A baby, MAYBE

Motherhood has become a decision, rather than an expectation, leaving many women with a difficult question: Do they want children?

Family Matters

October 05, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

It used to be easier.

Their mothers and grandmothers didn't think much about whether they would have children or not. That was what married women did. But today's women aren't just considering motherhood in terms of when, but if. Many are searching their souls about a role that used to seem natural.

In the past 20 years, the number of American women not having children has almost doubled, and society has grown more accepting of that choice. But advances in medicine have also made it possible for older women to conceive, leaving motherhood a question to contemplate much later in life. The result: Many women are in an emotional tug-of-war with themselves.

Susanne DeBerry Cole changes her mind from day to day about whether she wants to have a child. Even at age 39, she asks herself: Do I want to be a mother?

"When I was growing up, I never thought of myself as a mother," says Cole, who teaches history at Villa Julie College.

She worries that she might lose her sense of identity as a person and a teacher being a mother alone in an apartment with a baby.

The idea of parenting is overwhelming to her and her husband Xavier. "We sit at home at night and watch TV and eat meals that don't have vegetables in them," she says with a smile. "How do we raise a good person?"

But then there are those days when she'd like to start a family. "If I were never to get pregnant, I feel I might have missed out on something."

It's a feeling of regret that must cross the mind of almost any woman who chooses not to have a child. What if? But on the other hand, what if I give up, or put on hold, a great career? What if I don't like being a mother? In the end, it may be just a leap of faith.

At age 38, Abby Lattes has a 3-year-old and is pregnant with her second child. She says she was skeptical until the moment she gave birth that she was doing the right thing.

"It was a very difficult decision, but I've been shocked at how much I've enjoyed being a mother," says Lattes, who lives in Baltimore and works as a public-relations consultant out of her home. "I probably over-intellectualized it. I took the risk and it's been terrific."

Complicated choices

These days there's no stigma attached to being childless, and many women have other, often very interesting options for what they want to do with their lives. But meanwhile a woman's biological clock is ticking louder than ever. A study appeared last year in the journal Human Reproduction suggesting that the decline in female fertility starts earlier than previously thought, at age 27. Women who once put off a decision about children now feel pressure to start at least thinking about it earlier.

It's complicated for single women, too. In their parents' generation, the choice was pretty much made for them. But these days, even if they decide not to marry -- or no one has come along yet that they want to marry -- they can choose motherhood. They can have their own child or adopt one. There's even a national organization, Single Mothers by Choice, for women having children outside of marriage.

A slew of books has been written both on the joys of motherhood and in support of the child-free choice for those women asking themselves if they want kids. But in the last decade there have been very few that take no stand on the subject, that simply want to help women think about the question. At the same time, the reasons to have children -- or not -- have gotten more complicated.

"People don't have extended family to talk to. They don't have a source for information, a reference manual," says Diana Dell, an obstetrician / gynecologist and psychiatrist at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. She and journalist Suzan Erem have written Do I Want to Be a Mom? (McGraw-Hill, 2004), a guide for women on what they call "the decision of a lifetime."

The two interviewed hundreds of women, and much of the book is those women's stories. They comment on everything from getting pregnant to being an empty nester to never having wanted to be a mother. There are few answers in the book, but the authors raise plenty of questions. And the stories of the women they interviewed do give a sense of what's ahead for new parents.

Motherhood, says Dell, is an automatic response based on millennia of knowing that if you didn't have children, something was wrong. Since the advent of the birth control pill in the early '60s, childbearing has been an individual decision, but for many women childbearing still involves automatic responses. "The purpose of the book is to pull up those automatic responses and take a look at them."

To Dell and her co-author, it all boils down to this: Will I be happier with children or without them? It's a question that's led to the perception of deliberately childless women being selfish.

Baby's needs come first

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