My Partner Never Wanted Parenthood, and Now He Wants to Leave

I don't want him to leave us

mom tossing her kid in the air

Q: Though my husband had expressed so many times that he wanted kids as soon as possible and encouraged me to go off the birth control that was giving me bad side effects, he seemed shocked when I actually got pregnant. He grew cold and withdrawn and participated very little in doctor appointments.

Just when he seemed to be warming up and getting excited about preparations, we got the news that we were expecting a child that would have lifelong special medical and developmental needs. He wanted to terminate, I didn’t. It’s my body, so we moved forward. He fought me on everything, preparing a nursery, throwing a shower, buying a crib for the child to sleep in. Things were not good, but I prayed that when he saw our child he would fall in love and we would somehow get through this.

Our child was born, and we both fell in love. He is the most beautiful, amazing baby. He also has serious recurring medical issues that have required surgery, hospitalizations, and lots of doctors. My husband has been an emotional mess through it all. I have had to handle everything involving our son’s health and development, in addition to so much of the childcare, myself. I cannot break down or cry to my husband because I hear only slightly gentler (and sometimes not) variants of “I told you so.” At one point, it finally got so bad that I told him to leave. I had hoped he would love us enough to fight to come back. He hasn’t. Now he says that he wants a divorce. He has not filed, he said he wants to do it collaboratively. I haven’t cooperated because I think a divorce is premature. So we’re just stuck.

I believe that my husband has a chronic, biochemical, and stress-triggered depression. Only some of this is armchair diagnosis; he is seeing a therapist and has been diagnosed with depression. But where he believes he is just depressed because of the situation—having a medically fragile child—I am realizing, in retrospect, that I have seen some glimpses of the symptoms throughout our relationship, and from stories he has told me about his growing up years.

I have only recently started reading literature on depression and partners with depression, and realize that a lot of the things I said and did when I was so angry and frustrated at not getting any emotional support while I did this very big thing—bring life into the world—were very wrong. I can’t be too hard on myself about that; I had my own prenatal and postpartum mental health shit I was dealing with. I was also sad and scared. I knew that this more-fragile-than-most baby’s life depended on me, and I had to prioritize that. Now that the baby is older and doing well, that I kind of know what I am doing as a mom and have had some space, I feel like I could do better as a wife, like we could still have a chance.

Some people have told me not to believe anything a person who is this severely depressed says, that part of the illness is fantasies of escape. But if I can’t believe what he says, I don’t know what I am supposed to believe. I can’t seem to get past my utter bewilderment that this has all happened so early into a marriage that I thought was this great love story for the ages, so many years into a friendship that had revealed I thought everything about us to one another. Maybe that misbelief is what is keeping me hoping. Maybe it’s the difficulty of facing life as a single mother of a child with labor-intensive special needs (when he was home, my husband did help a lot with the baby in very physical and concrete ways, if not emotionally). Maybe it’s love, though that love is more for the memory of who he was and belief in who he can be than anything I know right now.

Where he always talked about divorce as an option, I approached marriage as a forever thing. I think I took this for granted, so I didn’t see it coming that he would quit when it got really rough. I am not quite ready to give up. I feel like there are so many things, so many suggestions we have never tried, and I’ll always wonder, what if we had done this or that? We will have so much to work through to resolve our conflicts just to co-parent this child. I feel like we could put that work into getting healthy, both of us, and keeping the family intact. But if he has already made a decision, do I even have a choice? But if he has made a decision but won’t do anything about it without my cooperation, what am I supposed to do? Stay here in limbo, call his bluff? Give up, file, and try to move on with my life? Say no and fight for it? What would fight for it even look like with serious mental health issues involved? And looking at everything that has happened, does it even seem worth it?

—Anonymous

A:

Dear Anonymous,

This is a whole lot to handle all at once, and you’re being pretty dang gracious about it. I’m not sure that I could. You mention that you think divorce is premature. What steps would you go through first? What do you think would need to happen before you’d consider it time to throw in the towel? Are there avenues you haven’t exhausted yet?

Typically, this is where I’d suggest couples counseling, but it sounds like he won’t go for that (I mean, it sounds like he’s got divorce papers on his desk). Instead, you may want to talk to someone solo. This is a really heavy load, made heavier by the fact that you’re shouldering it alone. You’re co-parenting with a parent who never wanted to parent this specific child, which frankly, sounds nightmarish. On top of that, it sounds like you’re not in a place where you can really express your emotions, let alone process them (I don’t think I need to tell you how unhealthy that is). And motherhood alone can default to emotionally stifling, but especially when you’re caring for a child with health difficulties. There are a lot of hard things to do, and not much room to admit how hard it is without the added burden of guilt for feeling that way. Lady, you deserve some room to process all of this.

Because of your specific situation, I asked our managing editor, Stephanie, for her thoughts since she has a kid who has medical conditions and hence has a more experienced perspective. She offers:

Life with disability is a spectrum, and I think that’s something that you don’t really get until disability is intimately introduced in your own life. The second you think you have a handle on something, it all changes. So I think when you’re considering what you do and don’t want to happen with your marriage, you need to also keep in mind that your son is possibly facing long-term health concerns, and if your husband isn’t in now… he might never be.

You don’t throw out, “I told you so,” when faced with a seemingly insurmountable, definitely overwhelming parenting situation. At least, you don’t throw it out there if you’re invested in your family. There are no “I told you sos” in a parenting partnership, especially not when you’re parenting a child who is so wholly reliant on you.

The one point you make is unfortunately all too correct. If he’s decided he’s done, there’s not much else you can do about it. It’s silly (and exhausting and unfair) to try to carry on a one-sided marriage with the spouse equivalent of a flopping rag doll. You absolutely can get back on track, work through some things, figure out some issues. But both of you have to commit to that. It’s not a burden I’d advise you to carry solo. Depression is hard, conceded. That’s why there are treatments and professionals and things to help a person work through living with it. If he’s not willing to do that, there’s not much else to do. You’re a strong lady, but you can’t overcome his depression for him.

And you truly are strong. You’ve basically single-handedly raised a kid who needed so much. You’ve handled pregnancy and postpartum and figuring out how to care for a baby essentially by yourself, and while a dead weight was tied to you. Would it be hard to raise your son as a single parent? Sure, I bet it would. But as hard as being a functionally single parent who is perpetually let down by an emotionally absent parent? I’ll guess not. In light of that, I’m confident that no matter what happens, you’ll be okay.

I know you can get through this, whether he’s there with you at the end, or not.

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