To breed or not to breed

We agreed before we married that we didn't want children. Now she's changed her mind!

By Cary Tennis
Published December 10, 2003 8:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've been married for four years to a wonderful woman. She's smart, educated, strong, savvy, beautiful, the works. It's the first marriage for both of us. She's rapidly approaching 40; I'm 41. We'd been non-romantic friends for 17 years, and then we hooked up and got married in a whirlwind romance. It was and is beautiful, and we're both happily in love with each other. I've slowly come to the realization that she is, in fact, the woman of my dreams I had always been looking for.

Now the problem: I have never, ever wanted children. I told her this before she proposed to me (yes, she proposed -- a dream come true for me). I told her that she needed to be very honest with herself about her own wants and needs regarding children. I told her that my feelings were very clear to me, and that I wasn't going to change my mind about it. At the time, nearly five years ago, she had made up her mind that she wasn't going to have children -- even before we had our talk about it. So, it was a perfect match -- two quirky mid-30s people with similar outlooks on life.

My wife has changed her mind about wanting children. Maybe it's the biological clock or the fact that she now feels more emotionally secure than ever but she is weepingly wanting a child. She is afraid that if she doesn't, she will be full of regret, resentment and self-hate. I know that I still don't want children, and having one probably would make me resentful (which is a terrible thing for a child to be around).

At the risk of sounding like an ogre, I know I don't want to raise a child. It's just not in me. My feelings about it have been clear to me since I was a teenager. It's not that I hate children -- I love hanging out with my pre-adolescent nieces and nephews -- I just don't want any of my own.

She respects my feelings, and she's not trying to change my mind about it. I respect her feelings, and I'm not trying to change her mind about it, either. I'm not angry with her for changing her mind -- it's human nature.

She is considering ending our marriage so she can go start a family. We're both being torn apart by this. We're deeply in love and we don't want to lose each other, but we're at polar opposites on this issue. I can't see any way to meet halfway. We're going to start counseling soon, but do you have any advice?

One Wife, Hold the Children, Please

Dear Hold the Children, Please,

As I lay in bed last night thinking this through, it took the form of a logic problem. The basic choices are simple. But they imply enormous risk and uncertainty for the future.

Each of you must decide, on your own, which is more important, your parenthood status or your marriage. If either of you decides that the marriage is more important than your individual parenthood status, the marriage can survive. But if both of you decide that your parenthood status is more important than the marriage, the marriage appears doomed.

If you break up the marriage, each of you incurs a certain and immediate loss. For her, there's no guarantee that she'll conceive, or that she'll meet the right man. She could end up facing 40 with no child and no husband. And what if, as you suggest, it's the very security of her relationship with you that has made your wife change her mind about kids? When she loses that security, what will happen? She could lose everything.

Likewise, you waited a long time to find the love of your life; if you walk away from her, it's possible that you will not find again such a compatible match.

On the other hand, if you stay together, the risk of loss and disappointment to one of you increases, but the possibility remains that one of you might get everything he or she wants -- marriage to the partner of choice plus his or her preferred parenthood status. There's a chance that even though she wants a child, she won't conceive. If she can't conceive, she may decide she wants to adopt. She may or may not be successful in that. If you stay with her throughout that ordeal, loving her, enjoying her company though uneasy about the prospect of a child entering your lives, you may be better off than you would be if you left her. The risk to you, however, is that you would indeed be bound to raise the child if one did come along.

I think the total guaranteed loss to both of you is greater if you split up. I also think that the risks of the worst-case scenario -- loneliness, regret, poverty -- are greater if you split up.

Nonetheless, if the prospect of raising a child is unacceptable, you have no choice. You cannot in good conscience stay in a relationship with her while she's trying to conceive if you have no intention of raising the child.

Because I believe it's best that the marriage stay intact, I therefore think it would be best if you weren't completely inflexible on the issue of the child. It's not -- may I stress -- because I think there's any reason unrelated to these concrete risks that you should have a kid. It's entirely because of the downside. Nor do I think it's great or OK that she changed her mind. In fact, maybe she's secretly hoping you'll change your mind, which would be in bad faith. I think you need to explore that in your counseling: To what extent is her desire to have a child distorting her ability to tell you the truth?

I'm on thin ice here, because I answered a very similar question once before, and not as carefully as I should have. I was then struggling with my own feelings about having children, which I eventually resolved as best I could.

Rereading that column from July 2002, it now clearly seems to argue for the man to go against his own wishes, as many readers pointed out at the time. I didn't mean to be doing that, but I nonetheless see that I did; I believe my own feelings at the time colored my choice of words. I was secretly wishing that the man would decide to have the kid -- as your wife may now be secretly wishing.

What I said was, "So if your wife really, really, really wants to have kids, I think you should try to open your heart to the possibility. I'm not saying you should have kids, but you should try to open your heart to the possibility and see how far you get." I meant that literally. I meant you should just see how far you get. I do admire people who find it within themselves to love and raise children -- perhaps I admire them overmuch because of my own desire not to have kids.

So let's try to get it right this time: I'm not saying you should raise a child. I am saying that the loss of your marriage is a high price to pay. So you must be sure.

Good luck with the counseling. It's the toughest choice you could be asked to make.

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Cary Tennis

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