Help! My Husband and I Agreed to Be Child-Free. But Now I’m Changing My Mind.

Advice on manners and morals.
March 24 2014 2:35 PM

Free Not to Be Child-Free

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman who thinks she might want a baby after all, despite her husband.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Changing Your Mind About Having a Baby: Is it OK to change your mind about having a baby? My husband and I have been together for over five years, and one of the things that we agreed upon completely during that time was that neither of us wanted children. I truly never thought I would. Over the last few years, though, I have had many friends, family, and co-workers have children, and for the first time been exposed to the joys and awesomeness of having kids (instead of just the horror stories). And I’ve found that my thoughts are turning more and more toward wanting a child. I have brought this up with my husband many times, and each time the discussion is shut down with, “We agreed we weren’t going to have any kids.” I don’t know where my thoughts and feelings are going to land on this issue, but I guess I’m wondering, is it fair to end a marriage if I decide that a child is something that I truly want, when the marriage is based in part on a mutual understanding that nobody wanted kids? I’m turning 32 this year, so I’m aware that time will soon become a factor, if it hasn’t already.

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A: One of the interesting things about life is that it can present us with the fact that what we thought we knew absolutely about ourselves is wrong. Well, sometimes it’s not so much wrong, but it turns out what was right for one phase of our lives may be the opposite of what we want for another. I know there are many happily child-free people who have never wavered in their conviction. But I’ve often written that I think it’s a good idea for people to test their certainties—especially when it comes to having children—so I’ve heard from many people who knew they never wanted one, who then ecstatically send me pictures of their babies. Ideally, when you realize something you were certain about no longer is true, your partner has made the same shift, or is open to exploring it. As you are experiencing, it’s wrenching when this isn’t the case. More than that, biology sets a deadline and forces you to make life-altering decisions under pressure. You know that if you end your marriage in the hope you find a partner who wants children with you, you may not find this person.

Yes, you are trying to change a fundamental understanding of your marriage, but I don’t think it’s fair for your husband to simply shut you down. Tell him this is so important to you, and you feel so stymied in getting him to listen, that you want the two of you to go see a counselor. At the least that will help you clarify your short and long-term goals. If he refuses to go, and refuses to explore this with you, then that says something profound about what kind of life partner he is.

Q. Kids and Memorial Service/Funeral: The mother of my 8-year-old daughter’s day care provider just passed away. The kids all knew her as Grandma “Judy.” Should I bring my daughter to the memorial service? Is it appropriate for a child to attend the funeral of someone other than a very close friend or family member?

A: She wasn’t your daughter’s Grandma Judy, so I think it’s best not to bring a young child to a funeral service for someone you had more or less a professional relationship with. However, this would be a good opportunity to help your daughter understand about death and how it affects loved ones. Encourage her to make a card for her day care provider. She can draw a picture of Grandma Judy (or anything she likes) and write a couple of sentences about what made Grandma Judy so special. I’m sure your day care provider will treasure it.

Q. Coming to Terms With the Fact That Your Parents Aren’t Superheroes: I am 28 and my fiancé is 30. We’re both looking forward to getting married this year on our eighth anniversary. We come from very different cultural backgrounds but have found that our ideals and how we want to live our future lines up very well. Over the course of time, however, we’ve realized that it’s different than how our parents raised us, and that there are things in each of our parents that have begun to bother us. For example, my family overplans every vacation, and his family decides last minute that they’d like to get together for dinner, and puts the planning on us. We know our parents love us and I think are finally coming to terms with the fact that we don’t “need” them anymore. How do we adjust to 1) our understanding that the perfect image we had growing up isn’t a reality, and 2) help shape our relationships with our parents as adults? There are no major issues, we’d just like some advice from people who have been there.

A: I wonder if you and your fiancé are cognitive late-bloomers in other ways. I don’t have the literature in front of me, but from my own experience of having parents and then of becoming one, I’d say the realization that the people who are raising you have some serious failings hits hard by around, oh, 2 years old. It’s wonderful that both of you love and honor your families and their traditions. It’s also simultaneously true that your families can be big pains and impossible to deal with. Your parents never were superheroes, they are just people. And now that you’re both adults, you have to figure out a way to respect them and also assert your own independent needs (the latter is also something 2-year-olds are good at). That means when they make demands that don’t work for you, you politely decline. When the parents act shocked—as surely they will—just stay calm and recognize it’s all for their own good.

Q. Only Grandbaby: I am expecting my first (and only) child in a few months. This will also be the only grandchild on both sides. What my husband calls “The Christmas Wars” have already begun, with my dad sending multiple emails announcing he will not spend time with my mom (they’re divorced) and that I need to acknowledge his request and ensure their visits are scheduled apart. He also doesn’t want the other grandparents around. Other fun communications have arrived from the others, but it is mostly him. My husband said he wants to take our little family of three out of town for Christmas and leave all the craziness behind. The issue is that I am older than most first-time moms (40) and the grandparents are all well into their 70s, so they won’t have as much time to enjoy being grandparents, as they keep telling us. Is it OK for us to leave town with the new baby for his/her first Christmas? If so, how soon do we tell the family and what do we say?

A: At least you’re not coping with the breaking news that your parents aren’t perfect. I know that this winter has seemed unusually long-lasting, but last time I looked at the calendar, it showed we actually have three seasons to get through before we’re back to winter festivities again. You are about to have the only grandchild for people quivering with anticipation. However, if one of them, prior to the birth, is already throwing tantrums over how much attention he gets, you need to learn how to ignore and reduce such behavior. Tell him now that you don’t want any more demands from him on who visits and when. Say if the emails keep coming, you’re going to delete them without answering. Understand the rest of the grandparents are eager, but tell them you’re going to put a lid on everyone’s demands. Do not make plans to flee for Christmas. You will find that having a baby tends to change things a lot, including your energy level. It might also mean that those old people who are annoying you now turn out to be a godsend in a few months (maybe with the exception of your father).

Q. Re: Changing your mind about having a baby: From the wording of your response, it sounds like you are putting all the guilt and problems on the husband, wanting him to go see a counselor with his wife. That is so wrong. He went into this marriage (at the time) with a woman who didn’t want kids and HE still doesn’t want kids ... Now that she does you think he should change his mind. No he shouldn’t.

A: He’s in a marriage, so I think he has an obligation to at the least discuss with his wife the source of her feelings and give fair consideration to them. It’s really not beyond the bounds of imagination that people who don’t want kids in their 20s feel differently about it in their thirties. And it’s not much of a marriage when your spouse asks to talk to you about something profound your response is, “Asked and answered.”

Q. Travel Woes in My Marriage: I’m finally in a position to start traveling a bit off of the North American continent but my wife has a problem that makes this difficult. She suffers from crippling anxiety about flying. While medication could ease her 8-hour flight, she says that she’d be just as anxious during the whole trip knowing that the flight home is fast approaching. She also suffers from drowning anxiety, so taking the Queen Mary to Europe is out as well. I’ve never been outside of the U.S. and would love to see a bit of the world while I can, but doing so without my wife would be difficult if not impossible. Should I give up my desire to see Europe or should I live my life without letting my wife’s issues cripple both mine and hers?

A: Your wife needs the help of someone who treats phobias. If she agrees to go, obviously, the end point of treatment is that you both get on a plane, so you will have your answer as to whether or not it worked. If she refuses to even consider getting help, then I don’t see why you have to be limited to the driving radius of your home. Lots of couples vacation separately. Sure, it’s not ideal, but you don’t give any reason for your assertion that it would be virtually impossible.

Q. Re: His and hers vacations: I love to travel; my husband is a homebody. We usually take a together weekend each year, and then I’m off on my various trips, across the country or even overseas. I know he wouldn’t enjoy my trips, and I would be worried the whole time that he’s not. Plus: We are always so happy to see each other after a trip—we realize just how much we miss each other.

A: Lovely! And you sound so understanding I bet you are a great travel companion.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great week. It’s going to get warm someday, right?

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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