The first time Kyle and I talked about kids, it was in the parking lot of a Baskin Robbins, on a cool summer night in our hometown. We were sitting in his car, discussing life over ice cream cones. I was telling him my plans to move to another city nearby, to the university. I was worried about where that left us.
“What do you want to do?” I asked him between ice cream licks. “Like, what’s your ultimate goal in life?”
Kyle leaned back in his seat, thinking quietly for a moment while he continued eating his cone. After a moment: “I want to be a dad.”
I blinked. I had been thinking about dream jobs and careers, not family. I wasn’t expecting his answer.
“Yeah, really,” He responded. “When I think about what I really, really want, I want to be a dad. And I’d love to be a stay-at-home-dad if I can.”
Sitting in the front seat of his SUV, I stared at him in surprise. I was dead set on finishing school and establishing a career. Hearing Kyle talk about what he wanted made me feel overwhelmingly guilty. Was it bad that I wouldn’t want to stop working if we did we had kids? Would it dampen our relationship if I didn’t?
For a lot of couples, staring these questions down is terrifying and too serious, and thus is put off until you’re practically already married. But for us it was the opposite—that conversation was a turning point in our relationship.
Listening to him talk so easily about how much he wanted a family, how soon he expected to be married, how he’d be willing to put his job aside to be with his future kids, set me into panic mode. I was afraid that if we did have kids that Kyle would grow to resent me for choosing a career over full-time childrearing. At the same time, I didn’t want to risk being the physically absent mom who was too busy to be there for her family. That, and stories from disgruntled stay at home dads made me nervous that our relationship would suffer.
In that moment, it was tempting to leave all that baggage on the table. But I’m glad we didn’t. Dr. John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says empathy is the key to cultivating healthy relationships. When we listen to our partner and try to understand their point of view, we create a space where both parties feel validated and heard. Both people in the relationship feel secure in being able share their thoughts and feelings, and that in turn brings them closer together.
Though we were relatively young in our relationship, Kyle and I knew we wanted to be together in the long-term. We didn’t know the logistics of it yet, but we knew we didn’t want to leave our future happiness to chance and bad statistics. So we hashed things through. There in the car and throughout the next several months we talked about kids and what our relationship might look like in the context of our own family.
When I shared my concerns with Kyle, he told me he wasn’t as committed to his career like I was. He assured me that it was absolutely ok if I continued working after we had kids (and gently reminded me that if he did stay home, I would obviously have to work to continue providing for the family, a logistics point I had missed in my anxiety-induced panic).
Hearing him speak so earnestly about having a family made me realize I was putting a lot of pressure on both of us. When I stopped doing that, we were able to accept what we both wanted. We listened to each other. We both empathized with each other’s wants, and came out of it more confident and secure in our relationship. If we hadn’t started the conversation that night, we might have kept pushing it off; digging into this difficult subject only deepened our connection.
I did eventually come to terms with simultaneously wanting a family while also being terrified of starting one, and since that night in his car, we’ve dedicated time to talk about our plans, and how we realistically see them panning out. There’s been a lot of hypothetical conversations where we shared ideas and places where there might be opportunity for compromise. Every couple has their issues, but it’s been a source of peace for me to know that if I want to have those difficult conversations, there’s room to do so.
We certainly can’t predict the future, but we’ve set the stage for a back and forth conversation. I know that whatever comes up, we’ll handle it. What’s more, having talked to Kyle about my fears, he knows my goals, and I know his. Where ever life takes us, we’re thinking about each other, and how we can work together to create a life that makes us both happy.