When my ex-husband and I met, we bonded over music and our brash insistence that we would avoid all rites of passage: marriage, home ownership, and babies. Three years later we married. Next, we mounted the baby question seesaw: When I said, “Let’s do it,” he said, “Let’s not.” When I said “Let’s skip it,” he said, “We can’t.”
When I was 37 and my ex-husband was 32, we turned our indecisiveness into an approach: I went off the pill and we stopped trying not to have a baby.
Apparently, I’m not alone in adopting this “we’re not trying to, but we’re not trying not to” attitude. New York Magazine columnist Ann Friedman describes this method as “basically carving out emotional space to consider starting a family without having your mom start emailing you the names of fertility doctors if it doesn’t happen right away.” I needed this space, not as a safeguard against meddling relatives, but as protection against my own fear of the absolutely irreversible nature of parenthood.
Most major decisions made by middle-class Americans are not permanent. Sure, you don’t want to quit your new job, sell your new house, divorce your new partner, but you can. Getting rid of a newborn is a different story. There are “safe haven” drop-off spots, but I’m fairly certain that leaving your infant is frowned upon when you are a middle-class woman in your late-thirties who actually tried to, or stopped trying not to, get pregnant.
Throughout my thirties, I had a serious case of what psychologists call “baby ambivalence,” a conflicted desire about having a baby. The field of psychology tends to pathologize baby ambivalence. Psychotherapist and maternal ambivalence expert Barbara Almond identifies what she calls the “real reasons” for baby ambivalence in women: interrupted bonding with their own mother; a woman’s fear that the “monster within” her or one of her close relatives will be manifested in her child; shame in the female anatomy; and an Oedipal complex over attachment to the father. This list of issues, which suggests that baby ambivalence is a problem lurking in the subconscious that must be excavated and resolved, does not resonate with me. This list overlooks a cascade of external factors that women must weigh when choosing to have or not to have children.
To me, baby ambivalence, or what I’ve started calling “bambivalence,” is the most rational possible stance for women weighing the kid question in a complicated world.
It’s easy to come up with a long list of reasons not to procreate: finite amounts of time and money, our planet’s lack of resources, abundance of children who need families, and decrease in marital satisfaction, to name a few. Simultaneously, it’s difficult to dismiss the arguments in favor of having children: unconditional love, someone to care for you in old age (though this is never guaranteed, it increases your odds), adorable grandchildren, biological imperative, and, the extremely persuasive “everyone else is doing it.”
For me, the “Should I have a baby?” pro/con lists always tipped to the con side. The arguments on the pro-side tend to be more emotional, the con-side more logical. Perhaps this is why one study finds a woman’s urge to have children decreases by a quarter for every 15 extra IQ points. Likely these women are more susceptible to the logical arguments against motherhood and less vulnerable to the smell of a newborn’s fuzzy head.
Ultimately, what tipped the scale for me was the projection that I would someday regret not becoming a mom more than I would regret becoming one. How did I draw this conclusion? All of my friends who have kids have more than one.
Once I got pregnant, my ambivalence was displaced by excitement. “I’m having a baby!” I exclaimed in my head; then, after a few long weeks of keeping the big secret, the big secret no longer existed. I was having a miscarriage.
After my miscarriage, for the first time ever, I experienced a powerful urge to get pregnant, an urge I imagine most women feel at a younger age. I felt as if every cell in my body was determined to conceive and every second I was not pregnant threatened my chances to ever become a mom.
Why did this maternal urge emerge with miscarriage? Because.
Because of hormones. Because of a fear that I had squandered my opportunity to have a child by pushing it off. Because of a need to prove that my body could do the most significant and essential thing a woman’s body is supposed to do. Because I had settled into being pregnant, and while pregnancies can end abruptly biologically, the emotional momentum of pregnancy doesn’t halt. Because there was a due date. Because there was a pea that promised to become a pear, and then a pumpkin.
Ultimately, I experienced miscarriage like an unrestrained passenger in a car that stops short; I hurtled forward, out of control. There was no pausing to mourn. Instead, after years of ambivalence, I made a u-turn and joined the crowd of women over 35 driven to become moms, and I experienced the frenzied urgency of women who have miscarriages or trouble conceiving in their late thirties.
After my miscarriage, I reluctantly waited the mandatory three months to “try again” and then I pretended that I was not focused every second on getting pregnant. I couldn’t admit to myself that I was desperate or I would jinx it, so I played it cool. But not that cool. I bought a basal body thermometer, fertility tests, pregnancy tests, and wine (for help in keeping it cool); I kept a journal of my temperature every morning to figure out when I was ovulating; on those few days … well, you know. A very long ten months after my miscarriage, I was pregnant again.
As I moved from a feeling of ambivalence toward a sense of urgency, one thing remained the same: I hid how I felt. I kept quiet about my urgent need to get pregnant because I didn’t want to be perceived as desperate or defective. I was also cautious about sharing my bambivalence, knowing that it might signal to others (wrongly) that I was not cut out for motherhood.
The prevailing narratives are that real women get pregnant and have babies and that these women know with unfaltering certainty that they want children. These narratives can be damaging; they can make child-free women feel inferior, they can prevent women from discussing and examining their ambivalence, and they can lead women into motherhood when it is not for them.
Today, I have a seven-year-old son and I’m divorced. Motherhood is more challenging than I ever imagined, but I know I made the right choice for me. Despite the unrelenting intensity of motherhood, at the end of every day, love and gratitude outweigh my frustrations and worries; when my son pads out of his room in the morning carrying his blanket and climbs in my bed or when he cracks a “punny” joke, I am overcome with joy.
Although I feel confident in my decision to have a child, I still understand why I experienced bambivalence.
Bambivalance can occur under many circumstances for women. Women might feel the urge but be unable make a logical case for motherhood. Women who don’t feel the urge might be weighed down by the cultural pressure to have children; this pressure continues to be strong despite the fact that more women are choosing to forego motherhood. In the U.S., where most of us don’t live with our extended families, women might not have had much exposure to babies and children and not know what motherhood entails, so bambivalence may be rooted in a lack of knowledge. Some women don’t want children but have partners who do, or vice versa. Others have fertility issues and must decide what level of intervention they are willing to engage in. Many women have established careers that will lose momentum or be lost completely. Others may be concerned about the cost of kids. Still other women might worry about bringing children into this world, especially women of color who have to worry about the rampant issues their children will face.
Bambivalence is not abnormal, nor is it an indicator that a woman should not become a mom.
As women postpone marriage and motherhood, pursue higher education and careers, and take alternative paths toward motherhood or away from it, bambivalence will continue to become more and more common. Normalizing bambivalence will give women the room to deliberate motherhood, so let’s recognize that bambivalence is a rational response to the most difficult decision women face.
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