The Paradox of Wanting to Be a Mother

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The Paradox of Wanting to Be a Mother | Wit & Delight
Photo by Tanya Trukyr on Unsplash

A soft disclaimer: Before sinking into this essay, I want to preface by writing that motherhood is a fluid experience. My confusion about having children is entirely different than the experience of those struggling to have children, those who have lost children, and those who raise them. No matter the journey into motherhood, our stories are valid and different. This story is complicatedly mine. 


I turned thirty-four this year and purchased a home. My husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. I went to the doctor. My gyno told me on a Tuesday, after digging around my womb like one would search in a box of jewelry, “It looks beautiful in there.” She said it while tightening the lid of a testing tube. I imagine her comment is supposed to make me feel hopeful and it does. Sometimes I open my iPhone notepad of baby names, and they light up my face. I love imagining my husband as a dad. 

I’ve lived my entire life watching the ideal of motherhood like a sensual fantasy. It started with Teen Mom, and fear and burden grew on me like mold. Magazines and pre-written expectations remind me of the home inside my body like a ticking time bomb. Nightmares about being pregnant become dreams, and dreams become feared reality. The reality, my urgent temptress. My imagination, a painted picture of what could be and what doesn’t have to be. 

I want to be a mother. And I don’t.

The wanting part is, for me, a little less complicated than the not wanting part. Because I do want to preface by saying: Our plan (if my body allows it) is to have children. But I want to talk about the pure version of myself that feels a tug the other way. That complex feeling that bops around like a deflating balloon and sings, But what and who will you lose?

I made a “having children pros and cons list” in my Passion Planner. It wasn’t my best moment, but I thought writing a list would give me clarity. Quickly, the items started to sound ridiculous. I wrote “giving birth” as a pro and con. If anything, the list made my desire for children foggier. Planted on both sides of the decision are deeply rooted beauty and pain. And to me, the contrast is terrifying. 

Motherhood is the dream. Become a mother or die alone. With this kind of idealism, choosing not to have kids can get awkward fast. People shouldn’t have to explain themselves, but they do anyway. Sometimes I wonder if I want children to avoid judgment—and that’s the reason paradox exists at all. But, I don’t think anomaly exists in societal expectation. I want children. There’s something in the pit of my gut, very scientific almost, that feels the need to procreate. But there’s also a modest, less primal voice that whispers, Are you certain? 

I never knew I was capable of equal parts desire and disinterest. I have met many women who would rather live their entire lives pregnant, who felt destined for it. I have met women who do not want children at all. But what about the women who feel both of those things? Many women fear motherhood at the same time they lust for it, wallowing in the middle ground. We need to talk about the paradox of desire: wanting children as much as you don’t want children.

Many women fear motherhood at the same time they lust for it, wallowing in the middle ground. We need to talk about the paradox of desire: wanting children as much as you don’t want children.

I have reoccurring dreams that I am pregnant. The visions are so erotically sensual the process feels palpable. In them, I anchor myself to a version I’ve never known, not afraid of my body. In the dreams, I am beautiful and full. In real life, when I imagine myself pregnant, I’m insecure. Part of me wants to be hidden or private while my body grows. Somehow, I am no longer me at all. When I imagine myself pregnant, I am a ghost. How can I dream so vividly about desire and yet see nothing in real life?

I am afraid. Mothers sacrifice their physical alone time, and I am worried, despite that, motherhood will be lonely. Being a mother is a fierce representation of humanity, but it’s also fragile. This blurb from columnist Courtney E. Martin in On Being, as she writes about the paradox of motherhood itself, sticks with me: “I still feel like my world is not quite as big, my consciousness not quite as vast, as it used to be,” she writes. “Part of this is pragmatic. It takes a lot of energy and attention to make sure a largely defenseless little creature grows into a person. . . . In those early days I asked myself: will I ever feel like myself again? The answer, it turns out, is no. In the most universal and specific way possible—no.”

Selfish for time and my obsession to self-define are two big reasons I straddle the desire to become a mother. I’m scared of changing who I am and not understanding that person. I don’t want to lose access to my hobbies, and I want to be able to focus my undivided attention on the friends I love, the things I love, the places I love. No one ever said having kids would take everything away. It’s perhaps the permanency of motherhood wedged somewhere in the core of the fear and self. I’ve been stretching out, trying to take up space my entire life. Do I want my world to feel smaller? 

While these things scare me, I’m aware of the burden behind life’s expectations. As referenced in this Positive Psychology article, social psychologist Roy Baumeister writes in his book Meanings of Life “that there are two happiness peaks in the lives of adults in America, namely: between the wedding and the birth of the first child and between the departure of the last child from home and the death of one’s spouse.” Read that again and tell me that’s the SADDEST THING YOU HAVE EVER READ?!

It gets better, I promise. The article explains that having children harms personal happiness because our expectations are too high. The extreme focus on hedonistic values in our culture is the root of worry and disappointment. The thing is, humans suck at predicting their feelings (it’s called affective forecasting disorder). And if we’re trying to envision this high form of happiness all the time, we fall prey to an illusion we make up in our minds. Our feelings-radar is not accurate. We imagine children to be this enlightening, perfect scenario; the reality of motherhood wavers because of that ideal. 

The paradox, the wondering, the fear, and the ideal of motherly euphoria is the reason we survive. Planning a family is supposed to be complicated. It can’t make sense until it’s right in front of us, breathing in our lap.

When I think about becoming a mom without the expectation of happiness, the story becomes clear. Mothers are striking, selfless mammals. I don’t know how I’m going to feel if I’m lucky enough to become one. The paradox, the wondering, the fear, and the ideal of motherly euphoria is the reason we survive. Planning a family is supposed to be complicated. It can’t make sense until it’s right in front of us, breathing in our lap.

The waiting room and the wanting are complex. Until motherhood is ours, we struggle to accept its form. An appetite for the unknown is big and small, melancholy and rewarding. As much as I try to colorize a feeling, motherhood stays grey for me. And as I spend my days wondering about being a mom, perhaps the beauty does lie in the uncertainty. You can’t splash color anywhere without a blank slate, anyway.

If my future child reads this (or anyone for that matter) I hope they understand that humanity is complicated. Women, or anyone bringing human life into the world, are allowed to feel complex, ridiculous, and confused. A woman’s story about being flighty or noncommittal is a rare one to find, and I wanted to put mine here. I believe part of wanting is the confusion of that desire. The paradox is life, after all.

BY Brittany Chaffee - October 27, 2021

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Andrea D.
October 27, 2021 11:12 am

Brittany, thank you for sharing. It is hugely important to see these words on the page; putting definition to feelings with which I have also been wrestling. Thank you for your honesty in your confusion.

beetle
October 27, 2021 11:19 am

I have NEVER related to something so strongly as this. And I have never been able to fully explain my feelings around potentially becoming a mother–and these are all my feelings exactly. I don’t NOT want kids, but I don’t strongly want them, either, certainly not as strongly all of my friends seem to. Everything I read says “If you don’t 100% want kids, don’t have them!!” and I don’t find that helpful. But I did find this very helpful. So thank you.

Nicole
October 27, 2021 11:52 am

I find myself in the very middle you describe, but somehow also the opposite. When I tap into my gut, it all but screams at me that having children is absolutely not for me. And yet… I can’t shake the ‘what ifs’ that are also whispering. I’m quite sure that I will not have children; at least, my husband and I do not currently plan to. But I would be lying if I pretended to be 100% confident in that decision (and I do lie about this, all the time.) It’s so incredibly difficult to talk about these particular conflicting… Read more »

Kirstin
October 27, 2021 1:32 pm

WOW. Its like someone snuck into my brain and wrote down all these thoughts and feelings I have, word for word. Thank you for writing something like this, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read or heard anyone speak this way about motherhood before. I feel the exact same complex emotions around motherhood. I’m also the same age and recently bought a house too, so in the game of life it really does feel like the next looming big decision is whether or not to have children. It’s such a tricky thing for me because I absolutely love children; I… Read more »

October 27, 2021 2:28 pm

Today is my 30th birthday and this article speaks to me so deeply. My husband and I waver back and forth on our future with kids. Money, homeownership and the unease of our planet/environment are other topics we discuss every time we talk about kids. I think about how I would love to adopt or foster and also at the same time worry I might not be the right mom for a kid. It’s deep. It’s complicated. Thanks for putting this out there!

Storm
October 27, 2021 3:40 pm

Ooof did this hit close to home. After reading both your words above and the comments below, I feel such relief to know that I am not alone in the indecision and ambiguity I feel about having children. I’ve made the pros and cons lists, I’ve had long chats with my husband and therapist, and yet it still feels terrifying to admit that I don’t know. Thank you Brittany, and to each of you that has commented before me, for making me feel a little less weird and alone with such a personal and thorny topic

Keri
October 27, 2021 9:34 pm

As a mom of 2….I loved this because I felt the same way pre-kids and have days where I wonder what I/life/my marriage would be like sans these tiny people we brought into the world. I often re-read and think about the Dear Sugars post about “ghost ships” (and if you haven’t read it- google and enjoy!) In it, Cheryl Strayed addresses a reader’s ambivalence about having a child and ends the column by saying: “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… Read more »

Keri
October 28, 2021 4:44 pm

Oh that means so much to me! Here’s to ghost ships…! ❤️

Kacey
October 27, 2021 11:37 pm

Yes! I relate to this so much.

Sarah
October 28, 2021 7:32 am

This was a profound read which mirrors my feelings, precisely, about having a second child. I feel like I’m at my limit with one, yet I feel this seemingly biological obligation to have another. The only advice I can give is this; you will never regret having a child, but you may regret not having one.

Audra
October 28, 2021 10:05 am

I got married and turned 35 this past year, and this essay resonated with me strongly. Something I did that I thought might help my mind become clear on motherhood was research books on the subject (there are many!). I ordered “The Baby Decision” by Merle Bombardieri. I haven’t opened it yet, but it is sitting on my nightstand for when I am ready.

V V
November 1, 2021 4:35 pm

Thank you so much for putting this honest perspective into words. I appreciate this and you!

Britney D.
November 2, 2021 12:45 pm

Brittany, the way you write about all of these topics of womanhood – marriage, friendships, and motherhood, seriously – thank you! I appreciate you always spilling your vulnerability on the page and making it known that so many of these decisions and ways of life are complicated. I think often we are presented with this notion that everything is black and white and I appreciate the hell out of you for being so transparent. As for this article specifically, I feel the exact same way. I’m in my mid-30’s and feeling like if I’m to have children, the time is… Read more »

Jessica
November 2, 2021 1:27 pm

I wish I had read this 4-5 years ago when I struggled with the decision of whether or not to have kids. I struggle with anxiety and literally HATE making decisions. I worried whether or not I would be a good mom, could I even get pregnant, and all the other fears that come with that decision. I eventually made the leap and had a baby girl 3 years ago. I still struggle with whether or not I’m a good mom, anxiety, and the mental load that’s involved with having a kid. There’s just so much that falls to the… Read more »

November 4, 2021 10:48 pm

You took the words right out of my mouth. I have been confused about parenthood for some time now. Thank you for putting my confusion into words!

Shanell
November 13, 2021 6:20 pm

Brittany,

I gotta say, you 100% nailed this, dead on. I relate to this more than I can begin to express and it’s nice to know that there are other women out there that feel this very same way. I am without a doubt, completely and utterly terrified of becoming a mother someday, yet at the same time, I fantasize about how truly wonderful and fulfilling it will (hopefully) be. You are absolutely right, it is a paradox.

Brittany
November 14, 2021 3:30 pm
Reply to  Shanell

Shanell,
Thank you so kindly for reading! I truly have felt so much peace reading other women’s stories through writing this and it certainly makes me feel less alone. But, I have a firm belief that paradoxes’ are what makes life most beautiful. <3

Elise
November 20, 2021 9:10 am

Hi Brittany,
Thanks for sharing. I am 27, just bought a house, and want kids so badly, but I am terrified of the permanency of the decision. What if they suck and what if I hate my life? What if I freak out because I can’t just get in my car and do whatever I want, go wherever I want? Thanks for putting this so eloquently!

Brittany
November 22, 2021 10:14 am
Reply to  Elise

Hello, Elise!
I can relate to this so much. The world is so full of unknowns and having children is definitely something we won’t understand until it happens (um, TERRIFYING). Glad you found peace in the article and I appreciate you reading so much!
~Brittany

December 2, 2021 12:25 am

Really sharing a good article to read! Thank you!

Brittany
December 2, 2021 8:37 am
Reply to  posh atwork

Thank YOU for reading! I appreciate it so much 🙂

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