Ask Elaine: 20-something feels pressure to pick between kids, career


Hi Elaine: I’m 25 and I love what I do and who I am. My work as a journalist makes me happy. But I feel the pressure to decide between choosing my career or starting a family. Deep down I’m not sure if a child would make me happy because I’ve never experienced it. But I don’t want to look up one day and have regrets. Many women say motherhood is the most fulfilling aspect of life. But both motherhood and being successful professionally seem demanding and I hear many women say it’s either or. Because I’m not ready to choose, I’ve found myself avoiding relationships, which causes me to miss out on intimacy and social fulfillment. But as the eldest of six, I spent a lot of time alone growing up which gave me a deep sense of independence. I grew up being bullied and feeling isolated because I was always challenged about how self-reliant I am. At this point, I know what makes me happy. It’s my work. But I want to know how to overcome this pressure to decide to have children or choose my career.

Crossroads: You made it very clear that you’re not ready to choose between your career and starting a family. So: Don’t. You have plenty of time to discover what you want from life. And as you gain experience, you’ll make more informed choices about what you want. We all have different priorities in different seasons of life. But fundamentally, I do not believe in pitting these two choices against each other. Stay the course you’re most enthusiastic about and trust that when or if the time comes to shift priorities, you will be led by genuine desire — not doubt planted by other people’s opinions.

While there are women who choose between kids and career, that doesn’t mean you have to if it doesn’t feel right. More than 71 percent of mothers in America work. You can absolutely do both if that’s what you desire. There’s also a thriving community of voluntarily child-free women living their best lives that you should tap into if you’re curious about that path.

But this isn’t really about whether to have kids. At the root of your question is the thought that you have to make a decision right now when you don’t. Let’s unpack that.

There is no either/or scenario here. At least there doesn’t have to be. You can design your life to accommodate both, one or neither. We have to stop perpetuating these false binaries that pressure women into limited thinking about their lives and identities.

I’m curious, who are these women telling you that, at 25, you have to choose in the first place? And why do you believe them over your own instincts? Be discerning about who you seek counsel from and balance that advice with different perspectives. Set boundaries with anyone whose input fuels your anxieties and seek out women who are living a lifestyle you’re curious about. Any choice you make can be fulfilling in different ways. If we aren’t careful about the input we give credence to, we can easily “should” ourselves through life — and that’s no way to live authentically.

On a practical level, if fertility is a concern and you can afford to, you might consider freezing your eggs to free up some mental space and to — literally and figuratively — put the decision on the shelf to revisit later.

In the meantime, not knowing if you want to have kids is no reason to avoid relationships, if that’s something you want. Plenty of people enter healthy relationships without knowing if they want kids. Anyone who only wants to be with you if you will agree early in your relationship to have their children isn’t the right partner for you. The purpose of partnership extends far beyond procreation. Just be upfront about where you currently stand on building a family and keep the dialogue open along the way.

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On the other hand, if abstaining from both dating and sex is your way of avoiding the chance of becoming pregnant and being forced into a lifelong role that you’re not ready for, then by all means, do what makes you feel secure. As much as I believe the choice of when, if, or how you become a mother should be yours alone, the reality is, depending on where you live, this right is being taken away from women like you. While some readers are going to be mad that I am going here, it must be said because this topic doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Whatever you do, please do not let anyone pressure you into making choices about your life before you’re ready. Making lifelong decisions based on the fear of missing out is never a good idea. Keep interrogating your beliefs. Keep deconstructing your fears. Keep designing the life you actually want to live. Because you’re the only one who has to live it. I hope this helps.

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