Life is full of difficult decisions. Whether a decision is difficult or not will depend on your experience, your values and, more importantly, what you think the outcome of that decision will be. I’ve made easy decisions out of situations that could have caused decision paralysis in others. But I also have my own set of tough choices that I’m struggling with, including whether I want children. In this article, I look at what makes a decision a difficult one and what you (and I) can do to help make the right decision.
The easiest decision I’ve ever made
When I was 21, I met a guy during a 3-day trip to New Delhi, India. At the time, I had just finished my studies in London and had moved into a new apartment. I was about to accept a job. Yet, less than a week after meeting this guy, I left everything behind and moved to India.
On paper, this looks like one of the hardest decisions anyone would have to make. On the one hand, I had great opportunities lined up for me in London. I graduated in 2009, at the heart of the financial crisis. Job offers were not to be taken lightly back then. On the other hand, there was this guy I hardly knew and an exotic country I knew little about.
Yet, this was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make. In fact, it didn’t feel like a decision at all. It felt like the obvious thing to do.
To have, or not have, kids that is the question
Over the last few years, I’ve been struggling with something that is, for me, a really difficult decision to make. I’ve been trying to figure out whether to have children.
Children are not something I’ve thought much about growing up. I’ve never felt maternal towards kids (unlike towards animals!). I never believed that you must have children for a fulfilling life. Besides, I have a hormonal issue called polycystic ovaries syndrome (PCOS) which makes it very difficult for me to get pregnant without medical assistance. And I absolutely hate hospitals. I don’t hate hospitals like most people hate them. I truly, viscerally hate them.
I’m now 33 years old. I am aware that if I want children I better start really thinking about it. Given my current circumstances, and having heard horror stories from girlfriends struggling to get pregnant, I know that the sooner I do it the better.
I used to believe that one day I’d just know whether I want kids or not. After all, this is not a subject that I’ve heard being discussed much growing up. People just seemed to always know. But this never happened - I still don’t know.
If I didn’t have PCOS, I would probably have “drifted” and just become pregnant without thinking too much about it. But if I want kids now, I know I’ll have to go down the medically assisted way. My hatred of hospitals and how the medical establishment deals with the woman’s body (a subject for another time) stands in the way.
In other words, I don’t just have to decide whether I want kids. I also have to decide whether I want kids enough to go through a process that I don’t want to go through. I have to decide if I really want kids and if so, how much I want them. And I have to decide relatively fast.
Why are some decisions harder to make than others?
Each of us is unique in the ways we view decisions. It was easy for me to leave everything behind for a guy I hardly knew. This could have been a very difficult decision for many others. Similarly, many women just know they want - or don’t want - kids. For some people, choosing whether to move away from the city to the countryside is a tough decision. Heck, choosing whether to eat an extra cookie can be the toughest decision!
There are mainly two things that make a decision hard.
The first problem is that we can’t predict the future, and therefore the outcome of our decisions. The poker player Annie Duke explains that life, just like a poker game, involves making decisions all the time. Most of the time, these decisions are a bet carried out with limited information.
Your inability to predict the future will have a limited impact in most day-to-day situations. You’ll be able to make all the small and some bigger decisions (like what to wear, what to eat, how to get to work) fairly easily.
For some choices, however, this lack of clarity can lead to decision paralysis.
When it comes to children, I just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I don’t know whether I’ll be a good mum. I don’t know how it will affect my relationship with my husband. If I don’t have kids, I don’t know if I’ll miss out on something special. This makes it difficult for me to choose.
The second and much bigger problem arises when choices draw on different but equally important values.
Dealing with a competing set of values
The philosopher Ruth Cheng explains that decisions qualify as “hard choices” when they are what she calls “on par.” This means that the possible outcome of each option touches on values that are very different but equally important. Imagine that you’re hesitating between becoming a lawyer or an artist. Becoming a lawyer touches on your values of wanting financial security and social recognition. Being an artist, meanwhile, is in line with your belief that your work should be your passion and that you should follow your own path.
When I think of having children, I think of my family values. Family is very important to me and I am scared of falling short of that value if I don’t have kids.
On the other hand, I am also worried about the environment and overpopulation. I am worried about not being a good mother. I am worried that having children will take away from all the other things that are important in my life. I am worried that having children will negatively impact my marriage (I did marry the guy in India, by the way) which I cherish so much.
Each set of values, family, the environment, my marriage, are all equally important. But they are also very different. That is why it is such a difficult decision to make.
The element of luck
One little-talked-about aspect of making tough decisions is luck. I was extremely lucky that the guy I moved to India for, a guy I hardly knew, turned out to be my absolute soul mate. It could, instead, have been a voyage in hell. I made the call with very little intel.
It would have made much more sense to get to know him over email and phone first, then perhaps plan a short visit and only then decide whether he was worth the sacrifice. In hindsight, it was a bad decision with a lucky outcome.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live my life based on luck. I’d rather make good decisions.
A new way to deal with difficult choices
Here are a number of things you (and I) can do to help make the right decision.
Tip #1: Know that there’s nothing wrong with you
You might be wondering whether there’s something wrong with you if you’re struggling to make a decision that others seem to make easily. But that’s not the case. We are all unique, with different stories and values. No one but you can tell you what’s right for you.
Family therapist Ann Davidman, who specialises in helping what she calls “fence sitters” decide whether they want kids, says that her clients often believe there is something wrong with them for not knowing. I’ve definitely been there.
The thing is, she explains, is that we live in a pronatalist society with an unspoken message that everyone should want kids and have them. This narrative leaves little room for anything else, which causes people who don’t know to feel shame. I have definitely been there too.
Tip #2: Separate what you want from the decision
What you want doesn’t have to be the same as your decision. You might want to have a second helping of dessert but you decide not to because you know you’ll be uncomfortable.
The same goes with more important life decisions like having kids. Ann Davidman says that some people who want to be a parent decide not to because they feel their life is not right for kids. Vice versa, some don’t want kids but chose to do it for their partner. The right decision may sometimes be not to go with what you wanted.
Tip #3: Separate the outcome from the decision
Poker player Annie Duke explains that it’s important to separate the outcome of a decision from the decision itself. Because luck plays such an important role, you have to know that a good decision may not yield the outcome you wanted, just like a bad decision (like my impulsive move to India) can turn out to have great consequences.
Tip #4: Ask yourself: Which decision brings me closer to the person I want to be?
When you free yourself from the outcome, you can focus on the actual decision. How does each decision feel? Which decision (not outcome) brings me closer to the person I want to be? Which decision is more aligned with your values?
When I asked myself those questions, I realised that the decision to have kids involved medically assisted pregnancy which, at this stage in my life, was not in my values. I realised that it was more important for me to heal my body and try to recover from my hormonal issues first.
Tip #5: Trust that you’ll be able to handle the outcome, whatever that may be
Past a certain point, the more you play around with scenarios the harder a decision can become. You need to make peace with the fact that you can’t control the outcome and that’s okay. If you look back at your life, you’ve always, somehow, managed to handle what came your way. There is no reason to think this decision will be different.
Yes, I am terrified of regretting my decision to have - or not have - kids. But when I think about it, I also, deep down, know that I will be able to handle whatever comes my way. After all, every time I adopted a new dog, cat or horse I freaked out about whether I would be able to handle it. I’ve now got 22 of them and guess what - we’re doing just fine!
The experience of the decision itself is more important than the outcome. You can never control what happens in the future. But you can control what you choose to stand by in every decision you make. As stressful as they might appear, you can use every difficult decision you come across as the opportunity for you to become the person you want to be.
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