On not wanting to have children…

By Caitlin Kelly


“Our son is in Tikrit!,” Jose announced last weekend.

Of course he was. Perpetually adventurous, Alex couldn’t have lingered — sensibly and safely for his final semester of college — in Istanbul.

He’s actually not our biological or even adopted son.

He’s one of a small group of talented young people we call our “freelance kids” — who happily call us their freelance Mom and Dad.

We can answer all the questions their parents generally cannot — like, how does an ambitious couple in our industry, (littered with divorce), keep their relationship thriving? How do we handle crazy schedules and work-imposed separations?

How do we handle burnout?

And what do you do when you fall off an elephant into the Mekong River and ruin all your costly camera equipment?

A talented, ambitious and successful photographer, we met Alex when he came to The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, open to any student members of the NAHJ or NABJ.

Since then, Alex, a Chicago student from Milwaukee, has slept on our suburban New York sofa many times as we’ve welcomed him, as we also have with Molly, another young shooter from Arizona we met the same way, now living in Portland, Oregon.

I didn’t want to have children, and nor did Jose. We’re giving, generous, fun people, quick with a hug. We love to hear our young friends’ stories, happy or sad, and have given much advice on matters both personal and professional. They know we’re there for them.

It gives us great pleasure and satisfaction to have become trusted friends, often even older than their parents.

But we didn’t change their diapers or rush them to the emergency room or coach them for their college essays.

I now teach two college classes and have so far had 26 students, whom I regularly refer to (not to them!) as “my kids”, and, for many of them, I feel affection, glad to sit down and chat with them at length outside of class. I worry about some of them and how they’ll turn out — as parents do.

But when the vast majority of men and women still do become parents, those of us who don’t seem weird.

People assume we “hate kids” — not true — or are selfish; (like all parents, de facto, are not?)

Jose and I each chose to make our careers within news journalism, a volatile and insecure field that at the very top still pays its award-winning veterans less than a first-year corporate lawyer. So we both knew, long before we met in our early 40s, that whatever money we earned there was it, and having children would be costly both to our ambitions and our savings.

It is.

Today we’re financially far ahead of anyone we know, (short of the truly wealthy) with our retirement savings, not having had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to raise children or to buy/rent a larger home, (or live, cramped in too small a space for years),  or to pay for college. That’s a huge relief in an era when most Americans — even after decades of hard and/or decently-paid work– still barely have $100,000 saved to fund 20+ years of retirement.

And my own childhood just wasn’t much fun; an only child, I spent ages eight through 13 at boarding school and summer camp, living at home for only two years of that.

Parenthood looked like an overwhelming amount of work and I knew I would never be able to count on anyone in my family to offer help of any kind.

They're good company
They’re good company

As her only child, my mother’s own emotional and medical needs sucked me dry; by the time I was getting marriage proposals, I was busy carving out a career for myself in journalism, one so competitive — and poorly paid and with lousy schedules — I still couldn’t imagine adding the many enormous responsibilities of parenthood to that mix.

Let alone a husband!

I now teach freshman writing at a private college in Brooklyn and have a mix of sophomore, junior and senior students in my blogging class there.

I love the interaction with my students and have gotten to know a few of them personally. I really enjoy our conversations and am happy to offer advice when asked. It feels good to share wisdom with younger people.

But I don’t regret my choice.


It is painful to know that no one will visit my grave, (if I even have one), or retain much memory of me once all my friends and family die.

There are days I’ve envied the pride and pleasure others feel in their children and grand-children.

But it is what it is.

I’ve realized how much I love emotional connection and nurturing others — with the freedom to stop if and when I feel depleted.

But utter and total dependency scares me to death.

Here’s an excerpt of an essay about this choice from Longreads:

People with children have told me that it is virtually impossible to put into words what they gain from their children. “I would be at a loss to describe it in any way other than clichés,” a friend told me. “You can’t know what you are missing until you are on the other side.” Well, I don’t know what it feels like to bungee jump either, yet people don’t try to convince me to hurl myself into a canyon. Besides, I might be able to jump once and then decide that it isn’t for me. With having children this obviously isn’t an option.

A new book, with the sad title, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a collection of 16 essays about not wanting to have children, is just out this week.

It’s edited by Meghan Daum; here’s a recent seven-minute audio interview with her about the book and her choice, from NPR’s The Takeaway.

I attended an event in Manhattan this week with Daum and three of her authors, fascinated to see a SRO crowd of probably 75 people. That’s a big turnout for any reading, and especially in NYC where there’s probably 10 a night.

And here’s an excerpt from an interview with her about this most personal of choices in The New Yorker:

One reason I feel it’s important to talk about choosing not to have kids (as opposed to not being able to have them when you want them, which is a whole other story) is that, so often, the discussion is reduced to glib remarks or punch lines like “I’d rather have expensive shoes!” or “Instead of having kids, I bought a Porsche!” That stuff drives me crazy. First of all, it diminishes the serious thought that so many people who make this choice put into their decision. Secondly, it perpetuates the “selfish” chestnut by assuming that people who opt out of parenthood are therefore choosing to live self-absorbed, materialistic lives. As a mentor and an advocate, I’ve seen no end to the ways that childless people can contribute to the lives and well-being of kids—and adults, for that matter. Those stereotypes are tiresome and counterproductive.

 What’s been — or likely will be — your decision whether or not to have children?

Any regrets?

35 thoughts on “On not wanting to have children…

  1. Excellent thought provoking post Caitlin. I think in life that it is annoying sometimes how society pressures people to live the way they believe people should in terms of getting married, buying a house, and having kids. Even my own parents bugged me Jon stop about when was I going to get married and once I did when we’re we having kids. It drove me crazy. So many expectations! I met my husband when we were 22 and am so glad we waited six years to marry and then another five to have kids. We have a solid friendship which is critical especially once you throw in a family as your relationship completely changes. We waited awhile to consider children as quite frankly I wasn’t sure I wanted them. We traveled the world, worked hard at our careers and had a blast. Then one day at 32 my grandmother died. My uncle who has no kids but is marri d gave the eulogy and told the stories about his mother. It was that moment and then losing my two and a half year old nephew when I was in Australia that made me think hard.
    I decided I wanted something more. So we had two children and I would give my life for them. I never knew I’d be capable of so much love until I had them. I left my job to be a stay at home mom and yes there has been lots of ups and downs but I am blessed. I think having children is a very personal decision and it is definitely not right for many people. My uncles both have no kids or grandkids and they lead very happy lives and have become close to us as their adopted kids. Anyway it is funny how society has such expectations especially when so many families are very messed up. Great post!

  2. debra

    I love our three man-boys to death….no regrets whatsoever. Have only given them 2 real nuggets of advice — once you take a step over the threshold, never embarrass your parents and remember, you are my registered savings plan. 😉

  3. You always write such thought-provoking posts. Thank you. I never wanted to have children and am convinced I could have lived a perfectly happy life without them. I married a man who made it a condition of our marriage for me to commit to having two children. Only one happened in the chaos of seven miscarriages (none of which I found disturbing or grief-worthy). My son made it through my inhospitable womb and I’m glad for it. My life is richer because of his presence; it’s also made more complicated. I don’t regret having had him–his laughter alone is worth any struggles I encountered with motherhood (and there were many), but I do regret marrying the man who insisted on having children. I should have known better–should have selected a man who be a partner not a sculptor.

    1. Thanks!

      Interesting/sad story…I think no one should ever try to force that decision on us. I also fear the chaos that children often inflict on a previously lovely marriage.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  4. Just fyi, there’s an article in today’s Globe and Mail about choosing not to have children. It’s a good piece and Daum is referenced.

    It’s very judgemental of people to try to convince others that they should have children or that they will regret it if they don’t. Those I know who have chosen not to have children have thought very carefully about it. One of them has chosen not to because she believes that she might not be a good parent and doesn’t want to risk it. I respect her choice, and so should everyone else.

    Great post. 🙂

  5. themodernidiot

    Ick. Always knew, no.

    Despite that, spent seven years helping raise two boys. Given the choice again, I’ll take the poke in the eye with a hot stick.


      1. themodernidiot

        They ARE Ruined! They’re utterly ridiculous. Their mother and I make fun of them all the time haha

  6. I deeply regret not having children. And, by the way, I do not care one iota what other people think or feel about childless people. Choosing or not choosing to bring a child into this world is personal (like religion) and I don’t see why it should be the business of others, especially strangers.

    I would have dearly loved to have had one or two kids two decades ago, but it just didn’t happen. Two decades on, I feel the poorer for it.

  7. I’m not sure that I want children. If I do, I can only envisage myself having one (because one is manageable!). The reasons: I’d rather focus on my academic career and I don’t want to be tied down. Also, I get to spend lots of time with my young nieces — my sister has three children ages four, two and one. While I like spending time with them, there is no way that I would want to be in my sister’s shoes! Utterly exhausting, with constant demands…. Maybe I’m too ‘selfish’ but I’d rather pursue a career and be free to travel, have spare (quiet!) time, engage in hobbies etc.

    1. I think you’re fortunate to have exposure to what real life with very small children is really like. I think that motherhood is held up as the ideal for all of us when it is really only the best choice for some of us.

      We have young friends with new twins and were delighted to visit/cuddle with them at 2 months. I do hope to spend more time with them as they grow up but am grateful this is not my FT responsibility.

  8. i absolutely believe there are challenges and rewards to both sides of this choice, and never, ever judge someone for what they choose to do in this area. i think that we each find the way we can get through life, in a manner which best fits us and our situations, taking into account our personal feelings, wants, needs and states of being, and that is all that need be said. people who question this decision are speaking from their own insecurities or with a question of their own choices, i believe.

  9. I read about the anthology in the Globe and Mail yesterday, and it put me in a reflective mood. I realized that almost all of my closest friends chose not to have children. Of the handful of parent friendships that I have, all of those women experienced an absent mother themselves, either through death or mental illness. It is, perhaps, an unusual pattern of friendships to have, but I recognize that what I value in each of my friends is their willingness to question motherhood as the natural default position for women. None of us have much tolerance for excusing irresponsible parenting choices, and we all bristle with the ‘because I love you’ reason, or ‘I’m your mother and I said so’ justification we hear used to explain a parental offense to an offspring.

    It is always a struggle to stay accountable to someone with less power and total dependency upon us, and our society really doesn’t stress the importance of seeing offspring as people, not property. One thing that I genuinely appreciate in my friendships, whether they’ve been birth-moms or communal moms, is that each of these women employs language of respect, observing the boundaries between themselves and the young people around them, and they work to develop a relationship that people would choose to have, related or not. This is quite different than simply imposing upon someone because you believe you can get away with the violation. Sadly, I’ve too often observed that biological parenting better deserves the title ‘selfish’ or ‘shallow,’ (sometimes I’m guilty, too), and it hardly seems fair to cast such a judgement off onto others for opting out of giving birth. Rather, it seems a label that all humans earn off and on throughout their lives.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply.

      When I have asked other women, often those with many potential years of childbearing ahead, why they don’t want one some of them, too, have been heavily burdened with a needy parent, often their own mother. It wrecks your childhood, adolescence and young adulthood until or unless you say Enough!

      Then…you have no mother at all. It’s not a nice choice to make. It also makes you wonder — well, if being my mother was so great, why weren’t you in the game for it? It’s a tangled and sad affair and one there are very few venues to discuss with someone who’s not a therapist or very good friend.

      1. You are so correct about the venues for discussion. I have noted that women in denial about their families can sometimes be very cruel, probably from a drive to repress. This aside, more writers are beginning to break the silence, and more research from respected institutions like Harvard are beginning to speak to childhood adversity. It is encouraging, I think.

  10. Thank you for your openness, especially in a world loaded with families. There is certainly no turning back. Life changes profoundly. You have to ante up in ways you never thought you’d have to as a parent. It is a lot a lot of work. Ive always wanted it. Hardwired I think. I think it’s personal choice. There really is something enriching that the parent role causes in so many aspects of life. I think there’s a reason you hear repeatedly that it is very good and people would choose it over again, despite the efforts. But it is a lot of work. A gamechanger. And takes a lot of perceived control in life out of your hands.

    1. Thanks for this.

      As someone whose own childhood was filled with out of control moments, that very real aspect of parenting scared me — the thought of all those ER visits! Glad you are enjoying it.

  11. Having said that, we have travelled to Africa twice, Italy, Europe, the Arctic etc. I insist on pursuing my passions & make considerable time for it and home educate our four kiddos. Obviously not without its regular frustrations & efforts though.

  12. In mid-life, I found love. He arrived with an ex-wife and two teenagers. I arrived with nothing but my quick wit. Early on his daughter and I developed a close relationship. When his ex, with whom he shares parenting, insisted that I have no access to the children, I was bereft. I chose to not have children, and it was the correct choice. Still, the relationship between parent and child (or adult and potential step-child) is unlike any other. I feel lucky to have felt it – if only for a moment.

    1. What a shame! It is a lovely thing to have a relationship with a child…I really enjoy the ones I’ve developed with a few of my college students, even in their late teens.

  13. I am one month and one day away from turning 30. This is supposedly the prime of my baby-making years and the older I get, the less certain I am that I want to procreate. I love children and have been blessed with three nephews and a niece, but committing myself to another human being is a daunting task. I was raised by a single mother and had a biological father who walked away when I was in my teens. I have always said that I didn’t want to raise children alone and that I would wait to find the right person I could see spending a lifetime with. I have yet to meet that man or any who I would deem a good enough father to take that very important step together. I’m sure that if I ever did meet that man and had a child of my own, I would love him/her/them wholeheartedly and never look back. There are so many factors that go into why women (because let’s face it, men who don’t want children are not nearly as criticized as women who don’t want children) choose not to procreate and they are personal and not for others to have any opinion of. Thanks for such a thought-provoking read, Caitlin!

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply!

      I agree — I so treasured my independence and also met no man I ever thought might even make a good/great father. I met Jose when we were both 43 (i.e. the very tail end of my fertility) and it just seemed too late in the game then. I think he would have made a great Dad, so that’s a bit sad. But we really do enjoy our “kids” and get a lot of joy from those relationships.

      Don’t ever let people pressure you into that one; if it feels right, you still have 5-7 easy-ish years (fertility does decline a lot quicker than women’s mags would lead us to believe.)

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  15. I’ve known since I was a child that I didn’t want children. Mostly it’s about growing up understanding this about motherhood: men get to keep pursuing their interests, and women lose the right to be individuals and exist only for children and husband.

    I realize it’s not quite that polarized (i do, really!), but it is what I’ve observed about parenthood, especially in the society I grew up in – Asian, working class. The wealthy are an exception to this, as they always are!

    But I’ve never been much of a kid person. I think the parental gene might have been left out of my DNA. That being said, I do celebrate my friends/family’s children. Because they really are great little humans with enormous potential, and importantly, my friends/family members are fulfilled by their children, and that’s a wonderful thing.

    I think there’s a place in this world for people who want kids, and people who don’t. There is way too much public discussion about what women should or should not do (I bristle as I type this) with their bodies.

      1. I’m going to get that collection off Amazon in a jiffy. I found myself nodding vigorously to that “The Answer Is Never” essay on LongReads, in its entirety.

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