Ready Or Not
My Boyfriend Is Done Having Kids, But I Know I Want Them Eventually. What Now?
At 27, it feels forbidden to make romantic decisions, or any decisions, based on my desire to have kids.
At 23, more than anything, I thought of myself as single. I was pursuing my goals, my passions, my life. At what point did I have to begin thinking about whether or not I wanted that life to include the creation of other lives? And what else would I be willing to sacrifice for that? My friends weren't thinking about this, and I decided I didn’t have to either.
And then I met a man who thought that, at 29, he was practically my grandfather. A week later, when he revealed to me that he had a daughter, I stared at him dumbfounded, mouth agape. I thought of a time when, years earlier, a colleague asked me if I’d ever date someone with children. At the time, I didn’t give her an answer — it was so unfathomable to me then, I didn’t even fully consider her question. “I’m 23 years old!” I told myself. And I was in no rush to grow up. I had observed the habits of adults, and I wanted nothing of their ways. Early bedtime? Disgusting. Minivans? They offended me. “I’m still practically a child myself,” I wrote in my diary. No room in the psyche for another. Even hypothetically.
Going on five years later, I’ve found that dating someone with a child hasn’t been the horror my dumbfounded self might have expected. Instead, it’s forced me to consider my own desires more deeply and honestly than I suspect I would have done otherwise. Even with this prompting, though, it’s taken me some time (and a whole lot of diary entries) to figure out what I want.
What women want
Of course many people have children in their teens and early 20s, whether by personal choice, social design, or more usually some combination of the two. But I was a member of a new and particular wave of women: college-educated, strong, independent young women who knew that lean-in was a lie, that egg freezing was riskier than advertised, that almost 50% of marriages end in divorce, and that we still made 82 cents on the dollar (and that’s if we were white—as of 2018, Black women made 62c, Latinas 54c). We’d heard the arguments that the gender pay gap was due to sexist assumptions about our becoming mothers. We knew additionally that women who became mothers did take more time off work for maternity leave, sick days, and children’s milestones. We knew they got passed up for promotions.
When 25 rolled around, I probably still wouldn’t have been thinking about my desire to have kids at all — my friends certainly weren’t — if I weren’t by now intimately acquainted with a man who already had one. Thinking about his daughter (I thought of myself as a daughter!) sent me into a mild state of panic, so I did my best not to think about her. Which meant I did my best not to think about a significant chunk of his life — a strange way to conduct a relationship, my friends observed more than once. But even aside from this avoidance game, there were other reasons to avoid meeting her. I didn’t think it would be fair to enter the life of a child and then leave, and I always had assumed I would leave eventually.
But after 18 months of dilly-dallying (enough time for two pregnancies, I couldn't help but note), I I told him I’d like to meet his daughter. When I imagined breaking up, I imagined my life less vibrant than with my partner in it, so I decided it was time to give this thing a shot.
With the prompting that this child’s very existence gave me, I began to figure out that having kids was something I really wanted — at some abstract future point.
At first he said he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, which stung but I could only understand. It meant we’d been in the same headspace: better not to introduce someone who’s going to be leaving. A good, protective dad, I thought. I didn’t know it yet, but my (as yet theoretical) parenting ethos already differed from his. I couldn’t imagine a world in which I’d introduce my daughter to someone who wasn’t going to stick around, so when he changed his mind and let me meet her, I thought it meant we were on the same page: we were giving this a shot.
His daughter, for her part, quickly became a delight in my life. She’s strong willed, fearsome, and full of giggles. She’s sweet-natured and treats me like a sibling, always enlisting me to join her conspiratorial plots to trick her dad. Watching him cherish her, in grand actions like teaching her to read or small ones like cutting up all her bites of food, has shown me a side of him that I’d been willingly closing my eyes to. With the prompting that this child’s very existence gave me, I began to figure out that having kids was something I really wanted — at some abstract future point.
Then, as my partner and I discussed said future, I learned that he did not want more children. But I was still 25! This still didn't seem like something I needed to worry about, and not yet a reason to cut short our relationship, but it did mean that I now knew it had an end date.
When does an abstract, even forbidden, desire become a plan?
Even now, at 27, it feels forbidden to make romantic decisions, or any decisions, based on my desire to have kids. It sometimes even feels like thinking about having children makes me a bad feminist.
It’s only within the past 50 years that women have gained the right to economic independence from men, after all. Before 1974 I would have been required to have a male co-signer to apply for a credit card. Women’s control over our own finances is still a new experiment. And along with that economic independence has been another experimental trend: delaying biological reproduction until our thirties and even forties.
We can have a lot, but we still can’t have it all. While fostering, adoption, IVF, and surrogacy are all (expensive) options that can extend the biological limits of ovulation, for everyone, the window of opportunity for raising kids eventually closes.
While earlier in our lives, we might hide our true desires from partners for fear of losing the relationship, we have to start being honest about what those are and what steps we need to take to obtain them. This honesty has to extend even to ourselves.
“35 seems to be the number where all of a sudden things change in a woman’s body, that’s when your egg production starts to go down,” says NYC-based marriage and family therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. “So a lot of women that I work with are like, okay 35 is this number when I have to have it figured out,” says Thompson. “If I’m going to have children in the range of 35 to 40 I have to start really considering: is this the person I’m going to do that with?”
Thompson notes that for many, and especially for women, there’s a psychological shift at around the 30 year mark. “Your 20s are a time of self reflection and adventure and figuring out what you want for your life. Your 30s are definitely more of a time of more stability, getting an idea of what your life is going to look like going forward, and how to concretize some of those pieces,” she says.
This psychological shift is often accompanied by a behavioural one: Thompson claims that “the older that you get, and this goes for women and men but I’d say more women, is that they are being more honest and open and candid about what they want.” While earlier in our lives, we might hide our true desires from partners for fear of losing the relationship, as our long term wants and needs come into focus in our 30s, we have to start being honest about what those are and what steps we need to take to obtain them.
Kids are one piece of my relationship puzzle, and it just so happens they’re a cornerstone. I’m glad I know this now.
This honesty has to extend even to ourselves. Thompson claims that for anything we would classify as a dealbreaker, whether a desire to have kids, not to have kids, or anything else, “the older you get the more realistic you have to get that if that’s what you really want, you have to be brave enough and vulnerable enough to own that within yourself and share that with the person that you’re with.”
Kids are one piece of my relationship puzzle, and it just so happens they’re a cornerstone. A “dealbreaker.” I’m glad I know this now.
Tolerating uncertainty — or not
Most of my friends are women nearing 30. Some friends already know definitively what they want and where their boundaries lie when it comes to having children. “If my partner wants to have kids then they’re going to have to make it happen,” my friend Semarley told me. To her, that means more than expressing the desire: her partner will have to pay for her egg freezing and will have to find and pay the surrogate, she says.
When I mention my own dilemma to another friend who simply responded, “Depends on what you want more, your partner or kids.”
Others are still making up their minds. Gwendolyn, a teacher friend of mine, told me she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want kids, but that she’s always open to reevaluating her perspective. “I could imagine having a partner who really wanted a child, and in that situation I could see myself changing my mind,” she said. Her greater fear lies instead in putting a definitive line in the sand and losing out on a brilliant partner by being too closely tied to one decision. She’s also afraid of someone else having that kind of line drawn.
I know I'm not alone in choosing to either enter or leave relationships because of something that's currently an abstract desire.
When she told me this, I realized I’m exactly the person she’s afraid of.
“If someone said, I must have kids, I’m not sure I could be ready for that. I almost would prefer a situation where we could both just be going in with open minds,” she told me.
Another friend works for a tech company that provides complimentary egg freezing services. She won’t be availing herself of them though, and her desire not to have kids was a factor in her recent breakup. My friend who’s 38 feels it’s too late for her, and she regrets not having a child. One (male) friend wants a huge family, but he doesn’t seem too worried about making this happen. A 41 year old friend recently gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, and she did so solo by choice.
Knowing yourself enough to know what to prioritize
My friend Bernadette, the mother flying solo, gave me her perspective. She always knew she wanted to be a parent, but despite being in several long-term relationships, she told me she never felt she was with someone who would be the right partner to raise a child. “As the years passed and my biological clock got louder I started to feel like it would never happen,” she said, and then as 40 came and went, she felt immense pressure to find “the one.” But she wasn’t having much luck. She didn’t want to compromise and didn’t see why she should have to.
“When the pandemic hit, it seemed like another year would pass without any chance at having the baby I always wanted,” she said. She ended up hooking up with an ex and they made the decision to co-parent without being in a romantic relationship.
“Even though I knew it would be hard to raise a child with someone who I wasn’t romantically involved with, I knew it was meant to be,” she said. Bernadette’s dealbreaker wasn’t about having kids or not, and in fact having her baby had very little to do with her romantic choices at all.
Knowing this about myself, knowing myself, giving myself permission to feel my own desire and take action upon that desire...feels like the best way to be a feminist.
Thompson encourages self reflection, and particularly recommends recalling what our identity was before we met a partner and what our are desires rooted in. What may at first seem black and white might really be composed of shades of grey, she cautions. Thompson tells me that she herself was originally ambivalent about having children. She hadn’t grown up babysitting, had never changed a diaper, and became very anxious when she was around kids. What had seemed fairly cut and dry changed when she met her husband. “Because my husband wanted to, it allowed me to feel more brave and more courageous, and knowing that I was there with a true partner to be able to help me through this made it way less scary,” she says. “His level of confidence helped me make a decision in my life that I would absolutely regret if I had not had kids.”
My conversation, of course, went a little differently. Unlike Thompson, I’m not ambivalent on this point. At all. Neither, it turns out, is my partner (just in the opposite direction). He quoted Langston Hughes to me — unusual in our relationship, where I’m the poet and he’s the programmer. He said he knew I wouldn’t want anyone deferring their dreams for me.
I did feel like I’d been led down the garden path, though. He hasn’t broken a promise, hasn’t violated a rule — I feel like, technically, his record is clean. But I do know that next time I’ll be more clear about the significance I find in particular events. And about what I want — which, in the realm of having kids, at least, is one thing I am certain about.
And since for me this desire (along with my desire to write, to climb mountains, to dance...) is so absolute as to be non-negotiable, it would be foolhardy not to incorporate it, like those other desires, into the structure of my life. Knowing this about myself, knowing myself, giving myself permission to feel my own desire and take action upon that desire...feels like the best way to be a feminist. And to be myself.