The Fence-Sitter’s Guide to Anxiety and My Leap to Being Childfree

Is there a correlation between mental health and childlessness?, I started wondering while browsing the childfree sub-section of reddit.com. I had read several posts with members citing mental illness as a contributing factor to being childfree. I typed “anxiety” into the search bar. I ended my search prematurely at page 18, sensing bottomless results. Well then, does this stand to prove that yes, the childless and childfree are more anxious than parents? Well, no.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 18.1% of the US population is affected with anxiety. Perhaps, then, some of us just make up a percentage of the percentage. Myself included.

My Personal Struggle

I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and depression as a teenager, as well as social anxiety as an adult. Even still, I was going to have children because that’s what you do, right? You just have those babies no matter what.

My husband and I married young so, despite the myriads of people asking the if’s and when’s about babies, I knew we had ample time before expanding our family. However, if we wanted the best chance for a healthy child, I determined the perfect age for me would be 27. With each passing year, I grew proportionately more anxious. I am no closer to being ready than I was this time last year. Next year will be different. Rinse, repeat.

The Defining Moments

I then had, what I considered, an epiphany: adoption. When my husband and I were dating, we had discussed it briefly. After all, I was never someone who dreamed of waddling around with a big pregnant belly. In fact, to this day I cannot visualize it. So, my husband and I reopened the adoption conversation.

Naturally, my epiphany turned out to be less than. When I started crunching numbers, I realized we would never be able to afford an international adoption like I had originally hoped. I reasoned, Well, I don’t need a baby. I don’t even feel comfortable around babies. I like kids. Even older kids!

This thought eventually led me to contact some non-profit organizations that partner with the foster care system in our state. We signed up for a meeting but the day before, I flaked and emailed the program director to inform her we would not be able to attend. This moment, perhaps, was a defining one in my becoming childfree.

Another defining moment came when my husband talked to his psychiatrist about the possibility of adoption. For some context, I started to take comfort in knowing I wouldn’t be the one responsible for creating a child if we adopted. If I gave birth to a child with a genetic abnormality, I know I would forever hold myself responsible. Actually, if I gave birth to a child anything less than healthy, I would hold myself responsible. When Colin related these thoughts to his doctor, he helped to see the flaws in our logic. If we were trying to create for ourselves a perfect child, there was no such thing. Perhaps we would know of any physical ailments with a foster kid, but his mental health? Much harder to determine. Committing to raise such a child is, perhaps, an ever bigger commitment than having a biological child. There are many great reasons to adopt but ours was not one of them. In fact, it was stemming from selfishness. When we came to terms with that, our idea dissipated.

This leads me to the third and final time I waffled about having children. A year or more had passed since deciding against adoption. A friend of mine became pregnant and I found myself basking in the glow of her pregnancy. Caught up in the hype, I sat my husband down and told him I wanted to have a baby. As I explained in my story on nonparents.com, it was in that same breath that the facade of parenthood came crashing down. You know how people say to flip a coin when you can’t make a decision? Not so the coin will choose for you, but because while it’s in the air, what you are really hoping for will be revealed? Well, when I opened my mouth and started spouting off that nonsense, the coin was flipped and it landed on childfree.

I cried a lot that night, oddly enough. I was letting go of an idea I had been grasping at since childhood, an idea that was never really mine to hold. But after mourning the child I would never have, my anxiety about this major decision grew dormant.

I’m not saying I am cured of my anxiety by any means. No, my anxiety is omnipresent. It ebbs and flows but it never really leaves. However, indecision about becoming a parent caused me so much anxiety in the early years of our marriage that after deciding, I felt like a new person. I was finally ready to live my life.

Who wins?

With my anxiety (regarding this decision) resting on the back burner, I almost forgot it was a factor in deciding to be childfree. I faced up to this truth again after listening to a recent episode of the childfree podcast, Married Without Children. In it, Chris asks Bev “In 5-10 seconds, what are the reasons why you are childfree? The biggest reasons?” Bev hesitates for a moment and then responds, “Uh, my anxiety. I don’t like kids?” They laugh and I laugh. Bev has been open and honest about her struggle with anxiety and depression but until she cited it as one of her biggest reasons behind being childfree, I failed to remember the impact anxiety can have.

After the episode, I looked at my biggest reasons for being childfree from a new perspective. Have I avoided having children because of my anxiety? And if so, does that mean my anxiety is winning? Yes. And no.

Something I have learned in my own battle with this disorder is the damage that stems from avoidance. Let’s say you’re anxious to make a phone call and ultimately decide not to – who wins? You may feel like you should be declared the victor because you’ve dodged the bullet, but your anxiety is truly the winner. The more you avoid the things that make you anxious, the bigger and bigger the anxiety monster becomes. Guess what happens when you eventually must make a phone call? It is a much larger monster now, of course.

This example proves that avoidance is not the recommended technique for coping with anxiety. Does it make sense, then, to reason that not having children is actually a form of avoidance behavior? You could make that argument, but we have to consider the circumstances. The outcome of calling, or not calling, someone on the phone is minuscule compared to the outcome of having, or not having, children. As you are no doubt aware, a baby doesn’t stay a baby forever. He or she will grow up. Maybe he’ll be healthy. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he will have anxiety too, or maybe he won’t. But before I decided to ‘avoid’ having children I had to ask myself, Do I really want to take that chance? Do I really want to take that chance on a living, breathing, thing? No, no I don’t. I cannot say I fully agree with antinatalism but I do understand its logic; to live is to suffer and to procreate is to make another sufferer and I want no part of that.

When I was going through a bout of particularly bad anxiety and dealing with the guilt and self-loathing that come with it, my best friend of 26 years told me something that I will forever cherish,

 “There will be days when your anxiety wins. And that’s okay.”

If not having children makes my anxiety the winner, then so be it, because at least no on else loses.

I remind myself of this sentiment again now as more and more people attempt to change my mind. When others tell me how selfish it is not to have children, I think of how I selfishly almost had them. When the naysayers say, “You don’t know real happiness”, I think of how stressed I would be caring for a completely dependent little human. When I’m asked, “Don’t you want a little version of you and your husband?”, I imagine a child just as anxious as Colin and I.

So, to all of you who are sitting the fence trying to decide between being childfree and having children, I remember how difficult it was to be there. But, I also remember how rewarding it was to finally leap over that fence with a decision firm in my mind. However you decide, I hope you find contentment in your choice and never look back. I hope you get to the point where you no longer care how people respond to your decision.

Let me know your thoughts on this article – comment below!

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Comments

    • ForeverGulls
    • March 27, 2017
    Reply

    I truly believe I have anxiety because my mother had anxiety and it spilled over to me. Because she was a perfectionist, everything I did had to be perfect it if it wasn’t she berated me. When I was punished for getting Cs in school or not looking neat and tidy I would harm myself…even at the young age of 6 I was cutting and biting my skin. While being raised by a “Tiger Mama” helped my GPA and made me look good to colleges, I suffer today from low self esteem and the lasting effects of an anxious parent who feared failure. So, in response to your post, you have definitely saved a child from a lifetime of mental problems! I’m living proof 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I very much agree about anxiety spilling over. I feel like there must be both a genetic component and learned behavior in anxiety disorders. Also, mistreatment like you described makes anxiety even worse. I’m sorry you had to deal with that!

        • Forever Gulls
        • March 28, 2017
        Reply

        Thank you Brittany 💙 Yes, my mom still has bad OCD and control issues but I’ve learned to love her anyway. Tiger parenting doesn’t work in America…If it really has any benefit at all in different cultures is debatable. I still sometimes feel like my mother thinks of me as just an extension of herself and not my own person and I’m damn near 30!

        1. That’s so good that you have been able to get through all of that with your mom. No easy feat, that’s for sure!

          More and more often I’m seeing parents (especially moms) treat kids as extensions of themselves. Quite cringe-worthy!

  1. Reply

    All the moms I know, my best friends in particular, say their anxiety increased many fold with the birth of their first child. One of my friends said she always had anxiety, but it was so much worse. The other says she didn’t remember ever having anxiety before her son was born, now she struggles with it every day. She just had to have her gallbladder removed, the cause? Pregnancy. She has been dealing with the pain of the stones for a while.

    Being “on the fence” is such a painful feeling. Sometimes I think I will always be a little on the fence, but that’s just because I have a hard time not seeing the good of every side and wondering how it might have been if I had made the other choice. The good news is that I know this about myself now, so when those feelings come along, I can just know it is my mind exploring the roads left untaken. Now I can have the freedom to atleast stray pretty far from the fence on the side of being childfree and explore this side of it in a capacity more free than I once was able to whenever I was staying on or within touching distance of “the fence”.

    Thank you for this article. I believe anxiety stems from the need to control. There are ways we can try to fight against this so that we can let go and not need everything to be perfect. Perfectionism is the enemy, it is not a friend.

    1. You’re very welcome and thank you for your kind comment! I think I would most certainly experience worsening anxiety if I had children. Being on the fence is so incredibly hard! I had no idea it would be so difficult until I went through it myself. Also, that’s so very true about perfectionism, I need to remind myself of that more often so thank you.

    • Jessica
    • March 27, 2017
    Reply

    I relate to this on so many levels. I also struggle with GAD, depression, panic attacks and social anxiety. I have dealt with these illnesses for almost 15 years and for the most part they are well managed. After my husband and I were married for a year we talked about having children (which is what we thought was the “next step”)and I went off the pill. My doctor also told me that the medications I was taking for my mental health conditions was not recommended to be taken while pregnant so I tapered off those as well. During this whole time I had a horrible sense of dread…not a feeling you expect when trying to get pregnant. I was terrified and I hoped and prayed each month that my period would come!

    After several months of this I decided enough was enough. Not only was the idea of getting pregnant scary, I was also spiraling out of control mentally. I had been off my medications for months and was completely losing it. I decided I couldn’t take the stress of it all any longer and sat my husband down and told him how I was feeling and that I truly didn’t think I wanted kids. To my surprise and relief, he told me he was feeling the same way. I called my doctor the next day and got back on my anxiety medications and birth control!

    We are now 4 years into our marriage and are so happy and have such a sense of wellbeing and freedom. Although it was hard, I am thankful that we went through that time of confusion and soul searching because now we know with 100% certainty that we aren’t meant to be parents. I still struggle with anxiety but I am happy to say that I have NO anxiety about our decision to remain childfree.

    1. Jessica,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. That sounds like such a scary time! Like you said, that certainly can’t be best way to feel when trying to get pregnant. I’m happy your husband felt the same way. It was a big relief when my husband and I discussed not having children. As much as I experience anxiety in other aspects of my life, I also have zero anxiety regarding my decision to be childfree. That’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? 🙂

    • Kris
    • March 27, 2017
    Reply

    I needed this exact post today, thank you. I really relate to your story. As a young girl I always figured I would be a mom someday. Now, I was always what my mother called “an anxious child,” but when I moved to college I was catapaulted into a world of anxiety that constantly landed me in the emergency room, as I was convinced I was dying. For the past 12 years I have been struggling with anxiety, sometimes it’s well managed and sometimes it’s unbearable.

    This morning I woke up panicking and my mind racing; throwing scenarios at me such as: what if my partner dies first and I end up alone? Or what if in 15 years I regret not having kids and it’s too late? Or what if I am truly missing on the best love out there? The words from parents start to seep in and I get scared.

    But reading this was a reminder. I am choosing to be childfree because there are so many other things I want to do in my life. And honestly, because I don’t dare pass on this anxiety to another human. To bring someone into a world to suffer with anxiety, I couldn’t handle it. And not to mention I’m so anxious that even if my child didn’t turn out anxious, they would probably be in therapy in their adult life due to my crazy helicopter parenting and crazy worry that they are going to die at any minute.

    So thank you. It is nice to know I am not alone in this world.

    1. Kris, your comment means so much to me! I’m happy this post served as a reminder. I think the same thing if I were to have a child – I’d end up funneling my anxiety into them which isn’t fair.

      Also, you’re certainly not alone! Thanks again for your comment 🙂

      • Forever Gulls
      • March 28, 2017
      Reply

      Loved your comments Kris. My mother was that exact “helicopter mom” you mentioned lol! It feels so good to be able to share thoughts among like minded people 😃

  2. Reply

    Thank you for bringing this up, and it’s something I will definitely explore more in my film, To Kid Or Not To Kid.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I wasn’t sure how this article would be received when I wrote it but I think this topic really does resonate with the childfree. I’m happy you’ll be delving into this topic in your film…which I am so excited for by the way! Can’t wait for the New York screening.

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    • 29 & childfree
    • April 15, 2017
    Reply

    Finally. FINALLY SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS. Thank you so much for writing this. I relate to so many aspects of your story: everything from marrying young and planning on kids “someday” to the eureka moment of “let’s adopt instead!” to the tears shed over the never-child.

    But my coin toss moment actually involved trying to get pregnant, as crazy as that sounds. Despite our trepidation, we went for it.

    And nothing happened. It was devastating for several cycles; was something wrong with me? With us? “Trying” was supposed to be fun, but this was stressful. After a year of negative pregnancy tests, I started to feel something unexpected and terrible and wonderful: relief. Laugh-inducing, hopeful, exuberant relief. A few days before we got the fertility results back, my husband and I sat on the couch and held each other and decided that regardless of the results, we were done.

    The doctor said that our chances of conception were lower than the average couple, but it was still very possible if we did this or that. We are not doing this or that. It seems absurd that attempting to have a baby is what helped me truly understand that I DON’T want one, but that’s what happened.

    Did my anxiety win? Yes and no, like you said. I am in fact avoiding 18+ years of the anxiety generator that is American Parenting(TM). But I’m also not passing my shit down to another generation, to another human, so you tell me: isn’t that a victory?

    Thank you again for posting. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this!

    1. What a beautifully written comment, thank you so, so much! “Laugh-inducing, hopeful, exuberant relief” – this moment is what made me feel I was 100% doing the right thing by being childfree. Even if letting go was painful, the comfort that followed was well worth it. If I had a child, would I have found comfort? I can’t imagine I would have. Thank you again for your comment and for your understanding 🙂

    • Martha
    • June 6, 2017
    Reply

    Another excellent article. If you have to make a phone call and you don’t, maybe your life is slightly ruined briefly. But a child is forever. Not having a child is a guarantee that at least you didnt bring another human to suffer in this imperfect world. A guarantee that only one person will have anxiety and not two. Anxiety doesn’t get taken seriously enough, but it can really affect all of someone’s life.
    Many people without anxiety don’t give much thought to parenthood. It is a big job that i wish more people took the time to reflect if it is the right choice for them and their future child.

    1. Martha,

      Thanks for your comment 🙂 You’re so right about anxiety & parenthood. Neither gets the amount of consideration it deserves.

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    • Katie
    • September 4, 2017
    Reply

    I have just come to what is likely the end of a decade-long struggle with this decision (my husband and I have been married 10 years). Yours is the first that has truly addressed the link between anxiety and knowing in my heart that I should not try to bring another life into this world (and that it’s ok!). My anxiety and depression ebbs and flows as well, but the biggest anxiety I have experienced to date is related to the thought of trying to complete a pregnancy, and then the anxiety I’m signing on for for the rest of my life. Thank you. I am so glad I am not the only one. I HATE the pressure we women are under to pursue motherhood at all costs.

    1. Katie, thank you for your kind words! I completely agree — my anxiety was just out of control when I was undecided about kids. Now that I’ve finally decided to be childfree, I don’t have that agonizing decision hanging over me. Thank you again for your comment 🙂

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