Samantha Eyler is very much in love with a man called C. This is one of the main reasons she wants to have a baby with him. And one of the main reasons she doesn’t.
In its cover story this week, TIME magazine pointed out that for many women, having children seems like an increasingly irrational choice. I’ve wanted children for as long as I can remember, yet I surprised myself by thinking that maybe the writer had a good point.
“You just want a baby because you want someone who will be forced to go along with you and love you whenever you decide to pick up and go somewhere else,” said one of my best friends, half-jokingly, half-reproachfully, several months ago during one of our frequent conversations on when and if we should have children. Her comment stung. It was proof that, to her—and I’d say probably the majority of my family and friends—I’m still defined by three things:
1) Wanderlust. I’ve moved 33 times in my life of not-quite 27 years, have traveled to at least a dozen countries and lived in five of them, and am now settled in Colombia, a long way from my Midwestern roots.
2) A soap opera–like string of unstable romances. For most of my adult life I lived as a renegade monogamist, having serial affairs that left me hating myself, unable to find the strength to leave destructive relationships but then precipitously jumping out of marriages—two of them—that were apparently healthy and happy.
3) An unflagging but inexplicable desire to start a family. In the context of the above, most of my friends and family reasonably assumed this wish to be irrational or maybe even dangerous to my as-yet unborn children.
Deep down I’ve always known that these three traits are rooted in a search for an external source of love, validation, and security. Raised in an authoritarian, evangelical home, I learned young to be a people-pleaser and not to trust myself, because my own judgment was obviously tainted beyond remedy by original sin. My primary criteria for whether I started, ended, or stayed in a romance was how good or bad that person made me feel about myself, or whether there was someone better close by who made me feel even better.
I had an affair six months after my second wedding and my husband demanded a divorce. Everyone said I should just take some time out and be alone for a bit. But I immediately started seeing C, justifying myself with the baby argument: On the road to 30, I wanted to start a family, and time was trickling away in my search for good father material. That was an excuse, and a lame one at that. I clearly just needed my “fix” of validation.
But aghast at my own cheating history and the string of broken hearts behind me, I decided to try something different with C. He, like me, is the black sheep in a highly religious family, and, also like me, tried to patch his emotional isolation with lots of infidelity-plagued romances. We agreed from the beginning to give each other the benefit of the doubt about our pasts but to be realistic about our needs, both sexual and emotional. We decided on committed non-monogamy.
We had no idea what we were in for, really. Nearly a year into our non-monogamy experiment, I can report that it has been absolutely the most painful but intense growing experience I’ve ever been through. And I have an inkling that for C it has been the same. I forced myself to let go of him instead of clinging—and suddenly I was plagued by a sense of inadequacy, insecurities, fear of being left adrift without someone to reverberate approval in my direction whenever I needed it.
Instead of blindly running into other people’s arms (an option that’s open to both of us but that neither of us has actually used much), we’ve both slowly cultivated connections to other people and tried to help each other through the scary parts. When we’re together, we reassure each other. When we’re not, I try to sit with the loneliness and fear, and train myself to believe—with loving-kindness and mindfulness meditation, and the invaluable help of TinyBuddha.com—that he’s coming back, and that I’m allowed to take up the space I occupy without asking for permission or validation.
He always comes back, and so do I. Part of me is still fragile and raw and scared. But my psychology has made a radical shift. The sense of security and agency I now feel is both entirely new and profoundly liberating.
In the place of need, love has become the operating principle of our partnership, and it’s beautiful. I’m learning to accept emotional intimacy with gratitude while it is there, and not build a wall when it’s not or when C’s other relationships push my emotional hot buttons. It’s a careful balance between keeping yourself open to connection and yet not expecting someone else to be there for you all the time.
So, now you have the context. Back to the question at hand.
C and I have started discussing whether we want to have a child. And suddenly I am seeing the matter through different eyes. I’ll leave aside for now the debate over whether a non-monogamous household is a good environment in which to raise a child. (This seems to be a moot point now that I live in Colombia. Brash infidelity is so rampant here that I’d hazard a guess that the majority of relationships are de facto non-monogamous ones. Better for a child, I think, to grow up knowing his mother has a boyfriend than to discover that she has a boyfriend and has been lying about it for 10 years.)
The old me wanted a child to fulfill an emotional need that now I’m learning to fill for myself. To the new me, my longtime desire for a child now seems a bit insane. I love kids, but among my friends who are new moms, it’s obvious that parenthood puts an almost-unbelievable strain on women’s sense of self, body image, relationships, finances, career, you name it.
Am I really prepared to forgo a good night’s sleep for basically the first two years of my child’s life? Can my already-meager earnings take the hit that comes along with motherhood? But more importantly, can my newfound sense of self survive the onslaught on personal identity that comes with the all-consuming task of being a mother?
With regard to relationships, I’ve seen firsthand how having a child strains the intimacy between partners. Exhausted new parents lose their energy not just for sex but for communicating and in general just being there for one another. If I’ve learned anything about non-monogamy, it’s that it requires a deep reserve of energy for communicating, problem-solving, and understanding and validating not just my own needs but also my partner’s. We’re doing it, but will we still be able to do it when a child is waking us up five times a night? And always, looming at the back of my mind, is the scariest question of all: If this relationship doesn’t last forever (and, there’s a very large statistical chance that any relationship won’t last forever, monogamous or not), then what?
But, then again, I’m more stable and settled than ever before. Maybe now I have more emotional capacity to love my children and care for them unselfishly. Maybe having a child is the same sort of crazy process of learning to love without fear and expectation that we’ve confronted while growing into non-monogamy.
C, for his part, is unwavering in his desire to have a family, and, after everything we’ve been through together, I know he’ll be an incredible father and loyal partner. Sometimes I look at his beautiful Cheshire-cat smile with my insides bursting with affection for him and can’t imagine a better way to honor this amazing love of ours than with a child.
But then I think…
“God, how irrational is that?”
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Bogotá, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.