Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Ask Dr. Andrea is a series from The Lily with Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and advice columnist. She answers questions about relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Bonior, please send us an email.

Dear Dr. Andrea,

I am 31, and have been married for a year and a half. It hasn’t been the greatest year to be newly married. We have had a lot of financial stress like everyone else and I have also been worried about the health of my sister (who is immunocompromised) and my parents.

It’s made me do a lot of thinking about how I respond to stress and I am starting to believe that I don’t want to have children. I know that I shouldn’t automatically decide something now but this isn’t really because of the pandemic; it is more that the pandemic has shown me how exhausted I am worrying about other people, and that it is not really something that I will cope with well.

My husband wants kids no matter what and when I tell him I am having second thoughts, he says that it is a crazy time and that of course it makes sense to have doubts now. He doesn’t think we should be trying before a couple of more years have passed, so his attitude is that I will come around and we don’t have to worry about it now or discuss it now. But over these past few months my feelings have gotten more certain, rather than less. And if it is totally nonnegotiable to him and he wants kids no matter what, I feel like we need to figure this out now and it is not fair to wait.

—Brewing conflict

I do think there is a compromise here — not by having half a child, of course, but by neither expecting to have it all figured it out right at this moment, nor pushing it off for the years-long wait until he would be ready. The way I see it, this is a question of balancing several uncertainties. And the first step toward figuring out answers is to quantify those uncertainties as best as you can, so you at least know what you‘re dealing with, even if you can’t yet know the end result.

One uncertainty is whether your husband, if it really came down to it, would consider it a dealbreaker to not have children, to the point where he would want to be on a different path than being married to you. That’s uncomfortable, and not something he may want to ponder. But it’s something he needs to be thinking about, rather than kicking that can of possibility down the road for years.

Another uncertainty is whether you will feel the same at 33 or 35, or in post-pandemic life, than you do now. And no, I don’t want to be the condescending person who tells women “I’m sure you’ll change your mind.” That’s beyond obnoxious (and not logical). And I understand that it’s not the pandemic per se that is making you feel this way. But your feelings do still sound somewhat in flux: They are growing more certain, rather than being certain. That’s an important distinction. Plus, there’s the possibility that you may find better ways of adjusting to stress (a goal for us all) that help you cope better in the future, which could further change your mind. More time will help you know yourself better on this, but again, not years worth of time. That would just delay the calculation, rather than clarify it.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that not actively wanting to have children is not the exact same thing as children being a dealbreaker. I’m not suggesting, of course, that you choose to have children if you’re against the idea. But there are gradations of being on the fence. In most families, there’s probably one parent who was more on board than the other. Again, it all leads to the need to quantify things as much as you can.

So, these are the starting points that can lead to real conversations. They may not be easy or happy (unless you’re glossing over things, and not allowing yourselves and each other to be vulnerable and truthful, which will mean the conversations wouldn’t be useful in the first place). So, is your husband willing to start discussing? There are many reasons to avoid it: inertia, discomfort, fear and other daily stressors that take up your attention. And again, you need not figure out the answers right now. But if you can create the type of environment for real talking that feels safe, respectful and open, then that will serve you quite well in what will hopefully be a decades-long marriage: with children or without.

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