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The one fear preventing some women from having children

OpinionThe one fear preventing some women from having children

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This is the week our society gears up to celebrate mothers and motherhood, and so, brace yourself for the think pieces and explanations from those who are “child-free by choice” about their choice. 

As the birth rate declines, we’re hearing a lot from people who have decided not to have kids. Sometimes, it’s because they imagine life is easier or more fun without children (neither of which is true, I would say, as a mother of six). 

But there’s another troubling excuse that is cropping up, both online and in conversations I’ve had with friends. It comes from women who say they don’t want to have children because their own childhood was unstable or traumatic

These women are afraid they may pass on negative patterns and hurt their own children the way they have been hurt. They’re afraid that, because they didn’t experience love as a child, that they may not be able to love their own children adequately. 

overwhelmed mom

Many say they have declined to have children because their own childhood was traumatic. (iStock)

As one woman wrote of her decision not to have kids, “My mother’s mothering was like a hurricane, knocking me every which way during the years we lived together, and once I left her, I knew I was going to have to devote the rest of my life to trying to feel like I was standing on solid ground.”

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As the mother of six children, there’s something about me that leads strangers to bare their souls about their childbearing choices and circumstances. Unsolicited and unprompted, in public and at social events. A rejoinder that I hear frequently is from folks who declined to have children because their own childhood was unstable and/or traumatic. 

Recently, a friend shared with me the following anecdote after a family gathering:

“The things my dad’s sister told me last night have profoundly depressed me about my family and explained why she never had children. 

“But when I told her I heal myself by being a good mother, she came unstitched. 

“I don’t think it ever occurred to her that that’s what could have been if she’d had children – she just feared she would hurt them as she had been hurt, not that she could love them as she hadn’t been loved. She has a lot of regret.”

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I understand the impulse, as someone who didn’t have a picture-perfect childhood myself. Like my friend, I have found parenting (and in particular, parenting well) to be therapeutic beyond measure. 

I often look at my children and think about what my childhood was like at their ages. My fifth child, a toddler approaching 3 years old, is the age I was when my parents divorced; my third child, about to turn 7, is the age I was when I stopped seeing my father regularly. My oldest daughter at 10 is the age I was when my relationship with my father was irrevocably fractured. 

Depressed young woman

Multiple women said they put off motherhood in fear, only to realize they waited too long to have children. (iStock)

Recently, our youngest daughter, a 4-year-old with a voice as sweet as sugar, told her dad, “Everyone loves you because you’re handsome and smell good and you’re so nice.” The dichotomy between her perception of her father and mine at her age is striking, and her love for her father brings me a great deal of comfort and joy. 

Frank Sinatra famously once said, “The best revenge is massive success.” I feel that way about my troubled childhood; my best revenge against it is the massive success of the family I’ve built.

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I’m not alone in feeling that way; I heard the same from other mothers from less than ideal family backgrounds.

Paige, a mom of three from Minnesota, told me, “My heart has been put together watching my sweet husband play catch with our kids. Or give piggyback rides. Instant tears. So healing to be able to see what I deserved as a kid but am able to give to my kids instead.” 

Perhaps most striking was what Anna Kolak, a mom and executive coach from Greenville, South Carolina, shared with me.

“I don’t think it would have been possible for me to heal from my childhood if I hadn’t had children,” she said. “I grew up in severe abuse of multiple kinds, didn’t know what decent parents did or how it felt. Learning how to be a good mother to my own kids was the only thing that has helped me learn how to reparent myself. It has been profoundly healing and has enabled me to be a good parent, intentionally and consciously. If someone isn’t willing to heal themselves then probably not the best idea to become a parent. But if you are willing to grow and learn and heal, becoming a parent is one of the best ways to support that – and it gives the child an amazing parent.” 

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Multiple women shared with me that they put off motherhood in fear, only to realize that the only mistake they made was waiting too long to have children

Anna from Virginia told me, “I held off on having kids and now I regret not having more earlier on. The joy, patience and love it’s taught me, I can’t even describe.” 

Similarly, Cara from North Carolina said, “I had a son [in my] late 30s after my uncle, who was like my second dad, died suddenly. I’m so sad and full of regret [that] I didn’t have kids a long time ago.  He’s such a joy and I love motherhood. I wish I had a lot of kids.” 

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Dr. JD Friedman, partner and clinical psychologist at Baker Street Behavioral Health, was optimistic about healing through parenting after trauma.

“Sometimes people make that assumption that because I went through [something difficult], then I should not also be a parent,” he said. “There are cases where that may be true, but I also think there are cases where people may not be giving themselves enough opportunity or enough credit for being resilient, being able to do the work of being a much better parent or better family than what they experienced.” 

“It can be healing for parents who have been through a bad childhood themselves because they get to vicariously experience some of the things they missed,” Friedman continued. “But also because they have an opportunity to be that better parent or be that better family member than what they experienced themselves. That can be very empowering and can be healthy for a person to be able to have that kind of experience where they transcend or be able to get beyond what they themselves had to endure.” 

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Parenting often feels like a balancing act, and parenting after childhood trauma is even more so. It’s sometimes difficult to ensure that trauma isn’t superimposed onto your own children and that they’re able to experience a childhood of innocence and happiness. 

That’s not always easy for any parent, no matter their family history, but for those of us with troubled origin stories, it’s incredibly healing to be able to provide for our children what we weren’t able to enjoy ourselves.

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