This is a slightly longer version of an article that originally appeared at Role/Reboot.
I’m not the kind of woman that most people imagine when they imagine a woman who wants to have kids. I’m a starving artist writing often about my experience with S&M and open relationships. When I think of long-term relationships, I want them to be polyamorous and flexible in other ways, too. The boyfriend I most recently felt serious about had a job that sent him on business trips for months at a time … which was fine with me, because I like doing the same thing.
Obviously, children would change my lifestyle a lot, and I’ve thought extensively about the necessary changes. To be honest, it’s not clear to me why I want to have kids, given the enormous hassle. I just know that I do. When I was a teenager, I liked babysitting (at least I liked babysitting smart kids), but I never had much interest in actual babies, and the desire to have children made no sense to me. Then suddenly, around age 18 or 19, it was like a switch flipped. My feelings about other people’s children remained the same … but I wanted to have my own kids. Like, I really wanted kids. I suddenly had this bone-deep knowledge that if I never had kids, my life would feel incomplete.
The “switch flip” phenomenon appears to be common, though not all women get it. It’s creepy; the desire for kids feels so separate from my brain, from my intellectual knowledge about myself. I’m grateful that the switch flipped early, though, because I’ve noticed that sometimes it hits mid-thirties women just as fast, and they can be caught unprepared. (And then there are women who expect to want kids, but who never seem to contract that bone-deep necessity, like Adaya Adler. So then they’re surprised when the switch never flips!)
A couple mid-30s friends of mine recently had a conflict because she suddenly realized she wanted kids. But when they got married, in their late 20s, he made it clear that kids weren’t part of the deal. Their mutual lives aren’t set up for kids in any way. They broke up for a while, then got back together, and eventually she concluded that she had to let go of the desire for children. The whole situation sounds incredibly harsh, but it also wasn’t anyone’s fault.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? These things are rarely anyone’s fault. It’s more a question of trying to work around them. But this delicate, contextual process can feel so high-pressure, especially for women, since we’re on the clock ….
And then there’s sexuality. Everyone knows that having kids changes your sex life, but it’s super unpredictable; the change is different for different people. Since I’m a sex writer and sex is obviously important to me, that’s terrifying. I spoke to a mother recently who told me that she was into S&M before she had kids, but post-kids, the desire for S&M vanished. Of course, there are also S&Mers who have kids and never lose that desire, and I suspect that I’m among that group, because my S&M preferences feel at least as deep-rooted as the desire for kids. Yet I could be wrong.
Being in my late twenties makes me feel stereotypically panicked about all this. Why aren’t I married yet! Why do I keep attending weddings as a single lady! How will I ever find a father for my children!! Then I remember that my breakups have all been for excellent reasons. I believe it would be best to marry (polyamorously, I hope) before having kids, if only to have a teammate for all the logistics. But when I’m honest with myself (as opposed to panicking), I don’t have any exes who I believe I should’ve stayed with.
I heard that one of my recent exes will probably break up with his current girlfriend because she doesn’t want biological kids. Of course that pricks my heart, but while he’s a great guy and I think he’ll make a great father, I don’t think we’d make a great long-term couple; we had no chemistry. Another ex-boyfriend recently told me that he thinks I’ll make a good mom, which was wrenching, but I still think it was a good call to break up with him.
Part of me worries about how very wrenching it felt. It took me a while to see how unsettlingly strong my reaction was when he told me that, and how strongly it made me reconsider our relationship. Have I become easy to manipulate in this regard?
Compromise is necessary for relationships, of course, but how far am I truly willing to compromise? As Bailey Elliott recently observed on Role/Reboot, “Some of the people who have said the worst things to me [about being single] are the ones in the most dysfunctional relationships: married to a raging alcoholic who abuses pets while drunk, a patronizing and controlling man, or a man who refuses to communicate in any real way.”
Also, being in my late twenties means that my dating pool now contains divorced men. It’s a jarring reminder that life contains zero guarantees.
I’ve talked to my parents about this. I think they did a reasonable job with me, but their reactions to discussions of child-rearing don’t always fill me with confidence. Nor does my behavior! I remember times that I was a truculent teenager — and adult! — and I feel absolutely no desire to deal with that as a parent. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how it feels to be a parent wanting to talk to your kid. It’s like when you’re madly in love with a boy who never calls you and treats you badly, and you know you should have better boundaries, but you still find yourself by the phone every night, hoping he’ll call.
Even when kids aren’t obstreperous, they’re challenging. After I wrote an article about some of the gaps I see in my own sex education, Mom wrote to me that: “I wish I could have taught you what you eventually learned on your own. But I felt there was this unchallengeable wave moving and I didn’t have a place to stand to counter it. I kept thinking I was leaving you to learn the hard way exactly what I learned the hard way, and was still learning, and was despairing of ever learning.”
Coming from my super-brilliant mom, that’s scary. How could I do a better job than my parents did? Should I really bring a kid into a world like this?
Of course, when I later told Mom that I was freaking out about it, and confessed that sometimes I worry that I’m too selfish or too confused or too whatever to have kids, she pulled out all the stops. She dragged a family album down from the shelf and displayed adorable pictures while explaining that I’m the best thing that ever happened to her.
A while ago, someone asked me about my three biggest life goals. I said: “Having an interesting life, publishing a deep novel, and having awesome children.” The person then said: “Okay, so if you had to choose only two of those goals, which would you cut out?” It was one of the most paralyzing, alarming questions I’ve ever considered. It’s haunted me ever since. I still don’t know the answer.
But it seems like the “answer,” such as it is, contains this principle: I ought to seek long-term partners who are prepared to face unexpected challenges with me and are ready for change. A friend of mine recently commented, “I think of marriages as a Limited Liability Company for raising children,” … to which another friend responded wryly: “They’re more like a High Liability Company.”
No one’s sure about the future right now (just look at the economy) (and think about what that implies about the LLC metaphor, too). For those of us who want long-term partners and kids, it seems like the best we can do is seek people who share important values; who understand the liabilities; who are steadfast, yet respect change. It’s a tall order, and the best we can do.