When the biological clock gets loud: three perspectives on the pressure to have kids
For many people, finding a suitable partner and getting married is par for the course in living a full adult life. And as many are taught, those lives are made complete and even more meaningful by the presence of children.
Take writer Lauren McKeon. Right from childhood, her default setting was a plan, an intention to be a mother.
"I even had an age picked out. 32 seemed like a point in time when I would have my life together [and] I would have a child."
It was only after a sudden divorce in her early thirties that McKeon started to reconsider whether having kids was even what she wanted in life. Maybe, she thought, that wasn't the right blueprint for her.
Divorced and with a world of potential ahead of her, McKeon decided that she didn't actually want children, and that contrary to what she'd been taught, she didn't need them to have a fulfilling adult life.
"I was in my early 30s when it happened. Doing the math in my head, by the time I found another partner, even if I had wanted children … it would be quite a bit down the line. You know I'd missed that sweet spot," she said.
Coming to terms
McKeon said coming to the realization that she may never have kids was very emotional.
"So there was that moment of sadness over that, but also that moment of immense relief because it was almost like now I had a reason people would accept."
McKeon has spoken to many women who, like her, had to work hard to arrive at a point where they were comfortable saying that childlessness was something they actually wanted.
While attending the "Not Mom Summit" — an annual event organized to bring together women without children across the US — many women described having to deal with surprise, judgement and just plain old criticism when they disclosed that they didn't want to have kids.
"To come out and say 'no, I don't want children' shouldn't be such a bold thing to say, but often is for many women," she said.
For McKeon, these negative reactions often come down to people's expectations of women and their role both in the home and in society.
"I think we're so invested in this idea that women will be mothers, or will be motherly or care for other people first, that it is scary to us still, to see women who say, 'you know what, that's not what I want to do with my life. Maybe I want to do something else,'" she said.
One of the people she met at the conference is Toronto-based life coach, facilitator and organizational consultant Laurie Sanci.
A not-mom herself, Sanci's work revolves around helping women without children navigate their personal lives and find fulfilment.
Unlike McKeon, Sanci spent her 20s and 30s feeling certain that she didn't want to have kids.
"It was a choice that I made and one that I made very publicly and spoke often about."
Grieving the end of fertility
After reaching her 40s and realizing that those intentions were now a reality, Sanci was surprised to find herself doubting her earlier decision and "grieving" her fertility.
She said she felt embarrassed to talk about her feelings at the time, because she had been so crystal clear on the issue in the past.
"Why was I so certain? And that inner voice that said, 'it's not for me,' where did it go?"
Now, Sanci coaches women who are also navigating life without kids, many of whom are childless by circumstance.
Some of these women are struggling with infertility and they seek spaces like the Not Mom Summit and Sanci's services for comfort, support and community.
"If they're just coming to terms with the fact that they will never have kids, I want to explore how they're feeling about that loss, or even see whether or not they recognise the scope of that loss," Sanci said.
She says many of the women who are childless often express feelings associated with grief.
The grief may manifest as anger directed towards themselves or a partner, jealousy towards friends and other women who are becoming mothers, denial, or holding on to hope for a miracle baby.
"If we're not naming those feelings as grief, then we can get that feeling of being stuck. There's no crafting a new dream, unless you have fully let go of the dream that existed."
Redefining a full and meaningful life
Sanci says some of the women she works with also see life without kids as a second rate life.
"There's still an idealisation of motherhood, a buying in to some of those pronatalist beliefs that being a parent should be the central focus of every adult's life," said Sanci. "She's not able to fully appreciate what life without children can offer."
Sanci's work is also about interrogating just how full and meaningful a life without children can be, and challenging the idea that having kids is the "only" way to live a good adult life.
"Our work is really to let go of the shame and blame about one's life choices or circumstances that led to a woman ending up without a family. It always includes confronting and addressing the fears of a life without kids," she said.
Those fears can lead to bigger existential questions: Who will take care of me when I'm older? Who will I share meaningful connections with? How can I build a "normal" adult life without children?
But not all women without children experience feelings of grief and loss, she said.
A good number of childless women have chosen that path and, according to Sanci, will never experience feelings of loss around that choice.
While more and more people are opting not to have kids these days, for some, childlessness is more a matter of circumstance.
Take Nav Alang, a 42-year-old writer living in Toronto.
Like Sanci, Alang also didn't think he'd see the day when he wanted kids, but he reached a turning point in his 30s.
Now, he faces the difficult challenge of finding the right partner to make that happen.
"I sort of cast my eye about hoping to meet someone and I certainly haven't given up on the idea. But I also recognize that there's a clock ticking and there will be a point at which it will be too late," he said.
For Alang, there is also added pressure to build that dream life because of his ethnic background. Born to Punjabi and Sikh parents, he says there is heavy pressure for him to be coupled and have children.
"So there's a cultural expectation that a full and complete and happy life involves marriage and children, and so therefore not having those things in my life, to my parents it feels like their life is incomplete in some way," he said.
Then there's the stigma of being an unmarried man at his age, Alang said. "There's this sense that something is wrong with me. What happened in your life that you haven't gotten things together and that you're still single and that you don't have a family?"
Unfortunately, Alang hasn't found a "Not Dad" summit for men like him to share experiences with others in the same situation.
And the difficulty of talking about his experiences also takes on a different dimension because he is a man.
As he explained, there are not a lot of men discussing the experience of childlessness.
On top of that, wanting kids can also make dating rather complicated.
"It does kind of make things a little bit absurd," he said.
"Because it's like you go out for a drink with someone and partly you're thinking 'Do I like this person?' And you're also thinking 'Could I have a family with this person?' When you step back from it it seems a little bit crazy."
Alang says he hasn't given up on finding 'the one' and building the family he knows he wants. Still, he isn't setting any deadlines.
"As isolating or as alienating as other people's expectations can be, you also have to make peace with the fact that you are who you are, [and] you've lived the life that you've lived."