There’s a lot of societal pressure to have children, but many people struggle with whether it’s right for them.
There’s a phrase that psychotherapist Eunice Cheung often hears, in one form or another, from her clients who are women in their mid-20s and 30s: “Time is ticking.”
Many are also dealing with “parental FOMO”: They’re on the fence about having kids, but they worry that one day, they’ll feel they’ve missed out on some integral part of life.
“This often translates to people putting pressure on themselves and onto their partner to get in line with the ‘timeline’ that society has prescribed by a certain age: Buy a house, get married, have kids,” Cheung told HuffPost.
“No one has ever taught us as women that it’s OK to question, to slow down, to ask ourselves if this is what we want or this is something we have been told to want,” she said.
Ultimately, no one knows if they’ll be more satisfied or less satisfied with kids ― though one 2022 study from researchers at Michigan State University found “no difference in life satisfaction” between parents and people who did not have children.
“The best thing we can do for ourselves is stay true to who you are,” Cheung said. “That means having clarity on what you value in life and whether your life choices align with your values, so you can live a life that you deserve.”
If you’re looking for more clarity, Cheung and other therapists shared some thoughts to consider if you’re concerned about parental FOMO.
Normalize your anxiety about this topic.
When a client says they feel rushed to have kids, Kim Strong, a licensed clinical social worker at The Connective in San Francisco, always tries to normalize the person’s anxiety.
“It’s completely normal to feel anxious or uncertain about making permanent life decisions,” Strong said. “What we want to prevent is anxiety getting in the way of making the actual decision.”
Uncertainty can be an emotional part of making big decisions. There’s no right or wrong time to feel this way, Strong tells her clients.
“It’s important to acknowledge this feeling and be curious about it,” she said. “When you hear yourself saying ‘I should do ____’ or ‘I shouldn’t do ____,’ ask yourself: Who is deciding the ‘shoulds’ in my life? Is it coming from my friends, family or society? Or is it truly aligned with my own values, desires and needs?”
She encourages clients to accept their individuality and celebrate the uniqueness of their own life stories. No one else has to live your life except you, so it’s important that your decisions ― especially the ones that involve major choices like parenthood ― align with your values, desires, capabilities and needs.
“I encourage clients to gather the unique data points of their own situations and always reserve the right to reassess their options,” Strong said.
Uncertainty is a trigger for anxiety in most people, especially if you tend to be an organized planner type.
Take steps to make an informed decision.
Jenny Wang, a psychologist and author, is a firm believer that you have to take action in order to make the next informed decision. In this case, the first step might be speaking with your primary care practitioner or your OB/GYN about a few screening tests that could give you more information about your fertility. (For instance, you might look into an ovarian reserve test, which offers a snapshot of your egg supply, according to Yale Medicine.)
“Beyond these tangible diagnostic assessments, perhaps this is a good opportunity to reflect on your current values and goals in life,” Wang told HuffPost. “Everyone lives out certain values and pursues certain goals, whether we are conscious of it or not.”
Often, Wang encourages clients to look at where they spend their time, invest their resources, and focus their actions. If you find your actions are pointed toward parenthood, then perhaps this might cue you to more intentionally move in that direction.
“That said, if your current actions are focused on friendships and community or career, then it might be helpful to evaluate whether you are ready to create space for a child,” she said.
Wang said she encourages clients to “focus on what is true in their lives, and the values that they are committed to living out day by day.”
“Ultimately, the decision to have children can profoundly change our lives, and my hope is that the decision is one that you can own and claim to be yours,” she said.
Instead of ruminating on your anxiety about kids, consider decisions you’ve made in life that you were certain about.
Think back on a decision you were sure about.
Instead of ruminating on your anxiety regarding kids, or focusing on a hypothetical baby, consider decisions you’ve made in life that you were certain about, recommends Taylor Dyson, a therapist at Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas.Maybe it was a decision about what college to attend, which friendships to nurture or cut off, or which job offer you simply couldn’t pass up, even if it meant moving to a new city.
“A decision such as this should not be an impulsive one, so pause and try to understand why you felt certain about decisions in the past,” Dyson said. “Consider the feeling, the thoughts, and the emotions towards the certainty. You want to know your ‘why’ for having kids, too.”
It’s also important to remember that you ultimately can’t control how your life will turn out, with or without kids.
“The most important relationship you have in life is with yourself,” Dyson said. “Trust yourself. Developing skills to handle adversity will set a person up for success when we don’t have all the answers. You might not always be ‘OK,’ but you will find comfort in knowing how to work through difficult scenarios.”
Make a plan that includes how you’ll deal with your “worst-case scenario.”
Uncertainty is a trigger for anxiety in most people, especially if you tend to be an organized planner, said Deborah Duley, psychotherapist and founder of Empowered Connections in Maryland.
“One suggestion I have made over the years is to get comfortable with all the worst-case scenarios and what you will do to handle each one,” she said. “This way there are no surprises and the uncertainty can lose some of its grip, because frequently, the best antidote for anxiety is information.”
Exploring a plan of action is something a therapist or a good friend can do with you. Imagine all the worst-case scenarios and how you’ll address each one.
“This could look like freezing your eggs or researching and reading up on surrogacy or adoption,” Duley said. “Information is power. The more you know about any of the possibilities, the less anxiety you’ll feel, because you’ll be as prepared as you possibly can for any outcome.”
Shake off the judgments.
One thing that exacerbates anxiety about family planning is commentary from others, whether it’s of the fearmongering, judgmental variety (“Who’s going to take care of you when you’re older?” “You’ve never known real love until you’ve had a child”) or the more sympathetic but still pro-parenting opinions (“The secret is, no one is ever really ready, you just do it!”).
The most important thing to remember here is that everyone speaks from a perspective of privilege from their life, experiences, beliefs and values, Cheung said.
“Just because someone says ‘No one is ever ready for kids but does it anyway’ doesn’t mean you have to accept it as your own and do it,” she said. “Ultimately, what matters most is whether that advice or truth aligns with you as a person and the values that matter to you in life.”
Cheung offered up herself as an example.
“My values are freedom and independence, and if I were to have kids, I would be going against my values, my beliefs and what I want in life,” she said. “I would end up living a resentful, bitter life because it’s not what I want. That’s why it is crucial we all get specific and clear on what it is we value in life and act accordingly, so we don’t live a life we regret.”
When hearing judgments, remember that many people project their beliefs, values and insecurities onto others. Don’t take their questions and opinions personally.
Another important exercise to consider, according to Cheung, is to try to identify why you don’t want kids, as opposed to fixating on why someone should have kids.
“No one ever focuses on this, so it creates this biased perception that women should only want children,” Cheung said. “A practical tip here is [to] separate what others are saying versus what you are telling yourself and wanting for yourself. Hopefully, this will give you more clarity on what you want to do.”