The decision whether or not to have a child is one of the most consequential choices most people make. As I edge past my mid-thirties, it’s a question that has dominated my thinking. When faced with a dilemma I can’t solve, my usual strategy is to read. I order a bunch of books and immerse myself in other people’s experiences. It allows my thoughts to coalesce around a few themes; from there, I can see where I agree and where I diverge. To paraphrase Joan Didion, I read to understand what I think.
A decision as monumental as this is too complex for a straightforward pro/con list. Instead, I’ve found it useful to consider the choice through a variety of lenses. These will likely differ depending on the person and their life circumstances, but my considerations include: the practicalities of having a child as a queer woman in a lesbian relationship; the impact children might have on my often fragile mental health; how parenting would impede my freedom, in particular, my ability to write; and what it would mean to raise children as the devastating consequences of climate change worsen. I think about the impact a child would have on my finances, the lack of high-quality caregiving infrastructure available to me, and the physical toll birthing and raising a child would have on my wellbeing. Inevitably, I bump up against society’s judgments about women like me. The seminal book on the choice not to have children is called Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed, which echoes the criticism directed at childfree women.
That having a child can even be considered a choice is a very contemporary idea. The first oral contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA in 1960. Before that, many women spent the majority of their lives either pregnant, worrying about becoming pregnant, or caring for small children. Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022, the rights of pregnant people have been dramatically eroded. Forty percent of women in the U.S. aged between 15 and 44 now live in states with limited or no access to an abortion. The freedom to choose whether or not to have a child is a privilege shaped by race, wealth, health, and citizenship status. Those of us who can choose should do so carefully, acknowledging that not everyone will be so fortunate.
In my own life, I’ve settled comfortably into the don’t know camp. My partner and I are happily cohabitating (living in so many different kinds of sin!) with our two cats. Our lives are full of travel and friends and work, and most days it doesn’t feel like anything is missing. There is no chance that we—two cis women—could get pregnant accidentally. If we decide to have a child, they would cost time, money, and intention, to create.
The internet is full of guides that aim to streamline this decision and finally steer the reader toward the right choice. But there is no right choice when it comes to a question as monumental as creating life. There is no way to know which path will be the correct one. I find it much more interesting to explore the messy process of making a decision, of weighing the various factors against your own desires and preferences. In my view, how we think about the decision is as important as whatever the eventual outcome will be.
This reading list offers a range of perspectives that I hope will shape your thinking as you consider parenthood. From the impact of climate change to the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the choice, I’ve selected pieces that I hope will challenge our assumptions and encourage us to consider the question more deeply. I’ve also included stories that explore how this topic can be more complex for queer people, and how race and ethnicity shape both our historical and current approaches to child-rearing.
We may never be sure we are making the right decision, but we can strive to understand our choice’s contours thoroughly and fairly. For now, I am happy to embrace the uncertainty—to know that whatever the future might hold, I have found joy and contentment in the present.
Is it OK to Have a Child? (Meehan Crist, London Review of Books, February 2020)
The choice to have a child as climate change continues to warp our lives is fraught with fear and anxiety. This thoughtful essay refuses to shy away from the horrors of what’s unfolding, while also challenging the idea that individuals opting not to have children should be part of the solution. The author’s helpful reframing of climate catastrophe as a scourge fossil fuel companies must be held accountable for, rather than paid with reparations from our bodies, has stayed with me long after I finished reading. If concern for the climate is impacting how you think about your decision, I really recommend this piece. You may decide not to have children rather than subject them to the horrors of climate change—or you may benefit from realizing that climate change is a consequence of corporate greed, and instead refocus the blame where it belongs.
I remember, at one point, being distinctly aware of my mind – the conscious everyday mind that talks to itself and to other people, the self where language is loud – floating like pond scum on top of the vast, rich dark where I now labored, a wordless inner world of sensation and drive to which I had never before had access. I was two selves at once. A double consciousness. If I had to, I knew I could still speak to the people around me, but it seemed so silly and small up there. I let it go.
Black and Child Free (Houreidja Tall, Harper’s Bazaar, December 2021)
In this podcast, host Ashley C. Ford talks to well-known people about how they decided whether or not to have children while also considering the question for herself.
The choice to have a child is influenced by many factors, which vary depending on the identities of the prospective parents. This piece examines the history of Black motherhood and speaks with Black women who’ve decided not to become parents. US maternal death rates have risen sharply in recent years, with many experts predicting that they will continue to worsen. Black women are more than twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth as white women. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Black women are opting out of motherhood. This piece also rebuts the idea that childfree women don’t like children or that children won’t be an important part of their lives. Rather, it celebrates the decision to invest your time, resources, and energy into yourself. As Aria, a 28-year-old journalist from Long Island, tells the reporter, “My life is for me, my time is for me, my money is for me, it’s all for me. I am going to invest all of my energy and resources into making my life as excellent and comfortable and happy as possible.”
In the United States, Black women’s children were considered property, sources of wealth for white slave owners during slavery. As such, they didn’t belong to their parents, and their parents ultimately had no say over their care. That legal and historical framing of Black birth and motherhood echoes down through culture today, most prevalent in the phenomenon of state intervention in Black parenting that some have called Jane Crow.
We Are Family: The Struggles of LGBTQ+ Family-Making, and How It’s Changing (Emma Specter, Vogue, June 2023)
Refinery 29 has also published a series of articles about queer families. Through articles, interviews and photo essays, the collection examines the challenges of queer parenthood and celebrates those who are challenging hetero- and cis-normative narratives of parenthood.
If my partner and I wanted to become parents, our first step would be to visit the fertility clinic. As with all queer couples, the work toward childbearing would begin long before conception. We would look at donors, test our hormones, and prepare to spend thousands. We would need significant medical intervention to do something many straight couples can do accidentally, and yet in our heteronormative society, these stories are rarely told. This expansive piece recalls the experiences of queer, trans, and non-binary people looking to become pregnant and bear children. Collectively, their stories highlight the persistent biases that exist in the medical community against trans and queer people. It is also a celebration of the families who strive to break down traditional, gendered ideas of what it means to have and create a family. Despite all the information that exists around birthing and raising children, there is very little that centers on queer and trans stories. This piece is an excellent place to start.
Obviously, the pregnancy and family-building processes aren’t easy or straightforward for all cishet pregnant people. When you’re a queer or trans person of color trying to start a family, though, things can be exponentially more complex.
Why Choosing to Have Children Is an Ethical Issue (Christine Overall, The MIT Press Reader, December 2019)
This article is adapted from the author’s book Why Have Children?.
When deciding whether or not to have children, people tend to draw on their emotions, instincts, memories, and desires. Few people actively consider the ethical dimensions of their decision. This piece argues that the decision to procreate needs to be thoughtfully considered through an ethical lens, particularly in light of the child’s inherent vulnerability and dependence: Choosing to have a child means taking responsibility for a new life. I enjoyed the clear, ethical framework this piece put forward, and how it locates the decision to have a child in a broader societal framework. It also reinforces the need for this decision to be a choice, rather than an inherent assumption, and calls on prospective parents to carefully analyze their decision before taking action.
No one says to a newly pregnant woman or the proud father of a newborn, “Why did you choose to have that child? What are your reasons?” The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought or justification.
The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us (Cheryl Strayed, The Rumpus, April 2011)
Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” columns have been collected in the book Tiny Beautiful Things, which has been adapted into a show for Hulu. Episode 3 of Season 1 is built around this column, examining the consequences of the protagonist’s decision to have a child.
Sometimes I just want someone to tell me what to do—and I can’t think of a wiser guide to all of life’s messy questions than Cheryl Strayed. In one of her most celebrated “Dear Sugar” columns, she responds to “Undecided,” who is considering the possibility of becoming a father. Strayed, of course, can’t answer that question, but she frames it as one of parallel lives. In one life, you bear children and devote yourself to parenting. In another, you don’t and devote yourself to other things. Neither choice is inherently better than the other, though you might find yourself better suited to a particular path. She encourages the questioner to write, to make lists about how he imagines his future life. It’s advice I’ve found to be very useful. She concludes by embracing the certainty that, whatever we choose, there’s no way to know the path not taken. That, she argues, is less a tragedy than an acceptance of the unknowable mysteries of life.
I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.
Life’s Longing For Itself (Rosie Spinks, What Do We Do Now That We’re Here?, December 2022)
For me, the most useful resource toward making this decision has been other people’s stories. In her newsletter, Rosie Spinks writes about her decision to have a child and how, in the process of childbearing and rearing, she hopes to challenge the capitalistic instincts involved in modern parenting. She celebrates the chaos that comes from leaning into the messiness of life and embraces the human frailties that exist beyond the narrow lens of optimization. She quotes Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children”: “Your children are not your children. / They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” This mystical perspective helps to deflate the self-importance that sometimes accompanies the decision, balancing it with the knowledge that whether or not you decide to have children, it is often a choice that’s beyond your control.
In my twenties, I used to observe the act of modern parenting as a kind of capitalist slog, where the goal is to optimize another first world consumer to succeed under this wretched system. I know that sounds dark, but I suppose that’s because back then, I subconsciously saw my own life that way, too. Bringing another human into that would only make that task harder—and submit someone else to the messiness, chaos, and disorder of life. Why would I do that to them, and to myself? The answer, I’ve come to find, is because doing so reminds you of how human you are.