Ask Polly: I’m a Stepmom, But I Want a Baby of My Own!

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Dear Polly,

I am finally in a relationship with a fellow I love so much. So much that I moved in with him — something I have never done before. He has two kids who are wonderful and call me their stepmom as of last summer.

We were together for about two years before I moved in, and it has been an interesting transition. I’ve been living in his amazing ecohouse in the country for about a year and a half. It’s been a big learning experience for me, going from a really independent city life to a more interconnected and remote rural life. I think up to now we’ve been dealing with learning how to live together pretty well.

One thing I have been coming to terms with since we became serious is the fact that he is seven years older than me, and has zero interest in having any more children in his life, by natural means or adoption. His two children are 11 and 13 respectively and he thinks they are the best (they are the best) but also that they are enough.

When we started, it had been such a hard time for me finding somebody I could imagine having a loving, real, strong connection with I had decided if the option for a wonderful partnership came along and kids were not in the equation, I would be okay with that.

About six months ago, my feelings on that front started to shift. Then, at the end of April, I turned 40 and shit hit the fan. Every time somebody posted their latest baby ultrasound on Facebook (and, as you can imagine, in my cohort that is happening way more often than people post pictures of themselves raising a Solo cup and looking hammered or whatever), I burst into tears. I started having intense baby dreams, like more than one a week. Every time I brought it up with my partner, he would reiterate that he loved me so much, that he felt so guilty, that he didn’t want kids.

I started talking to my therapist again. She said this pain was my pain and that if I needed to explore it, I owed it to myself to do so, more or less. After several intense and extremely painful interactions when I would cry uncontrollably and tell him I was angry at him for making me choose between my desire to have a baby and my love for him, I decided I would have to make an appointment with my doctor, who I hadn’t seen in a while, and at least get the baby engine checked out. I thought all this angst would be for nothing if it turned out that I was not really fertile at all, because I am not interested in pursuing any fertility technology.

So I told this to my boyfriend, who at first seemed okay with it. Then later, over a dinner, I felt a wave of sorrow and anger when he told me I was grieving that I wasn’t going to have a baby. I said at the moment it felt like if I went to the doctor and she said I was fertile that I would have a baby, even if that cost me our relationship.

Needless to say, the following four days have been hell on wheels.

He is super, super, extremely upset. He feels like I am putting him and the kids second. He is not really wrong about that — but it feels like a version of the truth, and it’s not necessarily my version, or even our version.

But the more he is sad and distant the more I regret everything I have said up to this point, because I love him and I hate to hurt him, and maybe it is not worth it to “figure shit out” if it costs us all our trust and feeling of safety in one another?

Tomorrow I have an appointment for an ultrasound and then in a week or two the doctor and I will meet a second time to look at the results of all the tests.

He says he’ll feel more assured once I have seen those results and have made a decision, but I am worried that we are fucked up forever and will just break up anyways, because I basically chose my needs over our chosen life together.

Please help.

Undecided

Dear Undecided,

Right now, your chosen life together is his chosen life, not yours. The life you would choose together would include him, the kids, and a baby.

It’s completely natural and understandable that you might want a baby of your own. It’s also understandable that this would upset him. He’s afraid of losing you. But it’s not accurate at all to say that somehow you’re “putting him and the kids second,” any more than he’s putting you second by insisting that he doesn’t want to have another kid. You don’t want the same things. No one is to blame for that.

The fact that you believe that you’ve irreparably damaged your relationship with him merely by asserting this deep desire — a desire that’s common to many human beings and most of the animal kingdom? — feels really lopsided and wrong to me. You’ve moved from the city to his home in the country. You’ve signed on to a close relationship with two big kids, kids that are sure to be very engaging and also very taxing as they become teenagers.

Does your partner understand how challenging it’s been move into someone else’s house and life? Does he understand the calisthenics involved there? Because I’m going to guess that you put your needs second to the needs of your partner and his kids so often that you don’t even notice when you’re doing it anymore. Could that be why this experience seems so foreign to him and to you? Could that be why you’re so certain that merely by gathering information about your options in order to honor this very true and real desire of yours, you’ve somehow ruined everything?

Maybe your partner’s frustration lies in the fact that he told you from the start that he never wanted more kids. It sounds like you weren’t sure that was a deal breaker when you met him. I think a lot of people believe, when they fall in love with someone who already has kids, that their new living situation will provide everything they’ve ever wanted. Finally, here’s someone who’s committed to a stable life, who loves children, who cares about long-lasting connections.

But the truth is that it’s not always that simple. Sometimes having stepkids makes you even more sure that you want kids of your own. That can sound insulting to your partner and to the stepchildren in the picture — and trust me, even outside observers who don’t know anything about how it feels to be a stepparent will feel completely comfortable lecturing you about how you should feel about it. But it’s much more complicated emotionally than anyone who hasn’t done it can possibly understand.

My husband had an 8-year-old son when I met him, and I knew (and he knew) that I wanted to have more kids. My stepson is such a great person; I feel lucky to know him at all. But we’re not some idealized, incredibly lovey-dovey stepmom and stepson, and I don’t think that was ever going to be possible for him or for me. He already had a mom. He didn’t want me acting like his mom. That desire was clear, and I wanted to respect it. I also wanted to respect his mom’s need to remain his mom, and not overstep or mess with that relationship in any way, because I knew that would’ve made me crazy if I were in her shoes.

Being respectful of a kid who doesn’t want another parent (but has one, whether he likes it or not) is an odd dance. It bleeds some of the primal dimensions of parenting — RAW NEED — out of the equation. My stepson didn’t come running to me for comfort. I mostly resisted the urge to scold him or nag him, though obviously I couldn’t let him walk all over me, either. I really tried to be a good friend who loved him and was also fun to have around. I sometimes failed. I didn’t want to be a gloomy old nag. Sometimes I was anyway.

If his mother weren’t in the picture or if he had been younger when I met him, we might’ve had a different relationship. But as it was, I had to be careful to honor his feelings and my own feelings. Even though he and his father moved into my house, I sometimes felt like I was the interloper. There were times when I had to say, “Okay, I know you guys have been doing this for a while, but this is PURE MADNESS and I can’t live this way.” Once we went out to a Mexican restaurant and my stepson picked up his entire burrito with his fork and was eating it, bite by bite, like a cave man. I looked over at his dad and he was 100 percent oblivious. Speaking up about it meant becoming the evil stepmother on the spot. Not speaking up meant gritting my teeth and having a bad time. (I think I nudged my husband until he finally noticed his cave boy.)

Being in a family is tough, period. Members of a family want different things from each other, and for a family to NOT be a dysfunctional mess of rage and despair, its members have to find a way to coexist while still honoring their individual desires. Sometimes my stepson felt like my son, and other times he felt like this little stranger rumbling around my house, making noise and fucking shit up. I didn’t know what it was like to have kids at all. I thought the pesky kidlike things about my stepson were specific to him and not universal to all kids.

Luckily, my husband and my stepson were both very patient with me. And actually, once I had kids of my own, I became much more patient and much more attuned to my stepson’s needs. It was easier to understand: “Oh, this person was a baby half a second ago!” We also coexisted as a family in a more natural way. My stepson always wanted siblings, and his little sisters love him like crazy.

So here’s the tough thing I have to tell you: I don’t know if we would’ve made it through all of that if my husband had encountered my needs and desires as me choosing to put him and his son “second.” He understood that it was a big deal for all of us to adjust to each other. When I said things like, “I’ve thought about it, and I think I need to change this,” he wouldn’t get angry at me. He’d listen to my point of view.

When you signed on to your partner and his kids, you went into it with your eyes open. You made a commitment to the three of them, and you don’t take that commitment lightly. But you’re still a separate human being, like it or not. That can’t be wished away. If you believe that you have a right to consider whether or not you want a baby of your own, then you should stand up for everything you’ve done so far instead of retreating into this fear that you’ve poisoned your relationship. A relationship that’s instantly poisoned by one partner expressing their desires is a relationship that’s not built to last.

Instead of blaming yourself for ruining everything, you need to ask your partner if he’s truly capable of seeing you as an equal member of the family. This is a crucial question even if you determine that you can’t have children of your own moving forward. Are you a supporting-cast member in this picture? Does your family ever rally to do something that you want to do? Has your partner made some sacrifices to make sure you’re happy in your life together? And if you do discover that you can’t get pregnant without serious intervention, and you give up on having a baby, is your partner prepared to make a little room for the emotional impact that discovery is likely to have on you? Can he meet you where you are, or does he often treat your needs as if they’re inconvenient impediments to serving his needs?

I know that last question is harsh. But, I have to say, the idea that wanting a baby amounts to putting him and his kids second is so off-base that it presents an enormous red flag. Throw in the fact that you’re panicked over having ruined everything BY MERELY EXPRESSING THIS DEEPLY FELT DESIRE, and that red flag starts to block out the sun.

I think you might be panicking because you know that you’ve reached a moment of reckoning, whether you like it or not. Even if you can’t get pregnant, you can’t proceed in a relationship where your needs are treated as footnotes to the larger story. If that feels accurate, I would dare to examine what you truly want from your life and commit to standing up for your needs. That might feel like taking a big risk and fucking everything up, but it’s a risk you have to take.

Because good relationships don’t fall to pieces just because one person says what they want out loud. Good relationships can accommodate two people who grow and whose needs change. It might take some time for each person to understand what they want and to express it without making the other person angry or scared or upset. But if your partner lands in a permanent space of “You fucked everything up,” simply because you told him what you truly wanted, that says a lot.

And, perhaps more important, if you can’t stand up for your right to even gather more information without feeling ashamed, that says a lot, too. Of course it’s jarring for your partner. But he can tolerate that, and you can tolerate it, too. That’s just two people with different needs doing the best they can to meet in the middle.

Remember that when you stand up for yourself, you’re actually standing up for a healthier family in general. Because it doesn’t serve anyone to live in a house where one person is treated like a second-class citizen. Injustice poisons everyone, whether they know it or not. When you treat yourself with respect and compassion, you’re making more room for respect and compassion in your home. That benefits your partner and your stepkids, too. Because their needs and desires are also going to change and evolve. They’ll be surprised and unnerved by them. And they’ll be lucky to have you in their lives when that happens. You should all want to live in a house that greets other people’s deepest desires not with fear and anger, but with respect and compassion. No one should have to fold themselves into the background just to keep the peace.

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: I’m a Stepmom, But I Want a Baby of My Own!