass of arranging overnight childcare, there is the pain in the heart of being away from my littles. I no longer eat brunch or take long wandering walks through the city on a regular basis. I don’t get to read as much as I would like to, which might sound insignificant to you, but reading is my spiritual practice, so it’s a true loss. I haven’t had my body to myself — i.e. not pregnant or nursing — in four years. I haven’t gotten more than four consecutive hours of sleep in six months. So that’s rough.

But most of all, I’ve been on the steepest learning curve of my entire life, and madly, viscerally in love, and totally out of control. I never could have made a different decision. It feels as if it was made for me on so many levels. I am humbled, so completely and totally humbled by it all.

Put down the burden of thinking you can make this decision with any of the muscles you usually use to make decisions. There’s no Rate My Kid profile or Amazon ranking for this one. This is not the stuff of pros and cons; this is the stuff of profound surrender and massive potential heartbreak and abiding faith (and for people who have to conceive with the medical establishment’s assistance, sometimes a lot of money and hard decisions). You’ll either have kids or you won’t, and either way, it will be terrifying and magical.

Maybe some mysterious part of you already knows the answer. Listen to it. You can’t do it wrong. Meaning is everywhere. Love is everywhere. Control is overrated, no matter which path you travel.

Share Post


is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Rebecca

    Your beautiful words touch me to the core. Thank you for that final line. This question of children, with all its unknowns and unpredictability has shadowed my marriage and left a slight aftertaste on every joyous experience with the nagging sense our life is incomplete. A complete life is inner work; what a heavy burden to saddle onto a new life, the expectations it would complete me is preposterous considering how depleting the experience of child rearing can be. The image of looking over fences at the road not taken captures this feeling completely. Craning my neck to catch a whiff of that sweet baby smell wafting from some alternate reality prevents me from seeing the beauty, the magic and having gratitude for the privilege to journey on my side of the fence.

  • Gabby

    What you describe is, I think, the most common experience people have of children if they always knew this is what they wanted above all else, even in cases in which the children are not well. But would it be the experience of someone who makes the decision from a position of real ambivalence, of someone very sensitive to what might be lost from a childless lifestyle? I don’t know.
    I do think an ambivalent couple should ask whether they are ready to put a child first for at least eighteen years, to think about a vigorously giving life with no going back. The decision cannot just be about how the adults in the equation want to feel or live but even more what their decision will mean for the quality of life they will work tirelessly to offer a new little being. (If parents work but with resentment, the child will feel it and it will become a part of his psyche). The consideration should not, I think, be about completing or not completing the parents’ lives as much as it is about whether they are ready for permanent priorities outside themselves.
    I thank Rebecca in her comment below for the reminder that this is not a choice for all couples. I know it can be painful for people who always wanted children to observe ambivalent couples asking this question.

  • Kathy

    I think the point that is missing is not every woman has a choice. From both sides of the fence, there are millions of women for whom having children is not under their control. Not just the unintended pregnancy or infertility, but in both the U.S. and across the globe, the cultural expectation, for men as well as women, to produce the next generation. That expectation does not negate the intense loving bond between parent and child, in fact it may support it, but choice in childbearing is not universal.

  • Candyce Ossefort-Russell

    Exquisite! I deeply identify with the existential truth that we don’t have control, and how that is simultaneously anguishing and freeing. My husband died suddenly when my son was 11 months old. Parenting an exuberant new creature who was bubbling with life and pulling me into joy, while I was so overwhelmed with grief that I could hardly get out of bed was the most impossibly excruciating thing I have ever had to do. Yet it was one of the most growth-inducing, expansive things that’s ever been demanded of me. That little boy is the very thing that fiercely drew me back into life on his behalf until I healed enough to want life for myself again. I’m pretty sure that if someone had told my husband and me–while we were deciding whether or not to have a baby–that my husband would die before the baby’s first birthday, we would have chosen not to have that baby. I’m so grateful no one gave me that choice. As horrific as it was to be slammed into grief-filled-, unchosen-single-parenting, I wouldn’t trade any of that for a single moment of my son’s life. He’s now an authentic, engaging, self-possessed 26-year-old man; and I’m a therapist who fearlessly helps people with joys and sorrows of all kinds, and I’m writing a book about grief. Life without control is shatteringly beautiful.

    • Donna M. Burke

      How beautifully expressed with such passion and compassion for you and your son. Brought me to tears. I am a mother and my own adult daughter has chosen not to bring a child into her marriage and I carry some grief around that. And maybe projecting my own desires onto her and wanting, wishing, desiring for her to experience what was the most miraculous gift I was ever given, my only child. Thank you Candyce for touching my heart.

      • Candyce Ossefort-Russell

        Donna, I’m sorry I just saw your reply to my message. Thank you for responding to my expression with such authenticity and courage yourself. I’m touched by your reply.

  • Lisa Mardel

    Thank you for your open, and heartfelt honesty. I am a woman in my mid 30’s, single, and work/art/life/friends driven. I cannot tell you the amass of pressure I take in from society, ingrained, and filtered through my inner circle of people, about NOT having kids by this point in my life. The message I receive through various forms, subtle and not so subtle, is; “you’ve failed.” It’s heartbreaking, and has also given me the type of endurance training for my heart and sense of purpose that I think I needed. I love dreaming that we could eventually take down the “fence” and just be loving witnesses to each others lives. Without judgement, envy, or storytelling.

    With warmth and appreciation,

    • I feel very similarly, Lisa. At times, when the conversation comes up, I say the societal pressure to have children is one of the strongest external pressures I’ve felt in my life. It *is* heartbreaking, but how right you are that that sort of breaking also fosters a stronger sense of conviction. I love my nieces — by blood and by friendship — and deeply appreciate having them in my life. To work at a higher level on stripping away the judgment and building more love for who we are and how we’re choosing to live, as individuals, is a purpose of mine (though I think I still have a little more hurt to wade through and strengthening to do before that part of the journey begins).

  • carol galligan

    Stop romanticizing motherhood!!! Stop making women feel guilty for possibly considering herself ‘first’!!! Motherhood has been a complete self-sacrificing position. However, women are now, for the first time in history, able to make choices. Remember… man on this earth would go through a nine-month pregnancy, the pain of birth…..and then, find there is never any time to build on what he has created for himself before the ‘baby’ thing!!! One’s ‘sense-of-purpose’ starts (always starts) with self. Every man knows that!!! Women have to ‘know’ that too!!! Perhaps in the future (and I see that happening, which is encouraging) when ‘having a baby’ is a PARTNERSHIP requiring women and men (for the life of the child) share total responsibility. The gift of having a child should be shared. The nine months comes to an end and then the sharing must begin. Both women and men should share in the responsibility of that child. Women and men should help each other continue their own personal dreams while totally sharing the care and welfare of the child they both brought into the world. Parenting is a gift to both men and women!!! If that is totally understood, it’ll be a happy family!!!

  • Sonora Walker

    This excellent piece sparks a deep curiosity. Thank you! I’d like to hear responses from Catholic readers on the interplay of theology and birth control and choice. Also, I wonder about the stories of women who are not given the choice to be impregnated but turn from that imposition to carry, deliver, bond with, feed, nurture, and live for their babies after rape (see Kathy, below). I am spurred to run full of questions to gender and feminist theorists…how can there be entire subsets of American culture who raise their girls to give up their choices before they even reach womanhood? Or to forgoe choice at all regarding individual babies/pregnancies/careers/vocations/health/age/economics and insisting instead that all such choices were given away when choosing instead a ROLE (of “mother” “wife” or “female”) which required submission of specifics to, at the very least, fate. At the worst husband/God or husband-God. How does an ethic of sacrifice, resignation, disembodiment, “purity,” and rewarded self-sabotage pass so seamlessly from one generation of women to the next? Shit.

  • Pingback: What Women Without Kids Are Teaching This Mom | On Being()

  • I am sharing this on my fertility Facebook page. This is beautifully written and I think it will be so helpful for my clients.

  • Kayt Chambers


  • Pingback: Meeting Truth with Focus and Humility | On Being()

  • I’d love to hear a piece from the other side…i.e. those who have chosen not to have children.

  • Pingback: Mít či nemít děti? – Všecky drobné radosti()

  • Baerin414

    Thanks for the piece, Courtney. And for basically everything you write. I read Perfect Girls Starving Daughters at a critical time and it changed my relationship with my body.

    As a follow-up to this piece, I’d like to ask from you (or from your readers): Can you speak to the complicated combination of ambivalence and aging? I’m 33-years-old and I know the statistics get bleaker for me with each passing year. However, I am still on the fence. For me, it’s not a question of WHEN it’s still a question of IF. I’m not sure I have the luxury of feeling ambivalence. Has anyone had this experience? How did you manage it?

    Courtney, much like you (and unlike the predominant social narrative we are spoonfed) I am the ambivalent one and my husband would, “have kids tomorrow,” if I wanted. We’ve spoken extensively about how he is devoted to our marriage with or without kids, but I feel a deep sadness when I consider that I can’t get on the same page as him for some reason.

    I love my work, but it is that lethal combination of fulfilling and draining (I’m a therapist and a teacher). I know these things are not always conducive to the all-consuming demands of parenting, either.

    Or maybe I’m just making excuses because I’m scared.

    Anyway…ambivalence and dwindling eggs, anyone?

  • Pingback: Seven Questions to End 2017 with Clarity and Start 2018 with Intention | On Being()