‘I'm Afraid to Commit!'

Hard things are scary, but that doesn't mean they're bad.

Heliconia (1939) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Polly,

My boyfriend is great and we are in love. I'm 34 and know that I really want to have kids. Is it a bad idea to commit to him FOR LIFE by making babies together even though I know there might be better matches for me out there and I could imagine things not working out in some ways? 

Boyfriend adores me, supports me, and actively acknowledges emotional labor. He is affectionate and steady, insanely smart, ambitious, playful, and when we are in the room together I feel really happy and loved. But he also is much more introverted than I am, and prioritizes work a LOT. (Both out of his own drive and also because he is at a tricky spot in his career and will be for at least another few years.) 

Our 3 year relationship has worked great for us both because it has been fairly independent. We are each other's home base and both go out into the world where he works a ton and I spend a lot of 1:1 time with friends and community gatherings and then we both come home and snuggle on the couch together. I also have a great job that I'm proud of, but it doesn't drive me the way that people do.

HOWEVER, my boyfriend is in academia and will need to make a big geographic move in the next year, and asked me to go to this TBD city together. Sometimes I see it as an exciting opportunity to explore somewhere new together, but then other times it seems like it could be a super isolating move if he keeps working this hard every day and I don't know anyone else there. Especially if we have kids, which we want to! 

As a community-driven person, it feels like I would be betraying a core value by moving to a new place and starting a nuclear family. I always hoped we could continue to live communally! But I think I might be the only one... I see my friends around me starting to pull away into their budding nuclear families and I don't want to be the last one here. 

And I'm worried that while community is important to me, maybe my community (we've had since college) isn't really all I've made it out to be in my head? If I'm really honest with myself it feels that while the group as a whole is super fun and exciting it has a lot of issues with shaming, judgement, and cool-kids group-think that aren't really serving me. My boyfriend tried really hard to befriend them when we first started dating but it didn't really click for either of them, which has been hard for us both to navigate. 

I think if I want to be part of a community in a new city I might be on my own with the work that would go into it. My boyfriend has some casual friends from the last city he lived in and says it's important to him, but he hasn't seemed to prioritize time for making friends here since I've known him. I have some close female friends who are already remote that I know I'll still be close to if we move, but it feels like so much work to start over. Are there even people in their ~mid-30's who want to be friends?

Boyfriend is really loving and sensitive, and I could absolutely see him being a great life partner and dad. I want to do this with him! Moving with him could also be a chance to thrive and spend more time figuring myself out and working on my art, which I usually bail on to hang out with friends. But ugh what if I can't make friends in the new place and am just ALONE (with a baby human) while this lovely man is at work all the time or needing some introvert alone time. It sounds miserable and isolating, and like it could put a ton of strain on our relationship. But I also really want to have kids and think I'd be more unhappy if we broke up and he wasn't in my life, AND I didn't find someone else to undergo that life adventure with. 

Ugh I feel like I'm trying to make decisions out of fear and that doesn't feel great either. Any insights or thoughts to help me move forward?

Afraid of All Options

Dear AOAO,

You’re 34 years old, you know you want to have kids, and you’re with someone who’d make a great parent and an excellent lifelong partner. Yes, there are downsides to being with this particular man: He’s introverted, you’ll have to move, you might feel isolated, and that could put strain on the relationship. I completely understand your fears, which aren’t remotely irrational. You will have to move. You are likely to feel isolated. These things are almost certain to strain the relationship.

You know what else puts strain on a long-term relationship? Everything. He works late and you want to hang out at night? Strain. You make friends and he doesn’t? Strain. You believe in strict parenting and he believes in patience and indulgence? Strain. When you set out to spend the entire stretch of your days on earth with one person (this is where my kids would cue the laughtrack, since they quite sensibly find this concept absolutely ludicrous), new pressures and challenges appear constantly.

Making a commitment to another person means taking on their circumstances like they’re your own. You take on their job, their responsibilities, their commitments, their limitations, their secret desires, and their wildest dreams. You take on their entire life, what’s in their brains, their sounds, their smells. IT IS LUDICROUS. Now you are two different people, packed into one unwieldy body. Now you are a two-headed gargoyle.

It’s really fucking scary.

I love how you talk about your love of community and your fears around moving and having babies. I relate to all of your concerns so deeply. When I moved to my current neighborhood, I was dead set on forming a tight community with the people around me. My parents didn’t often socialize with other families or throw parties or do fun things with big groups, so I worked hard to throw huge birthday parties and fourth of July parties, and our house was always filled with tons of kids, running around, jumping on the couches, fucking shit up, while the parents sat back and poured beer into their faces. My husband and I didn’t always have fun. We often ran around yelling NO JUMPING ON THE COUCH! THAT’S NOT HOW WE DO IT HERE!

That was one strain among many. We loved the idea of community and we were also hotheads. We fit into the neighborhood well and we were also oddballs with multiple allergies who never quite fit in at all. Sometimes I was calm and he was the hothead, and vice versa. But we were stuck in Los Angeles because my husband is an academic and when I met him he shared custody of a 9-year-old son with his ex. Neither of us saw ourselves as permanent residents of this massive city. We wanted to live somewhere that felt… different.

But my husband’s career limited our options. And when jobs in other places came up, I was usually the one who said NO I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE, NEVER EVER EVER. I rejected great places like Boulder and Nashville because when it comes to change, I am made of fear. I walked around playgrounds in Boulder and saw rich white hippies and I said NO WAY. I walked around adorable crowded neighborhoods in Nashville and said SO CLOSE TO HOME BUT STILL IN TENNESSEE. WHY TENNESSEE?

In a few days, we’re moving back to my hometown: Durham, North Carolina. It’s a charming place with a million flaws. One of my children is beyond displeased. My husband is thrilled. My dogs don’t even know how good their lives are about to be. But I am very, very afraid.

I’m afraid I’ll be isolated (I will be). I’m afraid Bill will get into his job and his hobbies and leave me in the dust at times (he will). I’m afraid I won’t have enough friends (I won’t). I’m afraid that I’ll see my family a little too often (I will). I’m afraid of driving by the Applebee’s where I worked as a teenager and having a strong urge to crash my car straight through the giant sign that says DOUBLE CRUNCH BONELESS WINGS $7.99!

Because I’m like you. I’m extroverted and I love community and I love new adventures and I’m also incredibly sentimental and scared of big changes. I have wings, and I believe I can fly. But sometimes, my wings are boneless. I DON’T BELIEVE I CAN FLY, SO THEN I CAN’T FLY. MY DOUBLE CRUNCH BONELESS WINGS WILL NOT LIFT ME OFF THE GROUND!

My wings were never boneless when I was younger. I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a whim. I didn’t go through a long list of pros and cons. It was just: Why not? I’ll stay for two years then move to New York.

This decision to move away from Los Angeles was the hardest one I’ve made in my life. I’ve lived here for 24 years, and in California for 29 years. This move doesn’t just affect me, it affects three other people, and everyone has different needs and opinions and they’re all smart. When you make babies, they don’t stay throw pillows forever. THEY GROW UP AND SAY SMART, INTENSE THINGS TO YOU ABOUT HOW YOU’RE FUCKING UP. My older daughter told me a few days ago, “As soon as I can drive, I’m going to drive back to California and live there forever.”

Hearing words like that from a smart baby you made will put a strain on you and on your relationship. Because anything that taxes you also taxes your partner. The two-headed gargoyle does not have wings that are strong enough to support that kind of weight sometimes! And if you want kids and a partner and lifelong friends and a deeply connected community and a rewarding career?  The gargoyle just keeps growing more heads! It gets heavier and heavier, and sometimes its wings feel like they’re just getting weaker and weaker!

It’s hard not to be very, very afraid. Right now, I’m in a hotel with my husband, two kids, and two dogs. My house is listed and I’m about to drive back across the country for the third time in two months. It’s easy to question my decisions at this moment. I’m not just worried about my own happiness. I’m worried about what will benefit my kids the most. I’m thinking about my mother, who lives in Durham and won’t be around forever. I’m thinking about my husband and whether or not his expectations about moving are unrealistic. I don’t think I’ve ever made a decision before that included an analysis of so many different people’s needs. IT’S NOT MY FUCKING THING. Whose thing is it? It’s like running a violent committee meeting inside your head around the clock!

When you’re tangled up with a web of friends and family and community members, you often feel too heavy to fly. You don’t get exactly what you want most of the time. You have to compromise and tolerate other people’s weird personalities. You have to be patient. Sometimes you have to do what’s right for someone else but not as right for you. You have to try to stay open-hearted, even when you’re disappointed in someone, even when someone is telling you that you’re making a bad decision and they will hate you forever for it, even when someone is excited to go play golf with your brother-in-law yet again, and then you remember that it’s the golf course where you made out with that one dude with the red Trans Am who’d get mad when you tapped your hand on the window because he was sure your ring would scratch his perfect paint job.

That’s when your goddamn double crunch wings go boneless.

But living a full life isn’t about escape. It’s about getting all tangled up and twisted in a web of recalcitrant souls, hoping to honor their needs, hoping to help, hoping to get your needs met along the way somehow. I want to be caught up in that web. I’m still a full person with a big imagination and a lot to do beyond serving my family. I can still do a lot of things.

If you have babies, trust me, you will feel isolated at times whether you move or stay where you are. You should talk to other parents about how they managed that with parenting groups and play groups. You should research some of the college towns where you might land, and imagine working within the boundaries of those places to create what you want for yourself. Widen your concept of those towns instead of taking one small thing (the way I did years ago) and turning it into a fear-based reason not to live there. Imagine throwing yourself into a new life and not sweating the small stuff too much (the way I did years ago). Picture welcoming a bewildering new reality instead of resisting it. Resist neurotic storytelling about the future and make room for surprises and yes, disappointments. Make enough space for an exciting and deeply imperfect life.

You said you could imagine better partners for you, but you never got around to describing those imaginary partners or explaining what was wrong with your guy beyond ambition and introversion. You don’t sound that dissatisfied with him at all, honestly. You mostly need to set clear boundaries and expectations around parenting before you move: He can work a lot like he always does, but you will split housework and childcare equally and find help to fill in the gaps. Get him to agree to some principles that will guide your decisions as a household. For example: You won’t be the default childcare provider in a new town where you don’t know anyone, because you know that would crush you into the ground. Your life will be based on a commitment to supporting each other’s peculiar needs, even when it’s hard.

Hard things are often good for you. Don’t surrender to your fears. Use your fears as a guide to recognizing what you require to be happy. Imagine the structures and support systems you’ll need to move into this next phase of life without feeling too isolated and alone, and pursue those things with passion. Dare to believe that you can have the life you want, even when it’s not exactly like the life you had before, even when it’s sometimes harder, even when it’s sometimes overwhelming.

Having a full life means getting all tangled up sometimes. It means growing a few new heads that you resent at first but then grow to love and depend on. Use your imagination and open your heart and keep entangling yourself – with imperfect new people, with gorgeous and flawed new places, with exciting and stressful new things.

When you believe you can fly, you can. Keep believing, even as life gets heavier. This is what you want. It will be terrifying and beautiful. Embrace the terror and the beauty. Embrace all of it.

Polly


Thank you for reading Ask Polly!