The Vine: September 5, 2012
I've been with my boyfriend for 5 years, living together for 2+ of those years. Near the beginning of our relationship I broke up with him over a differing opinion on the topic of parenthood (I've never had any interest in children, he thinks it's a waste of his life to not have one) but he felt it was a hasty decision on my part and that surely over time we could find neutral ground. I'm very willing to concede that my feelings on the topic may change (I'm 30, he's 33) and I'm happy to keep an open mind.
In the last few years since that almost-breakup I still haven't developed any biological clock to speak of. At times my feelings have been vocalized regarding some little cherub that reminds me why I feel the way I do, so I figured the boyfriend knew where I stood. Despite this he often talked about our future as in buying a house together, marriage, travel, hopefully early retirement etc. I assumed that because of his willingness to imagine a future with me when my feelings about being a mother were so clear, he had adopted a more neutral view on the topic.
A month or two ago he dropped a bombshell, saying essentially he doesn't think he can ever marry me because of The Conflict but he has wanted to for several years now. I think the issue that brought all this to a head now is his mother. Isn't it always? So Freudian. She has been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness (terminal meaning months at worst, few years at best) and the last month has been a flurry of hospitalizations, rehab centers, and acquiring financial and healthcare control over her. Unfortunately my boyfriend is the only one able to manage all this as his mother and father are divorced (not amicably) and his sibling lives across the country. His mother will be moving in with us shortly as she's in a financial crisis besides her declining health and can no longer afford her apartment. On top of THAT, she has early-onset dementia (unrelated to her illness).
So now in addition to his old thoughts about life not being worth living without procreation, we can add wanting to immortalize his ill mother by passing on the family legacy in a child. I get it, I do. He's using the notion of someday having a child as a way to ease the grieving process over his mother. I may not agree with his coping tactics, but they're real feelings to him and if they bring him some comfort, who am I to take that away?
Now I'm in a complete tailspin about how to handle this situation and my emotions. I realize he's in a horrible place mentally/emotionally and now isn't the time to push him about any life decisions when his mother's situation is more than enough to absorb 100% of his attention. I'm willing to put this issue on the proverbial back burner for a while until this crisis passes — though the timeline for that is uncertain at best. I guess my question is — is this Conflict always a deal-breaker for relationships? Realistically I know it's unlikely for him to wake up tomorrow and announce how amazing a child-free existence could be, let us go forth and NOT multiply. But if he could just say that it's something he thinks would enrich his life but ultimately we both need to feel comfortable with the decision, and if I never do despite my best efforts at keeping my heart and mind open to the idea, a life with me is what matters…that's all I want. Is that unrealistic?
And what about the alternative — if I loved him enough, wouldn't I do this for him? Oh trust me, I've mulled that one over many a time! I tend to think it's a slightly bigger sacrifice for me to do something I don't want that compromises my body/health/lifestyle and more importantly involves the happiness of a new person in the equation. If he said moving to Ecuador would make him happy, I wouldn't be thrilled with that notion but it's only my happiness at stake so I could make it work. But a child deserves to have two adoring parents, not one that wants him/her and another that is just trying to make the dad happy.
I guess I'm just bothered that I feel like I'm offering a lot to him — I can promise a lifetime of love, compassion, trust, comfort — and I'm extending that to his mother. And I can promise to keep my heart and mind open to the idea of someday having a family and should I eventually have that desire there's no one I'd rather do that with than him. I'm taking on the lion's share of his mother's care as I'm the only one who does the housework and cooking and his job often takes him away for weeks at a time. I don't mean it to be a contest to see who can compromise more for the other, but even with all that is it wrong to want a little commitment from him? At the end of the day I don't think I'll regret this upcoming challenging time with his mother — even if our relationship doesn't survive she deserves some compassion and dignity, but I can't help but long for a little something in return.
Mother Theresa I'm Not
I have to tell you, I don't like this situation with his mother at all. I don't like it, I don't like the way you talk about it…the whole thing reads to me as a too-tight, acid-washed pair of Bad Idea Jeans. I mean, you say you don't mean it to be a contest, and I believe you, but it's totally going to turn into that; it's already turned into that. Well, not that exactly, but part of that — you've got it set up as a test, and if you pass it, if you don't interrogate his Conflict and you stand by him at a difficult time and you take the best possible care of his ailing mother, he'll marry you, even though you don't want kids and he does.
And that's the bottom line. You don't want kids and he does. Yeah yeah, I know, you'll keep an open mind, if you'd do it with anyone you'd do it with him…I believe you there, too, or at least that you believe those things when you say them. But there is a huge, critical difference between "maybe I'll want kids someday, who knows" and "I want to want kids, for your sake." I have, for good or ill, a wealth of experience in saying vague you-never-know-ish things to buy time with a man I loved who wanted children, hoping he would change his own mind, or get accustomed enough to the idea to drop the subject — and in that experience, and also the experience of living in the world, the one who is pretty sure s/he doesn't want kids is much more likely to change sides than the one who is pretty sure s/he does.
So, yes, this is a deal-breaker for him. What's more, you know this. He's made this as clear as he can. His feelings will not change. Yours might; then again, they might not, and you might not have spoken honestly to yourself about what you really want here. And as a side note, that is okay. Societal expectations make it very very difficult for a woman to say, without qualifying it, that she doesn't want children — even to herself. Others will call that decision selfish, or assume that something is cold and broken inside her, or patronize her about finding the right man and then she'll change her mind, and sometimes she thinks the world is right, that there is something wrong with her, that the cost of this preference is too high, and she worries that there is no man (or woman) and no place for her if she can't at least pretend she wants a child of her own. And by "she" of course I mean that I did this, and if this isn't your experience and you really do think you might do it, maybe, someday, that's great, and if you're not there yet with saying point-blank that this is not for you ever amen and really feeling like that's just one more option and doesn't make you a bad person (because it doesn't, obvs), that's fine too. It's super-fraught, is my point, and super-hard to accept that wanting different things when the wanted "thing" is a child is not going to allow the relationship to survive.
But: it isn't. I'm sorry. No doubt the readers will have exceptions, but I have never seen this particular conflict resolve itself without a breakup. I know he's having a hard time and I know you love him and I know you don't want to cash out if you might change your mind about a baby and end up losing him for nothing — but it's not fair to either of you to keep going like this, in my opinion. It's not fair to him, in the event that you never do come around to the idea; mostly, it's not fair to you, feeling like he's only staying because he thinks you'll change your mind, feeling like you're kind of lying to keep him close, taking care of a broke and dying parent in your home in the hopes that that'll change his mind. It won't. One has nothing to do with the other.
You need to do two things. First, and immediately, you need to talk to him about hiring help for you with his mother. He needs to hire a day nurse at the least, a qualified professional who can handle his mom's meds and understands her various conditions and challenges. This is too much to expect you to handle on your own.
And right after that, you need to tell him in so many words why he has to get you that help — that you feel like, by shouldering the entire burden yourself, you will be trying to prove to him that you are still Good Enough for him even if you don't want a kid, and you have realized that that's kind of fucked up and won't solve the central problem. And then you sit there and don't say anything and see what he says, which will be one of the more brutal periods of silence you will ever endure but hang in there with it because you gotta do it. And then the two of you have real talk about what's going on here. "But he's got so much other st–" Tough. He is proposing to go out of town on business and leave you, who he will not marry because of this issue, to care for his ailing mother by yourself but not altering his own work schedule. He can spend ten minutes getting real.
I'll give him a partial pass on that, given the stress he's under, but the situation as you describe it is almost untenable, and I don't see it improving any. Be truthful with him now, today, and if you have to leave, forgive yourself and go. Your other choice is to hold your breath waiting for a question that never comes; or another one you can't answer the way he wants; and resenting him till kingdom come. No good. Lance the boil.
Tags: boys (and girls) the fam