If I Could Choose Again, Would I Still Wait To Have Children?

ChildrenFocused on a demanding career as an attorney and married to a man who refused to become the “default parent,” Kate McGuinness waited too long to have a biological child. So she adopted a son, ended her marriage, and wouldn’t change a thing.

Childless women often view their declining fertility with ambivalence. Jennifer Westfeldt, director and producer of Friends With Kids, recently said,

I kept feeling like I’d wake up with absolute clarity, and I haven’t. And we have a pretty great life together. The chance that we’ll regret it doesn’t seem like a compelling enough reason to do it. I may wake up tomorrow with that lighting bolt, and I’ll have to scramble to make it happen.

Ms. Westfield is 42. “Scrambling to make it happen” would, in all likelihood, entail high-tech fertility rites with a low chance of producing a child with both her genes and those of her partner Jon Hamm.

I know firsthand the profound regret of having waited too long and the frustration of fertility treatments. But I sympathize fully with the difficulty of forcing a life-changing decision. 

New Paradigms, Old Rules

Nicole Rodgers put it well in an essay last year in Role/Reboot: “We need to understand that women who ‘wait’ (often too long, biologically speaking) for kids are responding rationally to new paradigms that are still governed by old rules.” (The new paradigms include more education and career opportunities for women as well as the growing trend to marry later in life.)

Deciding to have children was a particularly difficult decision for me because I was married to a divorced man who, despite his pre-marital avowals of a desire for children in addition to his own two, became adamantly opposed given the exigencies of my legal career. He refused to become the “default parent” when work required my presence.

His proposed solution was for me to give up my position in a major international law firm. Mine was to leave him. In fairness, I should add that neither of us knew how demanding my career would be when we married.

Marriage counseling made me remember the reasons I had married him: bright, witty, and playful. On the other hand, success in my career made me even more reluctant to leave the partnership track.

Making the “Rational” Choice

I considered my choices “rationally.” Should I leave a man I loved or a career I relished for the unknowable satisfaction of being a mother? I had never spent much time with infants or toddlers. Every parent I knew said children were so much more work than you ever expected if they were healthy and well-adjusted. But then there were birth defects, drugs, accidents…so much could go heart-wrenchingly wrong. How could I choose that over two knowns?

So, I waited. I made partner. The clock ticked louder and I insisted we try. But my husband was unbending. We separated only to get together later. He said he loved me enough to have a child and suggested a “compromise.” It would allow us to both get what we wanted. He would leave his hated job as a nuclear engineer and study commercial photography. I would remain a partner, get pregnant and a nanny would become the “default parent.”

Except I didn’t get pregnant.

It’s Not All Rational

As I look back, I realize I had delayed because I was trying to make an emotional decision rationally. Wanting a child was the expression of an emotion hard-wired into my genes, one that couldn’t be analyzed away.

I had this epiphany standing on the bank of an Alaskan river watching salmon charge up a waterfall to reach their spawning grounds. Through the streaming white water, I saw salmon leap out of the foam at the bottom into the air and, if they were lucky, clear the ledge with a final flick of their tails. The unlucky charged the falls again and again, jumping upward only to fall back defeated or worse, slashed by the sharp rocks below. 

Watching their struggle, I knew my intellect couldn’t overcome my wish for a child, no matter how irrational that desire might be.

Possessed by the drive to reproduce, I visited fertility specialists. I faithfully followed their regimens, including taking very powerful drugs. Before dispensing the medication, the doctor’s nurse would throw away the package inserts, telling me the information would just frighten me. I finally stopped, not so much out of fear of side effects, as eventual frustration.

Adoption, and the Aftermath

I cannot fully describe my joy at adopting a new-born boy. He is now a happy, healthy, bright 23-year-old.

However, women who delay childbearing shouldn’t consider adoption a fail-safe cure-all should they prove to be infertile. The number of infants available to be adopted has dropped sharply. Moreover, concerns are now being expressed openly that adoptees may be more subject to unexpected mental health problems than birth children.

Despite my inner turmoil and my husband’s opposition, I became a mother. However, I didn’t create a family. My husband left within a year of my son’s birth.

He was right: He didn’t want to be a parent.

Like the married couples in Friends With Kids, our marriage was changed by the demands of parenting. My husband resented the attention I gladly gave my baby.

If I could choose again, would I have chosen my child knowing the result would be the loss of my marriage? Absolutely. The richness of loving my son fills my heart.

— – —

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which will be published early in 2012. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrtr.

This post originally appeared on Role/Reboot. Republished with permission.

For more great insight from Kate McGuinness, check out her earlier piece: The More Things Change…The More They Stay the Same.

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  1. This article really speaks to me. As a young woman in the law, it is hard to find role-models who have made choices that I would be happy to emulate. Choices around issues raised in this post are so very personal. I admit that as a newlywed, I get asked all the time when the kids are coming. I find myself thinking that I couldn’t have the child at the end of the year, because of corporate closing deadlines…even when you are at a law firm that supports work-life balance, the nature of the profession is so unpredictable/cyclical, and hard to get back in to should you decide to leave or scale back for a time. Thank you to Kate for sharing her story.

  2. While I’ve never really had a desire for children, you are still very inspiring to me. You’re now a writer?! I want to do that too someday! It’s super exciting whenever you see women who enjoyed rich, varied, and interesting careers. It makes me think “well, maybe I can do it too!”

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. It makes me think about the time we were deciding whether to have a child in law school or wait until after school and a few years into my new, exciting, high-paying law career. One thing came to fruition without too much trouble-we had a beautiful baby girl, born during semester break of my third year of law school. Crazy, yes, but doable. Had we not had her then, we still wouldn’t have a child because that high-paying legal job after law school did not come into fruition. In fact, it took 2 years to land a very good, but not terribly high-paying, legal job that I can finally say is a career and not a stepping-stone. Maybe we’ll be able to have another and we certainly hope to, but now we face the pressures of work and looming fertility concerns, on top of student loan debt and insecurity in my husband’s jobs. It is always a hard decision on when and how to start a family. I’m so glad we decided to when we did, but hindsight is always 20/20.

  4. I am on the opposite side of your dilemma. I gave my first born baby boy up for adoption and I still think “what if” every now and then. Everything happened very quickly seeing as I did not know I was pregnant until five months into it all. I went with what my boyfriend at the time wanted and I knew what my goals were for my career. I can however relate to your last statements about choosing your child over your marriage. My boyfriend and I were en route to marriage and we had talked about weddings and all of that, but he checked out after the adoption because I was too involved with our son (it was an “open” adoption) and he wanted no part in it. I am in a weird place right now. I know it was the right decision to give my son up for adoption in accordance with my education and eventual career, but I still regret that decision in other ways. Seeing as I made that decision, it is of utmost importance to me to have a child of my own that I can raise for myself. Time will tell I suppose, but I admire you for adopting and leaving your husband. That could not have been easy!

    • Nicole,

      You were certainly faced with a difficult decision. As an adoptive mother, I so appreciate your decision to place your child with adoptive parents. Your kindness brought them much joy. I sincerely hope your desire to have and raise your own biological is fulfilled.


  5. I just stumbled onto this site and am so heartened to see it exists! What a great idea and a sorely needed resource. I went to law school knowing I wanted to “help people” but wasn’t sure how exactly. I am currently working at a small firm of four moms. It is a firm that truly values work-life balance and it’s a total unicorn. I wish there were more employers out there that were supportive of female lawyers and that allowed both women and men work-life balance. I see this site as a step in the right direction.

    • Elizabeth Greiner says

      We are so glad to hear that you have found some life balance and that the girls guide has been helpful to you!


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