You want kids; your partner doesn't. Or your partner wants kids, and you don't. Whatever the scenario, few subjects are as emotionally charged and potentially deal-breaking in a relationship as a disagreement over the decision to become parents.
The Sugars take on this tricky topic with the help of Danielle Herzog, who wrote about ending her own marriage to become a mother for Parenting.com.
This episode was originally published on March 22nd, 2017.
I am a 34-year-old woman who has been happily married for 5 years. My husband and I are both in the military and have made it through six deployments while together. Currently, I am transitioning out of the military and trying to figure out what career to pursue. My husband sees this transition period as a great time to have children and start a family. I, however, do not want children. He has always known how I feel about kids, but I think he got married to me with the idea that he could change my mind, or that biology would flip some switch and I would want to have kids. It hasn’t. I feel horrible that I can’t give him what he wants. I feel that there is something wrong with me that I don’t want kids. All women are supposed to want kids. Why don’t I?
I have thought that I should just have a baby for my husband, but I know that is a terrible idea. I don’t want to feel resentful towards him or the child, and I have told him as much. This has become a deep source of conflict in our marriage and I am completely to blame. Sugars, I love my husband and our life together and don’t want anything to change. Please, help me figure out what to do. Do I have a baby anyway, or do I let my husband go so he can get what he wants?
Baby or Bust?
Cheryl Strayed: Baby or Bust, is that you are not completely to blame. We must not blame ourselves for the ways we want to live our lives. You told your husband from the outset that you didn't want kids. Now, he’s also not to blame for thinking you might change your mind. You’re 34 years old, you’ve been married since you were about 29 — a lot of people do change during those years. It’s not completely unreasonable that he might think you were going to be open to the idea of motherhood someday, but you never said you would be. You're not going to get anywhere by beating yourself up about not wanting kids. It isn’t true that all women want kids. So let’s get rid of that blame and shame piece.
Steve Almond: The most unsettling two words in this letter to me are, “I think.” “But I think he got married to me with the idea that he could change my mind.” This is part of what’s so difficult about the letters we’re encountering — it’s not a situation where the marriage is necessarily going to survive. You can’t therapize it away. This is a strong impulse within one partner for a particular, intense experience, and the other partner feeling differently. No one is to blame, but it started with a set of unspoken wishes that weren’t articulated at a crucial moment. You can’t assume about something as huge and fundamental as the decision to have kids. The real question you face is a long conversation with your husband about the sort of life you want to lead and the kind of life he wants to lead, and whether those two are compatible.
Cheryl: You signed your letter "Baby or Bust." You are at that moment in your life. Either this relationship needs to end so your husband can go pursue the opportunity to become a father with someone else, or maybe by himself, or you need to come to some terms in your relationship where your husband can accept that you are not going to become a mother and you’re not willing, it sounds to me, to save your marriage by having a baby that you really don’t want.
Steve: We should emphasize, you should not have a baby that you don’t want. Baby or Bust, you may love your husband and your marriage, but what you really love are the current circumstances. What you want is for things to not change. The moment that you become pregnant, everything does change — not in a ruinous way, but in a way that might not be the experience that you want out of your life.
Cheryl: I agree with that entirely. I will say, some people are ambivalent about having kids. There’s this little piece of them that is willing to explore the idea because their partner wants them to. I don’t think that’s always a bad idea. In that case, I say, really explore what it is you want. And ideally, if you’re in a partnership, do it with your partner. Articulate your fears, your feelings and your desires, because that’s the only way we can really go forward with those big decisions.
Steve: One of the things in your letter that I wonder about, Baby or Bust, is that part of the experience of being a parent might be the particular way it would operate in your lives. You say that you are transitioning out of the military and trying to figure out what career to pursue. So your husband is still in the military. So implicitly, the way that motherhood and parenting would take shape in your family would be that you would be the stay-at-home mom, and he would be in the military doing a job. It might be that you don’t want kids period. But it might be the context in which it’s presented. You need to be able to make a distinction between those two, and make it for your husband.
Cheryl: Baby or Bust, we wish you luck. This is a really big decision you are in the midst of making, and I encourage you to face it head on. It’s not going to be easy, but you and your husband are both going to be the better for it.
I am in quite a jam. Two years ago, at the age of 36, I met a young man of 22. Yes, that’s a 14-year age gap.
Three weeks after that first encounter, we traveled to Mexico, spent the following three months living in L.A. (both of us completely broke, I should add), and then moved back to our home of New York City and into our first apartment together.
Over these years together, we have grown to truly appreciate each other’s differences, adore and applaud each other’s ideas and successes, and work through our challenges in a respectful, kind and loving manner. We’re the envy of our friends, and our families are thrilled to see how happy we make each other.
Our love is unwavering, honest, reciprocal and exciting. He’s exceptional at understanding and supporting my 38 year-old needs, and I am patient and understanding toward his.
But with this big, safe, secure love, has come a desire to finally become a mother.
I’ve always looked forward to having children. A nurturer at heart, I assumed I’d be a young mom, but after a tumultuous and co-dependent 10-year relationship that lasted through my twenties, motherhood never felt right.
Now it does. And it’s well and truly time for me. The thing is, it’s not time for him.
Now, almost 25 years young, my guy is still searching for his dream job. He’s still finding himself, exploring friendships and discovering the hardships and treasures of life. In other words, he’s busy being a young man.
I’m in an emotional quandary, because I don’t want to rush the issue of parenthood with him, but, thanks to biology, I don’t have a choice.
I am a successful writer and creative director and have, in the past two years, saved a large sum of money — enough to buy an apartment and ensure security for the next couple of years. So financially speaking, we are good. I’m also in excellent health. I’m remarkably young-looking for my age, highly energetic and fit as a fiddle.
I don’t want my boyfriend to feel pressure or obligation, and I don’t want him to have to give up his goals and dreams, but the truth is, he will never earn as much as I do, nor reach my level of success with a career.
If I were single, without a doubt in my mind, I’d find a way to have a child immediately, whether through sperm donation or a friend. But I’m in real, serious, beautiful love with this person, and he is in real, serious, beautiful love with me.
We’ve had a couple of tense, but adult conversations about it, and he’s firmly but kindly stated his feelings against fatherhood for the unforeseeable future. He’s just not ready.
At almost 39, I don’t have time to wait for him to come around. Freezing eggs isn’t an option for me either, because time-wise, I just don’t want to get any older before I become a first-time mother.
Aside from just going ahead and falling pregnant without his full approval, I really don’t know what to do. What would YOU do?
Age Doesn’t Matter Until It Does
Steve: This is tough. Biologically, she’s quite realistic in saying,"This is an experience that I want to have now, not later." If that’s the case, Age Doesn’t Matter Until It Does, then you have what sounds like a fairly stark choice: do you want the experience of having a child and being a mom, or do you want this love? It’s almost, "no hard feelings," except that it’s impossible not to feel heartbroken and shattered at having to choose one kind of wonderful experience and, by choosing, lose the other.
Cheryl: I think she should get pregnant. I think she should go to the sperm bank and get pregnant. Age Doesn’t Matter Until It Does, what you’re saying is, you absolutely know you want to be a mother, and I agree with you that you are running out of time. If you’re so clear that you want to be a mother, you should become a mother. I also completely get why your partner doesn’t want to be a father at the age of 25, but isn’t part of his obligation to you as a partner to not stand in the way of you fulfilling what I think is one of the biggest desires in your life?
Steve: I would further interrogate the question of whether it’s being in a secure, loving relationship that feels crucial to the mixture. That is, the reality of getting pregnant is something you have to be ready to do on your own. It’s a setup for both of you if you’re not perfectly clear in your own mind that this is an experience that you want enough that you’re prepared to do it, not entirely on your own, but without the kind of love and support and companionship and all the wonderful things that you’ve been getting in this relationship. That’s a terrible thing to have to face, but it would be even more terrible to foster the illusion that somehow his mind will change if you get pregnant.
Cheryl: She says, “If I were single, without a doubt in my mind, I’d find a way to have a way to have a baby.” That’s the big thing that gives me clarity when I think about how to give this woman advice. We know for sure that she wants to become a mother, and, if that is the case, I think this relationship has to fall around that. Maybe that means they break up, or maybe they stay together in some fashion and then break up because he isn’t really signed up for this, or maybe he’s like, "I love the baby too, even though it’s not biologically my baby." There are all these different scenarios. But the one scenario that will be true is the scenario that you want to be true the most, which is that you have a baby and you are a mother.
Steve: The underlying issue is, people are frightened of change. And yet, you start to lose yourself if you ignore what your real desires are in life. Age Doesn't Matter Until It Does, I think you need to make this decision sooner rather than later. Waiting is a sort of passive way of letting circumstances decide for you.
Danielle Herzog: I married someone when I was in my early 20's, and I thought I didn’t want to have children. I didn’t want to be responsible for anybody. And I met someone who was very different from me, but who shared that view. Two years after getting married, something started to change in me. I fought it for a long time, thinking it was just hormones telling me I wanted to have kids. But eventually, I said, "I think I want to have children and settle down." My husband at the time wasn’t there and didn’t want those things. So we were at an impasse. We split, and I thought, "Maybe I want him back, and maybe we should fight for each other." I walked by a cemetery and saw a headstone of a husband and wife that read, “Just the two of us.” It broke my heart. I didn’t want my life to end with me. That's when I knew that this marriage and this part of my life was over. The irony is, my ex-husband and I are both now married to other people, and we both have children. So I think, you might think you want this, and it might feel so definitive in that moment, but it might be because of the person you’re with and the time period of your life. Just because I loved my ex-husband didn't mean that we were the right companions for each other.
Cheryl: And not every relationship, even if it’s a great one, is fit for the long haul. I think we often forget to think about romantic love in such practical terms. Sometimes you have to say, "This was wonderful, but now it has to end so I can live the life I want to live, and you can live the life you want, too." That’s not a failure. It can be painful, but it’s usually more painful not to make those choices.
I fear that my desire to be a mom will ultimately end my marriage. I am a 34-year-old woman married to a lovely, caring, supportive man. We have been together for almost a decade. We always had plans for a family, but had agreed to wait until I was close to finishing my post-graduate studies. He is eight years older than me and had more urgency to start a family than I was comfortable with. We discussed and agreed on a time to "let nature happen."
I will spare you the details, but what followed was multiple miscarriages, endless doctors and tests. The doctors don’t know what’s wrong. They say they think it’s “just bad luck." While these experiences were crushing, I continued working on my professional and personal goals, and I have processed my grief over not being able to carry a baby to term. I never envisioned my life without children. I am now comfortable with the idea of providing a loving home for one of the many children in need of love in the world.
My husband, on the other hand, is not interested in raising any children that aren't his biologically. I’ve brought up the subject in a variety of ways, but he is opposed to even the discussion of adopting a child. He says he would rather it just be the two of us than adopt. This breaks my heart. I know there is still a possibility of me carrying a pregnancy to term at some point, but without knowing what is wrong and the risks increasing with age, I'm terrified of having another miscarriage.
My husband wants to be "more aggressive," which would mean subjecting myself to hormones and blood thinners for no indication other than wishful thinking. I've been through it, and it was too physically and emotionally taxing.
Could it be this is the deal-breaker? How can I convince my husband that the traditional model of having a baby is not the only way to make a family?
Full of love with empty arms
Steve: This is one where it feels like there’s the possibility of some negotiating space.
Cheryl: They both want to be parents. That’s where I would begin, Full of Love with Empty Arms. You have fears about pursuing it further when it comes to conceiving biologically. They are grounded in reality. You have had miscarriages — it’s a miserable experience. It’s terrifying, it’s sad. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s physically and emotionally difficult. Your husband has fears too, about adoption. You both need to discuss your thoughts, keeping in mind, "We both want to be parents." You’re right that this is a deal breaker — that if your husband will not discuss it, or will not entertain options other than having a biological child, you have every reason to say, "I need to end this relationship so I can pursue motherhood." But I would encourage you strongly to tell your husband that it has reached that kind of breaking point for you.
Steve: And the question for him is, why is he not open to the possibility of raising kids that aren’t biologically his own? He has a right to those feelings, but he also has an obligation to tell you what those feelings are about. You also owe him a further discussion about why you aren’t willing to do any more fertility treatments. It might be that there is, as you discuss it, a little bit of room for you to say for instance, "I’m willing to try treatments for another year, but if that doesn't work, I need you to explore the possibility non-biological parenthood."
Cheryl: Compromise can bond you together. You are giving a little bit to each other for the sake of a common vision. What are you willing to do for each other and to help each other down this path?
Steve: The one common thread I see in all of these letters is that these women have to take ownership of their lives. They have to be willing to say, at the expense of possibly losing very important, powerful lover-relationships, "This is the life I want, and here’s what I’m willing to sacrifice in order to make that happen."