The desire to become a parent varies greatly. Some people do not want children at all, others are unsure, while others describe feeling a strong urge for parenthood. Personal life experiences, cultural values, religious beliefs, and social norms around gender, sexuality and relationships all shape the extent to which people want to become parents.
The people we spoke with shared their perspectives and feelings about wanting to have children. In the first film below, they reflect on personal feelings, including having ‘always’ wanted to have children, deciding later in life that this is what they wanted, and feeling ambivalent about having children.
The second film features examples of people’s thoughts about having children in relation to ‘external’ factors. These include family expectations, a shared desire to have children with a partner, and social norms related to the perceived ‘order’ in which life ought to be lived.
Wanting to become a parent – personal feelings
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Marika had her two children via IVF. She describes wanting to be a mother as a ‘deep’ desire.
Just always grew up thinking that was just part of, you know, the plan. I just saw it in my future. I wanted to be a mother. So even in my early 20s with other partners it was a conversation. So it was always like, I always knew I wanted to have children. It was just a deep thing, like a desire to experience motherhood and have those relationships that you have with children. So I felt that very, very strongly and the thought of not being able to have that had a huge impact. I just couldn’t imagine what my future was going to look like without that being part of it.
As a non-binary person, Max always loved kids but didn’t grow up expecting they would become a parent. They share how and why their perspective changed in their 30s.
So my partner and I were in a position where I guess legally, socially, medically, personally, financially et cetera that we could consider having a child. So we started doing some research of what our rights were. So we started thinking about, ‘Okay, maybe this is something that we could do,’ and so we started looking at what our options were and what that meant for us as a family and then it was quite interesting because I didn’t grow up thinking that – I think I grew up always – I loved kids, I’ve always loved kids and I have had a really strong relationship with my nieces and my nephew.
But I didn’t necessarily grow up with thinking that I would have a child that would see me as a parent. More as a special adult or whatever. So then having this opportunity that came up in my mid-30s of, ‘Hey maybe this is something we can do,’ I then sort of internally, and maybe just more about my personality, I didn’t speak to my wife about this. I didn’t speak to my parents either. I just sort of flagged the idea in my head about maybe – ‘What do I do about my body? What does my body mean? What are the components of me physically that I’ve been born with? Are they things that I want to use or not?’<
So obviously growing up always as – I knew that I was queer and I was quite different at quite a young age so I didn’t have the narrative of, ‘I’m going to be a mum’, quotation marks. That wasn’t sort of part of my story. But then after a while when we started looking into the legal process and the medical process and things here I just sort of was like oh hey – I remember saying to my wife one day I was like, “Oh hey, maybe I should go first,” and she looked at me and was like quite amazed and [laughter] probably a little bit in shock and didn’t expect that that would be something that I would say.
But, yes, I was like, ‘Hey, maybe children and uteruses and eggs and sperm and carrying children is not necessarily something that is innately gendered. Maybe this is something that I could do because I have these particular parts.’ It was quite interesting to sort of go through this process of being like, I don’t really see my body as female necessarily but I do see that I’ve got some particular physical characteristics that can support me to have a child. So she was quite amazed and didn’t expect that. Then I remember speaking to my mother as well and saying, “Hey, we’ve talked about having children” and I’d already spoken to her quite a lot about my partner and us using a donor.
Then when I turned around one day and said, “Oh actually I’m going to try first,” I reckon she almost fell off her chair because [laughter] it wasn’t what she expected either. So, yes, it was interesting because somehow I’d come to this position that I would give it a go I guess.
Before meeting her ex-partner, Ingrid wasn’t sure she wanted to have children. She reflects on the reasons for her ambivalence.
Ingrid: I only have one child – and I didn’t… I essentially wasn’t even sure about having children, but my then-partner convinced me, if you like, that it was a good thing to do and finally, we decided, “Yes, that’s the path that we’re going to go down.” So I successfully fell pregnant when I was 38, actually almost 39, and which is obviously a mature age pregnancy, if you like to call it that.
Interviewer: Would you say at that time you were not necessarily trying to get pregnant, but not trying to not get pregnant?
Ingrid: Yes, that would be… Yeah, if we did fall pregnant, it’d be… And my partner and I had been together for so long. If we did fall pregnant… And he’d always wanted kids. It was me that was holding back, which in hindsight, possibly wasn’t useful because I was six years older than him. So he was keen on kids [background noise] and it was me delaying things. But if we had have fallen pregnant, the whole, “Whoops, how did that happen?” then I would’ve been happy to go ahead with the pregnancy.
I had a bit of a rough trot as a kid. For instance, my maternal mum has never met my daughter. So we’ve had a very rocky relationship. I guess I was a little bit scarred and chose not to actively pursue parenthood myself because I just didn’t appreciate what I grew up with at all in a good way because of how I perceived that… I didn’t want to be that mother and I didn’t want to bring a child into the world and then discover that I’d turned into that sort of parent.
Plus, I’ve always been… I’ve always wanted to discover the world, not that I can now, because we’re all in lockdown, but I have travelled quite a lot. I’ve spent my 20s doing a bit of backpacking over to Europe and even back in Australia, in my late 20s and all through my 30s. So I’ve always been… In the absence of having a family, I’ve always pursued work opportunities and travel opportunities and trying to… Self-improvement stuff, and keeping myself busy and continual education. I’ve always been in and out of uni doing various courses.
Yeah, so in summation, if you like, I’ve always pursued some large other interests and while some of my friends have been busy making babies, I was off galivanting around the country and around the world.
Wanting to become a parent – external influences
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Libby shares her thoughts on why family pressure on her and her husband to have a baby has come from their two grandmothers, not from their parents.
Libby: Mum always said, “Don’t have kids early”, I mean I’m sure she’ll still say this at 43. And some point I was blaming her for my late decisions. I didn’t tell her but because she had me so young and she was a student, and they were both students, she struggled a lot. They both did not have jobs, so they built everything from scratch, that’s why it was her decision not to have any more [children] because, “I’m focusing on my career,” and they’re both career people, or were, but now they’re retired. Dad did not push.
When I was in my first relationship and married, Grandma would mention that, you know, “Just have one now, you’re young and passionate,” and I said, “Not that time, you know.” So, when I would go home with ex-husband she would sometimes say, “Come on, you know you’re 30, you’re 31, you’re 32.”
And my only close remaining friend had two kids and I saw her struggle a lot and she had her sisters helping her. So, I realised it’s not easy to have children actually, because you need a lot of help and maybe the fact that my parents were not with me, my ex-husband’s mum was also working, very rarely you find a career woman in her generation, late 80s already, but she was so focused on her job as well. So, I felt a bit, “I have a child, who’s going to help me?” I did have that in the back of – I don’t want to use it as an excuse, maybe the fact that I did not jump straight into it.
Interviewer: And what about your husband’s parents?
Libby: His dad passed away 16 years ago. He’s never had the pressure, his mum never pressured him about relationships, the grandma did, the grandma’s more, she’s 97 so he told me that he was pressured to get, “You’re 38, you’re 39 come on, tie the knot with someone,” and he told me that he used to tell them, “I need to find the right person, I can’t be with…” He had girlfriends but I mean, they weren’t marriage material and he said that, “I need to find someone who understood my family, who knew who I am, respected what I have and we have common goals,” so he had a whole list.
So, the grandma pressured him. They’re not actually, I haven’t been pressured from their side, I’m not sure if he is, but I don’t think so. Maybe because they’re giving up or maybe they like, “Oh she’s old anyway.” [laughter] I don’t know about that part. I haven’t spoken to his mother personally about IVF, I told my husband to mention it to her a bit because I would fall off the planet when I was doing the cycles and I didn’t want people to feel that, you know, “She’s so rude all of a sudden.” So, I asked him to say it, I said, “Please tell her we’re working on something so just give me a break.” So, no personally she hasn’t pressured me. Yeah, Mum never did. Dad was like, “Do whatever you want.”
For Aisha, the desire to have children is something she has shared with her husband from the start of their relationship.
Interviewer: While you were dating and before you got married, did you talk about having children then? Was that something you and he discussed, or was it after marriage?
Aisha: No, I think we were both always very excited about, like we knew each other since we were 17 and then we started dating at 23. I think we got a dog quite early in our relationship. We moved in together and then we got a dog, so I think we were always very much, very excited about having a family together one day.
Hannah reflects on some of the social norms she grew up with that shaped her expectations around having children.
Well, you grow up with the fairytale in your mind, that you get married, you have children, and you have a perfect family, and you live happily ever after. My husband and I wanted three children. [emotional] Obviously, that’s had to be adjusted quite considerably, and hopefully we will have a child at some point, but…
About social expectations, yes, the expectation is to have property and buy a house, and have a career, so that, I think, is why – yes, women put off having babies until later, because you buy a house, and then you get caught up in the mortgage, and paying for a house, and blah blah blah, and that’s the general order of events.
Following surgery to remove ovarian cysts, Sue-en knew her fertility might be affected. She and her husband were happy to remain child-free but their feelings changed when their friends and peers began having children.
Sue-en: I had two weeks of period when I was at first year uni and that’s when I get a check and I was told about big cysts on the right-side ovary. I get it removed, that cyst. The specialist actually was going to cut off all the right-side ovary but my mum’s like, “Oh she’s still young. I know it’s not going to function but let’s see just in case.”
I still have my right ovary but since I have the surgery, I have really bad period pain and also I have hip pains since then.
Interviewer: So at that time though, they did say to you because your ovary had been damaged you might have some difficulties with fertility later?
Sue-en: Yes. I’m not really a sensitive person. I’m pretty tomboy. I was like, ‘Oh whatever. It doesn’t affect my life.’ Well back then I didn’t have any plan to start a family and, ‘Oh well, it is what it is. If I can’t have a baby well it’s not the end of the world.’ Yes. So I wasn’t really getting emotional with that. I think that actually helped me to accept that having a baby’s not going to be easy.
Interviewer: How old were you when you met your husband?
Sue-en: I was 26. I told him I have this problem but we were like, ‘Well if we can’t have a baby it’s not the end of the world,’ because luckily we’re kind of very similar in terms of about having a family and like, [laughter] ‘Well you can start your family without having babies.’ So it wasn’t really a big deal back then. I think as we grew older we have so many friends and family having a baby and started their family and that just kind of hit us, ‘Well we want to have a baby too’.