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Carolyn Hax: Childless by choice — and confidant to regretful parents

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)
3 min

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I are childless by choice. I have always been comfortable telling people we didn’t want kids, and that’s why we don’t have them. No beating around the bush. My desire to be childless stems from growing up knowing my mom regretted having children and didn’t like us much.

Over the years, some colleagues, friends and even relatives have thought that, because I’m childless by choice, I want to hear about their regrets over having children. Some tell me they didn’t want them but had them to make their spouse happy. Others say it was more work and more expensive than they expected and wish they were “free” like we are. A friend recently told me her kids “aren’t worth it.”

This is very uncomfortable to hear, and sometimes painful if I know their spouse or children. I’m usually so uncomfortable in these situations that I mumble something about how we all make choices and sometimes things don’t turn out like we expect.

Honestly, I just try to get out of these conversations quickly. What is the right thing to say? I don’t want to discount their feelings, and often I think I’m the only person they have dared to confess these thoughts to. On the other hand, it breaks my heart to think their children can probably perceive that they weren’t wanted or that their existence is a burden.

— Childless by Choice

Childless by Choice: Well that is sad and heavy; I’m sorry.

If it’s any consolation, I am not so sure of the connection between what these parents confess and what children perceive.

Although I do credit kids with nearly extrasensory powers in reading their parents, daily life consists of so many moments of goodness and badness and activity and distraction and forgettable stretches of getting by. Conflicted feelings often fit right into a happy home, because they have to, because we’re full of them. Kids suffer when those feelings are the centerpiece, of course — but low-moment remarks from tired parents are not proof of a miserable home.

Remember, too, how badly the pandemic strained parents.

This is all a detour from your question, but maybe it’ll help you set down some of these confessions instead of lugging them around.

What is germane is how you respond. You say something compassionate in your letter, and important: “I think I’m the only person they have dared to confess these thoughts to.” So maybe focus on the fact of their confessing instead of what they confess:

“That must have been hard to say.”

“I hope it helps to say that out loud.”

“I appreciate that you trust me.”

Or, the one I’ve warmed to while writing this: “So many people confide in me, for whatever reason, that I believe these doubts are normal.”

Basically, find comfort for yourself by offering comfort to them.

Or: Go the exact opposite direction, and instead of changing how you respond, change how you initiate. I can see the appeal in a no-beating-around-the-bush approach to explaining your choices — but if your openness invites tales you’d rather not hear, then consider closing up a bit. Especially useful if part of these parents’ motivation is to validate or relate to you, which is a stretch but is not implausible. Regardless, “It wasn’t in the cards for us” is a cliche with the gentle click of a closing lid.