Bonus Issue: Can Life Be Meaningful Without Having a Child?
And other questions for Satya Doyle Byock.
When I first opened Satya Doyle Byock’s book earlier this summer, I was two weeks into living alone, struggling to understand my own decision to move out of my house, unravel my marriage, and effectively start over. A Portland-based Psychotherapist, Byock’s work centers on her theory that quarterlife crises emerge when there is an imbalance between the amount of energy one puts behind seeking meaning and stability. Her book gave me the language to understand: I was a full-blown “Stability Type” who had all but ignored meaning, choosing instead to check every box society expected of me, without pausing to reflect on my own fulfillment. My conversation with Satya, which I recorded and published here, was so helpful to me, that I asked if she would be willing to answer some of your questions.
Thankfully, she agreed, and I invited you to submit questions to Satya anonymously—which you did in droves, with your own vulnerable questions and experiences. Below, Satya has generously donated more of her time to respond to (click the hyperlink to jump to each!):
Question 1: A person who recently left a PhD program, to live a “more meaningful life that’s focused on joy and service,” rather than “prestige and competition,” but now struggles with guilt and sadness around quitting something so big without a plan for what’s next.
Question 2: A person who has fallen in love for the first time in their mid-30s after realizing they’re queer, but is now struggling with the decision to have a child: “How do I quell the normative, external perspectives I have that my life cannot be truly full without having a child? I feel like I need to decide what I want from the rest of my life, and that feels impossible.”
Question 3: A 43-year old mom who wrote, “I feel I’m just now finding myself after decades of doing what was expected of me or ‘checking boxes,’” but is concerned about how to reconcile this self-discovery with the impact it may have on her spouse and children.
Question 4: A person who is extremely stability-focused and is struggling to find balance and value with her husband who is “entirely meaning focused.” She asks, “How do we see the value in what the other has to offer instead of only feeling disappointed that your partner doesn’t see the world as you do?”
Without further ado… here are your questions and Satya’s answers:
Question 1 - First-Time Quitter
I recently left a PhD program which felt stifling and challenging because I wasn't sure where I wanted it to lead. I had never before quit something so big before. It's been a painful experience, leaving something I worked so hard for and that other people seemed to admire so much, even if I know in my heart it was the right decision. I want to live a more meaningful life that's focused on joy and service, not on prestige and competition—that was one of the big motivators for the decision. Now that I've left, though, I've really been struggling with feelings of guilt. I feel sad. I feel like a failure. I don't know what to do next. How do I make space for these emotions and for the bigger questions without rushing to find the resolution
- First-Time Quitter
Dear First-Time Quitter,
I’m impressed with your decision making. Everything you wrote indicates to me that you are on the right track, including your awareness that you shouldn’t rush to find resolution.
Let’s start by stepping back for a moment: You started a PhD program that likely felt like the right decision at the time, but that began to feel less and less like it was going to lead you where you wanted to go. You then made a truly courageous choice to listen to your gut and your soul and quit the program, however irrational it may have seemed to you and to those around you at the time. This choice has almost certainly spared you far more difficult life changes down the road, because that kind of nagging doubt doesn’t just go away. You made a profoundly courageous choice to hear what was happening inside of you and choose yourself over the status quo and the expectations of others.
So, step one: Keep validating the choice you made and celebrate that you’re no longer there. It might seem counter-intuitive much of the time to be so bold as to celebrate the uncertainty that you’re in, but you know that something about where you were wasn’t right. One of my favorite quotes is from the social psychologist Kenneth Keniston, who wrote in the ‘60s and ‘70s:
That a person cannot fully articulate their aspirations does not mean that they may not still rebel against the discrepancy between what is and what they dimly, almost unconsciously, sense might be. A person may feel that they have a right to ‘something better than this,’ without being able to define the ‘something.’
There’s a different path for you, you just haven’t entirely clarified that yet.
Steps two and three: If you can conduct some kind of ritual with yourself to let go of the grief and feelings of failure, I’d recommend it. Your body and soul knew that the course you were on was more about upholding some of the status quo than about following your deepest sense of meaning. So let it all go. Meditate. Burn something that truly represents the path you were on. Write a letter to yourself filled with forgiveness. Ask your higher self to write you back through your hand with the clarity and forgiveness you need. Some kind of ritual will help you to properly release what you need to release so that you can close the chapter once and for all.
Then, work on clarifying on a deep level what it is that you want. While you research with your rational mind possible paths and programs and careers, let your unconscious self speak through you, too. Make a list over a week of people who—dead or alive—truly inspire you, and whose lives you admire. What is the theme with these folks? What is it about them that your soul, by way of your respect and admiration, is trying to reflect back to you about your truest path?
Be patient. Uncertainty is scary, uncomfortable, and can be embarrassing. But that doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, if you can genuinely tolerate the uncertainty, the clarity you need will emerge and lead you forward. In the end, it will feel like short-term pain when you find that you’re more aligned with yourself than you could have ever previously imagined.
Question 2 - Child-Free, but Confused
I'm so grateful for this opportunity. I think I've always been internally a Meaning Type and externally presenting as a Stability Type. After reaching for and getting all the brass rings laid out before me, my life came to a crashing halt when I experienced a trauma that had me reevaluate every facet of my life. I quit my job in a toxic and competitive industry (that I had worked seven years to get to the position I had), went back to graduate school for something completely different, moved to a new city and then another, and realized that I had been queer all along and hadn't truly realized (because I was too focused keeping my head down seeking accomplishments).
I'm now almost seven years from that inflection point and I never doubt the decisions I've made since, as I'm living a far more authentic and joy-filled life than I previously could have dreamed of. I fell in love with a person this year and it is the first time I've truly ever been in love. I find this love transformative. I'm now in my mid-30s and everyone around me is having children. The stability part of me always assumed I too would have a child. But when the meaning side of me kicked in, I started to ask whether having a child was necessary for my happiness. I questioned the fairness of bringing a child into the world we currently inhabit. All of this is to say that the person I love and who I plan to spend my life with is adamant about not wanting children. We have discussed it a few times, and all I can say is that I don't know what I want but I promise to be honest.
How do I quell the normative, external perspectives I have that my life cannot be truly full without having a child? I know I can have a beautiful, wild life with this person, but I'm afraid that maybe I'm a Meaning Type imposter. I feel like I need to decide what I want from the rest of my life and that feels impossible. Thank you.
- Child-Free, but Confused
Dear Child-Free, but Confused,
I’m so excited for you! What a remarkable body of work you’ve amassed over the last seven years as you’ve turned the barge of life from the Stability goals that tend to steer the ship of adulthood, toward deep self-reflection and self-witnessing. You’re being rewarded! How very beautiful to hear that you’re madly in love.
The decisions around child-bearing and child raising are within the top three of our most nuanced decisions, tied deeply into our sense of who we are and what we want from our lives. I say the top three because I’d argue that up there with this question of “to child or not to child” are those questions of gender and of sexuality, which I hear you’ve been clarifying more and more lately. Whether or not we choose to parent remains bound up with questions of gender roles in society and heteronormative expectations of what adulthood looks like. And yet, this is not the reality of many people’s lived experiences. Some trans men, for instance, know they want to carry a child, while some cis women know they do not; two gay men may want to raise children together, while a straight couple does not. I don’t think we speak enough about the ways in which these questions around the choice to parent, or not, are part of the larger conversation of gender identity, and that they can fall all over the map! In order for each person to know what they want, a lot of things have to be teased apart.
I can say for myself, I have been clear that I didn’t want my own children since I was young, yet I’m also the creepy weirdo who wants desperately to hold the baby of a stranger I just met. I love babies! And I love being an aunt to my nephews. But none of that has ever altered my deep sense that I don’t want to be a mother myself. I’ll also say that most of my close friends—straight, gay, women, men—have also chosen not to have children. (They don’t regret it, and range in ages from their 30s to their 70s.) I’ve found that it’s so valuable for people without kids to have the mirroring and company of people without kids, just as it’s important for parents to have peers who are parents.
I heard Elizabeth Gilbert tell Oprah once in an interview that, when it came to the decision to have children or not, she saw women as falling into three camps: those who should have children, those who should be aunties, and those who shouldn’t be within ten feet of a child. (I’m paraphrasing here! But also not by much.) Neither Oprah nor Liz Gilbert have had children, but they’ve both loved being aunts and mentors in one form or another. I relate!
My point in telling you this is just to normalize the alternative of being a high functioning adult who chooses not to have kids. If you choose not to have children, you won’t be alone.
But this is also a huge question of identity and future and it’s up to you to find that part of yourself that is asking the question and dialogue with it. Spend time imagining a life with children and create the whole picture. Spend time imagining not having children and fill out the version of that life you might live. Explore what feels right and wrong for you in those futures. Read stories of people who have chosen not to have children and see how it resonates with you. Talk to parents about their lived experience with children and ask whatever questions show up for you. Let yourself truly research this question, inside and out.
No matter what, the thing you cannot do here is acquiesce to your partner’s clarity around the topic. Their knowing may not be your knowing ultimately, and this is a decision you can’t hand off to someone else. So let yourself not know as long as you don’t know. Let yourself live in the uncertainty as you investigate, knowing that people do this in every possible way, and those ways are all okay.
Finally, I’ll say this: If this desire of yours to have children really does come down to participating in what adulthood is “supposed” to look like, I think you can let that go. As you’ve already discovered, the heteronormative, white supremacist, Capitalist goals of adulthood are often just traps and, overall, they’re not working for the planet. So feel liberated to find what is true for your deepest self and trust, as Rilke put it, that “life is in the right, always.”
Question 3 - Jessica S.
How do you reconcile the effects of a such a crisis on spouse and children? Not sure if mine should be characterized as “quarter-life” or “midlife” crisis, but at almost 43 years old I feel I’m just now finding myself after decades of doing what was expected of me or “checking boxes.” I worry about how changing the way I live my life will affect others.
- Jessica S. [Ed note to readers: This writer chose to disclose her first name, as did the women below.]
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to morning person to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.