By Sara Gaynes Levy
Over the past two years, many parts of everyday life have been delayed or derailed due to the coronavirus pandemic. This includes dating: many people didn’t feel comfortable going out and meeting new folks or frequenting normal date spots like bars and restaurants. And for some of those people, this changed how they felt about the idea of someday having a family. We know this because we asked: Bumble teamed up with reproductive health company Modern Fertility to survey more than 6,600 adults about their attitudes on dating, fertility, and family planning in 2022. Of the 2,000 respondents who are not currently partnered and want kids, 27% of them told us they want to move more quickly with dating and relationships to make up for time lost to the pandemic.
Feeling this way is totally understandable, but bringing these feelings up can be stressful. You don’t want to put pressure on a new relationship or scare a potential partner by talking about family planning timelines too soon, but at the same time you might not want to waste time dating someone who doesn’t share your goals, especially if you already feel behind. So how can you navigate this conundrum? Bumble spoke with experts to find out.
First, understand your timeline
Societally, there’s an idea of a “biological clock” that’s ticking away, or a “fertility cliff,” where conceiving for women (and anyone who can get pregnant) over 35 becomes difficult or impossible. But assisted reproductive technology has improved many times over in recent years, and COVID-19 doesn’t have to send you into a tailspin worrying about the biological aspect of having children. “There is no real ‘fertility cliff,’” says Dr. Beth McAvey, a physician at Reproductive Medical Associates Long Island IVF. “Historically, women spoke about the ‘dreaded’ age 35 but there is nothing special about the age 35 as a cutoff in terms of ability to conceive. We do know that as women get older and progress through their 30s and certainly into their 40s, that spontaneous pregnancy becomes more difficult to achieve,” but it’s not impossible by any means. So take a deep breath. You can take the time you want to in order to find an amazing partner.
Pick your moment
When to broach this topic with someone you’re newly dating is a big question to answer. While 35% of respondents said they were comfortable having an open and intentional discussion about fertility and family plans within the first few dates, finding the sweet spot of which date is more of an art than a science. (Luckily, if you met on Bumble this should be a little easier— Bumble Premium’s filter for people who want or don’t want kids helps ensure you’re already on the same page about the biggest question, even before the first date.)
From there, there’s no magic timeframe or specific date number that’s best. That said, bringing up family planning sooner rather than later can be helpful for finding out if you’re in agreement around the family you want, and also help you learn more about how your potential partner approaches complex, weighty topics. “Starting to broach this early on is an opportunity to find out how this person thinks, how they communicate, and how they collaborate,” says marriage and family therapist Lauren Selfridge.
Start the conversation in general terms
So how do you kick off the family planning convo? Selfridge advises starting by acknowledging the elephant in the room: no one knows when to bring this up. “You can ask something a little bit meta, like, ‘I feel like this is going really well. How soon do you think is too soon to start talking about how you feel about kids?’” she suggests. You also want to be clear that this conversation isn’t about seeing whether the other person is interested in committing to having kids with you, she says. You can reiterate that you’re feeling excited about the connection between the two of you and this is something you’re curious about from a compatibility standpoint.
If that approach doesn’t feel quite right, you could also open with something like “Have you ever dated someone who brought up having children? How did it go?” Selfridge likes these approaches because they actually teach you something about the other person and their thought processes, rather than focusing on just the content of their answers. Another option is to share something about yourself—for example, while only a small number of survey respondents had frozen their eggs, 62% of them would share that they did it within the first few dates. By letting someone know you’ve, say, done some kind of fertility preservation, you can open the door to the conversation in a way that focuses less on you two as potential future co-parents and instead helps you understand each other’s attitudes towards family planning.
Remember that this convo goes both ways
Of those surveyed, 29% of the folks who want kids said they’re more upfront about their family planning goals with potential partners due to feeling the pressure of lost time from the pandemic. But when broken down, there was a bit of an imbalance: 20% of men* felt this way, while 40% of women* did. “This seems to reflect the very real impacts of biology on reproductive health,” explains Carly Leahy, the co-founder of Modern Fertility. “Unfortunately, women often think about timelines significantly more than men do, so it’s not surprising that some women feel like they’re trying to make up for lost time coming out of the pandemic.”
That said, having these discussions isn’t the job of the person who could get pregnant, nor is the timeline burden squarely on their shoulders. Especially because 33% of men who want kids said having them is essential to leading a fulfilling life, and if you want something badly, you need to be able to talk about it! “It’s unfair to people with ovaries who already bear so much of the responsibilities when it comes to carrying a baby to term and giving birth,” says Leahy. So whoever you are, make sure you’re sharing your real feelings.
Speak up about what you want
If one of you says you want kids in the next two years and the other one says they want kids 10 years from now, this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, says Selfridge. The context is really what’s important. “The person who wants to wait 10 years may have a sensitivity to feeling rushed because maybe, as a kid, their parents were impatient with them,” she says. “Maybe they’re then going to look at this person and say, oh, they look like somebody who is going to rush me into something.” Conversely, the person who wants children sooner may, for example, have a history of not feeling seen or recognized, explains Selfridge. “So, maybe they’ll look across the table and say great, somebody else who just doesn’t care about my needs. They’re never going to put me first.”
The big takeaway here? As soon as these biases creep in, neither one of you is actually talking about when you want to have kids. So how do you fix this? The answer is simple to say, but unfortunately can be hard to do: you have to set aside your “checklist” of ideal answers from the other person and just listen. “As soon as we start treating someone like we are testing or surveying them so that we can make a judgment, they will feel it and feel like they’re not being understood,” says Selfridge. “You need to be present for a genuine, curious exchange.”
If you’re able to hear their perspective fully and honestly, then you can ask things like, “When I tell you that I want to have kids in two years but you want them in 10 years, what’s the scariest part about that for you?” Whatever their answer is, it should be much more telling about your long-term compatibility than a simple timeline question. You may decide their answer makes sense to you, and you like this person enough that you’re interested in seeing if they can work through that fear. Or you may think their answer is terrible! But then you’ll know for sure that you’re not the partner for you.
Of course, these conversations are ongoing as you get to know another person and see where they might fit into your life. But if you’re listening and understanding, they’ll get easier and easier.
*Note: When we talk about “women” and “men,” we are referencing survey respondents who self-identified this way, including cisgendered men and women, trans men and women, and other folks along the gender spectrum.