33-year-old Olive and her boyfriend dated for two years before they seriously discussed the topic of kids. Sure, there were casual mentions: they joked about moving to an apartment with an extra room; he had made some vague comments that seemed to indicate that one day, he’d want to be a dad. It wasn’t until Olive was diagnosed with PCOS, the most common cause of female infertility, that she began to realize how badly she wanted children. When she had a PCOS-related surgery — one that could make it more challenging, or even impossible, to conceive — she decided to broach the subject.
He did not want children. She knew that she did. They stayed together because they were happy and in love, but she found herself anxious and unsettled. “I was making excuses rather than doing the adult thing and putting in the hard work to get what I really want.” After six months of trying to make things work, of wrestling with her wants versus his while wondering if she should be the one to change, and of being terrified to raise the issue again lest he give her an answer she didn’t want to hear, Olive finally realized that she’d rather be a mother than stay with her boyfriend. Heartbroken but convicted, she brought it up one last time. His decision was final, and she ended things.
“I was crushed and depressed,” she told me. “This is the person I love, but we are not going in same direction. I really wanted to be honest and prioritize my needs. I’m not 24. I don’t have 10 years to figure this out. I felt like I was cheating myself, and I’m working on being more assertive. I said, ‘We’ve been very clear about what we want. This is not an ultimatum, and I’m not mad. I still love you, but both of us have to choose what we want with our lives.’ It was a really hard thing to ask myself: What’s more important, this relationship and this person, or a family?”
Johanna, a 29-year-old who lives in upstate New York, has known that she does not want children since she was in college. As she’s gotten older and more confident in her decision, she’s found the conversation easier to have.
“I’ve had the ‘kids discussion’ come up on first dates and agreed with the guy during the appetizer course that we could never work long-term. I’ve found that they usually appreciate the honesty.”
The breakups still sting, though. She’d been dating her ex-boyfriend for three months when the topic first came up. He wanted kids and talked about them often: what sports they’d play, how he’d parent. She didn’t, and they agreed it wouldn’t work, so they ended it. “This was my first ‘adult’ relationship where I had to actually weigh the children issue. I moped around for three days after. I had long talks with my mother (who has four children and lives and breathes for us), and decided that I would give having kids consideration if he would take me back. I went over to his place and explained my thinking and change of heart.”
It wasn’t until five months later — and some serious talks about moving to nearby kid-friendly neighborhoods with good school districts — that she realized something wasn’t right. “I couldn’t put my finger on my unhappiness. One day, I realized that I was really wrestling with the thought of having kids. I sat down with my boyfriend to tell him that, once again, my feelings had changed, this time back to my gut feeling of not wanting kids. This was a deal breaker for him, as I knew. We ended things that afternoon.”
A few weeks later, Johanna’s ex told her that he’d thought a lot about it and if it meant staying with her, he’d be okay not having children. “I know that he absolutely wants kids and will be a tremendous father, so I told him that I wouldn’t accept that mindset. I refused to a) rob him of being a father one day and/or b) run the risk of him eventually being spiteful toward me since I was the one who didn’t want kids. I’ve resigned myself that it could take years before I find my childless Prince Charming, especially where I live. Until then, I’m going to have a damn great time hanging out with myself and my kick-ass friends.”
The only thing Johanna would have done differently is have the conversation earlier.
Olive wishes she did it sooner, too. “It’s the worst situation to be madly in love with someone, two years into building a life together, then this. It’s not easy. The months I spent in purgatory before my final decision, when I was too scared to bring it up — I look back at that time and realize it was unnecessarily challenging and miserable. It didn’t have to be like that.”
Monica Parikh, Founder of School of Love NYC and expert dating coach, believes in having this conversation during what she calls “the negotiation phase” of a relationship. This phase takes place about nine months in, after three months of chemical attraction followed by three months of “realizing character defects.” The negotiation phase is “where you figure out if you’re going to be in a long-term partnership.”
If one partner resists, Parikh suggests first finding out the root of the hesitation. Is it about career? Does he or she believe that kids will get in the way? Does one partner worry about shouldering the majority of the caretaking? Is there a way to negotiate or find compromise in these areas? Or is it about fundamental differences? Does someone flat-out not want kids?
The notion that “we’ll figure it out later” is a dangerous one, according to Parikh. There are so many variables that go into making a marriage work and big issues (which include topics like finance sharing, division of labor and sexual expectations) should be addressed early and clearly. Putting off these kinds of conversations to avoid fights or friction causes trouble later on. “You’re either going to have to figure out if your partner can meet your needs, or if you need to get them met somewhere else. You have to really communicate to ensure an alignment of fundamental values.”
Let’s say you’re very much in love with your partner and on a path towards a lifetime commitment. You have had the conversation about kids and it becomes clear that one person wants them and the other does not. Is that a reason to end it? “I think so,” said Parikh. “People who don’t end it have a very romantic and idyllic view of marriage that’s not grounded in reality. Eventually, anger will come out, or resentment. So many pragmatic details have to be right for marriage to succeed. If more people ironed these out sooner, perhaps divorce rates would be lower.”
About three days before my interview with Olive, her ex-boyfriend called her and said that their separation made him rethink things, that maybe he could consider being a father because he wanted to get back together.
“Apparently he’s done some soul searching,” she said. “I don’t know what to think about it yet, mostly because he was so strong in his conviction and hasn’t had that much time to change. It’s only been a couple of weeks. And what does it mean that we had this intense conversation a couple of times and her never ‘really’ considered it? I don’t want to be with someone who ends up making this decision just so they don’t lose me. I want to know that this is a real long-term change.”
“I feel better about myself and where I’m going than I ever had,” she said. “100% better. Friends and colleagues have even commented on it. I genuinely feel different, less anxious. There’s not a giant pit of despair waiting around the corner. It makes going to all my friends’ weddings and baby showers much easier.”