BIANCA BAGNARELLI

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,

I have been seeing my girlfriend for a year and four months. We got together quickly, at a tumultuous time. Six months earlier, I’d left an abusive relationship, and my ex, who did not take it well, was in our lives for a while. That has all died down, and I have been really enjoying getting to know my girlfriend and meeting her family and friends.

The issue is that she is 38 years old and wants to start a family right now. I am 34 and not sure. She has always made it perfectly clear that she wants to have children. I, however, had always been unsure of how a family would happen for me, a gay woman who for many years wasn’t in a healthy long-term relationship. I had, to a certain extent, made peace with not being a parent, and getting into this relationship has been a bit of an Oh, this is now a possibility moment.

It just feels like a huge decision, completely life-altering, and one I don’t want to rush. But I know I’m an incredibly indecisive person. I tend to weigh my options and go over them again and again. I understand how important having kids is to my girlfriend, but I feel like I can’t decide based on her biological timeline. I worry that a forced decision could lead to resentment down the line, but I also don’t want to lose her—and I probably will.

I’ve asked her for time, but she’s worried that waiting any longer will diminish her chances of having a biological child, especially because she could wait a long time and I could still be in the same place of not knowing. She has said that she would consider adoption but would like to try to have her own child first.

I feel like a terrible communicator; in heated situations, I say the wrong things or clam up and find it hard to get my points across. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous
Liverpool


Dear Anonymous,

The decision about whether to have kids is one of the few truly irreversible decisions in life, so I understand why you’d want to take time to think about it. But I wonder if instead of focusing on answering the do-I-don’t-I question (and getting nowhere with it), you can consider your situation more broadly.

Let’s start by going back to what happened when you two became a couple. You had recently gotten out of a difficult relationship that didn’t end well, and it sounds like the shadow of your ex loomed over the beginning of your current relationship. Even so, you were enjoying the experience of a healthier relationship, part of which included open communication, at least on your girlfriend’s part: She told you up front that she definitely wanted to have children. I imagine that when you heard this, you experienced a combination of excitement (Hmm, maybe having a family in a stable relationship would be nice one day), anxiety (Holy crap, being a parent? Me?), and abandonment terror (If I share how I really feel, my girlfriend will leave me).

In other words, you felt ambivalence, and it sounds like you have shared that with her. But there are many ways to express ambivalence, ranging from “I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure I’ll want kids” to “I’m not sure, and it may take me a few years to figure this out” to “I’m not sure, but I’ve just come to a place where I was at peace with not having kids, and right now I don’t think that’s likely to change.”

Those are very different flavors of ambivalence, and this might be where your communication has gotten tripped up. For instance, your girlfriend probably wouldn’t have pursued a relationship with you if, when you met, you’d told her in a straightforward way that you don’t know how you feel about having children and couldn’t imagine making this decision in the near future.

So where does that leave you? Well, the goal right now isn’t to make a decision before you’re ready (and you’re not). The goal is to learn how to be a good partner and have a healthy relationship, even if this particular relationship might end. And this means two things: (1) gaining a better understanding of your ambivalence (and your indecisiveness more generally), and (2) learning how to communicate in a more direct way.

Someone can be stuck in ambivalence about having kids for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people who had troubled relationships with their parents growing up are afraid of repeating those patterns, worried that they won’t know how to give their children something that they themselves didn’t get. For those whose attachment needs weren’t met, the idea of being responsible for a child can also trigger resentment that goes something like: I still haven’t gotten my own needs met, so the last thing I want to do is sacrifice my needs for someone else. Other people may have seen friends’ relationships suffer once they had children, and are afraid of losing the connection they currently have with their partner. Many people also hesitate to have kids because of the financial and professional adjustments that might be required. A therapist can help you to explore what’s going on for you, which in turn will help you know what you want.

A therapist can also help you learn to communicate more effectively, and you can start by having a conversation with your girlfriend that goes something like this: “I know you want to have a child right away, and I want you to have the opportunity to do this before it’s too late. I love you very much, but I’m not ready to make that decision yet, and I don’t imagine being ready anytime soon. I’ve decided to see a therapist to help me understand more about why this decision has been so hard for me and to get more clarity on what I really want. I also struggle sometimes to tell you how I really feel, and I want to work on that too. But all of this might take a very long time, and I want to be clear with you about that. Can we talk about where this leaves us as a couple?”

There are various possibilities here. Your girlfriend might want to try to become pregnant now—and stay in the relationship with you, knowing that you are on board as her girlfriend only, not as a co-parent. You, of course, would have to be interested in dating a woman who’s about to become a mother, and then in dating the mother of a young child—but again, not (at least initially) as a co-parent. Alternatively, your girlfriend might decide that she wants a partner who’s eager to raise a child with her, and that whether she’s pregnant or not, staying with you will prevent her from meeting a more compatible partner. Or your girlfriend might choose to be with you no matter what, knowing full well that she’ll be putting herself at risk of never having a biological child. Whatever the outcome, at least there won’t be any doubt as to where you both are on this issue.

Now is a good time to enlist a therapist’s help, because if you do ultimately become a family together, the self-awareness you’ll gain will give you a much stronger foundation to weather the challenges of raising kids. And if you split up now, you’ll go into your next relationship with the confidence to have an honest, forthright conversation early on about where you both stand on the kid question, something most people dating in their 30s are thinking about when choosing a partner. Either way, you’ll know your heart and mind better than you do now, and that will serve you well in any relationship you choose.


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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