It’s not like arguing over whether to binge-watch House of Cards or Girls. When it comes to the question of whether or not to have kids, “yes” and “no” responses basically carry the weight of… a life. More than one, even. If you and your partner are at odds on this issue, it doesn’t (necessarily) spell the end, but it does require some thoughtful actions.
1. Check your coupledom: Do you like being together? When the question of kids comes into your mind, Dr. Bob Wright, co-author of The Heart of the Fight, a guide to the most common types of fights couples have and advice on how to deal with them, recommends that you tackle this doozy first. Do the two of you really enjoy being a couple? Run through the same list of green-light signals you would if you were considering marriage, but go even deeper. Are you fully engaged, growing, learning and moving deeply into a relationship that will grow with or without children? It matters. “The real question is never about the kids,” says Wright. “It’s about who you are as a couple underneath the kids conversation.”
2. Take the time to talk and talk and talk. Get curious. What are you hoping kids will bring to your life that you don’t experience now? What are you afraid of if you do have kids? What happened in your parents’ marriages after having kids? “These questions help foster understanding between partners,” says Dr. Judith Wright, Bob Wright’s co-author and wife, noting that the discussions raised will help deepen your relationship whether or not you choose to become parents.
3. Keep calm and listen to whatever your partner has to say. While it may be instinctual to run for the hills if someone says, “I don’t want kids,” and you do (or vice versa), the best thing to do is simply listen. “Nothing is worse than not wanting children and feeling afraid to talk to your partner about your fears,” says Dr. Jill Weber, clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy — Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. “Sometimes this alone can help a person feel safer taking the child plunge.” You’re on the same team — you’re trying to shape your future together — so don’t turn it into a fight. Give this discussion some time. It shifts and evolves. The only way to get to the real answer for both partners is to start the conversation, and then sit and really hear each other.
4. Get past “yes” and “no” — those answers are way too simple for this complex discussion. Everyone, even someone who ends up with a brood of six, has felt some ambivalence about having children. That’s totally cool. Just explore your particular mix of “yes,” “no” and “not sure” by talking it out. “From fears of what kind of parent you may be, to fears about what will this do to your relationship, to hopes that children will bring you closer, add to your life, or even to make your parents and in-laws happier…getting underneath the issue is the most important part,” Judith Wright says. “That’s how you bond more intimately and start practicing the skills you’ll need to navigate parenting if you do choose that route.”
5. Dig into childhood issues. The thought of having a little one can stir up past pain from your own childhood, so be sensitive to that for yourself and for your partner. Talking through it with each other can work, but a third party, like a therapist, may be more able to help. “Children can sometimes symbolize the chance to ‘get it right,’ the chance to have them succeed in the world in places where you’ve felt stopped,” says Judith Wright. Heavy, right? Serious discussions like this can be hard, but if you find it impossible to be honest and vulnerable with your partner, circle back to No. 1.
6. Work with “not right now.” The time for having kids will never feel perfect. Who can pinpoint a moment when it seems like it’ll be convenient to take on all responsibility for another life for years? “A simple way to tease that out is to set a deadline,” says Bob Wright — a specific date, like a birthday or anniversary or even a milestone, like when you reach a certain salary or move to your dream city or have a chance to travel together. Then, when you get to that point… talk again. (See a trend here?)
7. Avoid ultimatums. Yeah, this is a thing that applies to so many relationship topics, and kids especially. Instead of forcing someone’s hand and possibly fostering future resentment, Weber suggests “making room for the anxiety and ambivalence to be present so you can support one another around it.”
8. Know when no means no. Adding kids to your family (yes, two people are a family too) is a huge life-changing thing that is forever. “If someone is clearly and consistently saying they don’t want kids, believe them,” says Weber. And that goes for you if you feel that way too. “It’s hard enough to parent, let alone doing it with someone who doesn’t really want to be there in the first place.”