Care and Feeding

I’m Scared to Have Kids!

What to do about your fears of the future.

A woman holds her head in her hands.
Photo illiustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m 29, and my husband is 32. We’re both pretty sure we want kids, but now that it’s almost time to actually do it, he’s ready to go, but I’m freaking out. My biggest fear is of having a disabled child. My sister is severely disabled from a chronic mental illness, and I love her, but I see every day how hard her condition is on my parents. She requires around-the-clock care, and my parents’ marriage—let alone their own health and finances—has barely survived. I know that the odds of my own child being similarly disabled are low, but I’m still not sure I can take the risk. How do I get over this? Part of me does long for a child, but at other moments I wonder why I would risk messing up the easy, happy life I have now?

—Should We or Shouldn’t We

Dear SWSW,
I cannot tell you whether or not to have kids, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. I think what you’re really asking about is how to go forward with anxiety and doubt. How do you make a decision while experiencing the pit-of-the-stomach fear that comes with knowing that the decision cannot be unmade?

Not to trivialize your experience, but I think this “what if” doubt is what most expectant parents go through. It sounds as though in your case it’s elevated by your family history, and that’s not to be discounted. But unless one or more physicians have told you that your child would very likely carry this medical burden, then what you have on your hands is a slightly intensified version a common parental problem: the most important endeavor of your life viewed through the lens of uncertainty. Terrified speculation is bound to be one of the ways we approach this scenario, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the leading way.

So, to that point. I would, if you haven’t already, speak to a physician (or several) to get the real science on just how big a risk you are taking should you conceive. That is important here. A 5 percent chance is much different from a 25 percent chance. Also, if your relationship with her allows, I would talk about your fears very openly over several conversations with your mother. You have told me what you’ve observed with your parents, and that’s important. But I suspect that there are thoughts, feelings, experiences that your mother hasn’t yet told you about. She may be willing to share more with you now that you are deeply considering walking a path that may end up being similar to hers.

Because should you decide to have a child, even should your child be born with this disability—or any disability—it doesn’t mean that every day of your life will be misery. There is a love and joy and freedom that comes with that experience, too—a love and joy and freedom that is different but nonetheless real.

The other course of action I would suggest, as corny as this sounds, is to sit with it. This seems like nonadvice, but I often find it useful, when I don’t know the answer to a question, simply to hold it until I do. It doesn’t sound like you absolutely have to know or do anything right now. And that’s a good thing, because I suspect that more will be revealed.

My heart is with you. And good luck.

More Care and Feeding:

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Dear Care and Feeding,
A few months ago, my mother-in-law took my nephew to McDonald’s, where he spit into the soda machine. Another customer called her out for how disgusting and inappropriate it was.
The manager asked her to leave, and my mother-in-law started screaming that both the manager and other parent were “attacking” a 7-year-old. After her attempt to get the manager fired, she set her sights on the customer, who happens to the mother of a child at my daughter’s school. This culminated in her starting a fight with this parent right in front of both my daughter and her teacher. My daughter was horrified and embarrassed, as was I.

I immediately emailed my daughter’s teacher to tell her how sorry I was that she had to witness that, and how embarrassed I was about it. The teacher emailed me back to let me know that my mother-in-law has been banned from school grounds. Now my mother-in-law and husband are both blaming me for the situation, saying my note to the teacher is the reason she was banned. My husband says I embarrassed him and never should have said anything to the teacher. Was I wrong?

—An Embarrassment

Dear AE,
What in the name of Jerry Springer … ?

I want to address all the amazing details in this letter. First of all, a 7-year-old spitting in a soda machine is gross and out of line, but not a capital offense. (I’m assuming he spit into the drainage tray and not, somehow, into the tank where the soda is actually made and stored. That would be a different story entirely.) The thing is, 7-year-olds are often gross and out of line, and that’s why they have parents. You tell him firmly that’s not how we do it and you keep it moving. The manager was perhaps a bit overzealous in booting your family from the franchise, but maybe that was more to do with your mother-in-law’s behavior, which from the sounds of this letter is consistently bananas.

Both she and your husband are just high if they think your letter is what got her banned from the school. Um. It was the fight. The fight got her banned from the school. The fight is what has embarrassed your husband. I mean come the fuck on. He should have your back on this, but when you’re raised by a crazy person, you learn the intricacies of incredible and multilayered forms of denial, so I can understand, though not excuse, what he thinks he’s doing.

I mean, look, it’s safe to say that no matter the cause, if you find yourself in a screaming match (or a physical fight?) with other parents in front of children, then you are not handling things well. It’s really that simple. I do wonder why you, of all people, were the one writing an apology letter! You are doing work that they should be doing. These morons are not your responsibility. Of course it’s embarrassing. Of course it feels like it reflects badly on you, but it doesn’t. Unless you were standing on the sidelines screaming “World Star,” then you have nothing to feel sorry for.

Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband is a racist, but he’s not white. He’s a brown-skinned person of indeterminate ethnic mix. I’ve learned that the term for my husband’s prejudice is colorism: when a person judges that darker-skinned people are somehow inferior.

This is becoming a problem. My husband doesn’t approve of our children playing with the neighborhood kids. Some do come from troubled families, but I think he’s jumping to conclusions with these sweet children, stymieing healthy friendships, and teaching our children to be racist.

As a white woman, I can hardly lecture him about racism. He knows better than me. But I’d like to say something! I’m also concerned that this mindset isn’t healthy for my husband, since he’s essentially being racist against his own self. And it makes me view his decision to marry a white woman, all those years ago, in a different light. What can I do?

—Hubby’s a Racist

Dear HR,
You have a problem on your hands.

Your instincts about your husband’s self-loathing, and how it may have factored into his decision to marry a white woman, are not without possible merit. Racism is insidious and soul-destroying, and it is when we internalize it—turning it on ourselves and the people around us—that it is most toxic. From the sounds of it, that’s what your husband is doing. He’s willing to harm children in order to keep his fragile worldview intact. And he’s teaching your children some terrible things.

You actually can say something. In fact, you must. Tell him what your concerns and fears are. You can even show him that I share those concerns and fears. That is not the same as lecturing him on racism. He knows what racism is. He may not know, or be willing to admit, how he personally is upholding it.

He may not like this, and that’s OK. It may continue to be an issue in your relationship—perhaps, ultimately, an insurmountable one. That, too, is OK. It’s not good, but not all necessary things are good. Nevertheless, for the sake of your child and the children in your neighborhood, I think you have every right and responsibility to share with him what you’ve shared here.

But I would also encourage you to take some time to develop your sense of compassion toward him. This is a response to his own trauma and experiences with racism, and he is clearly hurting because of it. While this does not excuse him, it may helpfully color the way you approach him and listen to him. Treat him like a hurting person, rather than a bad one, and maybe both his behavior and the situation have some chance of improving.

—Carvell