You're in a relatively new relationship that seems to be headed in the right direction. You've been together long enough to know that there are many compatibilities between you and your partner — you share many likes and dislikes, you've traveled together and did not want to kill each other by the end of the trip, and you've met each other's families and seem to get along well with them. You're becoming cautiously optimistic that your partner could really be the "one". And then your partner drops a bombshell: he or she does not want to have children, while having children plays a central role in your hopes and dreams.
The decision to have children is one of the most important choices that partners in a committed relationship with face. To many (but certainly not all) people, the promise of being a parent is a large part of their identity. When they are in a committed relationship and expect that they will eventually have children, it can be a shock and huge disappointment if they learn that their partner does not share their dream. Having children (or not having children) also makes a substantial impact on the "culture" that characterizes the relationship. When the children are young, much of the shared experience in the relationship is devoted to caretaking and parenting. When a couple does not have children, they have more time to define and pursue shared interests and passions (e.g., travel, rock climbing, involvement in spiritual practice).
Because of the importance of this issue to one's individual identity, as well as to the identity of the relationship as a whole, it is imperative to address this issue before taking a step that solidifies your commitment to the relationship; for example, getting married. There is no question that broaching this topic is associated with a great deal of uncertainty. When is the right time to bring this up? What if my partner gets turned off, perceiving that I'm getting too serious too fast? What if my partner thinks I'm trying to box him into something, when I'm really just trying to gather information to determine whether this relationship is right for me?
Nevertheless, if having children is something that is important, and even essential to you, it is better to know your partner's views and preferences before you've gotten deep into the relationship. It is great when your dreams about childbearing match your partner's dreams about childbearing. But what do you do if you very much want children one day, and your partner does not?
It's not helpful to just assume that you'll be able to change your partner's mind. It's not that minds don't change, because they certainly can. But if you are actively trying to change your partner's mind, chances are that most of your interactions will begin to feel tainted by this issue. You become frustrated when your partner seems to be digging in his heels. She becomes frustrated when she perceives that you are badgering her about an issue about which she was already honest about her feelings. If you choose to pursue the relationship, it will be important to tolerate the uncertainty associated with the possibility that he might not change his mind. Critically examine just how important having a child is to you. If it is your #1 hope or dream, then you will likely be resentful if your partner does not "come around".
I often encourage my clients to view their sources of self-worth in a pie chart format. Think of all of the important ingredients to your unique conceptualization of a meaningful life, considering both the present and the future. Draw a circle, and allocate each one of these ingredients a corresponding slice of the pie. Because you might weight each ingredient differently, each ingredient might assume a differently sized space in the pie chart. Although each person’s pie chart is unique, the ingredients that I typically see in the pie chart include career, partner relationship, relationships with other family members, spirituality, physical and emotional health, various hobbies and passions (e.g., athletics, art), and, yes in many cases, being a parent.
Take a hard look at the size of the slice that you devoted to being a parent. Is it but one of many pieces that make up your view of a meaningful life? If so, perhaps other ingredients for a meaningful life are just as important as having children, and you would live a rich, meaningful life even if that piece of the pie were not fulfilled. But is the parenting piece of the pie one of the dominant slices? If this is the case, it is very likely that you will lack fulfillment later on if you don't at least give childbearing a try. I always encourage my clients to build a rich and varied pie chart so that they have other pieces of the pie to carry them through in the event that one piece of the pie, such as becoming a parent, is disappointing. Nevertheless, if you know in advance that this piece of the pie is a central one for you, you might have to face the tough realization that your partner, no matter how great he or she is in many, many ways, is not right for you.
Furthermore, it is also important to consider the fact that there is more to the issue of whether or not to have children. How would you partner feel about adoption in the event that you have difficulty conceiving naturally? About using assisted reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization, which are expensive and often take a toll on the quality of one's marriage? About the use of a donor egg or donor sperm? Many couples agree, generally, that they want children, only to find that they have very different viewpoints of the lengths that they will go through to make it happen when they run into obstacles.
Although your partner might change his or her mind about having children, you cannot count on it. Only you can know whether you can truly accept not having children. If you have some doubt about your ability to be okay with not having children, you might have to make a hard decision. As painful as it is, you might choose to leave the relationship. At risk of being cliché, I'm reminded of a line from a song performed by band, Semisonic, in the late 1990s: "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Making the hard decision might give you an opportunity to find a partner who will help you to complete your pie chart in ways that you had not dreamed were possible.
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