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.
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.
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