The Baby Decision – Chapter One

Merle web-5919The Great Cradle Debate

Laura and Michael Rose have everything they could possibly want or have they?

She’s thirty-two, a successful painter. He’s thirty-five, an exuberant philosophy professor. After eight years of marriage, Laura and Michael enjoy each other more than ever. They seem to have the perfect balance of independence and relatedness. Apart she does yoga; he plays guitar. Together they meditate, jog, and give gourmet dinner parties. They ski in Vermont and snorkel in the Bahamas. What more could they possibly want?

Possibly, they want a baby. But they don’t know. And the question is driving them crazy.

“Why can’t we decide?” asks Michael. “Are we neurotic? Selfish? Immature? Why don’t we just chuck Laura’s pills and let nature take its course? Maybe things were better in the old days when contraceptives weren’t around. Sometimes I almost wish an ‘accident’ would take us off the hook.”

“To make matters worse,” says Laura, “we’re not even con­sistent in our conflict. It isn’t as if one of us wants a baby and the other doesn’t. One minute I’ll say to Michael, ‘I’m just chicken. Let’s throw away the pills,’ and he’ll say, ‘But what about your work? Will you still be able to paint?’ A few min­utes later, Michael will say, ‘I’m nuts about kids. I want to be a father.’ Then I ask, ‘But what about our relationship?’ ”

Michael wonders, “Will life still be exciting if the closest we get to Vermont is our pancake syrup? We think of our best friends, who love being parents and who still practice law together. Then we think of my brother and his wife, who have a sick infant and a spoiled toddler. My sister-in-law wishes she’d never quit her executive job. One child-free friend sends us quotes about how children wreck your life. We’ve read books and articles about this decision, but we still don’t know what to do.”

Does this story strike a familiar chord? Are you and your spouse, like Laura and Michael, caught up in an endless cycle of conflicting emotions and doubts? Do you spend too much time discussing and worrying about the issue without ever reaching any firm conclusions? If so, take heart. The baby de­cision need not drive you crazy or drive you and your spouse apart. The question that tugs at you like a lead weight is actually a golden opportunity for you and your spouse to grow as individuals and as a couple; to deepen your marital relationship; to choose the kind of life that will bring you both the most happiness. In fact, if you dig deeply enough, you’ll find buried treasure at your feet. But you aren’t likely to come across this bonanza unless someone offers you a treasure map.

The Baby Decision is such a map. It will not only help you make a decision that’s right for you but also show you how to use that decision as a springboard to greater fulfillment. It will guide you, step by step, through the five stages of uncharted, sometimes rocky, territory to a decision you can live with hap­pily ever after.

By now, you may be thinking, but I’ve read other books and articles on the subject and I still can’t make up my mind. In most cases, couples are long on talk because they’re short on information. The available literature on the subject has fo­cused primarily on weighing the pros and cons of parenting or measuring an individual’s potential skills as a parent. Although these issues are useful and necessary, they add up to only two pieces of a larger puzzle. And because they overemphasize logic to the detriment of emotion, they’re often less than helpful. This book, however, is much more comprehensive because it will fill in these five, important missing pieces:

  1. How to discover secret resources for decision-making feelings about children and life goals. Exercises designed especially for this book use fantasy, visual imagery, and other techniques to stimulate new insights.
  2. How to make allies of emotion and logic. Often mistaken for enemies, emotion and logic form an amiable partnership in the best of all possible decisions. The Baby Decision offers steps to a rational choice based on emotional awareness.
  3. How to use the new emotional awareness as a guidepost to growth. This book offers many examples of how couples have grown from their decisions. It shows you how to reap similar benefits from your decision.
  4. How to focus on potential happiness. I help you ask yourself, “Which choice offers me (and us) the most satisfaction?” I examine the ways that each life-style both helps and hinders personal and marital fulfillment.
  5. How to overcome a dangerous blind spot. The “children are heaven” illusion has been replaced, in the swing of a pen­dulum, by a “children are hell” illusion. But who can base a wise decision on a foolish distortion? The Baby Decision splashes a bucket of cold reality over the new soap-opera fan­tasy. It also challenges other illusions that prevent good decision-making.

Once you’ve learned how to tap into the right information, those seemingly fruitless discussions will yield a surprising number of insights. You’ll know how to direct your conversa­tions to extract the kind of knowledge necessary for a decision.

Safety or Growth—It’s Your Choice

The word “decide” comes from a Latin root meaning “to cut away from.” Thus, decision-making, by its very nature, involves loss; we have to give up one or more options while at the same time grasping another. When we decide to have a child, we cut ourselves off from the freedom and other satisfactions of child-free living. Similarly, the decision to remain child-free means that we must give up the intimacy and joys of parenting. By not deciding, we hold onto the illusion that we can have it both ways—that we don’t have to give up anything. Nor do we have to face the risk of discovering that we’ve made the wrong decision. But we pay a price when we try to hang onto this illusion—in emotional turmoil and feelings of frustration and ambivalence. And in many instances, that price is too high. Our fears notwithstanding, when we face the issues of loss and risk squarely, we force ourselves to come to terms with our ambivalence and, in the process, we grow.

The late humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow[i] distinguished between two kinds of motivation—growth motivation and deficiency motivation. When a person is motivated by deficiency or safety needs, he or she acts out of a desire to decrease anxiety. Any kind of change seems too risky, and there­fore frightening, to undertake. On the other hand, when a per­son is motivated by growth needs, his or her actions reflect a desire for greater fulfillment. The risks seem less important than the possibility of improving one’s life.

This distinction between growth and safety needs applies equally well to the decision-making process in general, and to the baby decision in particular. There are, in fact, six possible baby decisions, three of which are growth decisions and three of which are safety decisions.

The three growth decisions are:

  1. The decision to become a parent.
  2. The decision to remain child-free.
  3. The decision to postpone the decision, but with definite goals for the postponement period and a target date for reevaluation.

Why are these “growth decisions”? Because when you make them you:

  • Take responsibility for yourself.
  • Take a risk.
  • Make a commitment.
  • Learn something about yourself.
  • Have an opportunity to use all four of the above actions to develop and grow.

The three safety decisions are:

  1. The nondecision to have a baby (also known as the “nonaccidental accident”). After perhaps five years of marriage with no previous “accidents,” a couple struggling with the baby decision suddenly have an “accident.” It may be unconscious (such as forgetting to take the pill), or conscious (“Let’s not bother to put more jelly in with the diaphragm”); it may be a joint accident or the result of one spouse’s actions. However it happens, the result of such a nondecision (besides the baby) is that the couple are taken off the hook. They declare themselves victims and avoid having to answer to anybody—including themselves—for their “decision.”
  2. The nondecision to remain child-free. In this situation, a couple tell themselves and others that they don’t know whether they want children. Maybe later on, they say. So they simply drift without ever making a conscious commitment to the child-free life-style. And, in the process, they don’t have to admit their desire to remain child-free, or deal with disapproval from others or their own fear of regrets.
  3. The nondecision to agonize. This is the antithesis of the growth decision to postpone. In the latter case, a couple postpone the decision for specified reasons and a finite period of time, in order to meet specified goals. However, in this type of nondecision, a couple set no goals; rather, they circle the issue frantically, full of doubt and confusion. Although they claim they would love nothing better than a resolution, they actually get a payoff—in the form of unhealthy satisfaction generated by their painful soul-searching.

Although all three of the safety decisions appear to be emotionally cheaper in the short run, they are more costly in the long run. Nondecision-makers are bound to feel like victims rather than masters of their own fate. While they may avoid the momentary agony of making difficult choices, they are actually condemning themselves to chronic pain. By clinging to a safety decision, they miss an opportunity to take stock and use what they learn about themselves. In fact, safety decisions really are danger decisions because they are detrimental to development. If you make a nondecision, you won’t have to deal with your pain directly, but you’ll never really get rid of it, either.

In direct contrast, the three growth decisions offer you the opportunity of getting to know yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses. You may not like everything you find, but if you know what’s there, at least you can make the best of it. And with the help of this book you’ll be able to make one of these three growth decisions—if you’re willing to take the risks involved.

Hard as this decision may seem, it is undoubtedly one of the most important you’ll make in your life. And it should not be made lightly, by default, or by blind adherence to custom. In fact, you’re extremely lucky to be able to make a real decision about childbearing, although in the midst of grappling with the issue you may feel less than fortunate. Twenty years ago, how­ever, the kind of questions you’re asking yourself were all but unthinkable. Men and women married and had children with­out ever making a conscious decision. It was, after all, the natural order of life, what their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had done. And many discovered, too late, that parenting was not as easy, natural, or rewarding as they had expected.

Recently, on a Nashville talk show, I was asked whether it was a sign of sickness in our society that couples like Laura and Michael were questioning whether or not to have children. “Absolutely not,” I replied. “It’s very healthy for couples to decide carefully, rather than simply having children because ‘that’s what people do.’”

Certainly, not everyone is suited, by temperament, circumstance, or desire, to become a parent. And when couples have children without considering the issue carefully, they may find themselves trapped in a situation they did not anticipate and may not want. The result is a great deal of unhappiness for the parents, the child, and for society. The child, sensing that he or she was unwanted, may become a troubled, unhappy adult, burdening society in some way. And the parents, because of their own frustrations and resentment, may be unable to lead productive or fulfilling lives. It has always been assumed that society benefits from the birth of a child. But surely two happy, productive child-free persons can contribute more than two unwilling parents with one unwanted child.

John Stuart Mill said: “He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.” Choice is the foundation of happiness and mental health. When we make a conscious decision about parenthood we can, if we so choose, embrace parenting wholeheartedly and joyfully, fully aware of all its responsibilities and ramifications. Similarly, if we choose to remain child-free, we can enjoy rich, productive lives without guilt or self-doubt. Only if we consider the child-free life-style a valid option can we be certain that a parenthood decision really is a decision.

Whether you are in the midst of agonizing indecision right now, or anticipating the issue in the future, it is vitally important to realize that the decision-making process is both healthy and necessary, and that there is no universal right decision. Whether you ultimately choose to become a parent or remain child-free depends entirely on the unique qualities of your personality and your marriage.

The Decision-Maker’s Bill of Rights

You are entitled to:

  • Make the decision that is right for you and your spouse.
  • Take into consideration your needs, values, goals, and personality before making a decision.
  • Base your decision on your potential happiness rather than on  a sense of obligation.
  • Take time if you need it before making the decision.
  • Be an active partner in choice rather than a passive victim of your spouse’s bulldozing.
  • Make the decision that is right for you even if others disapprove.
  • Put a stop to others’ attempts to shame or intimidate you into making either choice.
  • Be your own judge of your reasons for choosing your lifestyle: to be child-free without being accused of selfishness, immaturity, or neurosis; to be a parent without being accused of selfishness, immaturity, or neurosis.
  • Be a mother even if you’re a feminist.
  • Be a parent without being married.
  • Change your mind under certain circumstances: You originally planned to have a child but now realize you don’t want one; you once made a commitment to child-­free living but now want to have a child.

How to Use This Book

Even if you think you’ve already made your decision, do all five steps. If you don’t, you’ll never know whether your first decision really was your best decision. The process won’t sway you—unless your decision was built on shoddy foundations. In fact, even if you’re confident that your decision is the right one, following the steps will give you a clearer understanding of your choice and how you can make the most of it.

Similarly, if you and your spouse are in conflict over the decision, you may be tempted to go straight to the “Tug-of-War”chapter (Chapter 7). Please don’t. Only if you both carefully examine your own needs and wishes will you be able to separate valid areas of conflict from those that are windmills best left alone.

The inward journey you’re about to embark on will be facilitated by a number of exercises. Please study the following guidelines before beginning any of them.

Put yourself into the exercises. Bear in mind that there are no right or wrong answers. They do not test your parenting skills or your mental health. Nor will you score them. They are included solely to help you in the same way that ancient Greeks consulted the Delphic oracle. Existential psychologist Rollo May[ii] describes the oracle’s work in this way:

The sayings of the shrine, like dreams, were not to be received passively; the recipients had to live themselves into the message. . . . The counsels of Delphi were not advice in the strictest sense, but rather were stimulants to look inward, to consult their own intuition and wisdom.

So try to live yourself into these exercises. If you do, you’ll re­turn from your journey with a decision you can live with.

Let yourself go. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself. You can’t stand to hear a baby cry? You can still be a parent if you want to; you can get used to tears and learn to cope with your tension. Do you have a weakness for freckle-faced three-­year-olds? You can still be child-free if you want to. You can “borrow” a freckled sprite on Saturday afternoons. What you cannot do, however, is exercise freedom of choice unless you consider both options thoroughly. Conflicting feelings don’t mean you’re hopelessly confused. They mean you’re human.

Consider yourself. Do the exercises alone first. Later, you can compare notes with your spouse, but there is no point in forcing a joint compromise before you’ve each had a chance to make an individual appraisal. You might end up with a decision that doesn’t please either of you.

Read each exercise all the way through before starting it. Then, close your eyes to help yourself turn inward.

By now, I hope you’re ready and eager to begin. Remember, hard as the decision-making process may seem at times, the rewards you’ll reap are enormous. And you may even discover that the journey is more fun than you’d ever imagined it could be. You’re going to learn a lot about yourself, your spouse, and your relationship and, at the end of the process, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made one of the most important decisions of your life.

[i] See Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, D. Van Nostrand, Princeton, New Jersey, 1968, pp. 21–59.

[ii] . See Rollo May, The Courage to Create, Bantam, New York, 1976, pp. 125, 127.

10 thoughts on “The Baby Decision – Chapter One”

  1. Hi Merle, I would love to buy your book. I know it’s out of print but I see that you are bringing out a second edition or an ebook. Do you know when this will be happening? I read the first chapter, really adored it, and would love to continue. Thanks so much for the wisdom you bring to this topic. It is deeply appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your interest in The Baby Decision.
      The new, revised and updated The Baby Decision will be available in in paperback and ebook formats in July, 2016. The kindle is available for pre-order now. The link is on a May 19, 2016 post on this blog.
      I am available for psychotherapy and coaching for people in Massachusetts. Also, I do remote coaching for individual and couples struggling with the baby decision all over the world. You can learn more about me and reach me via my clinical website, http://www.mindmed.com.
      Good luck with this important decision!
      Merle Bombardieri, MSW, LICSW
      May 22, 2016

  2. When will your new edition of The Baby Decision be available to purchase? I’m looking forward to using your book to help me make this important decision (35 y/o and remarkably ambivalent). Thanks!
    Beth

  3. Good afternoon, I feel better knowing that I am not the only woman confused in having or not children. I am interested in buy your book “The baby decision”, and I already look for it on amazon, but I din´t find it. Where can I buy it? I live in Mexico City
    Thanks in advance for your help.
    Best regards
    Arely

  4. Hi! I am 39 years old and still “undecided”. I probably don’t have much time left either which is why I was on line researching how to help me make this choice :(. I live in South Africa and would really love to get hold of a copy of this book but it seems impossible to come by. Please let me know if it commercially available anywhere? It’s such an important subject and one for which help and good advice is not easy to come by!

  5. Hi there, very interesting topic and article.
    I look forward to exploring the exercises via your book. Where can I purchase please?

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