While googling ‘should I have a baby?’, I hope that some internet wizardry will draw answers from the inner workings of my mind – because, as it stands, I don’t have a clue. Aged 34 and married for four years, there have been a lot of people, including myself, asking: ‘When do you think you’ll be ready for a baby?’ But how do I answer the ‘when’ when I’m stuck on the ‘if’?
It seems that everyone around me is having babies, and I’m running out of time. Childbearing years don’t hang around for bucket-list travels, career-defining achievements or for me to finally feel financially secure. I want to make a conscious decision about this, before the decision is taken out of my hands. But I’m an overachiever in the thinking department and so, here I am, taking an online quiz and hoping that it will make this life-changing decision for me.
In fact, the only thing that’s made clear is how conflicted I am. When asked: ‘When you see parents with their children, do you feel excited about the prospect of parenthood for yourself, or relieved that you don’t have that responsibility?’ I want to tick both boxes.
I consider my pros and cons lists. Pros: I like children. We only live once, and motherhood, from pregnancy to loving a newborn and helping a child learn and grow, sounds like one of the greatest, most fulfilling experiences in life. But it’s also terrifying. What scares me most is that parents are the first to tell me how hard it is! Cons: interrupted sleep, little time for myself. It looks tough and scary on finances, career and independence. It will undoubtedly change my life, body and relationship forever. I need time to consider all that, but – tick-tock…
Love and other stories
I talk to a few friends, trying to understand their choices. One couple is in the same boat and feel ambivalent but, overall, most of them have it figured out. Friends without babies have made the choice to embrace a baby-free life – fancy holidays, a nice home and fewer responsibilities and money worries. ‘I enjoy babies,’ laughs my buddy, Lucy, ‘and then I enjoy passing them back to their mums when they start crying.’
Friends with babies tell me how tough it is – then, as if they didn’t just scare me half to death, try and talk me into it! ‘The love I feel for my son is different to any other,’ smiles my best friend contentedly, bouncing her child as he giggles. ‘It’s unconditional.’ My sister-in-law tells me that bringing up my niece is a constant party, ‘It’s so much fun!’ she beams.
I struggle to fathom how they found it so easy to make this huge life decision, so I contact coach and psychotherapist Heather Garbutt.
Will we be safe?
Initially, Garbutt doesn’t talk about babies, but asks me about my life. I’m impatient to get to the main topic, but she explains: ‘It’s important to identify and let go of baggage, such as past traumas and family history, in order to make your own plans.’
As we talk, one problem rears its head again and again. Like many of us, especially during the pandemic, money and job security cause me anxiety. We talk it through slowly. Money and security are so intertwined, I transgress from cash flow to bigger security issues, such as politics and global warming. ‘I don’t know if it’s safe to bring a baby into the world,’ I finally say.
Many aspects of life right now prompt us to question whether the world is safe,’ reassures Garbutt. She asks me whether I’m already thinking like a mother about the security of my unborn baby, and how that feels? It’s a strange moment when I notice that I’m not only considering my personal challenges as a mother, but that I care about the obstacles that my child might face. ‘There will always be things to worry about in the world, but every birth we choose to have is an act of hope,’ says Garbutt. So, do I want to make my life decisions based on fear, or hope?
I know the answer to that, but it’s easier said than done. How do you choose hope when fear stands in your way? ‘If we don’t seek out the root causes of our fears and address them, we are at the mercy of them, as if they are a concrete reality,’ says Garbutt.
‘Consequently, we won’t have the power to shift our view and will live life from a flight-or-fight perspective. We will stay small and hidden to be safe, which is life-limiting.’
To quash my fear, I have to unmask it and understand what’s really behind my money and security fears. We dig deeper and look at my childhood. I open up about being bullied at school, which left scars around feeling rejected and isolated. Garbutt asks me to try a guided meditation with her, in which she asks me to tap into the feeling of fear, and locate it in my body.
Accessing the physical feeling of fear in my gut takes me back to school, excluded and hiding from my bullies in a toilet cubicle. I cry. It’s a powerful practice that helps me link my physical feelings of fear to a word my mind can comprehend – ‘alone’.
The faces of fear
We talk about how this experience led me to believe that I could only depend on myself. Despite loving my husband and feeling stable in our marriage, it is important for me to know I can provide security for myself, and I’ve projected this need onto my finances and work.
Fear is a funny thing. It shape-shifts and presents itself in hard-to-identify forms: money, time and other people. We tell ourselves ‘I’m too old’, ‘I don’t have enough money’, ‘I’m not qualified enough’ – creating external obstacles to doing the things we want. ‘We always look outwards for things that get in the way,’ says Garbutt. ‘We want it to be an outer obstacle that seems intractable, rather than look inwards. We don’t like to acknowledge the inner dynamics that influence our decisions.’
This is a revelation. For the first time, I step out of my cons list and look at the root of my fears, instead of the fear itself. My concerns around financial security originate from a fear of being alone and unsupported. It’s not money, another life experience, nor a step up the career ladder that I need to feel secure – it’s being able to fully trust my support system.
When I need somebody
There is vulnerability in becoming a mother, or taking any big leap – there will inevitably be a few months when a new mother needs to step away from work and depend on others for physical, practical and emotional help. ‘Becoming a mother will challenge independence at certain points,’ says Garbutt. ‘Having a baby requires support, as well as letting go of personal freedom. But you can prepare yourself so that if or when you do decide to go for it, things are in place before the baby is born. Make sure you’ve got the self-care and support you need, because you’re only as strong as the support and self-care you have.’
I pluck up the courage to talk to my husband and share my realisation that my childhood experiences bred a fear of leaning on others. ‘I know,’ he says readily, ‘you find it hard to ask for help.’ We had never had the serious talk about babies before. I felt I needed to figure out how I felt about it on my own first. But it’s not a one-sided decision. I tell him how my fears have clouded my ability to see whether I want a baby or not. ‘You don’t have to worry,’ he says. ‘Trust me.’ And there it is: trust. The pathway to hope and the enemy of fear.
I am not an island
This is a decision my husband and I must make together, and to think that I had to make it alone is another example of how I felt I could only rely on myself. Relinquishing that concept is the start of me breaking free from the knotted roots of my fear, and starting to truly trust another person.
Looking inwards has also helped me understand what kind of mother I want to be. I don’t want to be afraid. I want to be brave and mindful. I want to have cleared out my emotional cupboards, so I don’t pass my fears onto my child. I choose hope!
At last, I realise: I do want a baby. The ‘when’ is for us yet to decide, but the ‘if’ has been answered.
How to make that big decision
From having a child to moving to another country, psychotherapist and counsellor Heather Garbutt shares questions to ask yourself.
Photograph: Getty Images