Care and Feeding

My Partner Won’t Commit to Having Kids

What should I do?

A woman throwing up her hands
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Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 29-year-old straight cis woman. I have no kids, and in spite of all I read in this column, I’d still like to be a parent in the future. My question is about getting on the same page with my partner about this. He’s a 28-year-old straight cis man who says he’s neutral on having children. Honestly, I don’t think he ever thought about it until we started dating five years ago. I’ve always been upfront about my desire to be a parent but never thought of it as something particularly urgent, especially since I think I might want to adopt. When we’ve talked about it together, his response has always been that we have plenty of time and it was something he was thinking about. Now, however, I find I’m having many swirling emotions about it, as I see my peers and friends having children and am also thinking a lot about my own mortality. (My mom died when I was 19—it’s a lot, and it has a huge emotional impact on me when I think about becoming a mother myself.) I really want to talk to my partner about this, but he’s in an extremely intensive part of medical school right now, working physically and emotionally draining 14-hour days in the hospital six days a week. It seems like a terrible time to have a conversation about something we wouldn’t do anything about until (probably) five years from now. I can’t decide whether it would be worse to not talk to him about it or to talk to him about it at the wrong time. What should I do?

—Baby Rabies

Dear BR,

I think if you’re having “swirling emotions” right now and have to keep them to yourself, you’re going to start resenting your partner. I’m not suggesting you ambush him when he comes through the door after a 14-hour shift and ask him to sit down and listen while you talk about death and continuity and how other people’s babies make you feel, etc. But you might tell him, during a quiet moment on his day off, that you’re thinking more about the future and the two of you will need to have a conversation soon about it—that even though you’re not ready to have a baby now, you know you want to. And then let it go. If he says, once again, “Yeah, maybe, I don’t know, I have to think about that,” you can tell him you understand that he’s not thinking about it at this point but ultimately this will be a deal-breaker for you. In other words: Be honest.

And then wait until the end of this particularly fraught period of his training to bring it up again. You’ve given him fair warning. If he puts you off at that point, I think you have your answer and will have to decide what you’re going to do about it: Should you stay or should you go?

Let me say this too: What I don’t think you should do is 1) tiptoe around him because you fear that if you bring it up at the “wrong time” it will be bad 2) keep big feelings to yourself when you’re in a longtime relationship that you expect to go the distance or 3) stay in this relationship for another five or more years while he continues to ponder the question and then finally announces that he has thought about it long enough and decided he doesn’t want to have children after all. Because, as you know from reading this column, we get letters from women in their mid- to late-30s whose partners have told them that, and they are then faced with what feels like a terrible choice. Deciding to cast your lot in for the long term with someone requires working out a lot of things in advance, and the kids-or-no-kids question may be the single biggest one (in part because if you do decide to do it the biological way, it has an expiration date—if you want to know that this option exists, speak now … and don’t forever hold your peace).

I want to make one more suggestion to you, since I think the loss of your mother when you were so young is indeed “a lot.” Read Hope Edelman, whose Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss will be of great help to you, I think. She has also written about being a “motherless mother,” which I suspect you will find helpful down the line, and her newest book looks at the enduring nature of losses like yours. (If your partner weren’t already so busy, I’d say have him read it. But I also think reading it yourself may make you feel less lonely, and perhaps it will help you find a way to talk to your partner about what you’re experiencing.)

If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an 8-year-old son who is healthy and happy and does very well in school and sports. But I am struggling with how much responsibility he should be expected to have. In the past week, he’s forgotten his school computer in the car (it was sitting beside him!), left a sweatshirt at a baseball tournament, and forgot some gear for a game. I remind him to get his things, and I help him pack them most of the time, but I feel that at age 8, in third grade, he has to be responsible for something. But since this sort of thing keeps happening, especially with sports he loves, maybe he’s too young? We make it very clear it’s his stuff, that he has to be responsible for it, and then I see how it upsets him when he forgets things. So, am I expecting too much of him, or is he just slacking?

—What Is Responsibility?

Dear WIR,

What gives me pause is the idea that at age 8, he “should” be responsible in the way you describe. This is where we run into trouble with our kids (actually, it’s where we run into trouble, period). When we make arbitrary rules or claim expectations about how things should be without taking into account the many factors—temperament, maturity, readiness, reluctance, ambivalence, and the organic individual timelines all human beings have—we are bound to be thwarted or at least disappointed. If you can see that it upsets him when he fails you, he is certainly not “slacking.” I would go so far as to say that an 8-year-old is not a slacker. He’s obviously not ready to take full responsibility for his stuff. So stop telling him he has to be and thus setting him up for failure. Give him one thing to be responsible for and see how that goes. My guess is he’s already responsible for some things you don’t consider to be “real” responsibilities. (If he’s going to school outside your home—or when he used to—how does he do with his jacket, lunchbox, book bag, gloves and hat in winter?) Try praising him for what he does do right. And if he fails at the one thing you ask him to do, don’t rescue him (because there’s no incentive for him to try harder next time). If he fails repeatedly—forgets his lunch for the second or third time, say—I think it will be pretty clear he just isn’t ready. In which case, I’d take my foot off the break altogether for a while and try again later. And maybe don’t demonstrate your disappointment in him. This could become a vicious circle that spells no end of trouble later on.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister and her husband have a 1-year-old daughter. Despite COVID, they don’t deprive their daughter of socializing; however, at her age, masks and social distancing are not really options. They regularly take her to public playgrounds and enjoy play dates with a small number of similarly aged children. The problem is that they also regularly ask Grandma (my mom) to babysit at least one to two times a week. Recently I found out both parents and the baby all had the flu. Coughing, snot, fever, the works … and they still had Grandma babysit while everyone was sick (so they could take the afternoon off and relax—and treat themselves to a dinner out, which is horrific on a whole other level). I’m appalled. My sister is a nurse and should know better. What can I do!? My other sister and I feel like we can’t be in-person aunties (or daughters) if they all keep this up.

—Sad and Sidelined in Brooklyn

Dear Sad,

Your other sister and you are right: You can’t be (right now, anyway). Your irresponsible sister and brother-in-law and your mom are all adults. There is nothing you can do. Stay away from them and tell them why (as calmly and quietly as you can): “We can’t spend time with you if you’re not going to observe sensible precautions.” Do not offer this as an empty threat—you have to really mean it. I somehow doubt this will make them rethink their behavior, but I suppose there’s a dim chance it hasn’t occurred to any of them that there is anything unreasonable about how they’re proceeding in the midst of a pandemic (if so, this could wake them up). But if you all haven’t been in a quarantine bubble or pod together all along, you shouldn’t have been seeing them in person up to this point anyway, for the sake of everyone’s health and safety.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2-year-old, and we have entered the era of epic meltdowns. Like … EPIC 30-minute-or-more meltdowns. I didn’t have a very warm and empathetic upbringing, so I decided before having a child that I would parent gently and work to validate my child’s feelings without giving in to whatever caused the tantrum. I never saw myself as ignoring tantrums because I perceived that to be invalidating, and the inability to express my feelings growing up led to some issues later on for me. So now here we are, and all my efforts to connect with or support my child during these times are just pissing her off. If I look at her or talk to her, she ramps up her screaming even more, and if I get near her, she thrashes and hits or kicks me. I’ve done really well staying calm, but it seems like the only answer is to completely ignore her behavior until she’s gotten it out of her system, which makes me feel like an asshole. I’m at a loss. Any advice?

—My Kid Is Possessed

Dear MKIP,

I wholeheartedly sympathize with feeling like an asshole because you’re doing the opposite of what you so thoughtfully and feelingly decided you would do when it came to your child, because you’re doing what feels to you like what was done to you. I am here to tell you, as one who has been there in a big way (for details, take a look at the final section of my book The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood, “Hope Against Hope,” where I recount exactly how my best, well-thought-out intentions clashed with what was good for my child), that sometimes our determination to do right what our own parents did wrong ends up backfiring.

You had (and have) an essentially good plan in place. But it appears that what your daughter needs right now, in the particular moments of her tantrums, is to be ignored. She is letting you know this is what she needs in order to recover on her own from these perfectly normal, age-appropriate fits. Give her what she needs. Remind yourself (as often as you need to) that you’re not an asshole. You’re a loving mother who is responding in the moment to her child’s need. (And that is indeed the key: giving the child what she needs, not fulfilling our own need to do things the way we want or need to in order to feel good about ourselves.) It’s hard to be human, isn’t it? But it sounds like you have everything it takes to do right by your kid. Pay attention to what she’s telling you and respond to it—not to what you’re telling yourself. And I promise you that you’ll have many, many opportunities to validate her feelings and talk things through in a way you never had the chance to do in your own childhood. It just so happens that right now this isn’t what she needs.


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