You’re deeply in love. You’ve found your life mate and are confident that your future will be wonderful. It’s time to buy the rings. Marriage hovers at your horizon, like a gorgeous sunset.
But there is one teeny problem—really teeny and really giant at the same time. Teeny because it’s about a baby. Giant because this disagreement could mean curtains for your relationship. One of you wants a baby, the other doesn’t.
“No problem,” you might say. “I just know he’ll change his mind. He’s great with his nieces and nephews. Because he loves me and knows how much I want this, he’ll say yes when the time is right.”
“Not to worry,” you might say. “She says she wants a child, but the craving will pass when her newborn niece gets older. She’s always said she didn’t think she could handle children. She works long hours and then heads for the gym. Because she loves me and gets it that don’t I want a family, she’ll change her mind.”
(Please excuse the stereotypes. Many men want children, many women don’t. This example is typical, not universal.)
Often when a couple disagrees, a compromise can solve the problem. But you can’t have half a baby or be parents in odd numbered years and childless/childfree in even numbered years. How can you solve the problem?
The good news is that it’s not unusual for someone to change his or her mind.
Partners who have never spent time around young children may fall in love with a friend’s child and imagine themselves as a parent for the first time. A partner who would prefer to have a child but whose work, health, or extended family demands make parenthood less attractive may agree to remain childfree.
These changes can happen , but you can’t count on them. Any possible scenarios, depending on personal histories and experiences, could emerge, and suddenly having children will simply not be an option.
The husband with teenagers from another relationship, who said he couldn’t imagine starting over with a second family, not only didn’t change his mind, but also has a chronic illness or college tuition, or a troublesome relationship with a young adult to reckon with. Not only is the answer still “No,” but now it’s in flashing neon. A baby would be even more stressful on the marriage.
The wife who raised five younger siblings because of her parents’ addiction, who had therapy that was supposed to prepare her for a family, concludes with her husband and her therapist, that her breakthroughs, though wonderful, are too fragile for the stresses of motherhood.
Or the wife who loved her husband so much that she told him, “You’ll always be enough for me,” but after her mother’s death and niece’s birth, dreams of babies every night.
Given how much you are in love, that you don’t have a crystal ball, that you don’t want your partner to be miserable, should you marry anyway?
Take with a grain of salt anyone who offers easy answers.
Some people will tell you, “It’s obvious. Don’t get married. Find a partner who feels the way you do.” But maybe this person is your best possible life partner, and giving him or her up might turn out to be an even greater loss than not getting your way on the baby question.
Others will say, “It’s obvious. The other person will come around. Everybody should want children and those who don’t are being immature. Go ahead and marry.” But many responsible people don’t have children, and there has been research that says childfree couples have some of the happiest marriages.
Still others will say, “Love conquers all. You’ll find a solution that works for both of you.” Your family and friends mean well, as do therapists. But only you can decide what’s best for the two of you. If you are ambivalent about parenthood and can imagine a happy life accepting your partner’s choice, then your marriage has a reasonable chance of working out.
Ask yourselves four questions:
- Are we exaggerating the likelihood that we might accept the other’s choice, because we can’t stand the idea of breaking up? Is at least one of us relatively confident that he or she can say, “Yes,” to the other’s choice?
- If my partner never changes her or his mind, and I wind up childless/ raising a child I would have preferred not to have, could I adapt to my partner’s choice?
- Is marrying my beloved more important to me than whether or not we have a child? How might I/we make life enjoyable if I have to make the best of my partner’s choice?
- Which would be more painful—realizing that this issue is a dealbreaker and breaking up to search for a partner who shares your parenting goals, or granting your partner’s wish?
What if you decide to go ahead and marry, without any reassuring answers to the questions above, hoping that love will find a way? Choose a specific time to check in with each other in the future about where you stand.
If you’re in your 20s, you can plan to re-evaluate in a few years, after you’re further into your relationship. If you still disagree then, see a therapist who specializes in short-term, goal-oriented treatment of fertility issues.
However, if you are in your 30s or 40s, you will need to be more proactive. See a fertility therapist before your wedding date. You may want to do some noninvasive fertility testing to find out if your fertility is waning. Try not to delay your decision for so long that if you decide to have a child, this may no longer be biologically possible.
Ways that therapy could help:
- Give you a chance to fully listen to each other, and to understand that something you especially love about your partner may actually be a reason for the other’s choice. For instance, you may love that your partner provides care to severely ill children, and realize that parenthood would mean no night or weekend respite.
- If you seem to be totally opposed, and neither of you can imagine changing your mind, your therapist can give you homework assignments to learn more about parenting or the childfree lifestyle and how your partner could make the choice more palatable to you. If one of you is going to give up your preferred choice for the sake of the relationship, it will be important to know that your spouse made every effort to accept your choice. Read books on the topic, attend workshops, and consider interviewing friends on what they like or don’t like about parenting or being childfree.
- Help you sort out whether you are totally opposed to your partner’s wish or whether changing your mind might be possible.
Other Tips for Resolving the Conflict with Your Partner
Use therapy strategically. Make sure your therapist respects the childfree choice as well as parenting. Don’t be afraid to ask about this before making an appointment. You also want someone who is skilled in short-term, goal-directed couples work, has experience with fertility decisions, and can give you food for thought and homework assignments.
With this skill set, your therapist can offer you the best use of your time and money. It may make sense, after a few weekly visits to get some momentum, to spread out your visits so you have time for reflection and homework.
Speak up if you think the therapist is getting sidetracked by your past. While it may be relevant to discuss your family history, you need therapy that focuses on the tasks at hand: couples communication and decision-making. If you, your partner, or your therapist thinks you are too overcome with emotion related to your childhood or a condition such as depression, get a referral to a different therapist and work with that person individually.
Commit to working together, especially if you decide to get married anyway before finding resolution. Be aware that you are giving higher priority to the relationship than to whether you get what you want regarding a child, and work toward a future solution.
Think “child,” not “children.” Having one child can be a great solution for people who want to experience the joys of parenting without being confined to their homes for years, or having to deal with sibling rivalry. Despite stereotypes, children in one-child families are happier than the rest of us, according to extensive research.
Ask your partner for ideas about how your solution could be made more palatable. Some women agree to take on the major responsibility for parenting–even if this compromises a couple’s nonsexist ethics. Many women see this as a choice to have the pleasures of motherhood rather than absolute social justice.
Some men who persuade their wives to forego motherhood are appropriately gracious about making other sacrifices: “We’ll move to Florence for you to study art for two years, even though it will be expensive.” Or, “I won’t complain if you want to spend Saturdays with your nieces and nephews.”
Treat your partner as the person you love, in all his/her uniqueness, which may include a different take on parenthood. He or she is more than an obstacle to your parenting or childfree goal. Theologian Martin Buber distinguished between “I-Thou” relationships—in which we experience and honor the person in their fullness of being—and “I-It” relationships, in which the other person exists in our minds only as a facilitator of or an obstacle to our goals. The “I-Thou,” qualities of listening and respect are the essence of loving each other. They will bring pleasure and meaning to your life as parents or a family of two.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Merle Ann Bombardieri, MSW, LICSW, ACHP-SW
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