The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have been married for six years and have a 1-year-old daughter. Before we got married, we agreed that we’d like two children. Recently my husband has been saying that he only wants one child. His reasoning is we can afford a better life with just one and he thinks he will be more stressed at work supporting two kids. He also thinks our daughter is a handful as it is.

While I am so grateful to even have one child, I know I’ll be very sad and disappointed to not have another. I would like for my daughter to grow up with a sibling, as I think it is a special relationship. I have loved being a mother, and would love to do pregnancy again and have another baby. I don’t want to compromise my marriage because of this, ending up with another child and a resentful husband. However, I don’t want to feel resentful myself if we don’t have another.

I recognize that children are expensive and a huge commitment, but I also know we can afford another. We both have good jobs and live within our means, and don’t have any debt beyond a reasonable mortgage and small student loans.

How do you recommend I make my case for another child? Or do I need to resign myself to being a mom of one?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

It sounds like your experience of being a parent has been different from your husband’s, and I think it will be important to step back and understand these differences so that you don’t get stuck in the binary position you’ve articulated—either convince your husband to have another child or live with resentment. Of course, your confusion and disappointment are understandable given that initially you both believed you wanted two kids. But remember, it was all theoretical back then. Now that there’s an actual baby in the house, let’s consider what the past year might have felt like to each of you.

First, there’s you: You’ve loved pregnancy, being a mother, the whole babyhood shebang. It’s been such a joyful first year that you want to add even more joy to your already happy lives. More cuddles and gummy smiles and Goodnight Moon? Yes, please!

And then there’s your husband (possibly): The baby arrived, and everything changed. Like many parents, he may have been blindsided by how much the mere existence of this tiny person has upended nearly every aspect of his life. Suddenly, he’s lost a significant amount of his freedom, sleep, time, social life, disposable income, energy, sex life, connection with you, and maybe even his very identity. He may feel overwhelmed, and while he loves your daughter and is a devoted father, the last thing he wants to do is go through a year like this again. In fact, if he could fast-forward a few years, maybe he would, just so that things would get easier and some normalcy would return to his life. More crying and diapers and demands placed on me? No, thanks!

It’s important to remember that his perspective may well change when you two aren’t so deep in the new-baby trenches, but it’s more likely to if there’s room in your relationship for his equally valid feelings. Right now, he probably wants to be seen and heard, not talked out of the way he feels.

Imagine for a minute that your situations were reversed: Your husband has had a glorious first year of parenthood—it’s been everything he dreamed it would be—but you’re completely overwhelmed. Let’s say that you suffered from postpartum depression and had trouble adjusting to the stress your daughter has put on your career and personal life. As she began sleeping through the night and communication and mobility were on the horizon, you could start to see the possibility of the family life you’d once envisioned. You’re so relieved by this thought that while you originally imagined having two children, now you’ve begun picturing a happy and manageable future with one. And just as you’re feeling that, your husband brings up his desire for you to get pregnant with No. 2.

“I don’t think I want to,” you say. “Pregnancy was hard on me. I often felt sick and I had to stop doing a bunch of things I love. I’m exhausted from the first pregnancy and this entire year, and while our daughter is delightful, she’s also a handful and I just can’t do this again.” You lay out another child’s potential impact on your career, lifestyle, stress levels, sanity, and well-being. And as you look in your husband’s eyes, anticipating the loving and empathic response he usually gives, instead he “reassures” you (that is, tries to “make his case”) that none of your worries will come to pass (after all, you’re financially comfortable, you don’t have debt, you live within your means).

Meanwhile, the baby has just vomited all over you, your boss is texting you about a project that’s due in the morning, you can’t remember the last time you showered or shaved your legs, much less had an uninterrupted adult conversation with a friend or saw a movie without animated characters. You believe that having a second child will make you miserable and perpetually stressed, while having one will allow you to be a wonderful mom. Yet your husband resents you and secretly thinks you’re selfish and unreasonable because you don’t want to do this all again after you said six-plus years ago that you wanted to.

By walking through this scenario, I’m not saying that you should simply defer to his wish to not have a second child. I’m saying that you two have more to learn about each other’s inner worlds by shifting the conversation from what (What should we do?) to how (How are you feeling about parenthood?). This is where your own backgrounds and childhoods come in. How did you both grow up? Were kids the center of your parents’ worlds or did your parents also have room for their adult lives and their marriage? Did either of your parents feel lonely or resentful that their spouse wasn’t attentive enough? Do you both have siblings, and what was the meaning of those relationships for both of you? How have your relational histories with nurturing and closeness informed your reactions to the intense neediness of a baby?

So instead of making your case or resigning yourself to resentment, take some time to understand each other’s position on a deeper level. You could agree to defer the conversation about whether to have a second child for a set period of time (say, six months, or a year). In that time (or more, or less), you might discover something about yourselves or each other that will shift one or both of you toward the middle. At the very least, it will provide relief from the standstill you’re at now by creating space for a conversation where feelings aren’t subject to rebuttal (“Yes, it’s true that kids are stressful, but … ”) and are welcomed as part of the process of figuring out what family means to both of you—and what yours will ultimately look like.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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