I want to settle down, have a kid and keep my freedom too

I have a history of short, tormented relationships -- but I'm 37 and thinking about children.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 6, 2005 7:45PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a single 37-year-old woman with a long history of painful, tormented romantic relationships. There have been so many, I don't think I could even list them all. Out of the hundreds of men I have dated, kissed, slept with, loved or rejected, there have only been about four who I carried on with for more than a year. One of them is still in my life today -- I'll call him Kyle.

My conflict is that, as the years pass, I know that I have less time to have children. And although I value my independence more than anything, the thought of being officially childless gnaws at me day and night. The truth is that I'm in a state of panic. This is how I came to be in my most current romantic involvement with a man I'll call Sam.

It started when Sam answered my personals ad on Salon.com. He was living out West, but told me he was planning on moving home to the Midwest and would be living less than 10 minutes from me. During the time when I first heard from him, I was trying to heal from the umpteenth broken heart inflicted on me by Kyle, so I was a bit vulnerable. I began talking to Sam on the phone every day for hours on end (free cellphone minutes allow for this sort of thing). We also exchanged sets of pictures, and I felt I knew what he looked like.

Gradually, our conversations grew more intense and Sam began to get romantic. He told me he wanted to be my boyfriend and my husband. We began to fantasize about where our wedding would be and what my engagement ring would look like and what we would name our kids. It was thrilling and, yes, it did take my mind off Kyle. During this phase, I was truly convinced that my bachelorette days had come to an end, and I was happy about it.

Last week, Sam moved into my town and we met for the first time on my front porch. He looked somewhat like his photos, but he wasn't quite what I had imagined. As we shared our first hour together, I found my mind drifting back to the fact that Kyle had been leaving heated, passionate messages on my voice mail. As Sam pulled me in for that first kiss, I could think of nothing I wanted more than to talk to Kyle right that minute. In other words, Sam went bust.

This past weekend, I went out with Sam again, but I found myself turned off by him even more. He drank too much, insulted the band, didn't care that I had to get up early the next morning, and almost caused an accident on the freeway. Today, I find that all I want to do is avoid him.

What do you think, Cary? Am I just afraid of committed relationships? Should I force myself to go out with Sam again, or should I just move on? I don't have much hope for me and Kyle either, but I do want a boyfriend and Sam is making himself available. Does love have to be this painful and disappointing? How can I tell Sam I'm not interested, or am I?


Dear Confused,

You're not interested in Sam. You don't like Sam. So don't go out with Sam. Don't go out with guys you don't like. That's a good rule to live by. Because here's the thing: You have this history of being shall we say overly catholic in your tastes. You would have to change that if you wanted a kid. You would have to pick one guy and stick with him. I wonder if you're ready for that.

True, you have no trouble locating guys. You've proven that. But you have trouble building relationships that can last. And building relationships is something you do not learn to do overnight.

So changing your habits vis-à-vis the proper sequence of courting gestures would be the first order of business. Take, for instance, this Internet relationship with Sam: You started discussing marriage with this guy before you even saw him in person. That's not good practice. And the first time you saw him in person you let him on your porch. That's not good practice either. Once he's on your porch, he's practically in your home. That's not where you want him to be yet. You need to back him off a little; start out in a cafe or a diner.

So you need to develop new relationship habits. Since your current habits are of long standing and have deep roots, changing them will take some work and some time. So I suggest you begin right away -- perhaps with the help of a skilled coach or therapist. The reason I suggest a therapist is this: After you found out you didn't like Sam, you were still thinking about going out with him. That shows that your thoughts and actions are going off in a different direction from your feelings. A therapist can help you pull those aspects of yourself together, integrate them, as they say, so you're not working at cross-purposes to yourself.

At the same time that you're working on new relationship skills, you might also try to take some of the pressure off yourself about having kids. It really isn't the end of the world if you don't have kids. The fact is that many women your age are facing the same situation; some of you will have kids and some won't. That doesn't mean that some of you will be blessed with eternal happiness and others will be damned to eternal misery. Your happiness depends less on what you've got than on how you deal with what you've got.

There's a lot to be said for having no kids -- especially for a woman who enjoys her freedom! Look at all the things you get to do when you don't have kids, all the places you can go where they don't allow kids, all the movies and bars and gambling joints -- and think of all the money you save! Think of all the sacrifices you'd have to make if you did have kids. Having just one kid, I figure, is like having at least two or three mortgages. Your house, you have to paint it, but it doesn't talk back to you and you always know where it is. You don't have to send it to school or teach it to drive.

I'm not trying to talk you out of having kids. But try to put things in perspective. There are certain human qualities that you are going to need to be happy whether you have kids or not. Chief among them is the ability to balance your view of the future. A good therapist can help you to recognize when your thinking has become unrealistic or catastrophic, and to find ways to adjust. In that way, over time, perhaps you can make peace with whatever future awaits you. And this, in turn, will also help you form more lasting relationships.

I don't rule out magic. Anything could happen. You could meet the right guy 10 minutes from now; he might fall out of the sky -- literally. He might be a painter working above you on some scaffolding and he falls at your feet and you call an ambulance and it's triplets within the year. I don't rule that out. You could also adopt children. I wouldn't rule anything out. But I don't see the point in waiting around for miracles. If they happen, they happen. Meanwhile, we take out second mortgages to get the roof fixed and that kind of thing.

So here's what I suggest: Spend some time learning to build relationships -- that is, to string together a sequence of positive interactions that build trust and stability. Try being less catastrophic in your thinking about the future. And in the meantime, don't take on more than you can handle. That's my advice and I'm sticking to it.

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