Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Doesn’t Want Kids, But I Think I Do!

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Dear Polly,

My boyfriend has always been upfront with me about not wanting children. We discussed it once in depth pretty early on in the relationship and we’ve been together for nearly 12 years now. I always thought I was okay about not having children. It’s something I’ve felt pretty ambiguous about and I definitely haven’t had much in the way of maternal feelings in the past.

I’ll be 35 this year, and more of my friends and peers have started having kids in the last year or two. I’m realizing that the window for having kids is shutting for me and I am feeling more and more sad about it.

We hadn’t talked about it in years, as prior to the last six months or so my feelings hadn’t changed much and I knew his hadn’t either. He says he feels even more strongly about not having children than he used to, but he is worried I will feel resentful toward him if I feel I want kids and stay in the relationship. He is right this is a risk, as I do sometimes feel resentful about compromises or decisions we’ve made, like choosing where to live, which has caused problems between us.

I don’t want to leave my boyfriend — despite some problems between us. I really love him and he is a great person, funny, supportive, and caring. I see myself getting old with him and for the most part we have a pretty great relationship. But I can’t help feeling this real sense of loss that I never expected to feel about having children.

The last couple of years have been hard going for me personally and in my relationship — we moved to a new city after living abroad for a while and I have always struggled to make friends; plus, I hate my job and haven’t been able to find a new one. Generally, I feel very unsettled and unsure of what I want from my life — something I am addressing in therapy. I think kids might be one of those things.

I’m torn between wondering if I should leave and risk losing both my relationship and my opportunity to have a child (I don’t want to have a child on my own) for the slim possibility of managing to find someone I love to have a child with before my fertile years are over. If I stay, how do I manage the sense of loss and not end up resenting my boyfriend?

Yours,

Unsure What I’ll Regret the Most

Dear UWIRTM,

Saying “I always thought I was okay about not having children” suggests you were going along with his ideas about kids instead of deciding for yourself how you felt independently. He felt a certain way; you were okay with it. You imply that a lot of decisions have been made this way. It sounds like he decided where you should live, and you were okay with it. Until you weren’t.

I’m getting the impression that you’re pretty dependent on him at this point, and pretty resentful of him already. You dislike your job and you can’t find a new one, you don’t have many friends, you’re not sure what you want from your life but you think you do want to have kids. He’s not budging. Does he ever budge about big decisions? Does he ever follow your lead? Is he perfectly okay with you moving on without him?

And then you write, “I’m torn between wondering if I should leave and risk losing both my relationship and my opportunity to have a child (I don’t want to have a child on my own) for the slim possibility of managing to find someone I love to have a child with before my fertile years are over.” That makes it sound like losing your boyfriend means losing your “opportunity to have a child” — but hasn’t he said he doesn’t want kids? Does this mean that you’re holding out hope that he’ll change his mind in spite of steadily stating that he doesn’t want kids for 12 years now? Or worse, does this mean you can’t help but associate him with having kids, and you’re confused by that, even though you know it’s not possible?

The compromised nature of your situation goes beyond the question of children. As far as I can tell, you’re in a relationship with someone who’s not interested in compromising or meeting you where you are and never has been. I’m not talking about kids now; I’m talking about how you’ve lived for the last 12 years of your life with him. I might be assuming too much, but all signs indicate that you’re the one who has compromised, over and over again. Never underestimate what a dramatic effect that has on everything — your hopes, your dreams, the way you see yourself, your career, your ability to make friends, EVERYTHING.

It also sounds like this relationship is the most important thing in your life. But are you happy? Do you feel important and loved? Do you feel that, if you did get a great job opportunity in another city, your boyfriend would be open to discussing the possibility of moving there so you could pursue your dream? Or would he say, “Well, you should go, and we’ll see how things shake down.” Would he be willing to hang out with a few kids and then have a long conversation, maybe with your therapist, about his feelings on the matter, if only for closure’s sake? Or would he be more likely to say, “You should really move on without me, because you’ll only resent me if we stay together”?

I’m not trying to say he should have kids with you. I’m trying to determine how invested he is in YOU, specifically. Because I’m picking up a whiff of easy-come, easy-go attitude that I’d imagine doesn’t feel that gratifying after 12 years together. I know that attitude well. I’ve been with guys like that, where I was always scratching my head, wondering why I could never imagine them taking any kind of a stand for me. “If I walked out and married someone else, what would you do?” I’d ask. “I’d be sad to lose you, but I’d be happy that you got what you really wanted,” they’d say, in a tone that conjured dealing with a mundane kind of a disappointment, a bad day at work or a rainstorm at the beach.

That unnerved me, not mattering that much. It made me act petulant and dramatic. I wanted to get a reaction. I wanted to prove to them that I DID matter. I was willing to make a mess if necessary, because I assumed these guys cared a hell of a lot more than they were willing to let on. Because who could care so little? Who wouldn’t feel worried about losing me after all that time together?

But you know what? Some guys are funny and supportive and caring but they still don’t love you the way you want to be loved. They might be perfectly wonderful to spend time with, but there’s a point where too much wishy-washy nothingness, too much going with the flow, too much “Let’s wait and see,” adds up to an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach. You don’t know what to do about it, so instead of throwing a fit or walking out the door, you become someone who exists in the margins, someone who can tuck herself into the background and make do with whatever leftovers come her way.

The problem is, that kind of passivity tends to bleed out over the rest of your life. You are willing to wait and see where you’ll live, and wait and see whether you’ll ever have kids, and wait and see if you’ll ever find a better job, until eventually you forget that you have control over these outcomes and everything else in your life. You’ve become just another passenger on the bus. Who the fuck knows where it’s going? You’re trying to manage your expectations. You’re trying to accept whatever happens to come next.

You’re already working very hard in therapy to figure out what kind of a life you want. The big question now is: Can you have the life you want WITH your boyfriend? Even if you take kids out of the picture, I’m betting that your boyfriend isn’t interested in living anywhere else, isn’t interested in moving for YOUR job, isn’t interested in changing any of his plans for you. He’s a nice guy, I’m sure, but is that all you want? Is that worth compromising every other fucking thing in your entire life? Is that worth being with someone who isn’t passionate enough about you to say I WOULD BE CRUSHED IF YOU LEFT ME. I WOULD SURVIVE, SURE, BUT I NEED FOR YOU TO KNOW THIS: I LOVE YOU MORE THAN I CAN IMAGINE LOVING ANYONE ELSE. YOU LEAVING ME WILL BE A GIANT LOSS IN MY LIFE.

The question is not whether you’ll regret leaving your boyfriend. The question is: Do you want to give up your chance of having kids for someone who would never, in a million years, give up ANYTHING for you? Do you want to make a giant compromise for someone who can’t even say, out loud, LOSING YOU WOULD HURT ME SO MUCH I CAN’T STAND TO THINK ABOUT IT?

Forget kids for a second. You aren’t that happy. You’re unhappy not because he’s bad or because he won’t give you children. You’re unhappy because you don’t believe in your dreams anymore. You’ve resigned yourself to shuffling around in his shadow. You met him at 23 and you’ve never learned to be on your own. You’ve never learned to dream big, without tying those dreams to someone else. You love him and you’re dependent on him. Yes, you will regret leaving him for a long time, probably. Or maybe you won’t. But you’re guaranteed to regret staying with him. You already regret it. You want to be with someone who wants the same things you want, who is passionate about you, who uses words to express that passion.

When I broke up with my perfectly good boyfriend (who was never going to leave me and was never going to be passionate about me, either) at age 34, I promised myself that I would never tuck myself into the margins of someone else’s life again. I would make my own friends and build my own life and pursue my dreams, and I would only consider men who were absolutely crazy about me. No more whatever, sure, why not, for now, let’s wait and see. I didn’t know if it would work out or not, but I knew that I would never compromise who I was for anyone again. Just knowing that was thrilling. Just knowing that made my life richer and fuller and more colorful than it had ever been before. It happened overnight. All I had to do was decide, and commit, to never giving up myself for anyone else again.

How do you regret a decision like that? How do you regret standing up for what you want from your life?

Get some clarity. Describe your amazing life, five years from now. Be specific. Where do you want to live? What do you want to do with your time? How do you want to be treated? How do you want to treat yourself? Go into detail. Which things might you be willing to give up? Which things are nonnegotiable? Don’t be afraid of being rigid about some things. You know yourself, don’t you?

Don’t pretend you can get by on less. Your years of getting by on less are over. It’s time for you to thrive, to reach new heights, to have new adventures. It’s time for you to feel free and brave and strong, maybe for the first time in your adult life. Don’t pretend you don’t care about feeling strong. You felt strong, a long, long time ago. It’s time to feel strong again.


Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Doesn’t Want Kids!