When you talk to your partner about the possibility of having children, unless you are both strongly in favor of having children or strongly opposed to having children, consider discarding the question “Do we want to have children or not?”
Framed in this way, this sweeping question begs a yes–or-no, all-or-nothing response. I have a theory that feelings about having children are analogous to Alfred Kinsey’s spectrum of sexual orientation. Around 1950, Kinsey and colleagues* presented research findings that changed the prevailing model of sexual identity. Prior to Kinsey and colleague’s reformulation of the model, it was thought that people were either straight or gay. In the Kinsey study, a substantial portion of research subjects endorsed degrees of homo- and heterosexual identities.
On this basis, Kinsey and colleagues proposed a seven-point spectrum of sexual orientation, with gay and heterosexual orientations at the two poles and bisexuality as the spectral midpoint. My goal is not to critique or authenticate this model, but to note that the Kinsey-esque notion of a continuum fits well with what I have observed when couples talk about having children.
That is, some people will say things like “I’ve always known I wanted to be a parent” or “I could never imagine having children, and I’ve never wanted them” in a way that feels strikingly similar to the way that people will say, “I’ve never been at all attracted to anyone of my gender” or “I’ve always known that I was gay.”
I specifically asked participants in my 2008 study of over 1200 women (The Lifestyle Poll) about any feelings of ambivalence in relation to having children and received some very interesting responses that seem to support my theory. Some of the respondents were strongly oriented to having children, as in…
• No ambivalence—I’m very excited to have children!
• I definitely want children.
• I would love to have a child. Mostly to have the bond of true love versus love that can come and go with a flighty lover.
• Can’t wait to have children!
• I can’t identify—I’ve always wanted a family.
At the other end of the spectrum were statements such as these:
• I have never wanted children; from my earliest memories, I knew I did not want them.
• I have no real feelings about children. I have no maternal instinct to speak of. The idea of me having children means as much to me as the idea of me growing wings and flying about the room.
• I am not ambivalent—I have always identified as adamantly child-free. Under no circumstances will I ever consider having children.
• I don't want children. It isn't the calling for me like it obviously is for most people.
• I have never wanted to have children for as long as I can remember. I was never ambivalent; from the first time I seriously considered it, I knew I didn't want to be a parent.
• I am completely secure in my decision to never have or care for children. I would rather provide an example to others or use my own life to accomplish what my parents, who rate their children as their most important contribution to the world, never had the time to do. I am not an important person, but I plan to make a difference during my life, what I have or will do, instead of putting that responsibility onto an unborn person who would have their own hopes and dreams and shouldn't have to be burdened with mine.
A third variant of responses is illustrated by comments such as these:
• I'm a fence-sitter. I'm not too sure I want children, but at the same time, I want that option. I would classify my ideal life plan as full-time career and maybe parenthood.
• I see myself eventually having children, but I am hesitant to give up my single life.
• I can identify with this. I do want children; I am the one pushing for them in my relationship, but I'm not sure that I want them now. Children would be both a joy and a burden, and it’s a big step that I'm nervous about taking.
• For most of my life, I have not wanted children because I was too afraid of the responsibility and changes that would occur in my life. Recently, I have become lukewarm to the idea because I know I could handle it in my life. But at 40, I don't think having a child is a wise choice for me. My husband and I are just too set in our ways. And he doesn't want kids, anyway.
I think of the individuals like those who made the first set of responses as reproductively sure (“repro-sure” for short) and those like the individuals who made the second set of response as non reproductively sure (“non-repro-sure” for short), while I think of those in the third group as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, or “repro-curious.”
Based on conversations I have heard between married couples, in both research and clinical settings, and in discussions between friends, I suspect some level of repro-curiosity among many of those who are considering starting a family. To label this as "repro-curious" is not just to assign cute terminology.
What is helpful about this concept is that it moves us away from binary choices and begins to suggest new questions such as, “Under what conditions would we want to start a family?” or “What supports and systems need to be in place before we would feel sufficiently comfortable attempting to start a family while retaining aspects of what we value most about our current lives?” Asking questions like these gives partners in a marriage of equals the necessary flexibility to approach the discussion from multiple angles and perspectives.
* In Rathus, S.A., Nevid, J. S., and Fichner-Rathus, L. (2002). Human Sexuality in a World of Diversity. Fifth Edition, Boston, MA; Pearson Education Company, p. 293.