The decision to be a mother is as intense, and personal, as ever. Here, several Seattle-area women share how they made their choice to be a mom — or not.

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NATASHA MARIN PUTS her hands on the sides of her daughter’s head; looks straight into her eyes; and tells her, “You do not need to get married and have children.” Marin, 38, doesn’t want 13-year-old Roman to feel pressure to have a child because it’s what other people expect.

“I really hope my daughter has a chance to be herself before necessarily being protector and guardian and guide to another person,” Marin says.

It wasn’t until she was breast-feeding her second child that Marin realized she could have chosen not to have children. It didn’t really feel like a conscious choice at the time she had kids, she says: just the next step in her life.

About the photos

The images in this series were created with the multiple-exposure function on a Canon EOS-ID X that combines multiple exposures in-camera to create a final photograph. The women in this project were photographed as a first exposure, and then separate image exposures were added to make the final photograph. The images were combined in-camera, and not in Photoshop.

Erika Schultz

Her kids are one of the best parts of her life, but Marin wants Roman and her 6-year-old son to know they don’t have to become a parent when they grow up.

“The idea of opting not to have children has entered public consciousness in a way that we have not seen previously in our culture,” says Amy Blackstone, a professor at the University of Maine who has been studying child-free families for years. “Parenthood is now thought worthy of a thoughtful choice as opposed to the next thing you do.”

In the Seattle area, where many women work in technology or have intense careers, it is easier to talk about the choice, says Nancy J. Kenney, an associate professor of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington.

That doesn’t mean the stigma against women who decide not to have children, or those who do so in any way perceived as nontraditional, has gone away.

But it does mean many are more willing to discuss their own personal decisions. Here are the stories of six Seattle-area women.

 

MARIN HAS NO regrets about having children. On the contrary, she says: She is raising two rather extraordinary kids who know how to speak their minds.

But if she were to go back in time, knowing what she knows now, she isn’t sure she’d have made the same decisions.

“I feel like I had two kids already before I realized that having kids, or not having kids, is a choice that a person can make,” she says. “I very much feel like I was just going along a road, and the road led to getting married and having kids, because that’s what women are ‘supposed to do.’ ”

“I feel like I had two kids already by the time I realized having kids or not having kids is a choice,” says Natasha Marin. She constantly reminds her teenage daughter that she doesn’t have to get married or have kids, that it’s her choice.

Marin, a conceptual artist in Seattle, interviewed more than 100 women in the past year, seeking their experiences on what womanhood means to them and how it has shaped their lives. It confirmed her feelings that if women talked more openly with each other, we all would see things a little differently.

FREEDOM TO CHOOSE: Roman O’Brien, 13, loves science, technology and learning Mandarin. Her mother, Natasha Marin, says she is inspired by the organic confidence her daughter possesses. Marin tells her daughter she has the freedom to choose her own path in life, including romantic partners and whether she wants children. “In terms of raising my daughter, I’m very much like, ‘Prioritize yourself, prioritize your well-being, resist any social pressure.’ … It does not make you a bad person to be interested in yourself and your wellness and what you want.”  (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE: Roman O’Brien, 13, loves science, technology and learning Mandarin. Her mother, Natasha Marin, says she is inspired by the organic confidence her daughter possesses. Marin tells her daughter she has the freedom to choose her own path in life, including romantic partners and whether she wants children. “In terms of raising my daughter, I’m very much like, ‘Prioritize yourself, prioritize your well-being, resist any social pressure.’ … It does not make you a bad person to be interested in yourself and your wellness and what you want.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

It’s still tough to get women to be honest about their decisions, particularly if they choose to be child-free, says UW’s Kenney.

Women who choose not to have children are seen as selfish, Marin says, because women are meant to be caretakers.

“It’s not selfish, but society has made choosing yourself a stigmatized experience,” she says. “No one is coming up to a 40-year-old man and saying, ‘You’re not married? You don’t have kids yet?’ ”

Time is precious, and time spent on yourself even more so, she says. Marin is imparting that to her children, especially her daughter. It is OK to spend time on yourself, she tells Roman. It is OK to go after what you want. It is OK to go against social norms.

Marin is determined Roman will grow up with the ability to make her own choices.

 

BLOSSOMING UNCERTAINTY: Sarah Haas, 35, says she feels like she has about five years to decide whether to have children. She’s never had the deep, biological desire to do so, she says, but she knows she would be a wonderful mother. “You feel like your body should be telling you one thing or the other, because you hear from people who hear that from the inside,” she says. “But when you have that luxury of choice and you don’t have that light switch — that shiny bell that’s going, ‘This is what you want to do!’ — it’s hard to know.”  (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
BLOSSOMING UNCERTAINTY: Sarah Haas, 35, says she feels like she has about five years to decide whether to have children. She’s never had the deep, biological desire to do so, she says, but she knows she would be a wonderful mother. “You feel like your body should be telling you one thing or the other, because you hear from people who hear that from the inside,” she says. “But when you have that luxury of choice and you don’t have that light switch — that shiny bell that’s going, ‘This is what you want to do!’ — it’s hard to know.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

“OH, SARAH DOESN’T know anything about kids. She doesn’t have kids!”

Sarah Haas has heard some version of this over and over for the past decade — from older relatives, from co-workers, from friends. It’s frustrating, she says, partly because people seem to feel the need to bring it up all the time.

It’s even more frustrating because Haas actually knows quite a lot about kids. She grew up in the same home as her niece, who was 12 years younger than her, and she spent her teenage years helping care for her. She adores her friends’ children, and her favorite sound in the world is a newborn’s cry.

“It hits you in all your estrogen,” Haas says, petting her blind dog, Charlie, one of four pets that crawl around her Kirkland condo. “After two days, that cry has changed. It’s gone.”

“If I’m on the fence about creating life, I’m going to go with the not, because that’s the thing I can change.” Sara Haas always assumed motherhood would just happen, but it hasn’t, and she’s not sure if she wants it to. But maybe she does.

For Haas, 35, though, the assumptions are hard. She was in two long-term relationships, each lasting nearly a decade. If those didn’t result in a child, it must be because she didn’t want them to, right? Nope. It just happened that way. It was just life.

But that anxiety is still there, blossoming from the looming decision that must be made. In her 20s, Haas figured it would be less of a deliberate decision.

She separates it into “before” and “after.” In previous generations, many women had kids “before” — before career, before travel, before other elements of life. Now, Haas sees people who think of having children as “after” — after you have built your own, individual life.

Five more years to decide, she figures. Maybe fewer. It would be so welcome if a baby showed up on her doorstep tomorrow; she would be a great mother, and her life would open to make room for a child — Haas knows that in her bones. But if she lets the thought creep into her mind as a decision that must be made, Haas can list the reasons that now isn’t the perfect time: Her career isn’t in an ideal place. Financially, it would be tough. Her current relationship is pretty new.

And, that biological feeling, that hit-you-in-your-gut urge that some women feel so deeply, has never struck Haas.

“I know a lot of women who know that they want to be mothers,” she says. “They know it. They don’t know how; they don’t know when; maybe they choose a life that doesn’t give them that, but they know they want to be mothers. And because either I can’t trust that feeling, or I don’t have it, I do wonder if that means that I shouldn’t. But at the same time, I know that I love children, and I know that I would be an amazing mother.”

 

THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION: After years of deliberation, Kim Starr realized while she was on a road trip through South America that she didn’t want children. It took the time and distance from her busy life in Seattle to sort out her feelings and make the decision that having children wasn’t the right choice for her and her husband, who love a minimalist lifestyle and traveling the world. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION: After years of deliberation, Kim Starr realized while she was on a road trip through South America that she didn’t want children. It took the time and distance from her busy life in Seattle to sort out her feelings and make the decision that having children wasn’t the right choice for her and her husband, who love a minimalist lifestyle and traveling the world. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

IT WAS UNDER the stars somewhere in South America, cozied up in a makeshift pop-tent on her Honda Element, that Kim Starr knew.

She hadn’t thought about the motherhood question in weeks, maybe even months. The feeling was incredible: a relief from the anxiety that had hung over her for more than seven years. With that openness of mind, it came to her: She didn’t want to have kids.

Starr and her husband had embarked on an epic trip several months before, storing their shrinking number of belongings and setting out from Seattle with the goal of driving to the tip of South America.

The couple had become obsessed with the idea of “impossible road trips” years earlier, when their traveling hobby turned into more of a lifestyle. Theirs isn’t the relaxing sit-on-a-beach-and-ignore-email kind of traveling; it’s more intense. Once, they drove from London to Mongolia in a Fiat Punto.

Over time, Starr and her husband sold their house in Northwest Seattle and moved into an apartment, determined to spend their time between excursions saving money for the next trip. Her increasingly minimalist life had caused rifts in her personal life, as it wasn’t a choice everyone understood, and she worried that would apply to the motherhood question as well.

Starr, 38, had been turning it over (and over, and over, and over) in her mind for years. If she didn’t have children, she might disappoint her family; she wouldn’t have anyone to pass her values to; she would miss out on a whole piece of “being a woman.” The concerns made her doubt for years the gut feeling growing inside her — the feeling of, “I don’t really want to do this.”

As the big trip neared, Starr began addressing some of her concerns. For one, her husband assured her she wouldn’t spend her later years sitting in a nursing home by herself.

“You don’t have to have kids to have amazing people that surround you and love you when you’re old,” he told Starr. “That just comes with who you are and who you bring into your life and how you treat them.”

What she really needed, though, was space from her complicated life in Seattle and time to clear her head. She realized on the trip that having kids wasn’t the right choice for her, and it didn’t feel like a sudden answer that had just popped into her head.

“The fog of external pressure had lifted during the trip, revealing what I had felt and known all along,” she says.

It was like the relief you feel when your head finally hits the pillow at home after the end of a long journey.

 

As a queer woman, Steph says, motherhood is something that she will have to plan for, and it won’t happen by mistake.

STEPH FARBER’S PARENTS nearly always took time off work to watch her school activities. They stood outside during cold New Jersey soccer games, and Farber remembers coming home every day to find her mother waiting. Farber, now 25 and living in Seattle, wants to be as good a parent to her kids as her parents are to her.

She knows she wants to have children — she’s felt that for a long time — she just wants to wait until the time is right.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER: Steph Farber knows she wants to have children one day, but wants to do it when she feels happy with her career trajectory, finds a supportive partner and has the flexibility with work to be home for dinners and weekends. Farber, who dates women,says that when she’s ready to have children, it will require considerable planning. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER: Steph Farber knows she wants to have children one day, but wants to do it when she feels happy with her career trajectory, finds a supportive partner and has the flexibility with work to be home for dinners and weekends. Farber, who dates women,says that when she’s ready to have children, it will require considerable planning. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

“I want to make sure I’m in a place where I’m comfortable enough with myself and the things I want to accomplish and who I want to be before I decide to have kids,” she says.

For her, that means feeling comfortable with her career momentum, and time to make her kids breakfast and dinner. She wants a supportive partner, and she wants to be financially set.

More women in the United States are having babies at an older age, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2015, birthrates for women in their early 20s hit a record low, but rose for women in their 30s and early 40s.

Dr. Julie Lamb, a doctor at Pacific NW Fertility, says she sees many women in their 40s who recently decided they want kids; she’s also seeing an increasing number of women who are freezing their eggs in case their biological clocks kick in after peak fertility age.

Freezing your eggs to use later is not a guarantee, though the procedure has become significantly more successful in recent years, Lamb says; many patients just want to keep their options open.

Farber, who is queer, knows that when she decides to have children, her choice will require a lot of planning.

“I’m not going to accidentally get pregnant one day,” she says. “There’s just a lot of planning that needs to go into it, and I think that’s why it feels like there’s so many steps to get there.”

 

WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE: Author Ruchika Tulshyan, who adores her son Veer, 10 months, says women can face a number of hardships with career and motherhood, including expensive day care, short parental leave, gender wage inequality, discrimination and sometimes lost opportunities to advance at work. “From a career perspective, I really do see a lot of penalties and difficulties that motherhood brings,” she says. “It’s very hard to find an employer or organization who really believes that your family life is compatible with your career.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE: Author Ruchika Tulshyan, who adores her son Veer, 10 months, says women can face a number of hardships with career and motherhood, including expensive day care, short parental leave, gender wage inequality, discrimination and sometimes lost opportunities to advance at work. “From a career perspective, I really do see a lot of penalties and difficulties that motherhood brings,” she says. “It’s very hard to find an employer or organization who really believes that your family life is compatible with your career.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN KNEW she would take a break from full-time work after her book was published. That, she decided, would also be the ideal time to have a child.

In a couple of years, when her 10-month-old son, Veer, is a bit older, Tulshyan expects she’ll want to return to full-time work. She’s lucky, she says, as Veer pulls at her leg to be picked up, that she and her husband are able to afford a part-time nanny, a solution they landed on after struggling to find another day-care option. She knows this isn’t the case for many women.

Women often feel the repercussions of taking time off work to have and raise children, says Tulshyan, 30, the author of “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace” and a founding editor of the women-run media company The Establishment.

As the author of “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace” and mother of a 10-month-old, Ruchika has explored the unique challenges for women who want careers and a family.

In Singapore, where she grew up, it truly felt like a village was raising a child, she says. Live-in workers who help with housekeeping and child-rearing are common, and families help each other without having to be asked.

“I saw that there was a track for women who wanted to have thriving careers, as well as children,” she says. “Because most of the people I saw around me were in that situation.”

In the United States, day care is expensive (if you can even get to the top of a waiting list), and parental leave at most companies is short and barely compensated. When Tulshyan moved here five years ago, she found women are often expected to have children, though she says she feels that tide shifting a bit, and many are demonized when they go back to work and spend hours away from their child.

“I still think women pay a huge amount of tax, whether it’s emotionally or the way that they’re perceived in the workforce, when they decide to become moms,” she says.

FINDING LIGHT IN DARKNESS: Andy Kimble chose a hysterectomy over suffering from unbearable pain from severe endometriosis. The decision didn’t come lightly, especially because it came at the cost of having biological children. “Yes, it is a dark situation and there seems to be no light. … There is beauty in everything, there is light in everything, yet there are bad situations,” she says. “I think the most important thing to know is that just because you may not be able to physically birth a child, doesn’t make you any less of a woman … Motherhood is not solely defined by your ability to bear children.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
FINDING LIGHT IN DARKNESS: Andy Kimble chose a hysterectomy over suffering from unbearable pain from severe endometriosis. The decision didn’t come lightly, especially because it came at the cost of having biological children. “Yes, it is a dark situation and there seems to be no light. … There is beauty in everything, there is light in everything, yet there are bad situations,” she says. “I think the most important thing to know is that just because you may not be able to physically birth a child, doesn’t make you any less of a woman … Motherhood is not solely defined by your ability to bear children.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

FOUR YEARS AGO, two doctors strongly encouraged Andy Kimble to get pregnant, believing nine months without menstruating would temporarily relieve her pain from severe endometriosis. The disorder occurs when uterine lining grows outside the uterus. The pain was almost unbearable.

But she wasn’t about to have a child just to ease the pain short-term. Instead, Kimble, then 26, asked for a hysterectomy. The first doctor refused, saying she was “too young.”

“It upset me,” Kimble says. “It was like, ‘You just want me to sit in this pain, rather than take away the ability to have kids?’ ”

She hadn’t come by the decision lightly. She worried she wouldn’t find a man who would want to marry her if she couldn’t have kids. She worried about her parents, who might be upset she couldn’t give them grandchildren. She worried about what people would say, how they would react.

But then she thought of the debilitating pain, and of her goddaughter, whom she treats, in many ways, as her own daughter.

“There could be situations with nieces or nephews, or I could decide to adopt, or I could marry a man who already has kids,” Kimble, now 30, remembers thinking. “I had to think of all of these options. Physically birthing a child is not the only way that allows you to be a mother.”

A severe medical condition deeply impacted Andy Kimble’s decision to — and ability to — have children of her own. “You’re not any less of a woman for not being able to bear children,” Kimble says. “This is your decision.”

She persisted, and found a doctor to perform the surgery. Her endometriosis is mostly gone, though some spread to other organs. The pain is greatly reduced and manageable.

The universe insisted on mocking Kimble after her hysterectomy. Soon after she returned to work in Bellevue, two women had baby showers. The balloons and loud exclamations of congratulations made Kimble feel like she had been punched in the gut, and she left work.

Pity also cut through her days — directed, however kindly, from co-workers, friends and even the nurses who assisted in surgery.

“My nurses were literally crying because I had to go through this,” Kimble says. “I was thinking, ‘Is this the only reason women exist? Just to bear children?’ ”

Since the surgery, Kimble has decided not to have children, and has made peace with it. She thinks she would have come to the same conclusion even if she hadn’t had a hysterectomy, she says, though it’s impossible for her to say that with absolute confidence.

She spoke at her church recently about her choice and what she calls the worst year of her life. Afterward, a woman in the audience told a pastor that Kimble had inspired her to get a hysterectomy, a choice she had been struggling with due to similar health issues.

“You’re not any less of a woman for not being able to bear children,” Kimble says. “This is your decision, and you can’t really let anyone else make it for you.”

 

PURSUING EMPATHY: Sara Grace Lingafelter, a world adventurer and marketing innovation strategist, says she’d like to see more empathy for people who are struggling with the decision to have children. “The reality is there’s pain and joy involved with any possible decision or set of circumstances a person faces. No one outcome — chosen, or involuntary — is easier or more or less painful or joyful, when it’s the life that you’re the one living,” says Lingafelter, who decided not to have children. “When I was undecided, the hardest part were other people’s assumptions and judgments and projections. None of it helped me make my decision, and all of it just made me feel — ‘other.’ ” (Her image of Nepal’s Khumbu region is seen, behind.) (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
PURSUING EMPATHY: Sara Grace Lingafelter, a world adventurer and marketing innovation strategist, says she’d like to see more empathy for people who are struggling with the decision to have children. “The reality is there’s pain and joy involved with any possible decision or set of circumstances a person faces. No one outcome — chosen, or involuntary — is easier or more or less painful or joyful, when it’s the life that you’re the one living,” says Lingafelter, who decided not to have children. “When I was undecided, the hardest part were other people’s assumptions and judgments and projections. None of it helped me make my decision, and all of it just made me feel — ‘other.’ ” (Her image of Nepal’s Khumbu region is seen, behind.) (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
“The biggest pressure I felt is to say, if I don’t birth babies, then what I am here to birth?” Sara Grace Lingafelter grappled for years with indecision around motherhood. Making a choice, she says, allowed her to move on with her life.