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‘I Want Kids, But My Boyfriend Isn’t Ready!’

Photo: Chaithanya Krishna Photography/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I am 38 years old and all the usual stuff — fairly attractive, great friends, fulfilling career, etc. From 22 to 34, I lived with a boyfriend who refused to marry me or think about having children, which was why we eventually broke up. Following this, I had a few years of not meeting anyone I really clicked with.

Last summer, I met a lovely man through friends. He is four years younger than me, very kind and funny, and seems committed to a relationship with me. We are very happy and moved in together after five months, which has been lovely. From the beginning, we have both talked about this being a different and special relationship, built on radical honesty and empathy for each other as sensitive souls who have had previous bad experiences. He told me early on that he had chosen his future children’s names, and we often talked about the child we would have together “one day.”

In the last couple of months, I turned 38 and one of my close friends had a baby. I have felt suddenly, frantically, and viscerally desperate for a child. The idea of never having one fills me with sadness.

I have spoken to my boyfriend about this and, to be honest, fully expected us to come up with a plan together for having children in the next couple of years. I hoped my ideal life was coming together. Instead, he has seemed panicked and defensive. He says he definitely doesn’t want children right now and doesn’t want to think about the future. He says he’s sorry if he’s misled me, but if I want to have children in the immediate future, I should break up with him and find someone else. It’s this last bit that I’ve actually found the worst to deal with — this has made me feel very disposable (a familiar feeling).

I don’t want to be with anyone else, so I’m simultaneously trying my best to enjoy what I do have but also hoping that somehow things will magically fall into place.

Ethically, I don’t think I want to bring a child into the world who is solely dependent on me as an already older mother, so if I considered solo parenting, it would be through adoption. So I guess giving birth to my own baby, which I have always craved, is looking unlikely for me now and I should come to terms with it.

However, I’m concerned about being in a relationship where I’m the one doing all the compromising, which I promised myself I would never do again. I am in therapy and have been working on my inability to address my own needs.

Do you have any advice, please?

Can’t Believe I’m Nearly Forty and This Is My Life


Yes, I have some advice. Break up with him.

Staying with someone when that person doesn’t want kids and you do is very difficult. It’s particularly difficult when your partner says things like, “Wait a little bit longer and maybe I’ll get to a place where I can start to imagine having kids with you,” or “I just need to get established in my career and then we can talk about it.” I know a lot of women who waited for their partners to be ready for kids and ended up regretting it. One woman I know waited for years only to discover that her husband didn’t want kids after all. Another friend waited for eight years and then her husband dumped her for a younger woman and had a kid with her instead. A different friend waited for years and then she needed fertility treatments, but she and her husband couldn’t afford them, so they gave up.

I try not to traffic in emotional horror stories, but the truth is that you don’t know how common this experience is until you’re in your 40s. It’s common. And it is very, very hard for the women involved to feel like they missed their chance to have kids because someone convinced them to wait.

You’re in a better position than they were, because your boyfriend isn’t telling you to wait for him. He’s telling you to break up with him. And when someone says the words, “You should probably break up with me,” what they mean, nine times out of ten, is “I’m not sure about us, and even if you don’t dump me right now, I’ll probably dump you sooner or later.” When someone gets defensive and panicked, when someone says they don’t want to think about the future, when someone says they definitely don’t want kids now even though they understand that you can pretty much only have kids now if you want to avoid costly fertility treatments, what they mean is, “It’s time for you to dump me.”

No one wants to leave a good relationship. But you need to hear the words coming out of his mouth. That’s something I always had trouble with myself, back when I was dating a string of noncommittal men who didn’t like thinking about the future. I had trouble listening and comprehending. I had trouble hearing “I’m not sure” and “I might never be sure” and “Why do we have to talk about this right now?” and “Maybe you should just break up with me.” I had trouble hearing “I don’t know how I feel sometimes” and “I want to be ready, but I’m not.”

And even when my friends asked me, “Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s saying he’s not ready and he doesn’t know when he’ll be ready.” I would still say, “Yeah, but this is a good relationship. He just drags his feet about everything.” I would disagree with all outside opinions, even when they supported their arguments with the actual words coming out of my foot-dragging boyfriend’s mouth.

And then I would say, “I don’t understand. I really don’t get it.” I was like a lost person who doesn’t know what to do, so she lights her map on fire.

Your boyfriend might love you very much. But he doesn’t love you enough for your purposes at this moment in your life. You need someone to love you more than this. You deserve that. This experience doesn’t mean you’re unlovable, either. Know that. Some people fear the future more than they value love in the present.

Does your boyfriend take initiative in other areas of his life, or does he avoid making big life choices? Can you see him staying with you indefinitely, never breaking up with you, but never really committing to anything, either? Does he talk about things he wants badly, or does he seem to only want things when they’re imaginary? Is he a tiny bit depressed?

I’ve known a lot of men who struggle with forward motion. When I’ve dated these men, friends have told me, “Guys like that never really change.” And you know what? They really don’t. The same guys I knew who didn’t know what they wanted at age 34 still don’t know what they want at age 49 or 50. If they knew they wanted kids at 34 but they just weren’t ready yet, they spent their 40s talking about how they wanted kids but they just hadn’t found the right woman yet. If they found someone who seemed right, they inevitably broke up with that person, because it turned out she wasn’t quite right. And that was too bad, because they really did want to have kids. They liked imagining kids a lot.

Some people just can’t make the leap. They might enjoy musing about the future, but they can’t stand the idea that the present will change dramatically. They want to live exactly how they want, and they don’t want to compromise. They’re worried that they’ll have to give something up. They’re already nostalgic for five seconds ago. They fear change at a deep level.

What’s messed up is people like that often find a way to date people like you, people who can make decisions, who do want things, who aren’t afraid of change, but who DON’T KNOW HOW TO STAND THEIR GROUND YET.

So. You need to find some way to stand up for your future right now. I know it’s difficult. But it’s true for all of us. We all need to find the strength and the guts and the will to fight for our futures, if we want to be happy. We need to dare to want things, and we need to dare to say what we want out loud.

You say that your boyfriend “seems committed” to you. You two probably should have had a very concrete conversation about your plans for the future before you moved in together. You don’t like to push things, I can see that. But you need to learn how to speak up and ask questions. You need to understand that you deserve to gather information. You don’t have to just go with the flow. You have a right to ask for more.

So you don’t just need to break up with this guy. You also need to figure out how to fight for your dreams. You need to believe in your dreams. You need to believe in them even after you break up with your boyfriend, and after he moves out. (Somehow I have a feeling he moved in with you, and not vice versa.) You need to believe in your dreams even when you’re dating again and you hate it.

I had my second kid at age 39 and I don’t really feel like an older mother. You have to do what makes sense to you, but personally, I don’t think you have some ethical obligation not to raise a kid alone past a certain age. Honestly, I think you’re putting undue pressure on yourself with that belief and blocking your path to what you want for no reason. I wouldn’t normally quibble with someone’s beliefs on this front, but in your case, it sounds like that’s a pattern with you. You look for reasons why you can’t get what you want, why you don’t deserve what you want, why you should settle for less.

I get it. I was a settler, way back in the day. I settled for whatever was around. I saw this as virtuous. I felt like it was honorable to take less than I deserved. I thought it was cool, too, not to want too much. Big, unrealistic dreams were embarrassing. Wanting to be with someone who was really sexy and had an actual career and loved me like crazy was just absurd. What a shameful delusion! Don’t tell anyone you want that! Don’t say it out loud, you’ll look like an idiot!

These days, I do whatever the fuck I like at all times. I do not mind looking like an idiot. I am not ashamed. I want to strongly recommend this lifestyle to you. This includes bailing on people when I’m not in the mood (not if they’re depressed or old or sick, obviously). This includes never pursuing work that sounds lackluster. This includes throwing exactly the sort of party I feel like throwing and inviting the exact people I feel like seeing. This includes writing whatever I feel like writing. This includes quitting work early for the day to read a book. This includes saying things like, “I know we were going to cook, but let’s go out tonight instead, what do you think?” Small things and big things. I ask for what I want. I proceed according to my own compass.

The honest truth is that I can’t describe to you just how dramatically the minute-to-minute experience of being alive changes after you learn how to do exactly what the fuck you want to do without imbuing every tiny choice with a heavy moral weight. I don’t know how to paint a vivid enough picture for you of the cell-level shifts in your sensations, once you learn how to stand up for yourself, once you learn how not to do ALL OF THE COMPROMISING anymore, once you can say to yourself, “I am not going to settle for less than I deserve” — and you know that you won’t. There’s nothing quite like trusting yourself to honor what’s best for you. It’s much more relaxing than that uncertain state you’re always in when you don’t trust your own words and you don’t stick to your own commitments.

Part of the joy of living this way comes from knowing that you’ll have your own back. It makes everything possible, and it makes anything possible.

For example, I keep thinking I should take a week off from work just to write songs. I haven’t written a song in a few years, but I woke up yesterday and I thought, It’s time to write songs again. This is the kind of thing you do when you care about yourself and you don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks about what you do. You don’t feel overwhelmed as often, because you don’t constantly second-guess yourself. You simply make time for what you love. You find a way to honor your needs.

So yes. Dump your boyfriend, who is perfectly wonderful and lovely but who is really, truly not ready for kids and who should love you much more, honestly. He doesn’t sound very committed to you, kids or no kids. He’s not solid enough to warrant your devotion. And then, once he’s gone, I want you to work on loving yourself a lot more than you do right now. I want you to crawl out from under this faintly depressed, afraid, confused, compromised place you’ve been living in, and I want you to start asking for more. I want you to WANT more.

You can have the life you want. I want you to believe that for a change.

I have a friend who’s raising a baby alone right now. She’s often overwhelmed and she’s often overworked and she’s also filled with joy every single day. You need to widen your vision of what’s possible. You need to stop regretting lost time. It’s time to seize the future and grab it around the neck and wrestle it to the ground. You need to aim high for a change. You need to let your imagination lead you toward a life that’s much bigger than anything you’ve imagined before.

I know that sounds grandiose. Sometimes when I’m writing this column, I sound like someone I never thought I’d become. But it’s strange how good it can feel to find myself on unfamiliar ground, and instead of feeling afraid or unnerved, I just feel grateful.

I know that this moment is incredibly difficult for you. But it’s time to take a leap. Stop worrying so much about what you do and don’t deserve and follow your heart. You aren’t too old to start. You are very, very young. Stop measuring your life against someone else’s imaginary timeline and START LIVING.

There is more love in this world for you. Believe that. Your future is wide open. Don’t be afraid. Learn to cultivate faith in the future. Learn to cultivate faith in yourself.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘I Want Kids, But My Boyfriend Isn’t Ready!’