To Have or Have Not: Is There a Baby in Your Future?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

One of the biggest decisions facing your new wedded bliss is to conceive or not to conceive. She wants the emotionally binding “cement baby”; he’s still saying, “Been there, done that.” What’s a loving couple to do?

by Gail Buchalter

Maybe you’re sipping a nonfat soy milk latte as you wriggle further into the cushy depths of the recliner. Middle age has descended upon you, yet here you are, thinking about having another child. Your mind wanders back to a younger time when you were married for the first time and knew it would last forever. The big question was when to have children, not if.

That was, of course, before the divorce. It was also before you had the pediatrician’s phone number on speed dial, driven to a thousand softball practices, or sold your soul for college tuition. Now you are remarried and thinking about having children??? You know the pitfalls; you know the joys. Or, perhaps you thought you knew your mind. Now here comes another spouse with a ticking biological clock.

So what are the variables of having children with a second spouse? Does it get easier because you are more mature? Or does it get harder because you are just plain older?

George Robinson had reached 50 not expecting to have children. His first wife, a buyer for Bloomies, knew from the get-go that children weren’t going to litter her career path. George, in his late twenties at the time, was also heavily involved in his work. They would have children when the time was right. It never was during their 9-year marriage, which has since dissolved. At age 53, though, George became a first-time dad.

He and Marissa dated for a few years. She had three children from her previous marriage: a girl in college and two boys in high school. Yet, from the beginning she talked about having a baby; he found himself quite taken with the idea. He married her, mostly to fulfill that wish.

Their daughter, Reese, was born, and Marissa’s older daughter began coming home more often on weekends to spend time with her new family. The teenage boys remained fairly oblivious to their little sister’s presence, though, finding her not nearly as enticing as a PlayStation. But Marissa, then 45, had figured it out. She could afford to stay home with this baby and had planned to work just 2 days a week. George was just as content.

“Yes, we’ve done the math,” he said, smiling. “When she’s 28, I’ll be 80. I do worry about being older, but hopefully she’ll keep me young. The good thing about being older is I have more patience now. I don’t take things for granted. I’m so thrilled to have a daughter.”

So far the Robinsons have had it easy. There were no furious ex-spouses, no disfranchised children. In other words, it’s far from the nightmare that Rachael Davis experienced when she remarried at 30. She had a young daughter, Elizabeth. Her second husband, Charles, had two grown children and two teenagers. The daughter was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was bipolar. Her brother, too, had his problems. He was drunk and driving when he killed someone. Rachael had no illusions about the life she was marrying into, but was so in love she decided to just deal with it. Did that include having kids?

“No way,” Rachael said, with startling clarity. “My daughter was 8 at the time Charles and I married, and his youngest kids lived with us off and on for the first 8 years. They treated Elizabeth like she was a stepchild. They begrudged her anything we gave her, no matter what we had given them. I couldn’t bring another child into that environment. I could protect one, but no more. Had I been younger, I don’t think I could have survived those years myself.”

The Robinsons’ decision to have children and the Davises’ not to had nothing to do with age. For both couples, it was a case of circumstance. Yet for JoAnn E., it was all about getting older. She was finished pressing the snooze alarm on her biological clock. “My husband and I were having the time of our lives,” recalls JoAnn, 55, who first married in 1977. “We both had great jobs and great friends, beach weekends and freedom. Then, about 9 years into the marriage, we started talking about having a baby. We even went so far as to try.”

Thank goodness, she says, it didn’t work. “He finally said, ‘No can do.’ ” A life change of that magnitude was not for him, even though they had discussed it before the wedding. You could hear the very fabric of the marriage rending. “Although at the time it felt like I was choosing which arm to cut off, the marriage or a child,” she says, “divorce was inevitable.”

Two years later, JoAnn fell in love with Kevin. He, too, wanted kids, and thought time was running out. “Marrying again wasn’t that important,” says JoAnn, “but when you find the right someone, who wants the same thing, it’s such a bonus.” She delivered her daughter, Meagan, 16 months after she married. “I was 39, which wasn’t that old, but I was starting to worry if I waited much longer, I wouldn’t have the energy to raise a kid.” Although both had fulfilling careers, they agreed that he’d take the working lead and she’d devote more time to parenting—with both engaged in Meagan’s nurturing. Luckily, both embraced this life change.

For Anne G., it didn’t matter how much a husband was willing to pitch in. She was never going to have kids. At 56, she embarked on her fifth marriage, having miraculously found five men who decided—as she did—not to raise the children issue. (She was a noncustodial stepmom to two along the way; that, or the view of her own dad’s remarriage with his new family, caused her to think the better of it.) Looking back, she has no regrets.

On the other hand, Alice Thornton had always wanted two children. She also wanted a responsible husband to morph into a great dad. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead, Alice, who married at 21, divorced 13 years later, childless. Two years went by, and she met Richard. Within 4 months they were living together and pregnant. He was 49 and thrilled with the onset of his fourth child; she was 36 and leery. “It all happened too quickly,” said Alice. “If I hadn’t gotten pregnant things would have turned out differently. I wanted a child and to be married and thought it might work out. Now, at least, I have two children. But I don’t know what the future holds.”

Their shotgun wedding sans shotgun turned into even more of a crap shoot, and the die rolled wildly. The problem began, Alice says, with the arrival of her teenaged stepdaughter, Jamie, who moved in. “Unfortunately, my relationship with my husband depends on his daughter,” she said. “She is daddy’s little girl, and I have become the wicked stepmother. . . . She is jealous of me and competitive with our [young] son. My husband does nothing to alleviate the situation and allows her to be disrespectful towards me. I’m beginning to feel as though I’m preparing myself mentally to leave, but hope it won’t come to that.”

Unlike the Thorntons, though, the other couples left little to chance when deciding to have or not have a baby. JoAnn, an editor, was able to configure her work so she could do it from home; she couldn’t have pulled this off earlier in her career. George Robinson has already set up a trust fund for his daughter’s college tuition. Age brought with it financial stability. Maturity brought with it the right questions. “Can we afford a child?” and “Are we ready to have a baby?” are from the past.

Now the relevant question is, What will a baby add to our lives? Those who respond, “Chaos,” like the Davises, generally choose not to have children. Others, who start glowing even before they’re pregnant, figure, What the heck? The pediatrician’s already on speed dial.

Gail Buchalter is a freelance writer living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

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