TW: This blog post talks about eating disorders.
I am a terrible decision maker.

I was banned from picking our family’s Friday takeout. My poor mother traversed the streets of Nelson picking up wontons from the Hong Yun Chinese Restaurant & Takeaways on Main Road Stoke, swinging by Nayland Road for a scoop of chips with extra chicken salt, and finally heading out to Hardy Street for a tikka masala from Mango Indian. All because I couldn’t make a simple decision.

Let’s face it – terrible decision makers are insufferable. We’re useless when a political debate breaks out at the family dinner table. You can’t count on us to choose date night activities. We’re the master of the middle ground, the authority on ambiguity, the flimsy fence-sitter bound for a life of indecision and irresolution.

As I approach my 30th birthday, new and more complex decisions are filling me with dread.

I’m a woman with a womb, and I need to decide whether I’d like to be a mother.

There is much talk about motherhood. Typically, there are two loud voices in this debate – the women who are destined to be the “fun aunty”, swearing off motherhood for a life of getting drunk on free champagne at baby showers, and the women who have a maternal instinct second to none and seriously impressive arm strength from years of juggling toddlers and nappy bags.

There are some obvious caveats to get out the way:

  • It’s a privilege to have a choice when it comes to motherhood, and I appreciate this is a privilege not one everyone is fortunate enough to have.
  • These days, lots of women choose not to have kids and aren’t shunned by society for their decision.

Nostalgic image of The Babysitters Cub

Growing up, I accepted that motherhood would be on the cards at some stage. In fact, I’d been primed for it. By five years old, plastic dolls lined the shelves of my sunshine-yellow bedroom. I’d lovingly coddle them in a warm blankie, mirroring the care and attention I’d seen my own mother give to me and my brothers.

By age 10, I was gobbling up Ann M. Martin’s stories of Dawn, Claudia, Mary-Anne and Kristy in the Babysitters Club, counting down the years until I too could start my own neighbourhood childcare collective. On my 14th birthday, I diligently created my first ever “babysitter available for hire” flyer on MS paint. And for years following, parents desperate for a wine and an escape from the confines of their suburban home thrust their newborns into my arms, muttering instructions about bottle temperatures and bedtimes before sprinting for the door.

All this time I never interrogated if motherhood was something I actually wanted. I don’t know why not. At bedtime, my Mum would gently whisper “you’re my greatest achievement” and perhaps I too wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment. Perhaps it was because I genuinely enjoyed the novelty of reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” five times over to the wide-eyed toddler I babysat on Wednesday nights. Maybe it was because I grew up in a small town, and wasn’t exposed to life choices that didn’t involve marriage, a mortgage and a couple of sprogs. Nonetheless, parenting felt like an inevitable part of my story.

Now, I’m at that point of my life where half my friends have a whole clan of children, and exist in the happy, helter-skelter world of playgrounds, play doh and poop. The other half are clocking up obscene hours at work, and are rounding out the week with shots, shout-screaming at karaoke, and shambolic sex with near strangers. I’ve spent equal parts of my late 20s at baby showers, hens nights, two-day benders fuelled by burnout and bad choices, and Sunday picnics with five under- fives. All of these activities have been equal parts enjoyable and horrific.

And so begs the baby question.

I don’t know if I want a baby. I don’t know what side I want to join. Not knowing is shameful. Embarrassing at best, exhausting at worst. And for a life-long terrible decision-maker, it’s a familiar feeling, only amplified tenfold because I’m meant to innately “just know” what I want. It’s a decision that doesn’t just involve me, but my husband too. And, it’s a decision I need to make in the next five years, before my womb heads into early retirement.

A woman holding a baby and a woman holding a book

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been misinformed about motherhood. I’ve gobbled up horror stories about vaginas splitting in two, cracked nipples and not being able to wash your hair for weeks. I’ve assumed that when you become a mother, all other parts of your identity are put on the back-burner. And I’ve grasped at these misperceptions as a way to validate how I feel about procreating.

I’ve cautiously peeked at what motherhood could look like for me. I look at the school newsletters tacked onto my friends’ fridges, the toys strewn across their lounge floor, the gleeful screams that come from their backyards, and I feel like I’m going to rip at the seams. This feeling is foreign to me. It’s this feeling of messy, lovable chaos that a family brings. It’s how my friend’s daughter looks at her mum with utter adoration as she says “Mum, can you be my best friend today?” It’s the way my neighbour nestles her baby boy into her hip, as though her curves were specifically carved to fit this delicate wee human.

But I’m looking at these scenes of family life as an outsider. Part of me wants in, but part of me is content with simply observing from afar.

Most of all though, I wish I was the sort of woman who yearned to be a mother. I wish I was confident that once I held my baby for the first time, I’d finally discover what true joy feels like. I wish I could tell my husband that yes, I want to see him father our child. I wish I could imagine cradling my burgeoning pregnant belly with glee. It would be so much more straightforward to feel this way.

Instead, I feel a deep sense of shame. I feel like I was born without a fundamental gene. And this shame has a stronghold over me. It bubbles to the surface when yet another friend announces her pregnancy on Instagram. When someone reminds me “you’ll change your mind.” When my parents talk excitedly about their grandkids.

And with this shame comes a perpetual push-pull. I love my life now – my ability to stay in bed on a Sunday, ensconced in a good book; to work late on an exciting project; the calm sense of quiet in my house. As the world starts to open up again, I’m energised by the idea that my husband and I could move to Portugal on a whim. I am fulfilled creatively. I feel lightweight and untethered, able to move through this world with ease and no responsibilities. This feels like a good life to me.

Yet the idea of motherhood gnaws away at me. The prospect that there are other versions of a good life. Versions where I’m reading my daughter her favourite books on a Sunday morning. Where there are more than two of us around the table at family lunch. Where my husband and I are responsible for introducing our children to the big, wide world that surrounds them, their earnest eyes seeing things for the very first time, us quietly giggling at their awe and wonder. Is this also a good life, a better life even?

I wish I could pick between the two scenarios. But I find myself paralysed, and unsure of myself. Worse still, I feel unsure of why I don’t want motherhood, unable to pin my unease to one specific thing – to point to one bad experience, one deep-seated concern, and confidently say “yes, this is why motherhood isn’t for me”.

Body checking stomach in the mirror

There are other reasons why I question whether I’ll be a mother. But they’re embarrassing, and no one talks about them.

First, I have a complicated relationship with my body. My identity is tied up in being small. I’ve fought years of disordered eating, and while I have mostly recovered, I cannot fathom the idea of being pregnant. The very thought of my waistline expanding, my jeans tightening, and my ankles swelling, terrifies me.

This in itself is confusing. For the better part of 10 years, my eating disorder has been calling the shots. It’s something I’ve worked on in therapy, but sometimes I cannot untangle what I want from what my disorder wants.

My disorder has always wanted to keep my body slender and my mind focused on controlling calories. From age 21, I haven’t been able to go to the bathroom without body checking – running my hand over my stomach, examining its flatness from all angles, tracing the outlines of my abs. I look at pregnant women on Instagram, gently cradling their protruding bellies with pride, and I can’t imagine myself doing the same. Instead, I imagine myself hiding my growing body away with shame, counting down the months until I can shrink my size yet again.

Despite all my feminist urges and education, I still associate my smallness with worthiness. And while I have mostly recovered from my decade-long disorder, it’s not something I can unlearn overnight.

Because of this, I feel like I’m an unworthy role model and therefore undeserving of a child. What if my daughter inherits my body dysmorphia? What if she, too, will feel the pain of hating the body you’re in? The idea that someone else, my own child, would experience the suffering, sadness, and solitude of disordered eating is simply too much to bear.

Second, my default setting is one of control. Over the years, my anxiety has firmly reminded me that this world is scary, and I should do my best to make sure things don’t go wrong. Being in control is cathartic and routine helps me feel safe. I eat dinner at 7pm every night. I’m meticulous about my gym schedule. I plan social commitments weeks in advance. A last minute text from a friend to grab a drink will splinter my world into chaos. I associate structure with safety, and parenthood threatens to unravel this.

Pregnancy, giving birth, raising children, all come with a truly unsettling amount of uncertainty. But could motherhood be a freeing experience? A way to finally admit that being in control is a laughable concept? Would I realise that my world won’t collapse if I don’t follow a strict routine? Or would I be a helicopter parent, one that becomes obsessed with removing any possible source of struggle and suffering for my child? I don’t know.

Third, I’ve been told that I might struggle to have kids. After years of treating my body poorly, my lady parts have copped the consequences. Perhaps I’d rather just avoid the inevitable disappointment. I don’t want to be the husband and wife, shuffling in the plastic chairs of the doctors office, waiting to hear what we already know. I don’t want to part with my hard-earned savings to pay for round after round of IVF. I’m scared that experiencing a miscarriage might be the thing that finally breaks me.

Complicating all of this, I’m afraid of what my life might look like if I don’t choose motherhood. Will I eventually lose friends? Will I be removed from the group chat when I’m unable to weigh in on sleep training, when I can’t relate to the perils of finding the right preschool? Am I doomed to be the ageing aunty, getting gradually drunker on Christmas day, clutching a bottle of Prosecco as the rest of the parents play games with the little ones? Will people think my life lacks meaning and depth?

And, in moments of softness, I look to my husband. I think of his most endearing traits. His endless patience. His joy for the simple things. His remarkable ability to be present, despite the endless distractions of the modern world. His love for cooking, for being with his community, his empathy and his kindness. He has all the makings of a good father. Am I denying him an experience that he rightly deserves? And who gets to make that call? Is it unfair to think the decision ultimately rests with me? Before we got married, we explored my feelings about motherhood. I gave him the option to leave. He stayed, knowing he might not get the chance to be a dad. And, despite my honesty and his gradual acceptance, the thought of disappointing him eats away at me. I’ve inadvertently brought him into the murky middle ground. And I know we can’t set up camp here forever.

A woman deciding whether to have children

Here’s something I do know: there’s an element of grief that comes with this decision. It’s possible to decide against motherhood, and still mourn what your life might have looked like. To yearn for the messy house, the yelps of kids playing backyard cricket, the warmth of your baby’s body against your chest. It’s also possible to be a proud and loving parent, but still mourn a life of independence and reckless selfishness.

I will likely experience some sort of grief, no matter what decision I make, because grief is bound up in decision-making. Perhaps I choose to evade life decisions, big and small, because I’m scared of grief. And maybe I’ll become a better decision maker knowing that with grief comes hope, discovery, and an eventual acceptance of the choices we make.

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