Q: My partner and I have been together nearly six years. We love each other and are both very committed to making the relationship work. Here’s the thing, though: I definitely want children, and he’s still deciding. I love him so much, but kids (or the lack thereof) are a deal breaker. I don’t want to continue the relationship (as painful as it is to say) if he never wants to have children.
He’s started speaking to a psychologist about it, which is great. My problem is that I keep hoping he’ll come back one night saying, “We worked through all my fears and now I’m definitely ready to make a baby,” which I know is unrealistic at best.
So the question: How long do I wait? What if he never decides? A “no, never” is painful, but at least it’s clear. “I think so, in the future, but not now” was fine three years ago when kids first came up, but it isn’t enough anymore. I’m ready for kids now, but would be happy to wait up to five years until he’s ready… as long as I’m not just waiting on a “maybe.”
How do I stay sane, support him, and keep our relationship strong when we both know that we’ll beak up if he makes a particular decision? And, if years go by and he still hasn’t made a decision, how will I know when it’s the right time to give up hope? How will I have the strength to leave someone I love?
— Anxiously Waiting and Wanting
A: Dear AWW,
Many moons ago, I met the guy I would marry and within hours of our first chat, he told me he didn’t want kids. This was late 2006, and I hadn’t yet been introduced to the term “Child-Free.” I also didn’t yet realize that when someone says they don’t want to have kids, they almost always mean it, so I plunged into our whirlwind relationship (fifteen weeks of dating followed by a courthouse elopement) assuming that he’d change his mind. Why did I have this assumption? Because I knew I wanted kids, and part of what attracted me to my husband was how good of a father I knew he would be. I knew he was the kind of influence I would want on my child, the kind of partner I could successfully co-parent with, and the kind of husband who would be supportive.
And you know what? I was right about him. We have a now seven-year-old son who we both love to pieces, and my husband was nothing but excited from the very beginning (FYI, having a baby was his idea). But within months of our son’s birth, my husband calmly told me that there was no way he was interested in having a second child. It’s not that he didn’t love being a parent, and it’s not that he didn’t love me, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was done with one. In other words, he knew his limit.
A few months later I started editing a now-defunct parenting site, and the term Child-Free became part of my vocabulary. I found myself regularly—and fiercely—defending the Child-Free online and off. What once seemed so alien to me (a la, “Who wouldn’t want kids?”) started to become something I could at least understand, even if I couldn’t relate. Even though my husband was in the “one child only” camp, I still wrestled with the idea of having more (much to the detriment of our marriage), before ultimately arriving at a happy place with the family that I have.
Now is a great time to ask why I’ve spent three paragraphs making this about me and not you. Here’s why: sure, my husband changed his mind, but he did so a handful of months after we got married, and we conceived our child a year and a half after the date (which means about two years after we got together). It didn’t take him years to arrive at a point at which he knew he wanted kids… it was more like it took him a few months into our relationship to arrive at a point at which he realized he did want one kid—he just didn’t want a kid with any of his exes. In other words, he was open to parenthood with me, but not necessarily with anyone he had dated before me.
If you are in a position to be able to make the choice yourself (aka, parenthood isn’t foisted upon you due to circumstances beyond your control), then I think deciding that you want kids is not a decision to be taken lightly. Likewise, deciding that you definitely DO NOT want kids should be taken equally seriously. You guys have been together six years and you say he’s still deciding, but the way it sounds to me is that he’s already decided—he’s just waiting for you to make YOUR decision about the future of your relationship.
Of course, things are unpredictable, and it’s entirely possible that one day soon he’ll decide that in fact, he does want kids after all. Or maybe he’ll decide he’s not sure, but he’s willing to have a kid because he loves you so much, and he knows you want a child badly. And if that does happen, there’s no rule that says he won’t end up wildly happy you both dove into parenthood together (it definitely happens)… but what I keep coming back to is that you’ve already been having this chat for six years, and that’s a pretty long time to waffle.
I know that letting go of someone you love while you still love them is the worst. It truly, truly sucks. But you’re talking about being open to spending another five years letting him make up his mind—making it eleven years total that you’re still not becoming a parent, and that’s just a long, long time. Ask yourself this: Is having a child more important to you than being with him? Is it fair to either of you to put off what sounds like an inevitable decision? Or would you rather take the painful path now, break up, and eventually open yourselves up to partners who see eye-to-eye on all of your important issues?
If having a child is the deal breaker that you say it is, then I think you know what you’d rather do with those five years. You could do all kinds of things with them, like meet someone new. You could even meet someone and have a kid in that time span. Likewise, your partner could also move on and meet someone who agrees with him on the kid/no kid issue. You both could move forward and live the life you’re each imagining—but not with one another. I don’t think he’s a bad person for not wanting kids (like I don’t think you are for wanting them), but I do think that his answer is clear… and that it has been for a long time.
I’m not saying that every relationship should end over the kid/no kid question, and I sincerely hope that people chime in with responses with many examples of happy situations that have grown out of the crossroads you find yourselves at. I think, ultimately, you have to know what is possible for you, and what your limits are.
The ache of not having a child when all you want in the world is to have one is a very real, very painful thing (and having a kid you don’t want just to keep your partner happy is, too). It sounds like you already know that’s not an ache you want to live with for much longer, so now it’s just time to admit it to yourself.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)