When You Want Kids, But Your Partner Doesn’t

What about when you don’t want kids but your partner does?

Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt

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.”

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  • Abby

    I was so 100% no-kids that, when I was still single, I always brought it up on the first date. I would only entertain the thought of guys who were okay with that. My husband was also vehemently 100% no kids.

    We recently started trying for a baby. We are both so 100% YES KIDS. I have no idea what happened that caused this for both of us, but I will say that only regular, open, completely honest communication about the kids thing let us change our minds (me first, him a few months later) without us getting divorced. It can hard to discuss something as sensitive, and for many people deal-breaking, as kids but you gotta do it!

    • Thorhildur Asgeirsdóttir

      This is beautiful! Good luck and warm vibes to you Abby ~ ~

      • Stephanie MacMillan

        That is nice but the vast majority of women who decide not to have kids do not regret their decisions or change their minds.

  • megmary13

    Someone suggested to me bringing this topic up very early in the dating process. At first I was horrified–I’m not sure how I feel about this person, let alone if I want to have kids with them! But then I realized that for me, having a family is not something I’m willing to negotiate. So I started bringing up the topic of kids very early on. My current boyfriend and I talked about it on our 3rd date. And it is something we keep discussing, as our relationship and lives grow and change. As painful as this honest communication can be at times, especially as time goes on and you feel you have more on the line, its necessary.

  • Lindsey

    Three months into dating my now-husband, I randomly told him (while nervously shaking) that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to have kids and if that was a deal breaker for him, I thought he should know now before we got too serious. I was already for sure in love with him, and was terrified of his response, but amazingly, he said the same thing. Now that we’ve been married nearly four years, we’re both feeling much more comfortable with the idea of having kids at some point, but I really think this is only because we both talk about it. Any time we feel a shift in a direction, we bring it up, because being “blindsided” by what seems to be an overnight change of heart is terrible; keeping each other in the loop is what makes it work. I think we probably will have kids, but it’s a decision that is in constant conversation.

  • Caitlin Crow

    Amelia–thank you for writing about this, and for letting us hear an array of voices on the matter. Currently in the “purgatory” phase of being too scared to bring up this topic with my partner…even tho I know it just gets worse and worse and will fester more the longer I wait. : /

  • Lil

    I’m really undecided about kids so by the third or fourth date or whenever I feel a connect with a guy, I’ll bring up heavy topics such as kids and career because I don’t want to waste time with someone who doesn’t have the same wants and needs in life. I think as a society we’re so used to avoiding awkwardness at all costs. When really expressing what you personally want in life is so important.

    You have one life to live.
    No point in waiting and hoping that the person you’re in love with, loves the same major things that you do.

  • Nam Trần

    love your blog ! it looks lovely !
    lò nướng sanaky

  • Emily

    I’m 28 and I still don’t know if I want kids… its terrible but seeing people out with their children, I can’t help but think, god, poor them… i value my freedom too much! I am terrified that its a protection thing for me, incase I find out I can’t have them… but right now I just don’t feel any need for them, or broody in general!

    My partner wants them eventually, and I’m just not sure… which I haven’t told him… maybe I should after reading this article??

    Great article as always Amelia!

  • I was in a similar position to Olive, where I stayed with my ex for a good year too long after I knew we wanted vastly different futures. I’ve always known I want a big family. I think it’s probably easier for women who don’t, because they can continue to live their lives as they wish until they meet the right person, meanwhile my eggs are drying up… It’s frightening to think that I could never get the family I want because of the timing.

  • Laura

    It’s great to hear some real life experiences and considered advice on this issue. But the use of the word “marriage” is somewhat exclusive. Perhaps “partnership” or “relationship” would be better suited here?

  • Nora Friedman

    I’m 38 and in the best relationship of my life. We talked about this issue immediately. I’m for kids all the way, he’s dead set against it, but still we continued to date. Now, 2 1/2 years later we finally hit a road block about two weeks ago. We’re trying to pick up the pieces. We’re going to go to counseling and I’m trying to envision a third way – maybe shacking up with some other single women who want kids and doing a parenting coop while keeping my honey. It seems like an impossible dream. Has anyone else considered something as crazy as this?

    • J.L.

      Im 38 too, and really suffering about this. I’m in the best relationship of my life. But, he’s recently told me he doesn’t want kids or marriage. He sees us together in the long term, but because of his family history, cannot envision himself as married or with children. It’s heartbreaking, and he would make an amazing father. I’m not sure what to do because I cannot imagine breaking up with him, only to try and fall in love with someone else. So confused. And glad to read of others out there at my age having similar issues.

      • bokiy

        OMG. Same age as you. I was in a relationship with a guy that I really really love. I talked about wanting kids the day my niece was born. He seemed uncomfortable about it. So, I brought it up again and he went red. A few months later I asked him again and he said he wanted to be uncle only and I said no way I can never compromise my happiness. I still hurt but it was the best decision for me. I was very hurt but my anxiety completely stopped and I am doing just fine.

        • Callan Castille

          same situation, but slightly different. I have been in a serious relationship with my boyfriend for two years. I am 22 and he is 32. I’ve always wanted to get married and do see myself having children, he does not see this is his future “as of now”
          I am torn as to whether or not I should end things with him or continue to be with him and see where things go and hopefully he ends up changing his mind. We are in love with each other and this would be the only reason for our separation. It is just a tough call because I am still so young, and wouldn’t want to end such a beautiful relationship prematurely just because I am being overly anxious or thinking too far ahead.
          opionins and suggestions welcome!

  • iammenotyou x

    I’m single. so this is from the ‘outside view’
    In the ideal scenario & timing, i won’t consider kids as an option, purely for the fact that i’m selfish atm. If i had them right now, absolutely everything changes (it would have to), not that it’s better or worse.

    So… happy to stay single for this reason alone.
    Its usually a either way so good luck.

  • Stephanie MacMillan

    I had two boyfriends in my mid-to-late twenties who decided (one after dating a month, another after four months) that we were going to marry without asking me, and immediately started planning families. I have never wanted kids of my own. I have ended three relationships on the issue. My first husband did not want kids. There are few men who don’t want kids or are satisfied with their older ones and not interested anymore. I agree that these conversations should take place early on. It is appalling that someone considers dating before nine months to be a serious relationship. I have no idea why anyone would assume another person (who they claim to know and be intimate with) wants to marry or have kids like them without checking first, and then get mad that reality does not match fantasy.