Not only from therapy clients, but from friends, colleagues, and in passing online.
Ambivalence about becoming a parent is real and it’s exceedingly common.
One aspect of this to-have-or-not-to-have-kids ambivalence that may be more unique for those of us who come from backgrounds of childhood neglect, abuse, or trauma, is the fear that, if we become parents, we’ll inevitably mess up our kids as much as we feel like our parents did to us.
And we really don’t want to do that.
We may fear that we’re too damaged to have kids.
We worry that we don’t know how to be good mothers/fathers because we didn’t – and don’t – have any positive examples of what this can look like.
We imagine that having a kid will turn us into our mother or father and that’s exactly what we’d most like to avoid.
We worry that because our own trauma still feels unresolved sometimes, we’ll lash out or overreact to our kid.
We stress. A lot.
We go back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of becoming a parent, wondering if we’re cut out for it, spending so much emotional energy and time trying to figure out what we “should” do.
Like anyone else who doesn’t know 100% whether they want to become a parent or not, we spend a lot of exhausting time in ambivalence.
But our ambivalence takes on its own special fearful flavor of what-ifs and possibly-maybes, informed by our own pain and sadness from our younger days.
Please hear me out: These fears are normal and natural.
Just because you’re ambivalent and have these fears doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have children.
And just because these fears are normal and natural doesn’t necessarily mean that you should have children.
What these fears do mean is that you may need to do some extra inventorying, some deeper psychological digging than your non-traumatized peers may have to do to understand what part of your ambivalence about becoming a parent is based in historically-informed reactive fear, and what part of it is indicative of a genuine lack of desire to have kids.
Look, I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t tell you what decision will be best for you, but in today’s post I want to offer up some ideas and some prompts to help you dig a little deeper if you personally find yourself afraid – even in part – about becoming a parent for fear of replicating what was done to you and what you experienced in your own childhood.
If any part of this resonates with you, please keep reading.
How do I know if I’m ready to have children?
One of the concerns almost anyone may have about becoming a parent is wondering when you’ll know when you’re ready to become a parent.
But I think that, for those of us who come from backgrounds of childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect, this question gets amplified by a hundredfold.
How do I know if I’m ready to have children?
One part of me wants to give the trite answer almost anyone gives: no one’s ever truly ready to have children! You just do it.
And another part of me wants to say this: there are better times than others to have children.
Do I think we need to “have all of our sh*t figured out” before we become parents?
No, not necessarily.
But do I think that the best time to have children is when you’re trapped in a violent, abusive relationship with three dollars to your name or when you have stomach ulcers from working 100 hour weeks at your law firm?
No, not necessarily.
Look, there may not be a “perfect” time to have children.
But there are elements that are more ideal than others to have in place before you bring a being into this world.
These elements may include some level of relational stability with your partner (if you’re choosing to have a child with a partner) so that they feel like a true support in the process; some level of financial stability to absorb the costs that kids inevitably bring; and some level of psychological security within yourself to tolerate the stressors that will inevitably arrive with a precious but intense little newborn.
This particular aspect – some level of psychological security within yourself – is what I want to speak to more for folks whose ambivalence in having children may be rooted in the fear of recreating their past.
Your history is not your destiny.
If we come from a background of trauma, abuse, or neglect, we will have been impacted by this. Period.
How we are impacted looks different for each of us (and I’ve written extensively about the impacts of early childhood trauma in previous posts), so it’s our responsibility as adults when we move from the survival years of childhood and adolescence to, hopefully, a more empowered and choiceful adulthood, to do our own healing work to recover from such adverse early beginnings and the unique impacts our past had on us.
This work may include turning towards our past; telling our story again and again to one or more trusted, compassionate others so we can begin to soothe the shame and pain from those hard years; learning to feel more and more of our feelings and appropriately express them; letting ourselves grieve what was lost and what will never be; being curious and mindful about how our past and the ways we coped to survive may still be playing out today; re-learing (or learning for the first time) what healthy, functional relationships might look like (I cover this topic and more in my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries.); and cultivating different choices for how we want to cope that may be more constructive.
And then, the ultimate task, getting clear about the kind of life we want to build for ourselves and moving towards it, making our future as beautiful as it can be, despite our adverse early beginnings.
This probably sounds like a lot of work, and honestly, it can be.
But what I also hope you hear me saying is that no matter where you started from, your history is not your destiny.
You can have been quite negatively impacted by your early adverse childhood experiences AND you can still be a good parent.
Why? Because healing is possible, no matter where you’re starting from.
If part of your fear and ambivalence about becoming a parent is rooted in a fear of replicating your past and concerns about how “damaged” you are from it, spend some time in self-reflection and ask yourself honestly if, perhaps, you’re underselling yourself in some way.
Reflect on what I’ve shared and see if you have indeed done some of (or much of) the above healing work to recover from your past and to develop some level of psychological security in yourself.
Be curious about where you still might have growth opportunities (but remember, realistically, there is never a finish line with any of those healing tasks – there is always more work that can be done).
Reflect on the level of psychological security you’ve already been able to cultivate inside yourself and the ways in which you’re continuing to do so.
And remember that when we arrive at parenting with some level of psychological security established in ourselves, we increase the odds that we won’t respond in, perhaps, the same dysfunctional ways our own parents did.
So in this way, the more you do your own personal work, the more you have some degree of control over not inevitably replicating your past.
And also remember this: intention counts for so much.
Intention counts for so much.
Your intention about your desire to keep healing and growing counts for so much, and so does your intention to be a good parent.
The fact that you even have mindfulness about not wanting to re-create trauma or a poor childhood experience for your own child speaks volumes about a level of awareness and care that you have that, potentially, your parents may not have considered or prioritized.
I truly believe that, if it really matters to us to be a good parent and to create a good childhood for our kid, this intention coupled with our willingness to do our own healing work greatly reduces the risk that we’ll “mess our child up as much as we were messed up.”
It’s also, I think, important to be intentional about what kind of parent you’d like to be for your child, particularly if you’re afraid of becoming your own mother or father to them.
When we’re weighing the decision of whether or not to have children, a helpful mental exercise can be clarifying what your own personal idea of a good mother/father might be and then also reflecting on what choices and characteristics would go into such a parenting experience.
For example, if you’re terrified of becoming a financially disempowered, overworked, exhausted, bitter martyr who “gave up” her own dreams and well-being to have children like your mother and grandmother did, imagine what the opposite of that would look like and what it would take to be that.
Would this be a woman who, perhaps, chooses not to have as many children as they did?
Would it mean becoming a woman who wasn’t a stay-at-home mom because she was taught she “should” and who instead persisted in her education and career development?
Would this mean making choices to outsource labors of life (housecleaning, grocery shopping, childcare) so that she could have more spaciousness and ease while being a parent?
Would it mean marrying a partner who supports her professional and personal ambitions and who doesn’t pressure her into making choices she truly doesn’t want?
If your intention is to be a mother who is both a mom and who has a fulfilling meaningful career and who is happy in her life, this is possible.
And, it may require you to make strategic choices about who you have a child with, and how you manage the many pieces of your life to accommodate raising a child and persisting in your own dreams.
You can be a different kind of parent than your own mother or father was, and it may take more intentionality and more work.
So that’s where the idea of good models comes in to support us.
Look for models who show that something different is possible.
If becoming a different kind of parent – one who is happier, more fulfilled and functional – sounds great to you but you don’t believe this is possible, I get it.
It’s hard to be what you can’t see.
So that’s where it’s also helpful to actively look for models and mentors who came from challenged backgrounds but who are also good parents with generally content lives so that you can see that history is not destiny and that it’s possible to be a different kind of parent than the ones you were raised by.
If you don’t know these people in real life, if you can’t think of any models within your friend/family/colleague groups, look to books and movies (biographies and autobiographies in particular!).
Scour for bloggers and writers on your Instagram feed or through your general Google searches.
Ask around, ask people you trust about who they know who perhaps came from hard beginnings but who seem to be doing really well now and who happen to be parents.
There are actually many of us out there who came from really challenged beginnings but who are now doing well in life. Some of us are public about our stories, some of us are harder to find. But we’re out there.
Look for these models and allow them to provide evidence that just because you had a screwed up childhood yourself, doesn’t mean you will replicate this with your kid.
In fact, I truly believe that you can come from a hard, adverse background and still be an AMAZING parent to your child and live a life that feels good to you.
But most importantly, remember this: no matter how much you do your own personal work, no matter how great your intentions, no matter how many positive parenting examples you find and try to model yourself after, you WILL screw up.
The “Good-Enough” Parent.
One of my favorite contributions to the field of psychology is the concept of the “Good Enough Parent,” an idea coined and made famous by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, MD.
Essentially, Winnicott’s idea of a Good Enough Parent was one in which the parent had sound nurturing instincts, devotion to the child, and ultimately inevitably screwed up and “failed” as parents in a way that allowed their kids to experience disillusionment with them and the world in ways that felt manageable and tolerable.
In other words, a Good Enough Parent helped their kids to learn how to cope with and face an imperfect world including themselves as imperfect parents – a key developmental task that children must face in their development and emotional growth towards adulthood.
Now, an important caveat: screwing up and “failing” as parents does not include egregious harm like physical, verbal, or emotional abuses.
It means, perhaps, having to miss your kid’s soccer games because of unavoidable work commitments – a big difference.
So, to my point above in the last section, no matter how much we do our own healing work, no matter how great our intentions are to be good parents, no matter how many positive parenting examples we try to model ourselves after, we WILL inevitably screw up and disappoint, frustrate, anger, and let down our kids sometimes.
And that’s okay. That’s normal.
Your child might need therapy someday, too.
But hopefully, they won’t need therapy for extensive childhood trauma recovery work.
So give yourself some grace and some compassion if you’re scared to have kids because of your own messed up childhood.
You may “mess up” with your kids, but if you can improve upon the parenting efforts of your parents and their parents before you, can that be good enough?
Can you allow yourself to believe in the concept of the “good enough” parent and does this soothe any part of you that may be ambivalent about becoming a parent for fear you have to get it “perfect”?
Context is subjective.
Finally, I think, too, when we’re trying to decide whether or not we want to have children because we’re afraid of replicating our own past, it’s important to remember the subjective context in which this occurred.
In other words, were your parents really young, with active additions, untreated mental health issues, financial insobriety, without professional or social security and in a crummy relationship with each other?
That sounds like a recipe for a poor parenting experience if not outright trauma if you were the child who grew up in that environment.
But does your current environment, the environment you may today be even contemplating the decision to have children in, resemble that past environment?
The subjective environments we have children in – both psychologically and externally – contribute to your child’s experience of safety and well-being in the world.
It’s therefore important for you to consider what parts of your environment may resemble and not resemble the experience in which you experienced your adverse experiences.
Remember, too, that if we choose to have a child with someone, that person is another large part of the equation that can contribute to, possibly, a more positive childhood experience for your own child.
If, let’s say, your mother would get overwhelmed and start yelling at you when you started whining about bedtime each night (as so many kids do!) and she didn’t have a responsive, responsible partner she could enlist when she needed a break so she could self-regulate, but you do have a partner who you could imagine stepping in when you needed to “step out” as a parent, consider this as a different variable that might contribute to a different subjective experience if you were to become a parent.
Again, context is subjective.
If we’re afraid to become parents for fear of replicating our own childhood experience, it’s important to reflect on all of the different variables that led to your adverse experience and to further reflect on how different the variables may already be for you that would contribute to a different experience for your own child.
No one can make this decision for you.
My intention in writing this post is not to convince you that you should have children.
I would never dare to presume what the best choice for you is.
Only you can decide if becoming a parent is the best and right decision for you.
No one else can decide that for you. Not a person, not a religious institution, and not a general cultural introject about what you “should” do with your life.
At the end of the day, I really believe that becoming a parent is the second most permanent decision anyone can make (the first being the decision to take your own life).
Becoming a parent is not a decision that anyone should take lightly and it’s not a decision that’s right for everyone.
So this post is not pro-becoming-a-parent.
This post is pro-choice.
Pro-choice in the classic sense, yes, because I believe with every fiber in my body that it is every woman’s right to have bodily sovereignty and control over her reproductive rights.
But this post is also pro-choice in that I want to help you create more flexibility and nuance in your ambivalence about becoming a parent if any part of that ambivalence (or if all of it) is rooted in a historically-informed reactive fear to not wanting to recreate your own childhood experience.
I wanted to offer up these ideas – about your ability to create psychological security within yourself and how this, coupled with your intention to be a good parent, combined with curiosity and creativity about becoming a different kind of parent (informed by models or not), the idea about subjective environmental experience, and the (hopefully) validating and normalizing concept of the Good Enough Parent – to suggest that just because you had a screwed up childhood doesn’t mean you will inevitably recreate the same thing with your child.
I want to offer up these ideas and help you tease apart which piece of your ambivalence about becoming a parent are genuinely because you don’t want to be a parent and which parts of your ambivalence are rooted in historically-informed reactive fear.
Because, when we’re operating reactively when we’re making a decision from a place of not feeling like there’s another option, that’s not a choiceful place.
I want every person to make a decision about becoming a parent from a place of choice – choice over their body and choice over what they imagine is possible with either decision.
I hope that by sharing a few more ideas with you today it helped you in some way create more choice in your thinking.
If you’d like to explore even more posts that may help add some more ideas and thoughts to your question about whether to become a parent or not, I’ve included a list below.
Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments:
What did this post bring up for you? What else would you say to someone who feels ambivalent about becoming a parent for fear of replicating what they experienced in their childhood?
Leave a message in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you.
If you would like additional support with this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together. You can also book a complimentary consult call to explore therapy with one of my fantastic clinicians at my trauma-informed therapy center, Evergreen Counseling.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
- Don’t Know If You Want to Have Children? This Blog Post’s for You.
- The Five Healing Tasks of the Un- and Under-Parented.
- What does it mean to remother yourself and why is it so critical for our growth as women?
- Little Girl Blue: What if you were a child who didn’t get a childhood?
- What if I never meet The One?
Wonderful post. I also found it eye opening to insert ‘partner’ or ‘lover’ for the word ‘parent’ in your post, i.e., trying it on to think about fears/ambivalence/self-doubt about my fitness to be in intimate romantic relationship. Annie, perhaps you could address this in a future post?
Joyce, I’m so sorry for my delayed response to your message and I love how you took the post and made it applicable to your own curiosities by substituting “partner” for parent. And I can absolutely write more about this issue! What, specifically, would you like to read about? And if you haven’t explored my posts on attachment styles, I might recommend them:
Rebecca Friedel on
I was raised Mormon but that didn’t keep my mother from defying the tenants of the faith and abused medication and ruthlessly abused us physically and emotionally.. It was the‘60’s and people were less aware of the signs of child abuse and as so many abused children my bothers and sisters held the family secret close. I later left the Church but at the time the religion was a feat comfort to me and as a result I assumed I’d have children. Yet, as an adult I found myself reluctant to become a mother, as much due to the problems in my first marriage. After my second marriage I had my one “what the heck” moment of my life and found myself pregnant. During the pregnancy all my repressed fears about motherhood came to the fore. And yet, once I held my son all my apprehension melted away. I found myself fumbling in my responses to his cries as I had no deep imprint of being nurtured myself but hormones and instinct united with my resolve to not repeat the abuse and neglect I experienced. My efforts were complicated by my son’s autism and my own disabling treatment for a benign brain tumor. If anything my health issues gave me insight into my son’s autism because I experience similar sensory overload, life experience helped my avoid any descent into outbursts but when my son had them I understood the cause because I was feeling the same way myself. At some point in raising Ben I realized becoming a mother was the most healing act I’d ever done for myself. Now, in middle age I’m now working directly with my abusive past with DBT and soon EMDR and I hope to finally release myself from the shackles of my trauma and shape the future I desire. I would never advise any woman she “has” to have a baby to experience the fullness of her womanhood, or to heal a traumatic childhood. I can only share that it was very healing for me.
Rebecca Friedel on
Sorry, spell check/ word suggestion bit me, the Church was a great comfort to me during my abusive childhood. The light grey font is difficult to read, if there any additional odd wordings please assume it’s technology going awry. ????????♀️
I appreciate so much of what you wrote and what stood out to me is that I’m glad that having a child was, ultimately, healing for you, and that you’re continuing to do your work with DBT and EMDR therapy now. It sounds like you’re really committed to your own growth and healing and I have so much respect for that.
I’m sending you much warmth. Annie
This was the exact post I was searching for when I came across your blog about a month ago. I’m kind of glad you hadn’t written it yet because I was nowhere near ready to hear it yet. Many of your other blog posts helped me put a name to what I was experiencing as a 24 year old who has no idea who she is and why she reacts the way she does. Relational trauma has affected my life and my relationships in such a strong way that while I read the posts about it, I came to the conclusion that I would seek professional help. It started with just this intense fear of having children “because I didn’t want to screw them up,”and being at the age society really starts pressuring you into that decision, to looking deeper in myself and my relationship with my parents and siblings to begin working on myself. Funny enough, I went into therapy thinking I can “cure” myself and be a perfect parent. I’m still coming to terms with and accepting that messing up a whole lot less than my parents is “good enough” and the “Good Enough Parent” is on my healing homework list. Thank you for writing this post. This fear was what led me to therapy so that my childhood survival skills don’t have to be my adult choices anymore.
I was so touched by your share! And I think the way you articulated this is brilliant: “my childhood survival skills don’t have to be my adult choices anymore.”
That sums up the work of therapy in a nutshell and it’s a beautiful goal to have in your healing work. And I hope you and your therapist throw that idea of the “perfect parent” right out the window – it’s impossible! A running joke that my husband and I have is that we’re certain our daughter will end up in therapy, just hopefully for lighter issues than the two of us had to deal with. Good enough parenting is the bar, and it’s a wonderful one to aim for.
Kimberley Edwards on
I just read your post and it really struck home for me. I’m an almost 60 years old woman, and child-free, mostly by choice, and also due to the fact that I was incapable of finding or sustaining a more or less functional relationship until I was over 40.
I definitely struggled with an “historically informed reactive fear” of not having the emotional skill set to be a good parent. My father was a philanderer, a severe alcoholic with underlying mental illness and suicidal tendencies, and my mother was too overwhelmed dealing with the constant chaos he created, while also struggling to sustain us financially, to really be there for me emotionally. My father sucked all the oxygen out of the room, and she had very little left for me. More often than not, it fell to me as a child to try to have as few needs as possible, and instead, emotionally support my mother. It took me years, well into my 30s, and a couple rounds of psychotherapy and 12 step experience to fully comprehend the extent of the dysfunction I had endured and internalized, especially when combined with several years of concurrent intense bullying and ostracization from my peers that left me angry, reactive and traumatized, and capable of violent outbursts. I’m relieved that I didn’t have children, either intentionally or by accident, because prior to my 40’s, I really had not developed anything close to the emotional stability or restraint to deal with my own internal weather that would have been triggered by the constant stress of motherhood. I would have certainly inflicted emotional, and I hate to admit it, but likely physical trauma on children had I had them. I’m thankful that I at least had the sense to be diligent to the point of being paranoid about birth control.
I still struggle with conflicting feelings; what is more selfish? Having children, or not having them? Part of me cannot wrap my head around the sheer audacity it takes to jerk someone out of non-existence and into existence, to conjure them up from scratch, just to bring them here to deal with…all of THIS, both micro and macro. I struggle with recurring bouts of depression where I simply want out of all this as quickly as possible and truly wish I had never been born in the first place. I know for a fact I’m far from alone in those feelings, and in those times I view the very act of having children at all as being a self-centered, self-serving, and entirely unjustifiable act. That’s how it feels on the dark days. Other days, I feel like who was I to pull the plug on generations of ancestors who faced REAL life and death challenges, and give up on humanity by refusing to play the breeding game? On those days I remind myself that even had I wanted to take the chance, the partner for such an enterprise simply did not exist during my breeding years, and having a child on my own, with my myriad instabilities, including financial, would have been the far more irresponsible path.
My struggle now is in confronting my desire to make a meaningful contribution while I’m here, to live a life of purpose despite my not contributing any DNA to the pool.
Thanks for letting me get this off my chest, as it’s a rabbit hole I manage to fall into either a little or a lot, with maddening regularity.
Thank you for your vulnerable share, Kimberley. I genuinely, with my whole heart believe there are huge and impactful ways to impact humanity without contributing to the gene pool. I mean, Oprah certainly comes to mind! And while few of us will have the impact that Oprah has had, even being consistently kind to your neighbor down the street, or smiling at the barista at the coffee shop who seems to be struggling may touch a life more than you know.
I trust that you made the best decision for yourself at the time and that it’s never, ever too late to make something beautiful of life.
Karin Stienemeier on
I went through over 20 years ago. When I met “the man of my life” I told him I didn’t want children, I was afraid I would beat them to death. But I overcame my alcohol addiction and did 4.5 years of intense psychoanalysis 3 times a week. He stood by my side through all the ups and especially downs. We then got married and I wanted to have a child. One who could make the world’s future brighter. But he didn’t want “to share me” anymore. After 2 years of endless discussion I made the decision for us and took out my IUD I was almost 39. I became pregnant with twins, lost one after 4 months and had a difficult pregnancy and birth and my body and mind fought to keep the remaining child.
Today my son is 22 he is wonderful. It wasn’t always an easy journey but I never ever raised a hand to him. He learnt that adults make mistakes and can become addicted or bankrupt but if we are open, admit our mistakes and do everything to resolve and change the situation we can overcome the challenges.
My husband left us when my son was 16, we had been together 25 years with my continued years of therapy. But my son and I came through were there for each other. We cry and laugh and hug things out and even though an ocean separates us today we are each other’s anchor with respect and independence on all sides.
I believe we women should make these decisions for ourselves as we are so often the ones who raise our kids no matter what. We can put our own traumatic and toxic childhood behind us and make adult decisions. Self reflection and therapeutic help ate essential to becoming loving and nurturing parents.
Thank you so much for your beautiful and touching share. I’m moved by how dedicated you were to doing your own personal work so that you could craft a different future for you and your son. It sounds like you two are close and that’s a testament to the quality of the relationship you’ve been able to provide him.
Your share reminded me so much of my all-time favorite quote and one of the guiding principles of my work:
“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.” ― Terri St. Cloud
I’m sending you a big hug, and I’m rooting for you. Warmly, Annie
Thank you for this post . It is a
Difficult decision and the past impacts the present which is tough.
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad this post resonated with you and I hope it was helpful. Take good care of yourself.