“Things are really coming together for us,” the man in my office said confidently. “If we can just figure out the kid thing.”
His fiancee nodded.
“The kid thing,” I repeated, turning to her. “I thought you talked about that months ago. You wanted to start a family after finishing business school, right?”
But as it turned out, sometime over the past eight months she had become unsure about having a family. He had chalked it up to her enthusiasm about graduate school and figured she’d change her mind once she finished. But she hadn’t.
By this point, I had been working with this couple for many months. Recently engaged, they were making plans for the holidays with both of their families. They had achieved a lot through therapy, improving their communication as well as their understanding of each other‘s concerns and goals. There were still uncomfortable moments, including when she decided to push the envelope and purchase her own engagement ring. But overall, their relationship was working, and all was good.
A disagreement over whether to have children, however, especially at this stage in a couple’s relationship, is a landmine no therapist can avoid, and I’m grateful to colleagues like Ann Davidman who have developed workshops dedicated to this topic.
It’s already so difficult for some people to decide they can be compatible with someone for the entirety of their lives. They agree to share a household and relatives, perhaps finances. But if a couple cannot come to an agreement on whether or not to have children, this can mean the end of the relationship.
It’s actually quite miraculous that so many couples share the same outlook toward children, now that we have so much freedom to choose. The path toward becoming a parent used to be more straightforward when fewer couples married for love and birth control wasn’t an option. But that was decades ago. Now we have many choices to consider, such as how many kids? When to have them? Who will work? How will they be cared for? These choices are often complex and require careful thought.
Talking About Kids When the Relationship Gets Serious
So what if you and your partner are getting serious about your relationship, thinking you’re headed in the same direction, whether that is “Yes,” “No,” or “Most likely not,” to kids, but you actually have different ideas? Maybe you already had that talk and were on the same page, but since then one of you has moved in another direction while the other’s commitment to their own decision has never been stronger.
The decision to become a parent or remain child-free is personal, and it shouldn’t be compromised for a person who truly wants it (or does not want it). The resentment that often develops when partners cannot agree is a danger to the relationship, and it can be difficult to overcome.
I encourage you to consider the following recommendations. Some of these I have used with couples I have worked with in therapy, while others, I have seen play out successfully in other relationships.
- If you’re confident you want to marry each other, address the topic immediately. Set aside time to do so. Don’t expect it to resolve on its own or assume your partner will simply come to your side of the topic without discussion.
- Set a timeline for yourselves. If you know you want to be a parent, you will most likely want to continue moving forward down that path. Use any method that works to talk through the situation with your partner, but do insist on a method in order to determine if you will stay together. (Ideally this is something you will have worked out prior to becoming married, but even if you are married already, the timeline is still important.)
- Seek support from a third party (someone outside the relationship). This person might be a couples therapist (and couples therapy may be advisable in many cases), but the person could also be a trusted friend, mentor, or spiritual advisor. Instead of rushing to quickly come to a conclusion, try to keep an open mind about your partner’s feelings. Don’t hesitate to discuss parenting with other people you know, and take notes on what sticks with you.
During the decision-making process, consider the following:
- Who do you expect spend time with over the decades of your life? If you and your partner aren’t yet sure whether you will have children or not, envisioning a life with kids versus a life without kids may be helpful. In other words, even if you are currently happy being child-free, remember this is simply your current state and consider the fact that you will be child-free while many of the people in your life will have children. You will be in your 40s, your 50s, your 60s, always without children. Will you be able to go to birthday parties, graduations, and other life events of those you are close to and their children with a partner whose preference to be child-free steered you in that direction when you would have chosen differently?
- Can you settle for your second choice without wistfully seeing your first choice? If you are influenced by your partner’s lack of desire to become a parent, can you accept that decision without looking back? Or might you agree to their preference and then secretly (or not-so-secretly) resent them? If you choose to remain with a partner who doesn’t want children and have no children, or have fewer children than you’d like, you may glimpse an alternate version of your life again and again. You may not be able to fully appreciate this trade-off when you are coming to a decision, but it may be helpful to know, or at least explore, this aspect of yourself as much as possible.
- Bargaining with your partner is generally not a good idea. I have worked with couples who came to therapy on the verge of divorce because they had one more kid then one of them wanted—because the other parent promised to do most of the caretaking. This type of bargaining often causes a lot of resentment. Children are not pets. They are the whole and full responsibility of both parents, regardless of whose heart was in it more. While it may be tempting to bargain your way around your partner’s misgivings, tread lightly in this area. This goes for both partners! If you agree to become a parent, you’re all in. Agreeing to have children doesn’t entitle you to more weekends with your friends, getaway retreats, a new car, or skipping out on taking them to birthday parties. The reluctant partner must be confident they won’t hold their initial preference over their partner (or worse, their kids) and that they can instead find ways to pursue their lives meaningfully according to new and different priorities.
- If you cannot come to an agreement, the best option may be to end the relationship. When you’ve been in a relationship with someone you care about for a certain number of months, even years, you may be reluctant to leave the relationship and start over. You may think the other person will change their mind when they realize how much having kids means to you, or that things will otherwise work out eventually in your favor. But continuing to stay with a partner just because you’ve been with them for a long time, hoping they’ll eventually change their mind, is a sure way to unhappiness.
If you set a timeline and come up with a method (or multiple methods) of discussion, such as couples counseling, weekly relationship meetings, and so on, but reach your timeline without reaching an agreement, I recommend moving on. The decision to become a parent or remain child-free is personal, and it shouldn’t be compromised for a person who truly wants it (or does not want it). The resentment that often develops when partners cannot agree is a danger to the relationship, and it can be difficult to overcome.
I know plenty of child-free individuals who have made peace with their decision not to have children and enjoy their lives very much. Some chose individually to not have children, while others experienced fertility issues, or simply weren’t with the right person at the right time.
I’ve also known several couples who chose to go forward with parenting and have a child even though one of them was quite on the fence about it, and found that the reticent partner was won over by parenthood and wanted more children than the original enthusiastic partner (this includes the couple mentioned above).
Fear is a normal feeling to have about parenthood, but fear is able to be overcome—if there is a willingness to become a parent and an interest in parenthood, rather than a let’s-wait-and-see-how-much-I’ll-like-it approach.
It is also worth keeping in mind that having children is unlikely to turn out exactly how you think it will. As the partner wanting children, you must acknowledge that you might have a daughter when you want a son, or that you might want your child to have siblings when your partner only wants one child. You may have a special needs child or suffer a painful loss.
The choice to have a family involves a large amount of uncertainty, and the ability for your relationship to weather this uncertainty is what I want the people I work with to feel most confident about. Don’t be afraid to ask honest questions of your friends and family about their experiences. Consider what they say carefully, but in the end, trust your instincts. Only you can make this decision for yourself.
Carlini, D. L. & Davidman, A. (2016, November 15). Motherhood: Is it for me? Your step-by-step guide to clarity. York, PA: Transformation Books.
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