If you're a woman in your late 20s or early 30s, now is the time when you're likely being asked to frame your future around one crucial question: whether or not you'll have children. Odds are, the people who have spoken to you about this have acted like it's the biggest question you'll ever have to answer in your life, and the one that will most shape your future. But I'm going to propose a different take: that there are more important things to worry about when it comes to looking at the future decades of our lives. I'm not talking about environmental concerns, political worries, or "big issues" (though those are all part of the picture); I mean decisions and opinions about your future that are hugely personally significant, and can in many cases trump or become defining parts of the conversation about "kids versus no kids".
One of the interesting things about motherhood rhetoric is how becoming a mother expected to be the most significant thing to happen in your life; and in part that's realistic. Children represent a giant biological, fiscal, and chronological investment, with a particular burden on the mother as carer, and for many of us, our core choices can follow from a plus or minus sign in the "kids" box.
But even a giant investment should still be examined as part of a portfolio of other massive investments and how they shape our futures. That just makes good business sense. Plus, there are some other decisions that need to be sorted out first before you really dive into the idea of whether you'll have kids — and I'm not talking about whether you'll live in a one or two-bedroom apartment. I'm talking about questions like: What kind of meaning do you want from life? What do you need in order to be sane and happy? What kinds of relationships do you really want in your life, and which ones do you want to roundhouse-kick out the nearest window?
Here are five things that should figure significantly into our concerns about our futures — for many of us, these concerns may need to trump motherhood as the driving factor. Kids are significant signposts, but these decisions are glaring lights on the highway, too.
1. Your Personal Fulfillment
For some people, the answer to the question "what will make you fulfilled and contented as a human being" will automatically be "kids". Which is good; people need to keep having 'em to continue the human race, and it may as well be those who really want them. But the wider question is one that needs to be asked with urgency.
Your decisions about how you find meaning may well be the basis of your happiness; Bob Edelstein wrote for Psychology Today on how the search for "authentic meaning" in human life is one of our prime motivational forces, and how significant it is to our personal satisfaction with our lives. What, at the end of the day, would you look back upon as a "good life"? What would shape its benefits and contributions? That's what really matters.
2. Your Health
Many people believe in using children as someone to look after them when they are old. I'm not condemning that particular opinion, but the perspective surely begs the question: shouldn't we prioritize getting old first? The science of aging is rapidly expanding and we're learning more every day about how the human body begins to degrade and why; but one of the things that should perhaps concern us when envisioning our own futures, more than whether they contain kids, is whether we'll actually be in them. Whether you choose children or not, your own health, and the decisions you make about it, will be one of the greatest determining factors in your future success and happiness.
3. Your Community
Lonely people are, unfortunately, at a disadvantage; a now-famous 2012 study showed that people who live in social isolation are at more risk of health issues, because of the onslaught of loneliness on the body's protective immune system. Children are not a guarantee that isolation isn't on the cards; empty-nesters are often reported to feel an increase in their sense of loneliness and disconnection from others. In other words, it pays to put your time and energy into an investment in social connections; build your life around authentic relationships and support others as much as possible, and you'll be forming a communal shield against some of the riskier parts of human experience in the future.
4. Your Psychological Stability
This is another of those choices that is part of, but not interior to, the decision about children in your life. It needs to be an element in the discussion of psychological health and security: what will, in your future, make you capable of functionality, healthy relationships, and good psychological practices? This is particularly important among those of us with mental health issues, for whom all future concerns, small or large, can hinge on their knock-on effects on our ability to be healthy. Keeping yourself sane long-term should be at the top of the list of things that decide What You're Doing With Your Life. Sanity is precious and brutally difficult to come by for some people; it needs to be cultivated carefully.
5. Your Freedom From Toxic Patterns
Exposure to toxicity in our relationships with others is not uncommon, though it can be exceedingly damaging and destructive, particularly if it figures in our intimate or familial circles. One of the key decisions that needs to be made by adults who come from these places, and even those who don't, is whether they're going to try to break free of those patterns.
Crucially, though, you don't need to have a child and treat it wonderfully to "break the cycle" of damage done by family; developing good boundaries, recognizing toxic and unacceptable behavior, and understanding how to move away from it is enough. If you've been fed toxic behavior your entire life (people not respecting your wishes, guilting or shaming you, ignoring your wants, pushing their own agendas, controlling you), the conscious decision to make different choices is one of the most vital you'll ever make. And it is perfectly fine if that decision includes not to having kids.
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