Dear Therapist: My Wife Is Pregnant With a Child Neither of Us Wants

Our birth-control methods failed, and we can’t afford a second child financially or career-wise.

An illustration of a man and a woman putting together a crib
Bianca Bagnarelli
Editor’s Note: On the last Monday of each month, Lori Gottlieb answers a reader's question about a problem, big or small. Have a question? Email her at

Don't want to miss a single column? Sign up to get "Dear Therapist" in your inbox.

Dear Therapist,

My wife and I recently discovered she's about six weeks pregnant. This is devastating news for both of us. We have a 17-month-old daughter and we planned on having only one child. The birth control we had been using failed. I tried to have a vasectomy nine months ago and my wife objected at the doctor's office without citing reasons. She said she would get an IUD instead, but she was unable to get the IUD, because doctors had to remove a fibroid first. She learned about the pregnancy at the doctor's office during a consult on removing the fibroid.

Since hearing the news, I have been honest with her about my feelings. I reminded her that we simply cannot afford a second child and we can kiss our joint career aspirations goodbye if we have another baby. She agrees with me. More important, I said our marriage will be over in the sense that we will just be co-parents rather than lovers because I will resent her, and the baby will always be a reminder of my career sacrifice and our indebtedness.

Although I’ve been clear that I don't want another baby, I’ve told her that this is ultimately her decision and I will support her in whatever she decides—even though I was denied the right and choice to do with my body as I pleased when I wanted a vasectomy. We're both Christians, and I know she will struggle with making the decision I prefer and might regret it afterward. I don't think I will share those regrets, but if she keeps the pregnancy I will likely enter into a state of lifelong depression and feel stuck in an unhappy marriage. I feel like there are only bad outcomes with either choice. What do we do?

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Dear Anonymous,

This sounds like a difficult situation for both you and your wife, one that leaves you feeling trapped between two very bad alternatives. But I think that if you step back from the immediate crisis, you may start to see things differently, because something positive can indeed come out of this stressful time.

To help you get there, I want to start not with the pregnancy and its potential effects on your finances, careers, and sex life, but with your marriage itself and what happened between the two of you leading up to this pregnancy.

You’ve expressed quite clearly why you don’t want to have a second child, but I’m not sure that your wife has shared her feelings with you in the same detail. For instance, after learning that she was pregnant, you “reminded” her of the reasons you both don’t want this baby—but most people don’t need reminders about how they feel. Similarly, intellectually she “agrees” with you about the constraints a second child might put on your finances and freedom (career or otherwise), but a person can think one thing (A baby will be expensive and require sacrifice) and feel another (Yet I still want one).

When you describe this pregnancy as “devastating news for both of us,” you may want to consider the possibility that she’s not devastated after all, or at least not to the degree you are. It’s also possible that her devastation stems from a different source than yours does. In other words, she might be devastated not because she feels exactly the way you do about having a second baby, but because you’ve made it clear to her that having a second baby would launch you into a “lifelong depression” and make you resent her for the rest of your lives. It’s very hard to share your true feelings when you know that your partner will resent you for having them, and that is why some of your assumptions here may not be accurate. In fact, your resentment goes back to the vasectomy. No matter what you two decide, it’s this resentment that will wreak havoc on your lives more than having or not having this baby will.

Let’s consider what happened at that vasectomy appointment. At the time, neither of you discussed why your wife didn’t want you to go through with the vasectomy, and it sounds like you still haven’t had that conversation. I have a feeling you were both afraid to engage in that discussion because of what might come to light—that perhaps your wife wasn’t as ready as you were to close off the possibility of a second child, but was reluctant to say so because of the impossible dilemma she felt she was in: live with her husband’s resentment for the rest of her life, or live without a child she may have wanted for the rest of her life.

Now, though, you have an opportunity to handle the pregnancy decision differently from how you handled the vasectomy decision: You can make room for all of your feelings. If you don’t, your marriage will likely be exactly as you anticipate—full of bitter resentment, in both directions. And that’s how you currently have it set up. By making her decide, you get to take the moral high ground whenever life becomes inconvenient. See, we can’t afford this vacation I really want. See, I can’t take the job I really want. See, we don’t have the space to be intimate anymore. And all because you didn’t let me get a vasectomy. You know what will be the end of your marriage, more than the baby? The double bind you’ve put your wife in. It’s your decision, honey, but either I’ll resent you for the rest of our lives, or you’ll resent me for the rest of our lives.

When I suggested that a positive outcome to this is possible, the outcome I had in mind was that this experience would improve your marriage by opening up a more honest dialogue between you, and perhaps you can do this with the help of a couples counselor. There will be pros and cons to either decision, and as the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in his book Stumbling on Happiness, people are very bad at predicting how something that seems devastating in the present will make them feel in the future. I know that this decision feels fraught—and of course it’s a significant one—but what you learn about each other in the process of making it will be far more important to the quality of your lives going forward than whichever choice you make.

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.