When Your Parenthood Goals Conflict With Your Partner’s

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When my colleague Olga wrote last month about how people decide whether to have children, she talked to a woman named Isabel Caliva, who’d been on the fence about parenthood until she read a Rumpus advice column that helped her think about the choice in terms of what losses she’d most regret later. For Isabel, that was a relief: “It changed my perspective from having to make the right choice to just deciding.”

But while parenthood is a deeply personal decision, it doesn’t just affect one person. And some readers faced a wrenching choice when they had to weigh their own desire for children or for a child-free life against potentially losing or damaging relationships with their significant others. One grandmother writes:

I became pregnant and delivered a child at age 28, five years into my marriage. Both my husband and I were thrilled at the time and still are delighted with our wonderful, loving, and successful daughter. The conflict came with the decision to have another child. We had talked about multiple children before marriage at at a very young age. After the birth of our daughter my husband was adamant: No more children. He “didn’t want the added responsibility.” I was hurt and shocked but deferred to his decision.

Now, at age 67, I wish I had another child and possibly more grandchildren. It has not changed my view of life, and I still am married to the same man, and I love him still. But I regret that decision, or at least that I did not resolve my feelings then.

Another reader ended a relationship over a disagreement like this one—and although she doesn’t regret it, her life has changed in ways she didn’t expect:

I never wanted kids growing up, but every single last person told me a switch would flip when I was in my late 20s because that’s what happens with women. I believed it, and when I met the love of my life who did want kids, I didn’t see it as an insurmountable issue. After all, I was supposed to change.

I moved in with my ex when we were 22 and the kids issue seemed light-years away—until it wasn’t. When we hit 29, the issue of whether or not to have kids came to a crisis point. He desperately wanted three or four kids, and I couldn’t stand the thought. It took us a year of arguing to finally decide to separate, and it was very traumatic since it was our only relationship issue.

Plot twist: I now want kids.

I met my current husband when I was 32, and we both entered the relationship not wanting kids. The thing is, about a year ago I started watching my friends and cousins with their kids, and something did start to change.

The easy thing to say would be that now that I’m 36, I’ve done all of the things I wanted to: I got a graduate degree, launched my career, am making good money, have traveled extensively, and had a ton of life experiences. It would also be easy to say I look at people I know parenting and see the positives now, and see how these people aren’t “moms”—they’re the same people who now have kids. I love the idea that I could still be myself, only with a kid. All of this is true, but something more fundamental and internal shifted as well. I simply want kids in a instinctual way that I didn’t at all before.

I have not told many people about my switch. The few people who I have told have called me a hypocrite or implied I was stupid for not having kids with my ex—or, even worse, that I “met the right guy this time,” which caused me to change my mind. The problem with that argument is, I really, really didn’t want kids in my 20s. If I had had kids on my ex’s timeline, the feeling of wanting kids wouldn’t have happened until my hypothetical kids were 6 to 9 years old, and what kind of a parent would I have been? What kind of a life would that have been, saddled with little people I absolutely didn’t want?

If you’ve found yourself in that position—and as Jessica Valenti noted in 2012, it’s a lot more common than some might assume—we’d like to hear your story. Please send us a note at hello@theatlantic.com, and we’ll post the responses anonymously.