What Do Men Think When Women Say They Don’t Want Kids?

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Max wasn’t fazed when Katie*, the woman he’d been dating for a few weeks, casually mentioned that she didn’t plan on having children.  While Max has always known that he wanted to be a father, he was only 25 at the time and still in business school—it’s not like he wanted to be a father now.  He was happy to put the matter aside and enjoy what at that point was still just a fling.

During the first few years of their relationship, Katie’s desire to remain child-free came up occasionally, but Max says he “never took it as a fundamental precept of her life philosophy, an unyielding commitment that she had.”  And as she grew closer to Max and his large, happy family, her stance gradually softened.  “Never” became “if,” which eventually became “when.”  Max and Katie have now been together for six years and plan to start a family together at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Thomas, a 31-year-old Brooklynite, had recently moved in with his girlfriend, Pamela, when the issue of children suddenly assumed center stage.  Like Max, Thomas knew that he wanted kids—someday.  He also knew that Pamela, who was 26 at the time, wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a mom, and he was fine with that.

But as their relationship began to deteriorate, what had always been an “abstract issue with no relevance in the present” suddenly became very real. Pamela frequently brought up their conflicting feelings about parenthood as evidence of their incompatibility as a couple. Thomas felt like she was using it as a “wedge issue” to obscure the fact that she simply wasn’t ready to live with someone, as if his “future unborn children had become a bargaining chip.” Eventually they broke up and Thomas moved out.

Thomas now considers Pamela’s reluctance to have children to be a symptom of her immaturity and lack of self-awareness.  Or as he puts it, “Thank God she didn’t want kids; she couldn’t even handle living with a guy who treated her well.”  Max, on the other hand, isn’t holding Katie’s initial misgivings about parenthood against her and is confident she’ll be a fantastic mother.

The lesson, as always, is that every relationship is unique and there are no hard-and-fast rules. Katie told Max she didn’t want kids and they’re about to get married, while Pamela told Thomas the same thing and it ended up playing a crucial role in their breakup.

It’s impossible to truly know whether or not you want kids until you’re at a point in life where actually having and supporting them is a realistic possibility.

But despite the stark differences between their stories, Max and Thomas do have one thing in common, besides the fact that they both want kids—when the women they were dating said they weren’t sure about motherhood, neither of them totally believed it.

Was their skepticism a function of sexism? The thought had crossed Max’s mind: “It could be that I’m just a horrible, awful male who can’t bring myself to think that a woman would never want kids.”  Or maybe they were simply being pragmatic—according to a 2012 National Health Statistics Report, only 6% women of between the ages of 15 and 44 described themselves as “voluntarily childless.”  In other words, the odds are good that most women who say they don’t want children will end up changing their minds.

Personally, I don’t think sexism or pragmatism played any role in Thomas and Max’s similar reactions. My theory is that their disbelief was a function of their partners’ age, not their gender. Katie and Pamela were both in their mid-twenties when they said they didn’t want kids. Nationwide, the average age of first-time mothers is 25, and in some demographics it’s much older.

When I was in my mid-twenties, almost none of my friends had children yet. On the rare occasions that I tried to visualize fatherhood, I always pictured myself staring forlornly into the window of a raucous bar as I ferried my screaming progeny to Baby Bikram.

In other words, I was firmly planted in the “If” camp—“If I ever have kids, I will never bring them to a bar/wear one of those weird hippie slings/spend more than $20 on their shoes.”  It’s only now that I’m 31 and seeing firsthand from my friends that parenthood can be a source of fulfillment as well as frustration that I’m beginning to use the word “when” (and regret my haughty proclamations).

The takeaway here is not that 96% of women will eventually succumb to the maternal urge and it’s therefore OK for men to assume that all of them will. It’s not that you shouldn’t trust what anyone under 30 says about wanting kids. And it’s certainly not that women who don’t want kids should be anything less than honest about what is a totally valid life decision.

My point is only that it’s impossible to truly know whether or not you want kids until you’re at a point in life where actually having and supporting them is a realistic possibility. So when you’re in the early stages of a relationship with someone in their twenties or early thirties, don’t write them off simply because you’re leaning towards having kids and they’re pretty sure they don’t want any. If you’re digging everything else about them, at least consider going out with them again. Who knows, maybe they’ll change your mind and you’ll be the person I see inside the bar, laughing at the poor schmuck walking past the window with a crying rugrat strapped to his chest in some weird hippie sling.

* All names have been changed.

For more on this topic, check out:
Even If You Want Kids, Will You Ever Get Around to Having Them?
This Actually Happens: Setting a Date for Your Breakup
He Wants Kids, She Doesn’t…And They Made a Surprisingly Touching Breakup Video