• How Ambivalence About Having Children Can Cause Relationship Turmoil

    Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman on Personal Fulfillment and Family Life in the 21st Century

    If, as the story goes, romance and women’s happiness have been sacrificed on the altar of family for too long, now the dynamic is being reversed. When we spoke to her in 2021, Abby, a forty-two-year-old music teacher living in Brooklyn, told us she had been torn for years between her desire to be a mother and her love for a man who decidedly did not want children. She and her partner had finally moved in together in the middle of the pandemic after five years of dating.

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    At the same time, she was preparing to start IVF, a process in which he was not involved. After years of trying and failing to move on—from the dream of parenthood as much as from her partner—she felt no less conflicted than before. “What’s so heartbreaking for me,” she told us, “is, like, this is the person I want to have kids with, and I’ve been looking for him my whole life, and he’s just anti-kids.”

    Abby is an ebullient, self-declared “oversharer,” who grew up on the Upper West Side in an upper-middle-class Jewish household. She always wanted to be a mother, she told us, and hoped to re-create the experience of her “perfect” childhood. Her family life was far removed from what she referred to as the “cookie-cutter” standard American upbringing. Her parents, two quirky New Yorkers, delighted in her precocity and encouraged the expression of her whimsical imagination. “It feels like I’d be missing out on the biggest ride or adventure if I don’t do this,” she said. But her desire has been frustrated by her circumstances: “Everything in my life is cosmically pointing toward not having kids.”

    One thing seems right no matter what your actual goals are or come to be: it is good to start asking the important questions early.

    A lifelong romantic and “maximalist,” Abby had spent years in search of a person with whom to realize “the perfect vision” of a partnership, which she hoped would eventually yield children. But her desire for children never came to inform the romantic ideal she held before her. The model partner, she said, was “really similar to the guy I’m with now—you know, funny, like, keeps me laughing, keeps me interested.” A relationship with such a man, Abby imagined, would improve the experience of having children, and parenthood would develop and deepen their connection to each other:

    I always envisioned my love for my partner growing through having a connected human between us. I just think that’s so magical, that you can make another person with a person, and then you really do become, you know, through the love like modus tollens or the distributive property, or whatever it is—like, a equals b equals c. You’re just, you know, all connected in this web, and just looking at how they parent is just another lens on your partner.

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    She longed for “an easy relationship with a great person, who was going to be so value-added to the experience of having kids, and then we can really share and fall even deeper in love by doing this amazing project together, of raising a child.” The trouble was that her current partner, while being so close to her idea of “perfect,” had no desire for children himself and was not open to persuasion.

    Abby’s boyfriend was explicit with her from the beginning that he had no interest in becoming a father, that he would prefer to maintain the freedom to travel and was disinclined to sacrifice his financial stability and spontaneity to have children. Before Abby met him he had even gone through a breakup over the same issue. “I think he’s more of a ‘Why would you have kids?’ kind of person” than genuinely ambivalent, she told us. Shortly after they met, on Abby’s thirty-sixth birthday, the two discussed this mismatch in their desire to have children and how to deal with it.

    When recalling this conversation, Abby struggled to describe what happened next: “We just couldn’t or, let me not say couldn’t—we just didn’t really do the thing we needed to do in order to stop seeing each other. And, you know, in order to grow apart.” After years of couples therapy, countless conversations, and an extended break during which Abby attempted three rounds of IUI, they were still at an impasse as of our last full interview in February 2021.

    Abby had difficulty envisioning how they could move forward. She described her partner as “the hardest no ever”: “He’s just anti-kids. And you know, he likes kids, but I don’t think—he’s not great with kids. He doesn’t really know what to do with them.” And yet, she would not give up the hope that he would one day change his mind. She felt he would, most likely, “love his own kid” and would make a great dad, though she also readily admitted that any time she expresses this hope to him it “makes him mad.”

    Abby’s situation is unique, but the basic mismatch in desires between her and her partner is not. Sooner or later, many couples find themselves having to negotiate the differences in their conceptions of a fulfilling life. How important is education and intellectual stimulation to one’s happiness? How much time should one devote to work, and how central is it to one’s sense of self? What role should religion occupy in one’s life, if any? How necessary are physical attraction and sex to satisfaction in a relationship? People often end up with partners who disagree with them on such questions, and it is not surprising that at a time of growing ambivalence about having children, more and more people find themselves diverging from their partners on the question of whether or not they want any.

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    What is remarkable about Abby’s situation is that the way she and her partner diverge on the question “What role should family play in our lives?” did not really affect her estimation of their compatibility. Their disagreement about having children weighed heavily on her and was causing them both great unhappiness, but in her telling, this conflict did not make her partner any less of a match for her. It was an obstacle they faced, but it did not really detract from the quality of their bond. Although she was going forward with fertility treatments that, if successful, would end the possibility of their life together, Abby expressed confidence in their relationship: “Of course we have our ‘things,’ but they’re easily worked on—like, everybody’s rowing the boat.”

    When we checked back with Abby two and a half years later, in September 2023, she was planning to go to Europe to start a cycle of IVF using a donated embryo. “My partner and I are still together,” she told us. “But this is very difficult to navigate together.” Before signing off, she added, “I think we’re doing a pretty amazing job.”

    A careless observer might be tempted to dismiss Abby’s narrative as a case of tragic self-deception. But her story touches on a widely shared experience. Her conundrum is just an extreme manifestation of the widespread separation and compartmentalization of romance and family. Just like the participants in Eliza Brown and Mary Patrick’s egg-freezing study, Abby was struggling to disentangle the romantic and family trajectories. And she was never entirely unaware of how her quixotic efforts could end up. She told us that in her dark moments she has a “sort of a conspiracy theory” about herself: “The conspiracy is that I don’t actually want kids. I just want to think I want kids.”


    The ideal of “slow love” that underlies contemporary dating practices seems, at first blush, to be at a far remove from the calculative demands that dominate so many other areas of our lives, chief among them financial and professional anxieties. Dating in search of love is supposed to offer reprieve from the daily grind, while the years of vetting and practice are meant to secure the kind of stable, lifelong connection that would serve as a refuge from the threat of economic, political, and ecological precarity. But our romantic lives are hardly insulated from the oppressive dynamics of the market.

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    After all, the standards of “romantic fit” are often themselves suffused with the logic of maximization. And while being on the same page as one’s partner about having kids is no longer seen as a prerequisite for a committed relationship, in a 2022 Singles in America survey, 96 percent reported feeling that “having similar attitudes about debt and spending is an important partner trait.” Once in relationships, millennials are keen to protect their personal interests—a change reflected in their embrace of prenuptial agreements, the unprecedentedly high rates at which they maintain separate bank accounts, and even in the way they negotiate domestic affairs and disputes.

    In a vivid example of the encroachment of the norms of corporate efficiency into couples’ private lives, many now turn to professional management tools—Excel spreadsheets, project management apps, shared calendars, and HR-derived communication protocols—to divide up their chores as well as manage their relationship’s emotional challenges. The modern stressors of intensive parenting are familiar to the point of cliché.

    Overworked parents operate nonstop to orchestrate multiple schedules, coordinating meal prep, school drop-offs, doctors’ appointments, gymnastics, sports practice, music lessons, teacher-parent conferences, date nights, self-care. These challenges are exacerbated by stubborn gender disparities in domestic and familial duties, wherein women still end up doing the lion’s share of the work. Everything has to fit in, or else be triaged. All the while the “work-from-home revolution,” far from easing the parental time crunch, has meant that many white-collar workers are expected to be responsive at all times.

    Perennially logged on, parents search for systems to tame the chaos at home and end up replicating the models and practices of the modern office. Having a family and kids is “the same thing” as “running your business,” CEO and mom-to-be Meghan Asha told the New York Times in 2020. “What’s our mission as a family? How do we organize ourselves? How do we create trust, transparency and communication when the going gets tough?” Asha and her husband have created a system they call “My Relationship Is a Start Up,” with organized task lists and prescheduled sessions for discussing emotionally demanding topics such as how to deal with their parents or when to have children.

    More than a twenty-first-century update to the old family chore wheel, the turn toward domestic project management points to a fundamental change in contemporary conceptions of family. No doubt, as sociologist Allison Daminger told the Times, “more formal systems” can help overcome domestic disparities in the division of labor. But implicit in the assumption that having a family and kids is the same as running your business—that they function according to the same dynamics and can benefit from similar management strategies—is the blurring of any real distinction between home life and the corporate world. If for a previous generation of working women the goal was to achieve “work-life balance”—where that balance meant not just being able to do both well but entailed that they constitute different, heterogeneous spheres of value—now, as professional standards and practices remake intimate relations in their image, the distinction between the spheres is gradually being erased.

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    Private life today looks more and more like work—and not just because we are very busy, or because of hybrid office arrangements, or because we digitally manage our itineraries and track our performance with “life-hacking” tools. Nothing wholly escapes the reach of the productivity mindset; even our desire for recognition, support, and intimacy morphs into just so many items in a flowchart.

    This is most nakedly apparent in the insinuation of HR language into interpersonal communication: excusing unavailability as a “lack of bandwidth,” protecting one’s “mental capacity,” making demands for “consent” for the performance of emotional labor.” A copy of one of Asha’s to-do lists (“the Weekly Sprint”) showed the couple had scheduled to “talk through our fight”—broken down by key questions to be addressed. One wonders when they found the time to argue in the first place.


    The so-called external concerns we’ve addressed—concerns about money, career, and our love lives—no longer seem so unrelated, or even all that distinct. It is no coincidence that the integration of family into both one’s professional and romantic trajectories so often unfolds as a kind of rigid sequencing. From both perspectives we take for granted that having children is only possible when we have achieved some indeterminate standard of sufficient readiness: well before one can even contemplate introducing children into the equation, professional stability and success, on the one hand, and a stable romantic partnership, on the other, must be secured.

    It is the choices you make—what to study, where to work, whom to love, and how—that will form you and shape your life.

    The case for doing things this way appears unassailable. In an essay reflecting on what is keeping people from having children young nowadays, journalist Elizabeth Bruenig described the dilemma that many find themselves in: How can you think of “making somebody else” before establishing yourself, before knowing who you really are? “The standard-issue airline safety warning comes to mind,” she wrote: “In the event of an air pressure change inside the cabin, secure your oxygen mask in place before you attempt to assist other passengers you may be traveling with. They don’t say or you’ll both be screwed. But you know that’s what they mean.”

    From this perspective, pursuing family while your own identity is still in flux can seem downright irresponsible. Surely a professionally secure parent is better than an anxious one (for both the parent and child), and no one wants to subject kids to growing up in the shadow of a loveless and unstable marriage. But what might seem in theory to be a mature and thoughtful approach to life could itself be a symptom of anxiety or a mere coping mechanism: an overwhelming commitment to maintaining agency over one’s own life, a reluctance to foreclose one’s options, a need to stay in control and never end up the victim of circumstance.

    Dating and finances are stressful, and at a time when so much in the world feels perilous and uncertain, proceeding with caution is sensible. The logic of patient sequencing, at work and in love, is so compelling, its norms so pervasive, that it can sometimes seem like there is no viable alternative. Throwing caution to the wind and running off with the next stranger you meet on Hinge sounds hardly more promising. But the opposite of caution is not necessarily naïveté or blindness. We should remain open to questioning the prudence of delay.

    Professionally, the more established you are in your career, the more of a hit it might take when you finally decide to have kids; romantically, slow love might push the question of family off until it’s no longer an option. One thing seems right no matter what your actual goals are or come to be: it is good to start asking the important questions early—early enough to ensure that the future is not decided for you. That’s what it really means to be in control.

    No one can tell you whether having children is the right decision for you, and if it is, when to have them. But when it comes to children, asking those important questions is not the same as searching for some secret inner desire while abstracting from everything else you care about. The “externals” must be contended with. It might be liberating for a moment to bracket your financial concerns and professional insecurities, but that won’t dislodge the fear of losing your independence or dull the force of your ambition. Insulating your deliberations about having kids from your romantic entanglements might offer a semblance of self-sufficiency, but if you don’t attempt a synthesis, in the end you could lose out on both.

    The idea of “finding yourself ” and discovering “what you really want” presupposes the presence of some stable fact waiting to be discovered by conscious effort, like an item in a scavenger hunt. But there is rarely such a static truth to be found. If having your life all figured out is the bar for being “ready” to have kids, no one will ever reach it. It is the choices you make—what to study, where to work, whom to love, and how—that will form you and shape your life, setting and delimiting the horizons of possibility, one day at a time.

    Raising the question of children, as personal as it inevitably is, requires more than soul searching. It takes a certain kind of courage, an open-minded willingness to probe into the meaning and value of having children, with the sober recognition that there is no past conception we can easily recover or resuscitate.


    Excerpted from What Are Children For?: On Ambivalence and Choice by Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman. Copyright © 2024. Available from St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc.

    Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman
    Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman
    Anastasia Berg is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. She is an editor of The Point, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times​, The Atlantic, The TLS, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Rachel Wiseman is the managing editor of The Point.

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