I usually write about relationship challenges my husband (Steve) and I have resolved or figured out. But today, I’ve decided to write about something we’re currently struggling with: should we or shouldn’t we have kids?
I’ve had a lot of intimate discussions with friends and family about all sorts of relationship challenges, but this is a topic that’s rarely debated outside of the couple. Either couples announce they’re pregnant after the customary 3-month waiting period, they receive congratulatory messages and gifts, and that’s it. Or, they announce they don’t ever want kids, and no follow-up questions are ever asked.
As I grapple with my own decision-making process, I want to know how other couples arrived at their decisions, irrespective of where they landed, and how they feel about it now, looking back.
My solution: I’ve decided to turn to the relative anonymity of the Internet. While Steve and I haven’t yet made any definitive decisions, I’ll share the honest details of the debate we’re having in the hopes that: (i) it helps others having a similar (private) discussion, and (ii) it encourages couples who’ve been where we are to share their wisdom with us.
I’ll post updates as our discussion evolves.
- Steve is 2 years younger than I am. He’s 35. I just turned 37. Fertility in women drops drastically as they age, especially after the age of 35, so it’s safe to say I’m no spring chicken.
- Steve and I have never been keen on the idea of having kids. While we’ve never said never, we’ve never been excited about it either. We’ve admitted that we’ve always imagined our grown-up lives with kids, but it’s only recently that I’ve examined that imagined future more closely. More on this later.
- Steve and I don’t like being around kids. Infants are ok in small doses – they don’t talk, they’re small, and holding them is like snuggling with a hot water bottle. But once they start walking and talking – no thanks. I don’t want to pretend to understand what they’re saying or to praise them on the scribbles that look nothing like a pony. ← This is not the attitude of a should-be parent. Am I right? “But Nelly, you’ll like them when they’re your own”. Are you 100% sure? If not, that’s risky advice to be dispensing, don’t you think?
“DON’T YOU WANT KIDS?”
Women of a certain age who don’t have children get asked this question a lot. I’ve been asked by friends, family members, and even by my colleagues, the implication being that it’s normal for women to want children so I’m abnormal for not wanting them.
I can’t even fault them for asking the judgemental-sounding question. I was judging me way harder than they were. Only weirdos and misfits don’t want children, right?
Four years ago (when I was 33 years old and Steve was 31) we realized we couldn’t just keep kicking the decision down the road as we had been. Up to this point, just kept saying we’d have them “in 5 years”.
Not wanting to be rushed into making a decision because of biology, we explored the possibility of freezing embryos (embryo = sperm + egg) to buy more time. During our consultation with the fertility doctor, and after a few tests (some more invasive than others), we learned that our equipment was in good working order. Apparently I was a fertility over-achiever, i.e. I was full of eggs! (That’s the most common problem as women age: they run low on eggs.) Steve’s ‘boys’ were fine too, their only flaw was that they were mildly lazy swimmers. I laughed at this – Steve did not. (Aside: Imagine if fertility doctors said this to all male patients as a power move? Wouldn’t that be hilariously evil?)
“If you ask me, now is the perfect time for you to have babies,” said Dr. Fertility.
Uh…no thanks, doc.
We also got an idea of the cost. The entire embryo freezing process (IVF) would cost almost $20,000. Not cheap.
So we did what anyone in our shoes would do: we patted ourselves on the back for having done our due diligence and went back to normal life.
WE STILL NEED MORE TIME TO DECIDE
Fast forward two years. I was 35 and Steve was 33. Our feelings on the subject of kids hadn’t changed. We were expecting one of us would just wake up one day wanting kids. It never happened.
The only difference between Nelly at 35 and Nelly at 33 was that I could feel my eggs drying up, one by one.
Not really, but you get the idea – the clock was ticking.
I worried about waiting too long, having difficulty getting pregnant, and then kicking ourselves for not planning ahead by freezing embryos. It was a dull worry but it was always there.
I shared my worries with Steve. He wasn’t thinking about any of this, but he was sympathetic.
Steve: “I didn’t realize it was weighing on you so much. Let’s just freeze embryos then. We can afford it and it’s a small price to pay to mitigate against the potential future regret, especially since we know there is something we can do now to make things easier for Future Us.”
What a great guy, right?
The process was expensive, lengthy, painful (physically), and annoying, but a few months after that conversation, we put four embryos on ice. We’d essentially bought ourselves a fertility insurance policy for $20,000 + annual storage fees of $400. Worth it.
The constant dull worry was gone.
IT WAS NICE WHILE IT LASTED…
Fast forward to today (Fall of 2020).
Two things happened in quick succession which resurfaced the kid conundrum:
1. I got old. I turned 37, and
2. One of our best friends told us she was pregnant. Let’s call her Nadia (not her real name).
The getting old problem: This is going to sound stupid, but in all the time I was worrying about aging being a problem in the context of fertility, it never occurred to me that aging might have another serious consequence: exhaustion. In other words, if Steve and I wait too long to have kids, we might become too old and tired to chase the little pukes around. If we have a kid when I’m 40, he/she/they will be turning 20 when I’m 60 and Steve is 58. Twenty-year-olds are NOT self sufficient adults. They’re off drinking their faces off at university asking for tuition money and needing help moving furniture in and out of dorms and rental houses. I plan to have arthritis and be happily overweight at 60. I don’t want to be disassembling Ikea furniture and moving mini fridges into my Tesla minivan at that age.
The best friend problem: This is also going to sound stupid, but Nadia deciding to have a baby made me question my own choices. Did her decision to become a mom mean I needed to do the same thing? Logically, I knew the answer was no. But haven’t you ever felt compelled to do something (get married), buy something (a house), or move somewhere (out of the city), because someone close to you had done it?
With these two new developments, my worry free lifestyle was gone. It was nice while it lasted.
CLARITY THROUGH THERAPY
I was sick of thinking about this. I wanted to get clarity on this nagging issue once and for all, so I did what I do whenever I’m at a complete loss, I called a therapist.
I don’t regularly see a therapist, meaning, I don’t have a standing weekly appointment (although I’d love to if it was less expensive). I do, however, consult a CBT therapist from time to time when I’m struggling with a problem I haven’t been able to solve on my own. The therapist listens to me try to explain the problem, asks some thought-provoking questions, and then gives me homework exercises to help clarify my thinking.
So far, I’ve had 100% success in getting the clarity I needed with this approach. My breakthroughs always happen while I’m doing the homework. This time was no exception.
The therapist asked me to think about the following:
Q1 I want kids but I’m afraid to have them. Test this idea. Is this true? What’s the evidence for and against?
Q2 What does it mean about me if I really don’t want kids? Are those things true? What’s the evidence for and against?
Q3 How would I feel if I found out I was pregnant today? [Answer to Q3: Upset.]
Q4 How would I feel if I was told that, because of COVID-19, no one was allowed to have children for the next 40 years? [Answer to Q4: Relieved.]
Q5 Complete the following PROs/CONs chart. [This was my favourite one.]
WHAT I LEARNED SURPRISED ME: I DON’T WANT KIDS
“And I know what it feels like to want something, believe me.”Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
I gained so much clarity by doing the homework (and for me, actually putting pen to paper made a real difference). I learned I don’t want kids, but I also got to the root of my worries. Here’s what I learned:
- I don’t want kids. This surprised me because I really thought I would discover that I wanted them all along but was too scared to have them, but it turns out that’s not true. [Answer to Q1 above: Fear isn’t the blocker, it’s an unwillingness to make the sacrifices required]
- I have a very good understanding of the sacrifices required to become a parent, especially for women, and I’m not willing to make them right now. They’re disproportionately weighted on the woman which doesn’t feel fair. The mere fact that I’m the one thinking about this, going to therapy over it, writing this post about it, are all representative of a bigger issue of inequity that doesn’t sit well with me.
- There are a lot of perks to having a life without kids that I’d never imagined before. Filling out the upper right-hand quadrant of the PROs/CONs chart (status quo, long term, PROs) surprised me in a good way because it forced me to think about what life would be like without kids and it looked fantastic. We’d still have family and children in our lives – our siblings and close friends (like Nadia) would have kids and we would love and spoil them – they just wouldn’t be our responsibility outside of the occasional babysitting gig. It’s a win win!
- Societal pressures encourage us to imagine our lives with a traditional family (spouse + children) and we’re taught to think that that’s normal. [Answer to Q2 above: The story I’ve been telling myself is that if I really don’t want kids, it means there’s something wrong with me. But when tested, I realized it’s not true]. It’s likely that Steve and I imagined our grown-up lives with kids because that’s the messaging we’ve been getting our whole lives. Those are the stories we’re told, the TV shows we watch, and the ideal happy ending to movies. It’s ok to want something different.
- My priority is the health and happiness of my relationship with Steve. I don’t want us to do (or not do) something that would damage us. All of my worries lead back to this.
- I worry about Steve’s potential future regret about not having kids more than I worry about my own. This is what I’m scared will happen:
We don’t have kids > Steve regrets it > Steve resents me > our marriage is destroyed
What I’ve come to realize is this (and I say this with love): Steve’s potential future regret is not my problem. I need to trust Steve to make his own decision about whether or not he wants to be a parent. Yes, I can carry extra Tylenol in my purse in case Steve gets a headache, but I can’t birth and raise a child in order to prevent Steve from having regrets. I had been (wrongly) taking this on as my problem when it’s not.
- The fastest path to total and irreparable marital destruction is having kids we don’t want.
We have kids we don’t want > Steve doesn’t contribute the way I expect him to >
the bulk of the work falls to me > we resent each other > our marriage is destroyed
I realized that of the two paths to the total marital destruction that I so feared, this was the FASTER one. This realization came out of the PROs/CONs chart and was an eye opener.
- I’m still never saying never. I can be convinced. There’s a difference between saying I don’t want kids and I’ll never have kids. I don’t want to take on an enormous renovation project on our house, but if Steve makes a strong case for it, I can be convinced. For me, the same is true of having children. Enthusiasm is infectious, after all. If Steve is excited by something, I’ll likely be excited by it too, but neither of us have been excited by this. We both seem to be waiting for the other person to make the decision and drag the other into “adulthood”, which isn’t happening. Having kids is a big change and an even bigger responsibility. If we can’t get both enthusiastic and aligned in terms of our expectations of each other and how we’d share the workload, we shouldn’t become parents.
Steve was incredibly curious to hear what I learned from this process. I shared all of my conclusions with him. He was a perfect listener and I could tell the wheels in his head were turning.
Now he wants to fill out the PROs/CONs chart to see what kinds of conclusions he comes to. I gave him a blank chart.
That’s where we are. I figured out my feelings on the subject. Steve is up to speed. So now it’s his turn to do some homework and some thinking.
To be continued…
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