How Do You Know If You Even Want Kids?

Decisions don't make themselves

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Before we moved, the toddler in the apartment next door cried a lot. Screamed, actually. From what I could hear through the wall, she wanted her daddy so bad that she was willing to burn through her entire range of emotions until her mom made it happen. I also learned that her mom’s preferred method of dealing with these tantrums was to raise her voice and yell SHUT! UP!  I tried not to judge her parenting, but it was hard to hear a disembodied voice shouting at a little girl, even if I, too, desperately wished that she would stop crying.

But what kind of parent would I be, if I was at the end of my rope? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll ever find out. As I progressed through my twenties and into my thirties, I never worked out the answer to whether or not I definitely wanted kids. Sometimes I leaned toward yes, other times no. The underlying reason that kept me tethered more tightly to “no” was not the threat of an inconsolable child, but my genetic history. Muscular dystrophy runs in my family, and until recently I had no idea whether or not I was a carrier. What I did know is that I, unlike my parents, wasn’t prepared to wing it and hope for the best. I assumed that meant I simply didn’t want children badly enough.

My mom has three older sisters; each one of them has lost a child or grandchild to MD. When my mom was in her early twenties, she and her sister Marion made the hour-long drive from St. Augustine to Jacksonville, Florida, to find out if they, like their older sisters, also carried the gene. The next day the hospital called to say that they’d dropped the blood samples. She never went back, and to this day doesn’t know if she carries the gene or if it has been passed to any of her three daughters. She just knew that she wanted kids, no matter what. I was ready, she told me. She was twenty-six when she got pregnant with me; I am now thirty-two and have none of her conviction.

Jared and I have had the do-you-want-kids talks, and they usually end at a mutual conclusion of “probably not.” The decision feels close to the right one, but it doesn’t satisfy my itch to know what kind of little people we might make, what kind of parents we would be. Then I’d hear the neighbors, or think about my independence, or read a book like We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I wasn’t so curious anymore. More than anything, I wondered how much of my indecision was informed by the possibility that we might have a baby with a fatal muscular condition.

So I got tested. The procedure was free, unimpeded by the complications of insurance and doctor’s fees required in the US. I sat in a chair, exposed the veins of my inner arm, and looked away while the nurse got out the needle. Afterwards she taped a cotton ball to my arm and promised that the question I’d been asking for fifteen years would be answered in six to eight weeks.

I returned to my desk at work the next week to find a missed call from the genetics center. “This is Bronwyn,” the message said. “I have the results of your test.” When I called back minutes (minutes!) later, Bronwyn had left for the afternoon. I spent the next hour berating myself for choosing that exact moment to walk to the bathroom, leaving my phone to ring unanswered. By the time I got home, I’d convinced myself that I was a carrier. Something in the way she’d said “results” had sounded ominous.

Disappointment caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure if I wanted children, but always thought that if I turned out to be a carrier, the decision was essentially made. My reaction made me wonder if maybe, deep down, I wanted to be a mom more than I didn’t. Or was that just biology taking over? I tried unsuccessfully to push all useless speculation out of my head until the morning.

At 8:30 AM Bronwyn called. The test had concluded with ninety five percent certainty that I’m not a carrier. She was kind and helpful, promised to send me a copy of the doctor’s report, and congratulated me on the results. “That’s good news,” she said. I walked the rest of the way to the office in a slight daze. I’d been expecting resolution, a revelation even, but all I felt was surprise and the same familiar uncertainty. I’d hoped that genetic testing would tip me off the fence one way or another, but I was still firmly perched on top.

The more I over-think this decision (because I am definitely over-thinking it), the more I see that there’s a glaring problem with my approach. I’m looking at the kids/no kids dichotomy as if it’s black and white, but it is entirely grey. It’s like reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel; every choice we make leads to another. When I read those books as a kid, I held my place at every critical juncture so I could go back and explore each possibility: forty potential endings and I needed to know every single one of them. In my obsession with the outcomes, I lost sight of what happens between decisions, which is where life (or an exhausting book series) actually happens.

The answer to my question is obvious: I don’t know. There is no right or wrong answer, there’s only the choice we go with. Perhaps this is not a decision that we are biologically wired to make, as my brain and my body seem to be constantly at war. In some ways, I know too much about having kids to say that I want some of my own. In other ways, not enough to say that I don’t. Of course, I know nothing at all. That’s how it works, though: at some point the big decisions have to be made, and nobody lets you peek at the ending.

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