I met Allison back in 2019 at the Digital Nomad Girls retreat in Javea. Behind her soft-spoken, small-town North Carolinian appearance, she is full of surprises, and her gentle, sunny demeanour never fails to light up the room.
When her partner was given the opportunity to travel with his work, she was keen to follow him on the ride across the globe. Then, during her years in the UK, she met Sophia, another member of the DNG community, and started working with her at With Many Roots on climate change education.
More recently her partner’s career called them back home to the US, and she is now navigating repatriation and all the decisions and reflections that come with it.
What made you want to share your experience with me?
When I started exploring the idea of parenthood or not, I found that there was very little information and I think it’s really important to have all the sides of the story out there. I think that it’s really interesting that your work focuses not only on the pregnant couple, but also on the full spectrum of decision making and post-birth life.
My culture is really pinpointed on this one pregnant experience being the most valuable thing in the conversation and everything else falls to the wayside, so it’s great to have a variety of voices in this space.
What has your process looked like so far?
I was raised in a very natalist culture, so growing up I thought that having children would just be a normal part of my adulthood and development. Then when I did get married, I was incredibly excited to start this new life with this person that I loved and was not at all interested in changing our relationship with a child.
I was completely caught off guard by the questioning that started as soon as we got married, because the “when will you have children” question came in hot and heavy from every direction. It sent me into a panicky space, so I just thought we’d take some more time. I got married at 25, and we had had conversations beforehand about the subject. We were aligned that this was not something we were ready to do.
We would have check-in conversations quite regularly, often brought on by a friend announcing her pregnancy, and I would keep saying I’m not ready yet. I guess I always thought growing up that something would just change and I would say “I’m ready now”, but I got to my early thirties and it just didn’t happen.
I reached a point where all my friends had children and I was just asking “What’s wrong with me?”. I thought there must be something wrong with me since I was the outsider, the only one who hadn’t ticked the neat little boxes and ‘fulfilled her duties’.
I started exploring forums online like the Childfree and Fencesitter reddit threads, a variety of podcasts, and then I just sat with the idea and waited for something to change. Then I hit 35 and realised it would be ‘geriatric pregnancy’ — isn’t that phrase just so terrible? But at that time I was still in the UK and I had friends in Europe having kids at 40, so I pushed it away again and even now I’m still not sure.
Part of it is lifestyle. My partner and I were moving around the world, and with his contract work we would be somewhere for 3 years and each time we would have to start completely over with community, housing, and everything we own fits into 12 plastic containers. I just didn’t want to be a parent in that. The way I grew up, children were raised with their grandparents and while we were travelling they would have missed out on that.
Now that we’re back and closer to family, I don’t have that excuse anymore, but I still don’t know what I want and I’m now 37 so the pressure is real.
What are the big questions for you right now?
I think it’s what my life would look like if I were a parent. I was raised in a culture that said you can have it all, and I don’t think that’s true.
As a small business owner, I know things would change dramatically. My work has meaning to me and feels like my life’s purpose, but I can also see how becoming a mother could change that too, and that a child could then become my life’s purpose over the work I do around climate change.
- What would I have to give up?
- What would be different
- How would I navigate that?
Even though I’m back home, I still don’t feel like I have enough secure connections and support to feel safe having a child.
What are the major deciding factors for you in this decision?
Career is a big thing for me. I want to have something besides parenting.
Then pressure with age and time. Am I making the right decision? Am I not? What is the right decision?
If you were to decide to become a parent, what would make you say yes?
It would be amazing to have that role in someone’s life, to be able to shape a different generation, share what I know and be present.
I know my parents would be amazing grandparents so it would be great to see them experience that. I also know it would help me feel more connected to women my age.
But none of those reasons feel strong enough to do it!
There is also the fear of regretting it if I didn’t have a child. That it’s a ‘normal’ life process, so why am I resisting it?
If you decide not to have children, what does that give you?
It would mean I could continue my work uninterrupted, being an independent, female entrepreneur and doing something that’s good for the world as a whole, contributing to the bigger picture.
I wouldn’t need to worry about my finite resources as much, and I’d have the space to deal with a reactive dog, and to care for myself.
What’s your biggest fear if you did go ahead with having a child?
I think the first fear would be a lack of support and community, that I would have to do it all on my own.
My family isn’t close enough to be involved on a daily basis, so I would need support from my local community that I’m not connected with yet.
That would mean I couldn’t focus on my work, and I would have to give it up for a couple of years, while the next few years are really important for the work that I’m doing. It just feels like it’s not the right time.
What’s your biggest fear if you don’t have kids?
Not being able to connect with anybody my age, and being an outsider.
I also feel sadness thinking about my parents not getting to be grandparents.
Then fear of regret, that I’ll be lonely later on, and missing out on passing on some of the life lessons that I think are important.
What’s one thing you’d look forward to most about becoming a parent?
Play. I think it’s the funnest thing about being involved in children’s lives — the world of imagination, making magic for kids I think is just so much fun. My Mom was really creative in that way so I had a kind of magical childhood.
What’s one thing that excites you most about not having children?
Freedomwe’re both laughing at this point. But there’s just so much stigma about it, it feels wrong to even say that! Just not having to wake up in the middle of the night with a sick child, not having to get up at 7am on a Saturday morning because they won’t sleep in, and having time to myself.
I’ve seen a lot of moms that are martyrs, and I think that’s really hard.
When I ask if she has any examples of parenthood being done differently, Allison takes a while to think and winces as she replies, “not really.
It seems like there’s an expected role of ‘mother’ and that’s reinforced by the fact that women are paid less so that means that they’re the ones that give up their jobs, that commit to all of the childcare responsibilities. I’ve seen plenty of working moms but it means they have a second shift at home.
I ask if she could imagine breaking that cycle with her partner in the States.
I wish I could say ‘yes’ to that question but his career is what took us all over the world, and it’s what I’ve committed to and made sacrifices for. It wasn’t like I had much of a choice, coming out of university just after the recession I struggled to find work that was valuable for me, so when he did and he got the opportunity to move I said “let’s do it”.
In the meantime I created a job that I love but it’s not enough to sustain us if he were to take on more of a parental role.
It’s frustrating because I want it to be easier to have an egalitarian relationship, and he would too, but there are these bigger systems at play. Even if I decide never to become a parent, I always align with policies and politicians who support parents because I can at least try to understand the problems they face, and the lack of support — especially here in the States — is appalling.
We treat parents terribly and we’re reinforcing those stereotypical roles in how we shape policy and how corporations organise parental leave. I think parents who are trying [to be egalitarian] at this time are absolutely amazing. I’m impressed by what they do and I think that their lives should be a lot easier than they are.
You mentioned the ‘stigma’ around deciding whether to have kids or not. Could you say a bit more about that?
I think there’s an expectation that as soon as you get married you’re going to want to have children with your partner, but that wasn’t true for me. I guess the stigma is that if you don’t want kids it means you don’t love your partner or that something must be wrong in your relationship.
I think there’s also a religious, Christian expectation to go forth and multiply, which is a bit strange to me, especially with the lack of support systems that we have here in the US.
The other thing is that being an outsider I feel like I don’t have as much common ground to talk about with my friends who are mothers. It seems like motherhood can be quite all-encompassing, especially in the early years, and I have trouble finding topics that we can talk about. So usually I’ll just make space so that they can talk about what they’re going through and then it doesn’t feel like a balanced relationship so then those relationships don’t usually go on.
I think there’s an expectation that I’m always going to be free and available, and that’s not always the case, even if I try to make myself more available since I know how busy parents can be.
It just feels like there’s stigma all around because there’s such an expectation that this is a normal part of human development that if you choose not to partake in it then there must be something missing.
I find it interesting how nobody talks about it. Once they realise that I’m not super keen about becoming a mother, it just drops off the conversation. It’s the absence of conversation, and in the absence of information we make up stories, don’t we? They might also not want to get too private if I’m struggling with infertility but nobody’s actually asked me directly if that’s the case.
I know plenty of people struggle with that, and I don’t want to take away from their story. If anything I try to do the good work of saying “quit asking people questions if you don’t know the whole story” because I find it’s incredibly rude to do that to people.
Your do’s and don’ts
What would you like to hear more of?
It would be nice if people would take the time to get to know me before they ask anything about what my family plans are. Families in the modern world look loads of different ways, they’re not always a nuclear family that has given birth to a child.
I think there’s another piece around just accepting what you hear from the person without putting any of your expectations onto them. I feel like sometimes people try to convince you that you’re wrong and although my position might change one day, I’d like them to accept where I am now.
What would you like to stop hearing?
Don’t immediately ask someone “when are you having children?”. When was the last time a stranger asked you about your period? Why do they care about my uterus when there is potential for it to have a child? They don’t care about it when it bleeds every month!
You don’t care about me, you just care about its capacity to produce life — that’s what that question means to me.
Don’t continue asking me the question over and over again as if the answer will change.
Don’t call it out in public. I’ve been in situations like at a family event where someone’s asked the question, and it’s put me on the spot. It’s uncomfortable because I know what they want to hear, but it’s usually not the answer that I’m giving. Being a people pleaser I don’t like disappointing people.
We can have the conversation, it just needs to be with the right people, in the right situation, and it needs to be a tender, safe conversation for me. And as long as people respect what I have to say, I’m comfortable talking about it. I need to know that I can trust them and that they will keep what’s in that conversation there because it’s really private and personal information what you decide to do with your body. I think that there needs to be consent if they decide to share that with someone else.
So, to summarize:
- Prime the person you want to have the conversation with, get to know them first
- Make sure to create a safe space for them to share with you in
- Ensure mutual respect and accept what they’re saying without trying to change it
What’s one learning you’d like to share from your journey?
That there might not be a switch that flips in your brain, and whether you want to become a mother may always remain an open question.
For me as long as you can maintain open conversation with your partner and not be afraid to bring the topic up, then that will help you stay on the same page even if it can be challenging sometimes.
What’s your favourite act of self care?
Going for walks in the forest, hiking, listening to the birds.
I’d like to thank Allison for her candidness and willingness to share this conversation.
If you’re asking yourself the same questions or struggling with the decision whether to become a parent or not, you’re welcome to contact me for a discovery call. I support both individuals and couples in their decision making process.