Many people reach a point in life and wholeheartedly declare, “I want children.” A switch simply flips. Of course, not all of us enter adulthood knowing innately that we want to have children. Many people struggle to acknowledge to themselves — let alone others — the uncertainty about what is often assumed to be the most logical step of adulthood. A voice rises and says, “What if I don’t want kids?” So, how do you know if you really should have kids, if you want to be a father? What are the real questions you should be asking?
Ann Davidman has worked for 30 years to change that. A family therapist by trade, Davidman is one of a growing number of consultants who help would-be mothers and fathers answer one of the toughest questions they’ll ever ask themselves: to be a parent, or not? Davidman’s program, which she created with another family therapist, Denise L. Carlini, is called Motherhood — Is It for Me?, and the two co-authored a book based on the course: Motherhood. Is it for Me? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clarity, that guides readers through the clarity course, going far beyond the perceived pros and cons of parenthood and instead turning attention inward, to better know their desires and motivations. Davidman says the book is just as much for fathers, and she has long offered a less-advertised Fatherhood Clarity Course, as well, that offers the same services but is aimed at men who want to make damn sure they want to have children.
So how does Davidman help men cut through the noise and decide whether or not they actually do want to be fathers? Fatherly spoke to Davidman about her program, the difference between desire and decision, and why, in order to know what we truly want for the future, you have to look backward.
How does the Fatherhood Clarity Course work?
When I work with men one-on-one, it’s a 12 to 14 week course that’s structured and ordered, and I take them through a series of exercises and writing assignments to really take an inward journey into helping them discover the clarity of their desire, which has nothing to do with their decision.
So the premise is that in order to be able to make a decision, you have to step back and put the decision aside so that you can first figure out what you want and why, and what drives it from the inside out so you’re not in reaction to something outside of you. And when you have clarity of that then you can look at a decision, but when you look at them at the same time then you end up in a gridlock or a stuck place. And so, it’s very directive, it isn’t open-ended, it isn’t just what are the pros and cons because that doesn’t really help in trying to figure out what it is you want.
What are some of the differences in how you counsel men versus women?
Well part of it is, if someone wants to have a biological child, there’s a timeframe on that for women, where there isn’t so much for men. There are differences, so when I do my groups I only do them with women and I don’t do groups for men, because there aren’t enough men to have a group, even though I work with men all the time. It’s harder for men to come together to do this work. I think that’s just societal, and how men are raised in this society, it’s just harder. But it’s certainly subtly changing, because some of the classic fears you think men might have, women have also.
What are some of the fears men have about becoming parents?
“My time isn’t my own”; “Will I be able to still do all the things that I want to do?”; “Am I going to be a good enough parent?”; “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it well”; and “Is there going to be enough money?” Most people’s fears are the fear of regret, like “If I do this or don’t do it, will I regret it down the road?”
Do you find sometimes that men are being spurred to make this decision earlier than they might have because their partners are concerned that their biological clocks are ticking away?
Yeah, if they’re with a female partner and she’s saying “I need to do this within the next couple of years,” they have to look at it. But I also work a lot with men who want children, and women who don’t. Actually, what happens even more than that is that I’ll work with men who contact me because another relationship ended over this issue because they didn’t have clarity, and they want clarity so that they know who to date. Because someone said, “Look, yes or no.” And they’re saying “I don’t know,” so the relationship ends, seemingly, over this issue. And so men will call me and say, “I really need to know what I want here,” or, “My partner doesn’t want children, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, and so I want to get clarity to see if I can be in the no camp, or in the child-free camp, and feel good about that.”
As you’ve said, this goes deeper than pros and cons. So what do men need to know, to consider, or to discover, if they’re unsure about having a child, or even a second or third child?
Pros and cons come into play when you’re making a decision, but you can’t make a decision unless you’re clear about what you want, and why you want it. So my role is helping people discover what they want and why they want it. When they’re clear there, the decision-making process isn’t actually that difficult. But when you’re not clear on what you want, doing a pros-and-cons list isn’t going to get you closer. The only people that call me are people that are already tortured, and don’t know why they can’t decide, or don’t understand why it’s difficult. Or, they are going to be a father, the decision’s made, but they aren’t as thrilled about it as they’d like to be.
If someone’s made the decision but isn’t as thrilled about it as they’d like to be, doesn’t that speak to a lack of certainty?
Well, it speaks to missing pieces. I would say that if someone wants to be more excited about it, and they don’t understand why they’re not, there is something unresolved there that probably goes back to their childhood, or something that they don’t have access to. And so the process of getting from there to being excited is really taking a giant step backward, and, even though the decision has been made, from a place of “I don’t know what I want.” They do a series of exercises that are designed to tease out something in their subconscious or unconscious that really is not resolved, and that they don’t have access to.
What kinds of questions do you ask? What things do potential fathers need to ask themselves?
None of them stand alone, and out of context they have almost no meaning. Because it is ordered, it is a process of a journey into yourself, knowing yourself better. What’s your understanding of what healthy boundaries are? How well do you take care of yourself? How well do you know yourself? When you’re triggered, or in reaction, to something around you, do you know why and what it’s about?
The title of the book is Motherhood. Is it for Me? But it could be titled “How well do I know myself? And do I struggle with making decisions in general?” So, in terms of what is asked, it’s a process of looking at your fears and the real externals in your life — finances, relationship, your age, all the things — and identifying all of that so you can put it aside and not entertain it at all while you go through a process of first discovering what you want for you without having to consider anything outside of you.
And when you have an understanding of that, then you can bring in all those external factors, and your relationship to them often changes. Some things matter, some things don’t matter. Or some things are conditional, it’s like “Oh, I do want to be a father, but only under these conditions.” Or, “I do want to be a father, but not for two more years” Or, “This isn’t what I want to take on in my life.” Or, “I wanted to have been a father by now, but it’s not what I want to do now.” A lot of it is looking at unresolved family-of-origin issues.
Some of it is looking at boundaries: Do you say yes when you want to? Do you say no when you want to? There are exercises of pretending to have made the decision of yes to fatherhood and no to fatherhood and to see what reactions surface in those exercises. It is about stirring the unconscious, because everyone has access to what they have access to. You can rehash the same information over and over again, but if you’re not getting anywhere with it, you need information that you don’t have access to. We don’t have access to our unconscious unless we invite that forward. And so the book, each week there is a guided visualization that helps tease out what’s in the unconscious.
This sounds like a process that can be applied to any kind of major life decision, not just figuring out whether or not you want to be a parent.
It can. They contact me because of the fatherhood question, but oftentimes at the end of the course that gets cleared up, but also other things. It’s like “Oh, this isn’t my issue. I can be a father or not, but I need to change my career.” Or, “My partner wants children and I do too, but I don’t want to be with my partner.”
So what happens for people in this process is they get clear on what they want around parenthood, but they also get clear about other things in their life. And that’s just an organic outcome of it, because it is about making decisions and knowing yourself and feeling entitled to want what they want. Some people are raised in environments where what they want is just constantly pushed aside because there’s so much paying attention to the needs of others. And men are often raised to focus on the needs of others — women are, too, but for different reasons — or not to pay attention to what they feel. Or to even be close to people.
I read that you encourage this to be a completely personal decision, but how does that jibe with making the decision as a couple?
So, it’s individual about what you want, not necessarily your decision. I don’t work with couples around this, because I don’t think it’s a couples issue. But when each person is clear on what they want, then that decision-making conversation looks different. It’s easier to negotiate that when you’re clear. And sometimes it is a deal-breaker, sometimes it is, “We really want different things,” and so there isn’t going to be a coming-together, there’s going to be a separation. Some relationships end over this issue, and some, they come up with another option. There isn’t a right or wrong, good or bad decision for everybody. Each person has to decide for themselves. You can’t say to someone, “Oh, have a kid, you’ll love it.”
Do people ever leave the course having made one decision, and then regret that decision later?
I would doubt it. I think that when people get through the course, they know so much more information about who they are that they’re pretty clear that you know why you’re making a decision. If you know why you’re making a decision, and then down the road you’re being challenged by that decision, you know why you’re there. I think the fear of regret or feeling regretful is because there is something that is unresolved, it’s something that wasn’t looked at. The fear of regret is different than feeling regretful, because the fear of regret is more about imagining being stuck in a torturous place forever. And that has more to do with your past than your future. But if someone is in the present time and they don’t like the decision they made, then I think that there’s something to explore, what was their decision based on in the first place? And then they would have to go back and look at, “What did I overlook here?”
What drives that fear of regret?
If you’re carrying around old wounds or early wounds where in fact your needs weren’t met, or you did feel left out or in fact you did miss out on something that you had no control over, there is this fantasy of, “Well, if I control the future then I won’t miss out on something.” But it doesn’t work that way. First of all, everyone has fears about something, so in this program we identify them so we can put them aside, because to entertain them prematurely just gets in the way.
But the message is: You can only know what you want and move in that direction. You can’t know what it will be like. Any fear is really more about the past. If you have a fear, you’re triggered about something from the past. And so it’s about exploring what that is; it’s going to be different for each person, but it’s going to go back to something unresolved in your past, or a loss that hasn’t been faced. And you may be aware of it, you may not be aware of it. But the exercises are designed to tease out what needs your attention.
If you were to extrapolate based on your experience, how have men — and fathers — changed in the last 30 years?
People still get a lot of flack in our society for choosing to live a child-free life, let alone not knowing what they want. So people have a false belief that they’re just supposed to know about this issue, and if they don’t, something’s wrong with them. So they’re certainly not going to talk about that with anybody. And I think there’s just more permission to not know and make a conscious choice than there was before, but it’s still pretty limited. It changes with each generation, but boys are often raised that it’s not okay for them to have their feelings.
But people are raising boys differently, now there’s much more consciousness about children and what they need to feel safe and connected. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so it does look different now. And there are more men that call me now. I would say the men that call me now versus the men that called me 30 years ago are much more conscientious, and feel like they have a choice. When men are in heterosexual relationships, they often feel like it’s not their decision, it’s the woman’s decision, and they have to go along. That’s what saddens me most, is that I want men to feel that they get to decide what they want as well.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.