Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Long before my wife and I got married, we agreed that we didn’t want children. We love kids, but love our freedom and independence more. We’ve been happy to serve as the fun aunt and uncle to our friends’ and families’ kids all these years, and haven’t second-guessed our decision once.
Until now, that is.
We’re both turning 40 this year, and now that our chances to conceive are dwindling, I’m wondering if we’ve made the right choice. I know that having a child out of fear of regret is no reason to become a parent, but how do I know if we’ve made the right choice?
I haven’t yet told my wife about my sudden uncertainty, so I’m not sure if she feels similarly. I want to talk to her about it, but what if she thinks I’m crazy for reconsidering? What then?
I know that once the fertility window closes, it’s closed for good. But will I always look back and wonder what’s on the other side? Will not becoming a father leave a gaping hole in my heart for the rest of my life? And if my wife is unwilling to have the discussion, what do I do with all this angst?
Silent But Dadly
Dear Silent But Dadly,
One of the many maddening aspects of children is there’s no way to sort of have them. You either have children or you do not, which means that you have to make a concrete, firm choice with concrete, firm implications. There is no area for compromise.
Many of us spend much of our reproductive years putting off this decision because we know there’s always later, and later, and later. But, as you know, eventually the laters run out. The time for a choice is now, and the prospect of making this choice (or, in your case, re-making this choice) is understandably daunting.
When I was in my 20s, I was in love with a man who professed that he did not want to have children. I wanted to marry this man and, while I had assumed that I would one day have children, I was willing to reevaluate my choice in order to sustain our relationship. I read a great deal of childfree literature and thought about what it would be like to be an 80-year-old woman without children. And I decided not to have children. I told my friends I wasn’t going to have children. I told my mom that I wasn’t going to have children. I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters so I could be sure to have children in my life.
And then that man and I didn’t get married, and instead we broke up, and I was relieved, not because it meant that I could now have children, but because it meant I no longer had to decide. I could wait until later.
Today, 10 years later, I’m married to someone else. And I have a kid. I was once convinced I was going to be childfree and now I am childed up and here are some key differences between the two states of being:
Even though kids make life exceedingly more complicated, people who have children often want others to have children, too. The societal pressure to reproduce is intense because our society loves people who have children. I mean, we profess to love people who have children. We don’t actually love people who have children enough to provide decent paid maternity/paternity leave or flexible work schedules or affordable childcare. But we do give people who have children a certain social standing. When you have children, you power up to a new level of adulthood. You become stable and responsible and worthy of tax breaks.
You need to talk to your spouse. Tell her about your doubts. Ask her what she wants. And do so knowing that pregnancy and child birth are burdens that fall overwhelmingly on the woman. You logically understand that your wife would be the one to carry, birth, and then breastfeed the child, but you also have no idea what that actually means. Because having your body taken over for nine months by a fetus can be a horrifying experience.
If she agrees to have children your wife would be signing up for three months of exhaustion and nausea, followed by three months of not fitting into her clothes, followed by three months of really not fitting into her clothes, peeing all of the time, being kicked in the cervix from the inside, insomnia, carpal tunnel, joint pain, swollen feet, constipation, and then, finally, the excruciatingly painful and bloody experience of giving birth. Even after giving birth her body is not her own. And I’m sure you’ll be there to help, but know that you won’t be able to do any of this actual work for her. The mess and tedium and inconvenience of growing and then birthing a new life will fall on her. It is a burden that you cannot carry.
This sounds as though I’m pushing you toward you not having children, but that is not the case. I want to give you as much information as possible so you can make this decision without romantic images clouding your judgment. It is as easy to imagine a more perfect future as it is to long for a moment of choice that has since passed. The difficulty comes in choosing to step out of one world and enter an unknown other. Passing from a life without children to a life with them is going from black and white Kansas to Technicolor Oz—you are suddenly there blinking, blinded. What are these colors? Everything is new. You had no idea.
My husband and I bought our son a small pop-up circus tent for his first birthday. The tent is in our living room and we use it to hold his stuffed animals. Last night, after dinner, my son and I went into the tent. We sat in there together for a while. Every so often my son would be overcome by whatever super-important ultra-secret mission toddlers are always careening away on and would run out of the tent to then, just seconds later, turn around and run back into the tent, back to my arms, as fast as he could. He would hug me, smile, giggle, and then immediately let go and set off again into the living room in pursuit of what Teddy Roosevelt described as “action.”
As I sat in the tent, waiting for my son to return, I thought of what life must be like for someone so new and so close to the ground. I decided to amaze him. I picked up a small stuffed gorilla and threw it out of the tent. It sailed into the living room and landed beside my son. His face opened with astonishment. I continued, throwing one stuffed animal after another out of the tent. My son marveled at the zebras, dinosaurs, and lions flying through the air. He screamed with laughter, shook with joy, and ran to catch them. He was delighted, fully present, fully happy. This moment was predicated by physical discomfort, pain, exhaustion, and postpartum depression. This moment will be followed by the terrible two’s, adolescence, frustration, boredom, and even more exhaustion. But in this moment I was on the ground, fully present, and fully in love. I was sitting on the floor of a stupid pop-up circus tent in my living room, tossing stuffed animals at a toddler, glowing in the reflected light of my child’s joy.
So, do you want to have children? Ask yourself that question, quick at first, and then slowly. Peer into the question, sit with it quietly. Some people regret never having children, and others regret the children that they have. You can’t let fear of regret guide you because you’ll surely have small moments of regret either way. Let what you want guide you. Do you want to spend an evening sitting on the floor, stoking your child’s joy? Do you want to give up your freedom for a minimum of 16 years? Do you want to fall completely in love with a new life? Are you cool with not going out to brunch for six years straight?
Neither choice is right. Neither choice is, actually, a choice. Wanting to have children does not mean that you will have them, just as not wanting to have children does not mean that you are naturally sterile.The cruel reality is that you can search your heart and decide to have children and find that you are not able to do so.
The process of having children is the process of giving life. The process of not having children is the process of finding life. Both reveal, over and over again, how small we are, and how little choice we actually have.
So, either way, whatever you pick, work to be gentle with yourself. Work to be grateful. Work to know that a good life isn’t determined by whether or not you have children, but by how you live in your choice.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.