Troubled Childhood Can Lead to Childless Adulthood

“I’m afraid to have kids because of how messed up my own childhood was.”

That sentence is taken from a blog post by psychotherapist Annie Wright, who finds many of her clients worry that if they grew up with less than perfect parents they can’t possibly be good parents themselves. That’s not necessarily so, she assures them. In fact, they may be fabulous parents as they strive to do what their own parents could not.

How we grew up has a big effect on how we feel about having children. Those effects can start setting in before we’re old enough to have conscious memories. Did your parents love being parents or hate it? Were they involved in your life or more hands off? Were they abusive? Did they argue all the time? Did your parents divorce and leave you feeling like a lasting relationship is impossible? Was money a problem? Were you a latchkey kid raising yourself? Were you forced to babysit your siblings so much you feel as if you already “did” parenthood? For women, was motherhood considered the only option, one of many choices, or the end of a happy life? For men, was fatherhood portrayed as a noose around your neck or the best thing in the world?

My mother loved babies. Once she gave birth to my brother and me, she quit her secretarial job and never worked outside the home again. Caring for us and Dad and the house was her job. Of course, that was the 1950s and 1960s. Think “Leave It to Beaver” if the dad wore a hard hat and khakis to work. I think my father resented the obligations of parenthood, but he never questioned the rightness of having children. It was an era when, as he told me later, “That’s what you did.” Mom and Dad modeled a happy marriage and treated us well, so I grew up thinking having children was a good thing.

Add in the dozens of dolls I mothered and all those old-fashioned movies and TV shows that ended with “love, marriage and the baby carriage,” and I never questioned that I’d be a mother someday. I figured I would write books, raise children and live happily ever after with my Prince Charming.

Oh well.

My first husband and his sister also seemed to grow up in a happy traditional home, but neither ever wanted to have children. Their parents were overly involved in our adult lives. Other than that, they seemed fine, but I wasn’t there in the early years. Were there things I didn’t know about? A lot of important impressions are formed before a child reaches kindergarten. What happened to them?

Most readers of this blog have grown up in a very different world, a post 9-11 world facing climate change, a divided country, and an economy that makes it nearly impossible for young people to buy a home. How can they possibly afford to raise children? Adding to the confusion, divorce is common, husbands and wives are both working, and couples are waiting longer to consider getting pregnant, which can lead to fertility problems.

Where does that leave you? My upbringing caused me to want and expect to have children and to grieve when I didn’t. How about you? Did the way you grew up make you want to have babies or shudder at the thought? Is there something in your partner’s past that makes him/her shy away from having children? Have you talked about it? Without pushing for babies, this might be a good conversation to have just to understand each other better. “What was it like growing up in your family . . . ?”

Please comment. I’d really like to get a discussion going on this.

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