This post summarizes how my partner and I decided whether to have children or not. We spent hundreds of hours on this decision and hope to save others part of that time. We found it very useful to read the thoughts of people who share significant parts of our values on the topic and thus want to "pay it forward" by writing this up. In the end, we decided to have children; our son is four months old now and we’re very happy with how we made the decision and with how our lives are now (through a combination of sheer luck and good planning). It was a very narrow and very tough decision though.
Both of us care a lot about having a positive impact on the world and our jobs are the main way we expect to have an impact (through direct work and/or earning to give). As a result, both of us are quite ambitious professionally; we moved multiple times for our jobs and work 50-60h weeks. I expect this write-up to be most useful for people for whom the same is true.
Bear in mind this is an incredibly loaded and very personal topic - some of our considerations may seem alienating or outrageous. Please note I am not at all trying to argue how anyone should make their life decisions! I just want to outline what worked well for us, so others may pick and choose to use part of that process and/or content for themselves.
Finally, please note that while many readers will know who I am and that is fine, I don’t want this post to be findable when googling my name. Thus, I posted it under a new account and request that you don’t use any personal references when commenting or mentioning it online.
Process - how we decided
We had many sessions together and separately, totaling hundreds of hours over the course of 2 years, on this decision and the research around it. My partner tracked 200 toggl hours, I estimate I spent a bit less time individually but our conversations come on top. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but it took me longer than I wish it would have to realize that this is important, very hard work, for which I needed high-quality, focused work time rather than the odd evening or lazy weekend.
We each made up our minds using roughly the considerations below - this took the bulk of the time. We then each framed our decision as "Yes/No if xyz", for instance, “Yes if I can work x hours in a typical week”, and finally “negotiated” a plan under which we could agree on the conclusion “yes” or “no”.
In this process, actually making a timetable of what a typical day would look like in 30-minute intervals was very useful. I'm rather agreeable, so I am likely to produce miscommunications of the sort "When you said "sometimes", I thought it meant more than one hour a day" - writing down what a typical day could look like helped us catch those. When hearing about this meticulous plan, many people told me that having kids would be a totally unpredictable adventure. I found that not to be true - my predictions about what I would want, what would and wouldn't work, etc. largely held true so far. My suspicion is most people just don't try as hard as we did to make good predictions. A good amount of luck is of course also involved - we are blessed with a healthy, relatively calm and content baby so far. Both of us feel happier than predicted, if anything.
I came away from this process with a personal opinion: If it seems weird to spend hours deliberating and negotiating over an Excel sheet with your partner, consider how weird it is not to do that - you are making a decision that will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars and is binding for years; if you made this type of decisions at work without running any numbers, you'd be out of a job and likely in court pretty quickly. In our case, if you budget every hour at $100, we spent maybe $40,000 on the decision. That's the cost of a nanny for one year, so a small fraction of what we expect to spend on kids. If we had a strong intuition that we’d anyway want kids, we could likely have skipped over some of that; we were very much on the edge though, so solid facts on the table seemed important.
A final note on methodology: All frameworks are wrong, this is very personal. We tried to model our value functions here, so if your value function is different, you may want to consider different, more, or less considerations and different weights, do a quantitative model or not. I found goal factoring useful to identify considerations, and necessary claims to work with them. My partner made multiple quantitative models.
Content - considerations we used
We estimated how much work time we'd each lose if having kids. For us, the output of our work is a key impact metric, as discussed above. Thus, "work time lost" was a very important factor in our decision.
To get to a good estimate, we found we had to work out the details of what an average day with a baby would look like - that was super useful, I wish we'd done it earlier.
The plan we made is linked here. Some notes:
- Reality looks roughly like this plan now, minus the nanny hours on the weekends. I find I get a bit of work done even while looking after the baby because he still sleeps so much; we may add those nanny hours later if he gets more demanding.
- With this setup, we feel joyful and productive - different people will see this differently, the key message here is a lot of things are possible
- Resource: I know how she does it - I found it empowering to see the stories of women who have children and ambitious careers and inspiring to learn their "hacks" for building fulfilling lives.
Note we significantly updated on how much external childcare we wanted - both of us started from the assumption that at least one of us would be at home full-time for a few months, and then maybe working part-time for years, if we had kids. This was heavily shaped by the environments we grew up in. Seeing different family models (talking to friends, reading other people's writings) really shifted our Overton window and after a lot of deliberation, we realized we both actually wanted a setup with much more external childcare. More on whether that seems okay for the child below.
Our plan was informed by conversations with about 10 parents we know, and living with some of them for a few days up to several weeks (in one case, and this had other reasons than us wanting to see how they live with their child). My takeaways from other parents were roughly
- Almost anything can be made possible if you set your mind to it and come up with creative solutions - one couple looked after their baby in shifts, so they could each get 8h uninterrupted sleep; one mother did a 1-year work placement abroad when her second child was six months, the family moving with her; one father finished his PhD in a part-time setup after the first child was born.
- A lot of parenting seems to come down to establishing habits and defaults that make you happy rather than ones that make you feel stressed or otherwise unhappy - one mother mentioned she has regular meet-ups and calls to catch up with friends while also looking after her baby, so she doesn’t have to schedule them every week; multiple people reported how important it is to be strict about one’s own bedtime in order to get enough sleep. My own biggest win in this realm is living in a shared house with friends, so that there is lots of default social interaction and inspiration.
- People I consider similar to myself (relatively high on reflection and planning) consistently reported their values didn’t change in unpredicted ways after having kids; this is also the case for me.
Good sleep is foundational to productivity and happiness for me and my partner, so we optimized this aspect of living with a baby heavily. So far, both of us are very happy with where we got to with a combination of good planning and sheer luck. Our setup is roughly as follows
- The baby sleeps in a snoo that we bought secondhand. This is probably the single best purchase we made for the baby - I’m not sure how much of our good sleep is due to the snoo’s movement and white noise, but I suspect it is quite a bit.
- The snoo is next to my bed, my partner sleeps in a different room (we had separate rooms before the baby already because we both sleep better that way; we often cuddle in the evening and one of us then leaves).
- The baby and I start our bedtime routine (incl. Feeding, nappy change, etc.) at 8:30 sharp every night, so that we both sleep by 9:00-9:30. I’m very strict about this, incl. Weekends - I have always found it easier to go to bed early and wake up early than stay up late, so it doesn’t feel like a huge sacrifice. We also rescheduled some hangouts with friends to earlier times in the day than was normal pre baby, and have luckily been met with a lot of understanding for that. It does mean I sometimes (roughly once a week) leave a conversation or game or so earlier than I would ideally like, but not by much.
- I breastfeed with a red light at night (I suspect this makes it easier to go back to sleep, not sure).
- I have additional white noise on at night so I don’t wake up with every tiny sound the baby makes (they make a lot); I find I still instantly wake up when he really wakes up, usually before he cries. This took like 2 nights of volume adjustment trials.
- The baby used to wake up 2-3 times a night to feed initially, now (5 months) we are down to 0-1 times.
- During the initial weeks with 2-3 feeds per night, I would be fully awake around 8-9 am, so I spent 11-12h in bed to get enough sleep.
- Now, I am fully awake at 6 am on weekdays and 7 or so on weekends. I feel generally well-rested and happy, plausibly even more so than pre baby because my bedtime is more regular. My oura sleep scores are as good as they were pre baby.
Note that “per default, no disruption to my sleep” was one of the conditions for my partner to want kids at all. I felt some fear around the challenge of looking after a baby at night but it seemed doable because I knew I could function pretty well on 6 h of sleep if needed from my days as a management consultant, and because we decided that if sleeping well became unacceptably hard, we would be fine with paying for a night nurse for a while. There was also some element of “humans have managed to do this for millennia” but I mostly discounted that because I aspire to sleep significantly better than most of those people probably did. I should also caveat that we haven’t yet transitioned out of the snoo (most people report this being surprisingly easy) or sleep trained (we will do that if needed). In the snoo and with a regular bedtime, the baby currently falls asleep on his own, in the 3 minutes it takes me to brush my teeth. Again, some luck may be involved as well.
We estimated we'd pay GBP40k/year for a full-time nanny in the UK. We are roughly there now for our 50 hours per week of nanny time.
Private schools can easily be GBP20k/year; where you live obviously matters a lot for this (e.g., most education in Germany is free).
Living cost increases come on top, depending on what you want - so far, we got a lot of stuff for the baby secondhand or even free, so the main increase comes from paying more rent.
In total, we estimated costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per child in total - this obviously depends on your choices a lot, mainly about childcare. This was an important factor in our decision, as part of my theory of impact is earning to give.
Kids make moving houses and countries more costly; how much this matters depends on one's job. For instance, academics tend to need to move two or more times before they get tenured.
This could have been a large consideration. We decided to largely mitigate the loss of flexibility by pre-committing that we will move if needed and just "swallow" the additional cost (e.g., be fine with paying for help with organizing and executing the move). We also don't plan to ask the kids for "permission" to move.
Effects on one’s community
Everyone doing an expected value calculation and then deciding based on that may not be the best algorithm for a movement. If everyone calculates kids reduce one’s impact and no one has them, then the movement never becomes very big: There will likely be dynamics that exclude people who really want children (still the majority of adults out there), and the movement never grows "organically".
In situations like these, it seems helpful to consider comparative advantage. Imagine everyone in your community in a line, from least suited to most suited to having kids, where are you in that line? How many of those people do you think should have kids? Note that strongly wanting children probably is part of being suited to it.
We felt that having a long-term, stable relationship and being financially well-off plausibly gives us a comparative advantage. We care about growing the community of people wanting to do the most good quite a bit, so this seemed like a moderately important consideration.
Falling out of the heavy tail
In some career paths, if you have marginally less time or resources, that may make a big difference in outcomes; the distribution of outcomes over time/resources can be modeled as heavy-tailed. Thus, the amount of time/resources one invests into having children could have a large effect. For instance, for start-up founders, it could be the difference between the company surviving the first few years or not. This was a moderately important consideration for us.
The children's impact
There is some chance your child will do great things in the world - but discount rates on this are pretty high (especially if you have short AI timelines, as discussed widely on this forum). We found the expected impact to be positive but too small to be a strong consideration.
Note that factoring some expected positive impact into your decision is not the same as demanding altruistic contributions from your child - the latter seems like a fairly unhealthy family dynamic. We very explicitly discussed that while we see some positive expected value, we are both happy to love and raise a child who just wants a nice life for themselves.
Having children adds a new entity to one's value function: the children's well-being. To what extent this changes how much one cares about other values (such as the long-term future, or competitiveness at work) will depend on the person. I was reasonably certain my values wouldn't change much upon having a child, and so far, this seems to be the case - it may be different for different people though.
"Personal life worthiness" or happiness considerations
I did quite a lot of research here because being in excellent physical health is important to me. High-level takeaways:
- The incidence of "mild" maternal health issues is actually super high - e.g., >80% for perineal tears, ~20% for post-partum depression, and 70% for issues with breastfeeding, which I translated into expected 0.6 to 3.6 weeks quality lifetime lost per birth (6 months of 10-50% decrease in life quality with 25-30% likelihood) in my case
- Incidence of severe health complications (e.g., needing blood transfusion or renal failure) seems to be around 1%, which I translated into an expected 0.14-1.4 weeks quality lifetime lost per birth in my case
- Risk of death is significant but I found it low enough to not play a role - roughly 1% increase in your chance of dying any given year, equivalent to travelling 88,000 miles by plane or skiing for 120 days.
- Note the numbers include some adjustments for me being physically fit (work out or run every day)
Detailed, non-polished notes here.
Resources: Expecting Better by Emily Oster, lots of papers summarized via Cochrane reviews. I actually outsourced some research to an upworker, I expect this could be done via Elicit nowadays. We later got pointed to birthfacts.org, which influenced how we planned the delivery of the baby (that was a decision process with some research as well but seems out of scope here, DM me if you want the details).
We researched the likelihood of having a mentally or physically disabled child and discussed how we would work with that if it happened - from discussing which prenatal screening we would do and what would cause us to end the pregnancy to how we would manage life to accommodate a child with special needs.
While those discussions were helpful to have, the expected negative effect on our lives from the risk of having a disabled child turned out to be small enough not to be a major factor in our overall decision. I have a detailed write-up on this specific aspect (incl. sources on the likelihood of different things happening) that I can share upon request.
We also looked into one aspect of mental health. Our plan involved 56 hours of nanny-time per week (we are now at 50), and we were somewhat concerned whether this much time with an employee instead of a parent would have negative effects on the child. We therefore researched the possible impacts of non-parental childcare on children. Our conclusion was roughly that 56h of nanny a week seems ok as long as we don’t have too many different nannies and they treat the child well (being responsive, emotionally available, etc.). The main potential downsides would be “problem behaviour” like risk taking and impulsivity, while IQ or academic performance seem unlikely to be affected. Those downsides seem to materialize more strongly in daycare settings than with nannies but this is hard to say because there aren’t any good studies comparing the two. A detailed, non-polished write-up is available here. I recruited a nanny via childcare.co.uk and I am so far very happy with her. The baby seems to love her as well.
I will be brief here because these are the most personal aspects that are most likely to benefit from your preferred style of introspection.
For me, it was writing out the upsides of having kids and how I could achieve these upsides in a kids-free life. Some categories I found useful and how they turned out:
- Love, belonging, connection - I expected strong positive effects from just having another being in the world who I love very much. This is the case so far.
- Personal growth - I expected to learn things like mindfulness, equanimity, even better planning and effectiveness, and maybe some insights from having experiences I’d never had before. This is the case but relatively mildly, plausibly less than expected so far.
- Social circle - I expected to spend more time around other parents and a bit less with my friends. This basically hasn’t happened; I never felt the need or want to go to any pregnancy or parenting groups, I still live with the same set of friends and meet roughly the same groups. If I hadn’t had the baby, I would have maybe traveled to visit friends 1-2 times more this year than I did; I expect to do that again if it feels important. The baby maybe changed slightly who exactly in my circle of fiends I hang out with but that doesn’t feel bad at all.
- Relationship with my partner - see below.
For my partner, the most relevant factors in the decision were:
- Love, belonging, connection: He expected having kids to be positive for his wellbeing; this is the case so far.
- Sleep: He expected negative effects but his sleep has been virtually unaffected in our setup (see above).
- Stress: He expected there to be additional stress that would negatively impact his well-being, but this hasn’t happened. Due to the nanny, there aren’t that many childcare duties for him. Whenever he does have childcare duty, it feels very nice and rewarding.
- Unexpectedly liking it: He had some credence on unexpectedly liking being a dad much more than he thought, as people kept saying “you can’t predict how it will be anyway”. So far, he feels pretty much exactly as he had predicted, though.
- Relationship impact: The research clearly says that, on average, relationships suffer from having children. We suspected this may not be true for our population group (we were together for >10 years before the decision and very happy with our relationship, communication, etc.). Our relationship has changed mildly, but we agree it isn’t worse.
I found that for me, happiness/worthiness of life seems more narrowly distributed than impact. There are many imaginable ways I could increase my lifetime expected impact by >2x, sometimes >10x, while for lifetime expected happiness, that seems crazy to me. I can thus view kids as a "cheap" purchase of happiness for impact, possibly enabling me to later "sell" a tiny bit of happiness for a lot of impact (e.g., by moving to a different country for my job, where I initially wouldn’t have friends).
To the extent that you intrinsically care about happiness, it may also seem like a small difference in impact is a reasonable price for the happiness increase you expect from having kids. For me, after all the above considerations, the expected "impact hit" I take from having kids is small enough that it disappears in the error bars of the expected value calculations I make during my career decisions.