Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the Sugars hear from two 34-year-old women in loving relationships. But they are in very different predicaments involving the desire to have children. The first writer says she strongly does not want kids, but her husband does.
The second writer says she and her husband both want children. But she has had miscarriages and now wants to consider adoption. Her husband won't even talk about it.
In both situations the question is the same: Is the disagreement over whether to have — or not to have — children worth ending a marriage over?
I am a 34-year-old woman who has been happily married for five years. My husband and I are both in the military and have made it through six deployments while together. Currently, I am transitioning out of the military and trying to figure out what career to pursue.
My husband sees this transition period as a great time to have children and start a family. I, however, do not want children. He has always known how I feel about kids, but I think he got married to me with the idea that he could change my mind, or that biology would flip some switch and I would want to have kids. It hasn't. I feel horrible that I can't give him what he wants. I feel that there is something wrong with me that I don't want kids. All women are supposed to want kids. Why don't I?
I have thought that I should just have a baby for my husband, but I know that is a terrible idea. I don't want to feel resentful toward him or the child, and I have told him as much. This has become a deep source of conflict in our marriage and I am completely to blame. Sugars, I love my husband and our life together and don't want anything to change. Please, help me figure out what to do. Do I have a baby anyway, or do I let my husband go so he can get what he wants?
Baby or Bust?
Cheryl Strayed: Baby or Bust, you are not to blame. We must not blame ourselves for the ways we want to live our lives. From the outset, you told your husband that you didn't want to be a mother. He is also not to blame for thinking you might change your mind. You're 34, and you've been married since you were about 29. A lot of people do change during those years. It's not completely unreasonable that he might think that you were going to be open to the idea of motherhood someday, but you never said you would be. I don't think you're going to get anywhere beating yourself up about not wanting kids.
Steve Almond: No one is to blame, but this started with unspoken wishes that weren't articulated. You can't assume anything about something as fundamental as wanting children. You face a long conversation with your husband about the sort of life you want to lead and the kind of life he wants to lead, and whether those two are compatible.
Cheryl: Either this relationship needs to end so your husband can go pursue the opportunity to become a father, or he needs to find a way to come to terms with the fact that you are not going to become a mother.
Steve: And you should not have a baby that you don't want. Baby or Bust, there's a part of you that's saying, should I just do this because I love my husband and our marriage? But what you really love are the current circumstances. The moment that you become pregnant, everything changes — not in a ruinous way, but in a way that might not be the experience that you want out of your life. You have to be honest with yourself and with your partner about that.
Cheryl: This is a really big decision you are in the midst of making, Baby or Bust. I encourage you to face it head on. It's not going to be easy, but you are both going to be the better for it.
I fear that my desire to be a mom will ultimately end my marriage. I am a 34-year-old woman married to a lovely, caring, supportive man. We have been together for almost a decade. We always had plans for a family, but had agreed to wait until I was close to finishing my post-graduate studies. He is eight years older than I am and had more urgency to start a family than I was comfortable with. We discussed and agreed on a time to "let nature happen."
I will spare you the details, but multiple miscarriages, endless doctors and tests followed. The doctors don't know what's wrong. They say they think it's "just bad luck." While these experiences were crushing, I continued working on my professional and personal goals, and I have processed my grief over not being able to carry a baby to term. I never envisioned my life without children. I am now comfortable with the idea of providing a loving home for one of the many children in need of love in the world.
My husband, on the other hand, is not interested in raising any children that aren't his biologically. I've brought up the subject in a variety of ways, but he is opposed to even the discussion of adopting a child. He says he would rather it just be the two of us than adopt. This breaks my heart. I know there is still a possibility of me carrying a pregnancy to term at some point, but without knowing what is wrong and the risks increasing with age, I'm terrified of having another miscarriage.
My husband wants to be "more aggressive," which would mean subjecting myself to hormones and blood thinners for no indication other than wishful thinking. I've been through it, and it was too physically and emotionally taxing.
Could it be this is the deal breaker? How can I convince my husband that the traditional model of having a baby is not the only way to make a family?
Full of Love with Empty Arms
Steve: This is one where it feels like there's the possibility of some negotiating space.
Cheryl: They both want to be parents. And that's where I would begin, Full of Love with Empty Arms. You have fears about pursuing it further when it comes to conceiving biologically. They are grounded in reality. You have had miscarriages. That's a miserable experience. It's terrifying, it's sad, it's heartbreaking, and it's physically and emotionally difficult. Your husband has fears too, about adoption.
You both need to discuss your thoughts. I do think that if your husband will not discuss it, or will not entertain options other than having a biological child, you have every reason to say, I need to end this relationship so that I can pursue motherhood. But I would encourage you to tell your husband that it has reached that kind of breaking point for you.
Steve: The question for him is, why is he not open to the possibility of raising kids that aren't biologically his own? He has a right to those feelings, but he also has an obligation to tell you what those feelings are about. I think you also owe him a further discussion about why you aren't willing to do any more fertility treatments. It might be that there is a little bit of room for you to say, for instance, "I'm willing to try biologically for another year, but if it doesn't work out, I need you to explore the possibility of what it would be like to be the parent of a child that's not yours biologically."
Cheryl: And compromise can bond you together. You are giving a little bit to each other, for the sake of a common vision. What are you willing to do for each other and to help each other down this path?
Steve: These are such complex letters that it's impossible to be definitive. The one common thread I see is that the women writing to us have to take ownership of their lives. They have to be willing to say, at the expense of possibly losing very important, powerful lover-relationships, "This is the life I want, and here's what I'm willing to sacrifice in order to make that happen."
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear from more people with disagreements over whether to have kids.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered on a future episode.