Episode 40

Published on:

10th Mar 2023

"I Want Kids and She Doesn't": Hard Truths in This Listener Q&A

Today we're taking a listener question-- and wrestling with the common but potentially heartbreaking dilemma of what happens when an otherwise happy and committed couple differs about whether or not to have children. Is there any hope?

Let's dig deep about parenting ambivalence, in today's Baggage Check.

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: Let's say you love your partner immensely and you can imagine spending your life together. You're so compatible. There's so much love and trust, and your values match. But there's something that's a pretty big asterisk on the whole thing. You really want kids, and your partner is just not interested in them.

What now? Today we're talking about the common and difficult dilemma of an otherwise happy couple who disagrees about whether to have children. We're taking a listener question and exploring where to even begin. Is there hope when two people who love each other have distinctly different views on this huge question and entirely different mindsets about whether this is something that fits into their lives? If you've ever had mixed feelings about the idea of parenthood or you just want to have a peek in on someone struggling with this issue, you'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check. Welcome. It is good that you are listening today. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel, incidentally. It is also not a show about technological advances in the nutcracker industry. So let's get to it. Today we're taking a listener question that is pretty thorny and not easily answered. Now, that doesn't mean we're not going to try our hardest to give this person some direction. I got an email from someone who has always wanted to be a dad and who's very happy and in love with his girlfriend, who just isn't that interested in being a mom. Where to go from here? Is there hope? How do you even start to think about this? I want to thank both the listener who wrote in and the listener who volunteered to do a particularly professional sounding voicemail for me. Um, you're supposed to not have more than 19 times the production value that I do, but no, it is great, and I am so appreciative. Keep the questions coming and keep the volunteer voiceover artists coming, too. Although I feel like I'm going to get an invoice for today's, I should also say that I am m considering doing some listener Q and A in real time. So if you have a compelling question that might be a little complicated and that you would be willing to do the equivalent of the old school radio call in show about, let me know. Reach out to me at hello at Dr. Andreabonyear.com or through the Baggage Check podcast Instagram, which I know I've been neglecting a little bit, but we're going to get some stuff up there soon, including maybe some pictures of deer buster. Anyway, I know some questions can really use them back and forth, so give it a thought if you wanted to do more of a call in version with your question. Now, without further ado, let's talk about the quandary of kids.

Listener: My girlfriend and I have lived together for three years. Our relationship is really solid. She, uh, inspires me. There's a lot of trust, and we enjoy being around each other, and we generally just have a lot of love for each other and want a future together. We're on the same pages about so much, uh, financially, our living styles, our values, our professional goals. I feel like we're so compatible, except for the biggest thing, and it makes me question everything. I have always wanted to be a dad. My girlfriend just isn't that interested in being a parent and feels like it would get in the way of the individual goals she has for herself. I don't want to invalidate her feelings, she says. I sometimes do. But I do think part of this stems from the fact that she was raised by a single mom who had to struggle immensely with raising children. And my girlfriend's brother was a huge handful who caused a lot of stress. My girlfriend also had to take care of him a lot as, like, a second mom to him, and I think that burnt her out. And so I think she has a bad taste in her mouth about what it could be like to be a parent. I can't blame her for that. But I also can't reconcile the fact that she really wouldn't want to have kids with the fact that she's the person I want to spend my life with. I can't imagine not having kids. It's always been part of what I envisioned for myself, and yet I can't imagine not being with her. Let me go back and forth on this issue, come to no conclusions, and then leave it alone for a while. But we're approaching 30, and marriage would totally be on the table. But I just don't know if I'd be doing myself a disservice or doing her a disservice to enter into that lifelong commitment. If we know that ultimately we'll regret the choice made about kids, this feels impossible. I'm hoping you have some experience with it. Is there really any hope when one partner wants kids and the other one doesn't?

Dr. Andrea Bonior: There is hope. I'd be one of the last people on Earth to tell you that there isn't. And I have seen many couples work through this issue and come to an agreement that works well for both of them when it seemed like maybe they couldn't. But there are no guarantees. And of course, every couple is different. And it's important that I be realistic here, because I've also seen this be the deal breaker in certain relationships, whether it realistically should have been a deal breaker or not. But let's start with what you admitted. The idea that sometimes she feels like you invalidate her feelings. We've got to address this, because whether you end up changing diapers or not, this seems to be an important point that's going to get in the way of your communication and of your empathy and your connection with her? Do you think that that's a fair assessment of you, this idea that you tend to invalidate her feelings? I will admit to noticing maybe just a wee bit of that when you talked about your assumptions of why she doesn't want kids. The fact that she got burned out on the idea of caregiving when she was growing. Up and that she witnessed a lot of stress around parenting. And her own mother had a particularly tough road to travel when it came to being a mom. You say you can't blame her for her feelings, but there's still, to me, a little bit of a vibe that if she has these feelings, there's something to be fixed, that they're a temporary block, that they're like a condition that can be removed. Here's the thing. If she has a bad taste in her mouth about parenting, you can't automatically view that as less valid than if she wanted to have children. It's her lived experience, even if or especially if it came from what she knows or what she knew. If m I once got sick after eating Clams Casino and I never want to eat Clams again because of that association. That's my truth. And people can spend years telling me that the Clams Casino I had was not the norm and not representative of clams in general, and that there are many more experiences to be had with Clams that I'm missing out on because they're so rewarding and I just need to give Clams another try because it will be different. And I'm over generalizing from just one experience with clams, and they bet that I just love clams if I kept an open mind, and I'd probably be such a great clam eater and the clams would be lucky to have me and blah, blah, blah. I mean, should we do this or in real life, with that example, will we just let things go? Because I just don't like clams and that decision is worthy of respect, no matter where it comes from or why it came to be. Stop shoving clams down my throat, people. Okay, to be clear, this isn't me at all. A bread bowl full of some hot, creamy New England clam chowder? That's like self actualization to me. But my point is, just because your girlfriend's lack of desire to have kids may come from her specific and not necessarily typical experience does not somehow make her views reversible or less authentic. In fact, you could argue that because her views come from her lived experience, that maybe they're more authentic, and it's not necessarily something that can or should be fixed. There could also be a million other reasons that she doesn't want kids, whether she's conscious of those reasons or not. If, HM, someone asked you to list in a spreadsheet why you want kids, would you be able to do it? I'm guessing not. Yeah, there might be certain obvious ones, like it's very fun to watch them dance if you put on Electric Avenue. But in general, it's something that isn't really quantifiable. It's not something to really be reasoned with. I'm guessing for you it's a desire that feels as much a part of you as the blood pumping through your veins. It's real to you in a lot of subjective ways. It wouldn't be reversible because somebody talked you out of it. I do think that it's important that you think of her views in this way too, because kids aren't clams, at least not generally. The truth is they can be any number of things, but they're not generally clams. They're much more profound and complicated than that. And so it's even more important to not make any part of these choices feel forced. So the first step for you, as I see it, is really making sure that in any of these communications, you watch how you're coming across. You focus on listening and validating and respecting her opinion as being just as legitimate as yours. Sure, you may wish that she had a different experience in childhood. You may wish that for any number of reasons. Not just that maybe it turned her off to kids, but that's her truth, and if it permanently affected her desire of whether to be a parent, that's just the way it is. Now, maybe she does have some specific concerns. Perhaps she's worried that her genetics may make a child more likely to have the challenges her brother had. Or perhaps she's worried that she wouldn't know how to be a mother to a child under quote unquote, normal circumstances. Maybe she has any number of the fears that many people I work with who are feeling out this decision have the sleep deprivation, whether their bodies can handle the whole process, whether or not they'd ever be able to travel again without taking 19 different plastic accoutrements that take 47 extra minutes in security. Whether it would damage her relationship with her partner, how she'd pay for college or for her kid to play sports, which feels like as much as college. Whether or not she'd ever have downtime, how she'd handle the noise and the mess. I'm 17 years into this parenting gig. If anyone has tips on the noise, I'm still all ears. By the way, you mentioned in particular for her that she feels like maybe her individual goals would be warded by kids. So why not listen more about that? Why not hear her rather than try to fix exactly what she has to say about it? Is she worried that professionally she'd get Mommy tracked? That's not an unreasonable concern. Is she worried that she'd be tied down in a certain place geographically? Or maybe she has health and fitness goals that she feels would be set back. Because doing a ten mile run when someone has to be fed or supervised during a nap is not that easy. Let's say that's the reason that I don't do ten mile runs. Okay, that case is closed. My point is, there are many ways that parenting just might not align with her individual goals, and she's saying that, uh, and that should not be invalidated. Now, some of those issues might be able to be resolved with specific discussions about how childcare would be divided, for instance, or what your perspective on moving and changing geographic locations might look like. And this is where I can't guarantee anything to you. It sounds like you're at 100% wanting kids, and I'm not sure what her percentage is about not wanting them. Is it 90? Is she not dead set against it, but she's not necessarily wanting to move towards it? Have you seen any change over time? And what you assess to be that percentage she has it's meaningful, that trajectory. If she seems to have gone from 70% no to 80% no, that is a less likely scenario of this working out with her wanting to have kids than if she has gone from 90% no to 80% no. But who am I kidding? Trajectory or not, this really isn't about numbers. This is about whether in your gut you could visualize staying with her in a kidless partnership. Have you explored that possibility in your mind if you were to become a volunteer with community programs that worked with kids, for instance, if you were to have friends or family that had kids that you'd be able to take on an uncle role with? There are definitely ways to incorporate bonds with children and make differences in a child's life in a special, special relationship without you actually having to be a parent. I'm getting the feeling, though, that this wouldn't necessarily be enough for you. But if you're going to get real about truly exploring the possibilities here, then you have to imagine different scenarios and whether or not they might offer something to get you to budge. If you would rather have kids without her than stay with her without kids, then you need to make sure that you're not putting her in a scenario where she's going to have children and be resentful about it. This is key. I think people do this without realizing it all the time, and it often doesn't end well because the resentment and the stress of children corrodes the partnership, so they end up without the partnership anyway, and with a child that may or may not feel like they're in a happy scenario. So recognize the difference between her understanding that not having kids might be something that makes you leave versus her feeling like she needs to have kids to keep you. It's a subtle difference, but the stakes are high. You don't want her to feel like she's been given an ultimatum or at worst, coerced. So if you do decide that you need to have kids and move on without her, please recognize that her best path forward may not be to try to follow you or talk you out of it. Some people gain added insight on this issue by just spending more time with kids or with babies, or by talking more in depth with their friends who have kids. By reading more about the realities of how people make it work. People who had had concerns real stories of people from all walks of life who have embraced parenthood. But this shouldn't feel like an ad campaign for parenthood, because it's important that both of you recognize the realities of it too, the ways in which some of her fears might come true. It's really not good to create such a rosy picture of promises about how parenting will be that when it inevitably falls a little short at times, everybody's just even more frustrated. Or if you put yourself in a situation where you have to walk on eggshells for the entirety of your parenting years so as to make sure that she doesn't have regrets and feel bamboozled. I've seen that some people might be helped by talking through this with a couple's counselor or to continue to have simple, non threatening conversations rather than the big conversation. There are parents who fall into parenthood accidentally and say it's the greatest thing they ever did. There are parents who planned it and fantasized about it for years and yet now struggle with regrets. And what ifs. So again, no guarantees, but if you know you want to be a dad, you owe it to yourself and your future child to make sure that when there is a partner, it's someone who is in it because they want to be a parent, not just because they wanted to keep you as a partner. That is a key difference. And one final note not to make things infinitely more complicated. I know I have a tendency to do that. But if you do manage to come to a resolution that involves staying together and deciding to have some form of kids, some form of kids that makes it sound like maybe you'll have kids that are part seahorse I mean, some combination of kids, there are still many, many questions. I've seen couples who seem to be entirely on the same page about having kids boxed, checked, but they differ in terms of how far they would go to make it happen. Minor infertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, adoption, surrogacy. And that tears them apart. I've also seen people who seem to be completely on the same page about that stuff and maybe even the number of kids, let's say having two children, but after having one, one of them wants to stay at one and the other has the urge to go up to three. So just know that whatever communication skills you can build, they're going to be continually used. And if you're fortunate enough that it turns out that you are going to stay together and, quote unquote, agree on this issue, there'll still be lots of things to work out, so really work on that communication. I hope I've given you some things to think about here. This, of course, is not a question where there's some formula for answering it. I will say that the world needs parents who think things through, who are realistic about what they're getting into and who aren't just doing it because they're on the relationship escalator. And that's the next step up. So the fact that you're both willing to be asking these questions and not just proceeding automatically, that's truly a good thing, even if it leads to some heartbreak.

Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered by Danielle Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.