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Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

I’ve been interviewing adult daughters of unloving mothers for about a decade and the second most poignant question—after “Why didn’t she love me?”—is usually “Why did she have me?” Sometimes, the question is more rhetorical than not. But it usually hangs there, heavy, waiting for an answer that will never come, one that might begin to explain why a mother treated her daughter as she did.

Why people have children is complicated, of course. For millennia, even though there were documented efforts at birth control in every society beginning with ancient Egypt (and doubtless before that), people had children because it was hard to avoid having them. In agrarian and tribal societies, children were not only a potential labor force but also members of a clan. Sons provided a way of protecting property from one generation to another. Daughters, especially highly marriageable ones, offered a way of establishing new bonds and consolidating and acquiring power and goods. And, yes, even then, people had children just because they wanted them.

Whether having a child makes you happier than you might have been without one remains highly debatable, as contradictory studies show. While most studies show lowered subjective well-being among people with children, Angus Deaton and Arthur A. Stone have recently argued that the results are misleading. While people living with children report more stress, they also report more happiness. They tend, perhaps not coincidentally, to be better educated, healthier, more likely to be married, more religious—all of which too may contribute to happiness. In a similar vein, Chris Herbst and John Ifcher investigated whether a "parental happiness gap” reported in popular media existed. They found that while levels of subjective well-being had declined among non-parents, they had improved among parents in recent years. They conjectured that, perhaps, children provided a buffer of sorts against certain negative trends, among them economic instability and lack of social connection in an increasingly narcissistic society.

More to the point, thanks to reliable birth control and changing mores, becoming a parent is now more of a choice than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47.6% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 did not have children in 2014, the highest percentage since tracking began in 1976. Just under half (49.6%) of women between 25 and 29 were childless, as were 28.9% of those between 30 and 34.

As choosing not to have a child becomes more acceptable in the twenty-first century—yes, it’s now called childfree, not childless—more people are making that choice. I’m not sure about the term “childfree” because of what it implies about the “burden” of parenting. Also, it’s a bit hyperbolic. For example, while I know a number of women and men who don’t have their own children for various and sundry reasons, all of them have close connections to children—nieces and nephews, the children of friends and neighbors, as well as mentees. That isn’t precisely childfree in my opinion.

Interestingly, the shift in the culture—moving away from the 1950s stance when the assumption about a couple without a kid was that if they didn’t have one, they couldn’t have one—has prompted somewhat of a more open dialogue about parenting. (I say “somewhat” advisedly because most of the discussions about mothering are still animated by the cultural mythology of all women being instinctually suited for motherhood and nurturing.) Both privately and publicly, men and women confess disappointment with individual children and, indeed, with parenting itself. As a father of two children now in their thirties, with whom he has limited contact, put it: “I think if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have had children. If I’d been honest with myself then, I would have realized I was having kids because I was supposed to and my wife wanted them.” Similarly, a woman in her eighties, the mother of a son and daughter, observed that she wished she’d had the choice not to have children because, ultimately, she found the world of work much more gratifying than the 20 years she spent as a housewife and mother. I’ve been in conversations during which parents, sounding somewhat envious, note that their childfree friends and acquaintances look younger, are less stressed, and have more money and resources. This does not mean, of course, that they do not love the children they have, but it does reflect how active a choice becoming a parent has become.

I will readily admit that I have a stake in this discussion and firmly believe that the decision to become a parent is a weighty one that should be made as consciously as possible. I say that not only as an unloved daughter who has listened to hundreds and hundreds of stories from children who were not, in the truest sense, loved by their mothers or fathers, but also as someone who had decided not to have children and then, nearing age 40, reversed herself. I now consider motherhood the crowning achievement of my life—and for a feminist, this is quite a statement. This is not to say that I am always successful at mothering (just ask my daughter) or that I haven’t made mistakes. I have, and I recognize that what I have done wrong has shaped my child just as surely, and probably more so, than the things I have done right. Research has consistently confirmed that the hurt you inflict carries greater weight and more influence than the good you impart. It is simply part of a human’s hardwiring: “Bad is stronger than good.”

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to have a child and some truly bad ones. Here are some of the really bad reasons I have gleaned from many conversations with mothers and daughters, fathers and sons:

1. To have someone who loves you.

I’ve had a number of women, all of whom had babies very young, make this confession. In most cases they explain that having a baby seemed to offer a respite from the pain of unloving parents or rejecting relationships with lovers or spouses. One woman reflected on the decision she made many decades ago to have a child on her own without the participation of the father who was basically a one-night stand. She called it “the most selfish thing I have ever done.” Another remarked that “children shouldn’t have children,” acknowledging that she had neither the emotional stability nor the maturity to truly mother the child she had. The real problem, of course, is that the burden of supplying love is shifted onto the child who is supposed to be emotional first aid for the parent. That is a recipe for disaster.

2. Because someone expects you to.

It doesn’t matter who that someone is—a parent, a spouse, or societal pressure. Having a child is a decision you need to own on every level because it is an enormous commitment. The work that good parenting requires is far too intense and demanding to be inspired by anyone’s expectations other than your own. People who stumble into parenthood this way usually do so without taking a personal inventory of their own needs or, more importantly, their own abilities to care for and be responsive to someone who utterly depends on them. The children of these parents often report that while their physical needs were taken care of—yes, there was a roof over their heads, clothes on their back, food on the table—their emotional needs were largely ignored.

3. To fit in.

Yes, some women actually admit that they were afraid that others would somehow shun or stigmatize them if they decided not to have a child. Perhaps they would seem “less than” women with children. If we are honest with ourselves about so-called cultural “norms,” we would recognize that this is actually a legitimate worry for many. Still, it isn’t a healthy motivation to commit to parenting. One woman who, in conjunction with her husband, decided not to have children, observed: “I am one of four sisters and the only one without kids. That set me apart, and not in a good way either, especially since I was capable of having them. Both my parents and my siblings saw my choice as ‘proof’ of how selfish and self-involved I was. When my parents died, I received far less than my sisters did and the will even noted that I didn’t need as much since it was just me alone.”

4. To give your life purpose.

While it’s true that raising a child can give your life focus and purpose, it’s a lousy reason to have a child. You are the only person who can define what gives your life meaning. It’s not an obligation that can be fulfilled by another human being, not even one you give birth to. This reason (and the next) can easily become enmeshment—which involves denying the child the room she needs to become herself and totally ignoring her emotional boundaries—or micromanagement. A child’s job isn’t to make your life look better or richer than it actually is.

5. To establish your legacy.

Dynasty, protection of material goods and assets, and a need to leave something behind in the wake of mortality have all, historically, been reasons to have a child. But that doesn’t give them any more emotional or psychological validity. Like those who have children to give their lives purpose, mothers concerned with legacy see children as extensions of themselves and, as reported by many daughters, put enormous pressure on their children to reflect well on them. In this scenario, what the children want—and, for that matter, what they feel and think—are largely ignored. As one daughter told me, “It was hugely important to my mother that I be admired so that she could be admired by others for having raised me. She picked my clothes, my friends, even the college I went to, based on how ‘enviable’ it would seem to her social circle. I became a lawyer because she wanted me to. When I finally realized I hated practicing law, my mother freaked out, especially when I went from this high-paying, prestigious profession to, in her opinion, the lowly work of teaching in public school. She mentions it constantly and belittles me for my choices.” Fathers often have children for the same reasons, as one adult son, one of five children, recounted: “The pressure on all of my father’s sons to succeed was enormous because any slip, anything less than ‘first rate,’ reflected badly on him. It was true on the athletic field, in the classroom, socially, and, when we became adults, in terms of earning power. He didn’t love me for who I was; he only cared about reflected glory. I pledged never to do that to my own children whom I love for who they are.”

In the world of self-help, these parents often earn the label of narcissists. But no matter how you label it, the emotional wounds they inflict on their children are many.

6. To keep your marriage together (or to get someone to marry you in the first place).

Despite all the articles in the popular press, all the studies, and all the cautionary tales presented in novels and movies, people still appear to believe that a baby can heal a relationship already under stress. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. And while disagreements over child-rearing aren’t among the top three reasons people divorce—those remain infidelity, drug or alcohol abuse, and money—they are extremely common. Here’s the thing: Just as lovers wrongly believe they’ll simply smooth over disagreements about money, couples tend not to discuss their views about raising children ahead of time. As one man told me: “I wouldn’t say that our fights about our son were the main reason for our divorce but I would say that they were the proverbial straw-that-broke-the-camel’s back. My ex-wife consistently refused to discipline him in childhood and then adolescence and when, in early adulthood, he was unable to take responsibility for his actions, she simply turned a blind eye. I just couldn’t accept that.”

A young woman in her early forties, now the divorced mother of an eight-year-old, reflected: “The tensions in our marriage were already evident but, looking back, I don’t think either of us was really ready to get honest about what was going on. We’d been married seven years and were living more and more parallel lives. We weren’t fighting but we weren’t connecting either and I don’t think we understood it. When our son was born, my focus shifted even more, away from the marriage. It only took a few years for it all to unravel, unfortunately.”

And then, of course, there’s the child for whom the parents “have to” marry. One adult daughter shared the following story:

“Even though my parents stayed married and went on to have three other children, their attitude toward me was always different. I was the one who’d ‘robbed’ my mother of her youth and her college education when she got pregnant junior year. I was the one who put so much pressure on my father when he wasn’t ready to take it on. I am now in my late forties and they still haven’t really ‘forgiven’ me for something I had nothing to do with. Unless, of course, you can be blamed for being born.”

The good news, of course, is that your original motivation for having a child need not dictate how you parent if you are willing to be honest with yourself and work hard at seeing how your unconscious, unarticulated, and unacknowledged needs—not your child’s—are influencing your behavior. As Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell, authors of Parenting from the Inside Out (which I think is the best book on this tender subject) write:

"When we are fully present as parents, when we are mindful, it enables our children to fully experience themselves in the moment. Children learn about themselves by the way we communicate with them. When we are preoccupied with the past or worried about the future, we are physically present with our children but are mentally absent. Children don’t need us to be fully available all the time, but they do need our presence during connecting interactions. Being mindful as a parent means having intention in your actions."

Permitting why you decided to have a child—especially if it was all about you, as these six motives are—to dominate your behavior is to choose to be absent. No matter why you decided to become a mother or father, working to be as present as you can be in your interactions with the person you put on the planet is an important lesson to take to heart and keep in the forefront of your mind.

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Read Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

  • Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.
  • Deaton, Angus and Arthur A. Stone,”Evaluative and hedonic wellbeing among those with and without children at home,” PNAS (January 2014), vol.111 (no. 4), 1326-1333.
  • Herbst, Chris M. and John Ifcher, “The Increasing Happiness of Parents.” Working Paper No. 2014-05-SCU-ECON. Economics Department, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. 2014.
  • Siegel, Daniel J. M.D. and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2004.

Copyright Peg Streep 2015

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