Scrolling through its 88 million posts on TikTok, you’ve probably come across the DINK trend and either wondered, what the heck does DINK mean, or, if you’re a childless millennial maybe you strongly identify with the Double Income No Kids philosophy of traveling often, staying up late, and never having to hire a babysitter for date night. If you’re child-free by choice, are you clear on the reasons that you don’t want to have a family? For example, are your main reasons for not having a family due to fear about the state of the world or the economy?
Don’t worry, clinical psychologist Dr. Lauren Cook, author of the forthcoming book Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World, has been there. She was originally part of the 37 percent of age 18 to 39-year-olds who did not want to have children, according to a YPulse survey. Her anxiety around illness (specifically emetophobia, a fear of vomiting) and the inevitability of encountering it during pregnancy and while raising young children almost prevented her from starting a family altogether.
Ultimately, Cook did a ton of emotional work to cope with her fear of encountering illness during parenthood, and is now a parent of a two-month-old baby. She emphasizes that parenthood is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Her book discusses ways that anyone who’s a millennial or member of GenZ can cope with any uncertainty and anxiety triggers, whatever they may be.
Below, Cook shares more about her own experience with debilitating anxiety, working with her own therapist, and how to get to a point of acceptance of the uncertain nature of our world today.
SheKnows: Since DINK seems like an attractive lifestyle, how can millennials evaluate their values about whether or not they want to have children?
Lauren Cook: In the book I include a whole values sorting exercise. If you ask people, “What are your top 10 values?” that’s a good place to start. Is anxiety determining the outcome to have a child or not, to get married, to move, etc.? Anxiety might be calling the shot on a major life decision, with thoughts like, I’m afraid I won’t be a good enough parent, I worry I won’t be able to balance work and having a family, or I’m afraid of being sick, which is a really big thing that stopped me from having kids for a long time.
It’s totally fine if you don’t want to have kids because you just don’t like them or that’s not one of your values in life. But I think we have become increasingly uncomfortable being uncomfortable. Having children is not always a comfy experience. I always say, “values induction is not about pain reduction.” Living out your values is not always a pain-free option. A good question to ask yourself is, “Looking back on my life, would I have any regrets not doing x, y , or z?”
SheKnows: Aren’t societal expectations to have a partner or support system a factor in this choice to become a parent too?
LC: I think community is a factor in this decision. We have to be really real and honest in that. There is a privilege in being able to have that community. My partner and I have so much respect for people who do this without having a partner; it’s really hard work. You have to be honest with yourself about the financial aspect and having that support too.
There are a lot of different moving pieces. Values are really important in this decision, but built-in support and logistics are equally important. Many people identifying as women are not finding that support that they want to have, and that can lead to emotional difficulties in wanting to raise a family.
SheKnows: Could you share more about your story — did you try to get pregnant, after deciding it was the right choice, or did you find yourself pregnant and have to reckon with all this anxiety at that point?
LC: I really wanted to do a lot of work on myself before getting pregnant. Before this, if I thought I was going to be sick, I’d have full-blown panic attacks. I thought, how am I going to deal with morning sickness? Preparing to have a family was definitely a conscious choice.
I did a lot of Exposure and Response Prevention work [a type of therapy that involves facing the fear or objects of phobia head-on], which is really the most recommended treatment for this type of anxiety. It’s not a fun and easy treatment. It started with my therapist’s recommendations of watching YouTube videos and listening to sounds of people throwing up, which helps you get more comfortable with and face the fear. I kept reiterating that the world didn’t end when I watched someone get sick. That helped me build my bandwidth in dealing with it.
Sometimes, anticipatory anxiety is so much worse than the actual experience. I did actually throw up once during the pregnancy, and the anticipation of getting sick was so much worse than the actual reality. I had almost a sense of pride afterward, that I went through this and got to the other side of facing the fear. I didn’t let the anxiety win. And it’s all worth it in the end: I’m so glad I have my son.
That being said, I know how debilitating these fears are. I have a lot of empathy and compassion for anyone who deals with this kind of anxiety.
SheKnows: Can you add some tips on working through your fear that might be universally applicable to all types of anxiety that’s stopping people from becoming a parent?
LC: While I have done a lot of talk therapy, I also advocate for holistic healing and looking at the whole body. My naturopathic doctor has also been instrumental in helping resolve my panic attacks. I recommend getting your bloodwork done, because you could have a vitamin D deficiency or another nutritional deficiency that might affect your mental health. Once I started working with a naturopathic doctor and taking supplements, I haven’t had a panic attack in 3 years. It’s important to use different techniques and possibly even try practices outside of Western medicine, whether it’s acupuncture, reiki, etc., to see if they might work for you.
SheKnows: What do you respond to people when they list other “fears” about not starting a family, such as climate change, the economy, or school shootings being so rampant?
LC: I definitely want to validate all of these fears. We’re having an appropriate reaction to all of those things: We’re inundated with news about the climate that can’t be ignored, inundated with mass shootings, and everywhere feels unsafe in a lot of ways. Half of Americans know someone who’s been impacted by gun violence. There’s no place that feels untouched in this country. It makes sense that we’re feeling this anxiety. We have to validate that.
At the same time, there’s also the concept of empowered acceptance. We have to have acceptance of the world we live in. We can’t have our head in the sand and have to stay informed. For some people, that may be the choice to not have children. In that case, how can we be empowered citizens? That could mean going to a protest or getting involved in activism in some way. Gen Z in particular, they are awesome advocates and activists as a whole, which is definitely something that we can all learn from.
For others, it could be raising children who are contributing citizens who want to make a difference. We can be a part of raising them directly, or be supportive as community members if we choose not to have children. I think that’s where we can all leave our handprints in the process.
SheKnows: How does your book address all types of anxiety for millennials, even if it’s not around becoming a parent or current events?
LC: The big point to reiterate here is to not let the discomfort of being a parent, or any other anxiety, be the focal point. No one told me how amazing it’d be to be a parent until I was already a parent and on the ride. I found that really interesting that I didn’t really hear that encouragement around having a family until I was in it. Yes, it’s really hard, but really great, absolutely amazing. Like everything in life, it’s a both/and: tough and also absolutely incredible.
In general, we have to not make our decisions out of an avoidance of pain, and more based on what feels aligned with your values.
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