Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are in our late 20s and have been married for three years. I know this is an advice column cliché, but he really is perfect in every way but one: He doesn’t want kids*, and I do. Specifically, I want to have kids with him. He may change his mind (but he most likely won’t). I am not going to leave him over this, so my question is how do I come to terms with missing a Large Life Experience? I was raised in a religion where motherhood was your Eternal Destiny, and the thought of planning out my life and not having children is bewildering.** I have several nephews and nieces and dote upon them, but my heart aches at the thought of not having my own child. Are there some magic words to make this better or just one of life’s sorrows?
—Always an Auntie, Never a Mom
* These are legitimate, thought-out reasons.
** Society, please do better about showing girls life without motherhood. By choice or not, many of us won’t go down that life path.
I have no magic words, of course (though I wish I did, for you and everyone else who writes to me—about anything). The best advice I have on this subject, unfortunately, is not going to help you at all. I offer it here for the sake of others reading this column who are in relationships like yours but to which, unlike you, they are not yet fully committed for the long haul: Do not marry someone whose life plan is antithetical to yours.
Thirty-one years ago I broke up with a wonderful man whom I loved very much and planned to marry after we had been dating seriously for four years. For us the disconnect was that he wanted to have a large family and wanted the many children he looked forward to having to be raised Catholic and in a rural setting (on a farm, to be specific). I, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, was certain I wanted only one child, was horrified by the idea of living on a farm, and—as a secular Jew with a strong sense of cultural identity—knew I would never convert to Catholicism. This disparity in our visions of the future was no secret; we had talked about it often. But one night, as we sat talking, we had simultaneous, heartbreaking revelations: I had been sure that he couldn’t possibly be that committed to his plan, or he wouldn’t still be with me, planning a future with me—and he had been just as sure that if I were absolutely serious about where I stood, I wouldn’t still be with him. At that moment we both suddenly understood that we were wrong. We ended our relationship then and there, with deep regret and many tears. It was one of the saddest days of my life.* But we both knew if we didn’t end it then—if we went ahead and married and hoped to resolve this later—it would be much, much worse.
I am not suggesting that you leave your husband, but I want to make it clear that there are three reasons that someone might end up in a situation like yours. One is that although both parties were fully aware of what they were getting into, one or both halves of the couple were secretly and serenely certain the other didn’t really mean it or could be made to change their mind (the situation my ex-boyfriend and I fortunately recognized before marrying—is this what happened to you?). Another is that the subject of having children together was never discussed prior to marriage—so this crisis between an otherwise happy couple comes as a complete surprise (or is this what happened to you?). And the third is that both were on the same page when the lifelong commitment was made, but someone has had a change of heart. I’m guessing this isn’t the case for you two, given the information that you’ve provided.
However this happened, I am truly sorry you find yourself here. If being a mother is something you profoundly want, this is indeed going to be one of life’s sorrows for you. But life, as you know, is full of sorrows. We find ways to go on, even as we live with our deepest sorrows. I must tell you that this particular sorrow can be very hard on a marriage, though. If you are going to give up on something that matters greatly to you for the sake of staying in your marriage, as you say you plan to, I would do everything possible to get ahead of the inevitable trouble ahead. I would get into counseling now. Any time we give up something important for the sake of our couplehood—having a child, sure, but also a career, a religion, where we live, how we live, other relationships that have been important to us but that our spouses don’t support (and this is by no means an inclusive list)—there is a great likelihood that resentment will set in, fester, grow, and eventually overtake the marriage. Be prepared; be proactive.
I was tempted—because I am an optimist by nature—to point out that your husband, like you, is still young; he could yet change his mind. But as you yourself note, you cannot count on that. You mention in a footnote that his reasons for not wanting to have children are well thought out. Perhaps it is more likely that over time he will be able to convince you to see things his way (but I wouldn’t count on that either).
As to society’s showing girls a path to life without motherhood, you’re right—we could do better. We are doing better, but not well enough. I will tell you that at my advanced age—I turned 65 last week—I know many women who, by choice or not, have never been mothers. They have had rich and fulfilling lives. You absolutely can too.
* I thought I would offer my own footnote. As regular readers know, I did have just one child, whom I adore, with my husband of nearly 28 years. And my ex-boyfriend went on to marry someone who is Catholic, with whom he had six children (I’ve met them—they are awesome kids). And yes, he and his family live on a farm.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a pretty uncommon vision for my future family, and I would like advice on how and when to bring this up with future partners. I am a lesbian, so adoption would already be a part of any conversation about children, but ever since I was 12 and first learned of the deep dysfunction in the U.S. foster care system, I have wanted to be a foster parent. I’m 24 now, and, if anything, my determination to foster has only grown stronger. I know I’m young to be thinking about this as much as I am (daily, and reading parenting columns probably isn’t helping). I also know that, at my age, it’s unlikely that any of my next few partners will be the one I start a family with. Still, it’s important to me to be clear about my goals so that my future partner(s) and I can make informed decisions about our relationship.
If I were to have my ideal family, my future partner and I would first foster-to-adopt an older child, anywhere from 7 to 12 (because jumping straight into teen years seems like a bad call), and then we would foster-to-adopt one or two more younger children (newborn to 3). It’s important to me to foster an older child because such children are more difficult to place and have a much harder time finding stability in their lives, but it is also important to me to foster a younger one (among other reasons, because I am a linguist and am excited about participating in my child’s language development). As you see, I have thought this through in great detail.
I am aware that fostering is difficult and often heartbreaking. I know it’s unlikely that the first child we foster will be the child we adopt, and I know we won’t be able to pick and choose whatever child we want. I know many children in the system will require more complex care than a newborn adopted through an agency. Etc. But I know, too, that this is immensely important to me. I do not want biological children, and I do not want to pay the enormous costs of more socially acceptable, traditional adoption when there are so many children who need homes.
Here’s the thing: I’ve found my values do not align with those of the general public, even within the LGBTQ+ community, and while I can be flexible about the ages and number of children I foster and eventually adopt, I can’t see myself moving on from this goal I’ve had for so many years. What I’m seeking guidance on is when in a new relationship I should bring this up. And how do I bring it up? I think my reasoning is strong enough that many women could come to share my goals, but the societal obsession with biological children is so ingrained that I don’t know how to start the conversation productively and with the best chance of actually convincing someone.
—Foster Family Planning
Let’s start with the end of your very interesting letter—with the question of how you stand the best chance of “convincing someone.” I don’t think this should be your goal. And I don’t mean just when you’re in the early stages of a relationship that you think has potential to go the distance. I mean ever in a relationship. If you are wholly committed to creating a family in the way you describe—and I am thoroughly on board with it, even if I am a little bit concerned about how comprehensive your plan is (even though you say that you “can be flexible,” the level of detail suggests you are setting yourself up for heartbreaking disappointment)—what you want to find, as you seek a life partner, is someone who doesn’t need to be convinced but who is as devoted to this plan as you are. Of course, if you are dating women your own age, it’s possible many of them haven’t thought through how they want to have children (or possibly even whether they want to; I myself didn’t give it any thought until I was past 30). When you talk about your ideas about the future, it may be the first time they’ve had to think about their own. And it’s very likely, as you say, that even some women who have thought about having children have never considered the idea of becoming foster parents or fostering to eventually adopt. But the difference between convincing someone that this is a good path to follow and seeing the lightbulb go on in someone’s head (“Oh, my God, I love that idea!”) is enormous. Watch closely for it. And maybe don’t overwhelm them with the details of your plan. (And maybe lighten up a little, for your own sake too, on the details. The general plan—I want to be a foster parent and perhaps be able to adopt through that system—is all you need at this point.)
The question of when to bring it up is a whole ’nother thing. I will say that I nearly scared my husband off when I mentioned casually on our first real date (we’d known each other for a few months and had gotten together a couple of times as friends, but he had asked me if I’d go on a proper date with him and I had agreed) that I wanted to have a child. (It wasn’t casual; I knew exactly what I was doing. I was 36 at that point, and two years had passed since my breakup with the future father of 6.) I’m not sorry I told him so early, though. Had he said, “Well, I absolutely do not,” that would have been the end of things between us. But he left the door open (very nervously, let me tell you).
You are young and well aware that it may be a while before you find the person you’ll have your family with, so I don’t think there’s any reason to spring it on someone you’re just getting to know. But I would say that as soon as you sense potential in a relationship—and before you get to the exchange of “I love you”s—you ought to take the first tentative steps. “When you think about the future, what do you imagine for yourself? What does your life look like?” I think the answer to this question will begin to let you know if there’s a place for you to introduce your own thinking about what you hope lies ahead for you. “I’ve always wanted to be a foster parent” isn’t a bad way to start. You can drop that like a breadcrumb and see what the response is like. If your dinner partner shudders (“Are you kidding? I could never do that,” or even “Are you out of your mind?”), now’s the time to cut things off. If she says, “Really? Wow. That’s something I’ve never thought about,” there’s the potential you’re looking for. Do not follow up with the blow by blow you’ve presented here. Not yet. But know that the possibility for the kind of future you imagine might exist with this person.
See where the relationship goes, and then, if it’s going in a direction that suggests a possible future together, bring it up again. Take it slow. There’s no rush. And if somewhere along the way it becomes clear that the person you’re in love with does not share your vision of the future, do not suppose you can convince them to. That’s the point at which you need to make the kind of decision I made three decades ago. Be wiser than I was and don’t get four years in before making it.
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