The Women Saying No to Motherhood
Many women today are opting to forgo parenting, a choice that may be especially common in ADHD circles.
Alex Taylor* decided early on not to have children—even before she was diagnosed with ADHD at age 27. The licensed mental health therapist says she spent years masking, which sapped “every ounce of energy,” and still felt like she was treading water. “I spent many years acting a part for others, and now I want the rest of my years to be about me,” she says. “I’m at peace with my decision.”
In generations past, society expected women in their 20s and 30s to start a family, even if they felt unready or preferred not to have children at all. As those pressures begin to recede, younger women today feel freer to shun the traditional notions of motherhood and marriage, and increasingly, are opting out. This may be especially true for women with ADHD who find that living in a neurotypical world is challenging enough without the unrelenting responsibilities of raising a child.
“Today’s younger women with ADHD are, in many cases, wisely deciding not to have children. I’m seeing a real movement forming here, especially among women with more demanding careers,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., clinical director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland.
“As women with ADHD, we are not only overwhelmed by juggling work and home, but we are also much more likely to have children with ADHD who are challenging to raise,” she says. “Many professional women expend all their executive functioning energy at work and have little to nothing left over at home.”
Birth Rate Lowest Ever Recorded
Perhaps not surprisingly, a rising share of women of childbearing-age — 44 percent — say they are unlikely to ever have a child, a Pew Research Center survey of more than 3,800 U.S. adults has found. The U.S. birth rate bears this out: It hit the lowest level ever recorded in 2020, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Reasons range from economic and climate worries, to prioritizing careers and health conditions, to “just not wanting to.”
Ellen Littman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says her clients who have chosen not to have children say they are so challenged by the impact of ADHD on their daily lives that they feel unable to withstand the additional pressures of raising a child.
“Many have grown up in chaotic homes with overwhelmed parents, not the best role models for empathic parent-child relationships,” Littman says. “I think there is less overt societal judgment than ever before, and louder support for not wanting children, especially on social media. Perhaps the acceptance of a wider range of gender identities has resulted in a greater sense of entitlement not to conform to antiquated gender role expectations. For some women, it may also feel like an expression of female empowerment.”
ADHD Overwhelm: A Deciding Factor
ADDitude asked readers who opted to be childless: To what extent did your ADHD play a role in that decision? A majority of survey respondents told us that ADHD symptoms were, indeed, a deciding factor.
Katy, from the United Kingdom, called her decision not to have children a painful but necessary sacrifice. “At almost age 44, I’m barely capable of looking after myself,” she said. “If it weren’t for my extraordinarily supportive husband, I wouldn’t remember to eat, wash, clean, and function. To just about cope with a career that would afford the trappings of a normal life, I had to forgo having children, and that kills me.”
“I know the suffering and frustration that ADHD causes,” said a woman from Arlington, Massachusetts. “I did not want to pass my ADHD on to a child.”
“In my 30s, I finally started advocating for my own happiness instead of constantly squeezing myself into other peoples’ expectations and demands,” said an ADDitude reader in the United Kingdom. “I realized I could never be a mom. Children need you to be able to put your interests aside and put them first. Even the idea of someone being that reliant on me is terrifying. Being there for my mom and other family members is already often overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.”
“Happy with How It Turned Out”
Katie, from Ireland, said she was single until her early 40s, when she was diagnosed with ADHD. “I kind of slipped into childlessness. In hindsight, the delayed maturity of ADHD played into it. My life felt very out of control prior to the diagnosis. Also, I didn’t pursue having a child alone, on my own, because of my ADHD. I’m happy with how it turned out, but if I had been diagnosed earlier in life, I probably would have children now.”
For Cecile from Australia, ADHD did not play a role in her decision to have a child-free lifestyle. “I hadn’t found the right partner when I was at the right age to have children. But I’m happy without.”
*Alex Taylor asked that her real name be withheld.
Women with ADHD, Childfree by Choice: Next Steps
- Read: “ADHD Masking Is Another Undue Burden for Women at Work”
- Download: Free Guide to Hormones and ADHD in Women
- Read: “I Feel Like I Have No Time for Myself”
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