Discussing the desire to start a family can be a difficult and fraught conversation at the best of times. With shifting timelines, study, career and life commitments, you and your partner might not always be on the same page. But what happens when you fundamentally disagree? Can a relationship survive this challenge when the stakes are so high? Here we discuss the do’s and don’ts when it comes to conversations about kids.
It’s often seen as the logical next step in any committed relationship to want to have children. But like any stereotype, it’s fair to say you can feel like a bit of an outlier if you don’t want them.
Women who don’t want children can feel especially judged, as it goes against their prescribed role of caregiver and nurturer – viewed by some as simply “not natural”.
The days of falling into line with procreation as the ultimate life goal has passed. In Australia, the current birth rate is in fact 12.4 births per 1,000 people, declining year on year since the 1950s, when it was 23.1 births.
People have children later if they have them at all, as time spent building a career, studying, experimenting in relationships, travel and other life goals can be equally legitimate ways to be spending the years once thought to be solely devoted to finding someone and “settling down”.
When time is on your side
During your twenties, you don’t have to have a plan about children – there is still plenty of time to decide. Even into your early thirties, you might still be making up your mind. Perhaps you’re in a relationship for much of this period where you both seem to agree that you don’t want children, but even as you say this to one other, you still have an “out” as there’s time to reconsider.
But perhaps it’s known between you that one definitely doesn’t want children, while the other is ambivalent. For as long as the relationship is satisfying and there is still time, then it is tempting to continue on, as it isn’t central to decision making right now.
The ambivalent one might not let themselves face the reality of the other’s child-free life choice, because the relationship is too important to face its ending. Or perhaps they hold a secret hope that their partner will eventually change their mind.
Equally, the person not wanting children doesn’t have to face the other’s ambivalence, because there is enough of a “no” in their position to feel safe to proceed with the relationship. Then comes crunch time.
Factors that force the issue
The biological imperative often drives decision making, with women having to make a clear choice to fall pregnant before time runs out. Later into their thirties, when double checking on the question of children, women can also wonder if they have time to even find another partner, fall in love and then try for a baby.
This can also weigh into whether to just accept the relationship they’re in, even if it’s without children.
Although men are not on the same timeline, they often tell us they are concerned about being an “old dad” and don’t want to leave decision making too late.
There is the value of having children at similar times to peers to have support and connection during the early childhood phase. So, if friends are getting on with creating a family, this can also bring the decision to a head for the couple who have been putting it off.
In a society where having children is common, not wanting them can put you on the defence – often having to repetitively explain yourself. And different life stages will bring up new challenges.
For example, you might lose friends to their own families, you may have less people to go out with, you could have concerns later in life that the next generation won’t be around to support you in old age. In a society set up for procreation, these are all things you’ll need to navigate, and will be much easier if you are united in your decision.
Navigating different attitudes and disagreements
If one partner doesn’t want children and the other is open to it, there are very different challenges to be faced. Not having children could be experienced as a considerable sacrifice, and if this isn’t well resolved, can lead to significant resentment.
Inevitably couples have other problems throughout their lives and may even separate. The person who sees themselves as “sacrificing” having children could find other problems, adding layers to that fundamental inequity. Indeed, if the couple separate, and the woman has passed her childbearing years, she might feel she has lost a lot more than a partner.
The one who agrees to go ahead when they don’t want to can also resent it, and this may have ramifications for any children if it’s not resolved. And while it can be assumed that once a child arrives a parent inevitably falls in love with them and steps up to caregiving and responsibility, that’s a precarious assumption. Again, if the relationship flounders, one can be left literally holding the baby.
Tips to work it through
- Listen carefully.
If your partner says clearly they don’t want children, take that seriously. Do not assume they will “come around” or change their mind. They might, but you can’t necessarily afford to wait and find out.
- Be honest.
If you do want children, don’t hide it. In the early stages of a relationship you might think you should play it down in case it stresses the other. For both partners, being clear on who you are and what you want is part of getting off to a strong start in a relationship.
- Talk openly.
This can become the elephant in the room, and you can both make assumptions about the other’s stance on children. Positions can be up for review. Seize opportunities to say “where are you up to on this?”
- Being responsible for the “no”.
If this is your decision, then think about what it is going to mean long term for the relationship and your partner. You can’t go through life trying to compensate your partner for their loss, but you do need to be mindful about it, and what it means for you as a couple. If you have any ambivalence about the relationship and whether to have children is also in the mix, it is a greater kindness to end the relationship than continue on.
- Being responsible for accepting the “no”.
If you go along with “no” when you are ambivalent, then you have to take responsibility for your decision. If you already know it will be a burden and in your mind you see your partner as “owing” you for your sacrifice, this will unravel quickly.
- Talk openly about your decision and make plans.
If you agree not to have children, you need to establish what you do want instead. Do you have other goals? What friends, childless and with children, might you need with you to support your decision?
The greatest risk for a couple in one wanting children and one not, is the lack of equal resolution about the decision. The biological reality is that women can miss their chance for children while men can have children later with another partner.
Being in love and in a committed relationship could look like it is going to be sufficient, but for someone who has always wanted children, it may not be the case. Openness, honesty and accountability for one’s decision are critical in negotiating a way forward.
Relationships Australia NSW offers individual and couples counselling to help you work through problems and difficulties and find ways to move forward. Contact us to find out more. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.