Kathleen and I were on a date at Meriwether’s, a restaurant in Portland that manages to be exactly what you imagine a Portland restaurant would be like if all you know about this city is what you’ve seen on Portlandia1. It was an early date in May of 2013, maybe a month into our embryonic relationship: early enough to still be sizing each other up, but late enough to start rounding the corner from skepticism to actual interest. We sat on the back patio, soaking in some late spring sun, talking about hopes, desires, you know, the types of things you want to know about a person you’re considering long-term intimacy with.
The conversation skipped around to different topics of lifestyle interest. I asked if she was a “dog person,” which she answered “no,” which was not true2. Then she asked me if I wanted kids. Here’s how I responded:
“I’m not sure about that. But I’ll say this: I’d rather be with the right woman who didn’t want kids than be with the wrong woman who did.”
Kathleen accused me of giving an equivocating, political answer. I disagreed. You see, for me, the important thing is that relationship is healthy. The relationship comes first. Relationships and marriages fall apart all the time, and one of the worst decisions you can make is to get into a relationship for the primary reason of having children. I don’t want “children”; I want a family. A family could be a wife and some kids, or it could just be a woman and a dog. Family is what you make of it. I’m open to any direction my life goes in, what’s important is that I’m with the right person.
Some people want kids; others don’t. Either is fine, really. My brother has kids; my sister doesn’t. Both seem satisfied with their respective decisions.
Being genuinely open to either decision is a rare thing3, I understand this. But keeping your mind open is a far more tenable situation that being in a relationship where two people had the same plan at the outset, and then one has a change of heart4.
Being open to the multiple paths in a relationship allows you to put the partner first. It’s nice when two people who definitely want kids can find each other and agree, but sharing a desire for wanting children is a terrible foundation upon which to build a relationship. Having kids doesn’t unlock some magical secret of the universe, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the two people in a relationship share any values beyond the desire to procreate. If anything, it’s overcomplicating the relationship; suddenly, all those awful mistakes that you will make in the future have a direct impact on other humans in your home.
At that Portland restaurant table three years ago, Kathleen’s life plan didn’t include any children; she had other ideas for how she wanted to live her life. I was comfortable with that. Kathleen was the person I was interested in, not some litter of imaginary children. It took three months and an unparalleled tragedy in Kathleen’s life for things to change.
Kathleen’s family and I were in a small hospital room near Olympia, Washington and Kathleen’s mother was dying in front of our eyes. A cold, quiet shock sucked August light and warmth out of the room. There was no conversation, just a family in pain seeing a beloved mother and wife fall away into the abyss. The numbers on the heart rate monitor dropped: 65, 62, 58… and the rhythm of the room slowed. A life ended in a whisper, and we shuffled out of the room in stunned silence. The four of us drove to the waterfront and sat on the sand, the family quietly remembering her while the Loss was taking hold as reality in their minds. The impossible adjustment to a “new normal” would have to begin, regardless of whether anybody was prepared for it or not5.
The Loss shook Kathleen to the core, and over the next year, she went through a deep and rigorous accounting of her hopes, dreams, and goals. In 2013, the idea of having children was among the furthest things from her mind. If she wanted kids at all, which was doubtful, then it would certainly be much later. We got engaged the first week of January of 2014, married nine months later, and while she was excited about our new life together, the thought of not having a family around us left her feeling sad and profoundly empty.
All this time, my focus was on Kathleen and our relationship. Nurturing our fledgling marriage, building the foundation for a lifelong partnership. If that included children, then we’d be doing it together. If not… we’ll, we’d figure things out as we went along. In either case, I was happy to be with such a wonderful woman to discover how our lives change and grow in the future.
It sickens my heart to think of what might have happened if I had gone into our marriage with a bias against having children. In that instance, if Kathleen had convinced me to have children then I may have resented her and the kids through no fault of their own. If I convinced her not to have kids, then Kathleen may have been the resentful one. The third alternative, of course, is we may have recognized the disconnect and decided to end the relationship.
Any of these scenarios is sad, and all of them end up damaging the relationship on some level6. I feel lucky that I was genuinely open to this major inflection point in life. This sort of openness is not as simple as flipping a switch; many people have their minds made up vis-a-vis children. But this can be a double-edged sword: while it ostensibly offers direction for the decisions you make or the people you seek out, often your decisions will not work out in the way that you expect them to.
Looking back to when I first moved to Portland six years ago, I had plans, serious ones. Here’s how many of those plans came to fruition: zero. If you had told me I would voluntarily leave a six-figure job to become a stay-at-home dad, I would have laughed you out of the room. But here we are, four months from the birth of my daughter. I’m excited for my life to take a new direction, and I’m looking forward to the twists and turns that fatherhood throws at me. And I’m able to say this with confidence because I’ve didn’t believe the future of my happiness depended on whether or not I had children.
- They are a farm-to-table outfit, growing their vegetables on their own farm. if you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this video:
- She said, “I like dogs, but I wouldn’t really call myself a dog person.” Kathleen is a dog person, no doubt about it. I think Kathleen mitigated her response because she didn’t know what I wanted her answer to be, and she didn’t want to guess wrong. This is a major problem with early dating: people would rather hide themselves in hopes of impressing the person sitting across the table rather than tell the truth and risk some sort of vague alienation. I am also a dog person. Like the type of dog person that people think of as “one of those people.”
- According to online dating sites, this is essentially unheard of. On Match, for instance, you can indicate that you “Definitely” want kids, that you want kids “Someday,” that you’re “Unsure,” “Probably Not” or “No.” The thing that is not a choice is: “I’m open to whatever path the relationship leads.”
- Lacking any concrete data, I would bet happens quite a lot.
- Given that Kathleen and I were dating all of four months, it would have been understandable if she had asked me to let her family deal with this without me. It took an incredible leap of faith in the relationship on Kathleen’s part for her to insist that I make the drive to Olympia to be with her. It was a private and brutal time for the family, and never at any point did her father or her sister make me feel like an interloper. These are now my in-laws, and I am lucky to have joined such a great family.
- Ending the relationship would probably have given the best chance for the two of us to find happiness. The problem, of course, is it would have meant that we would be seeking out happiness independent of each other, which causes deep sadness within me. So much sadness that my eyes are welling up just from writing about it. But it ‘s true: you can love someone very much and know that things will carom off the tracks into ruin. It takes a very mature heart and mind to recognize this and end it.