What if you wanted a baby but your partner didn't?

In the silly season, celebrity news receives even more prominence than it does over the rest of the year. So it was big news just after Christmas when comedian Russell Brand announced he was divorcing chanteuse Katy Perry after little more than a year of marriage.

What emerged was that Brand, 36, a noted hell-raiser not previously known for domesticity, wanted to settle down and start a family but Perry, 27, did not. Like many women her age, the recording star reportedly preferred to concentrate on her burgeoning career, and didn't want to suspend it for motherhood.

While the Brand-Perry story is celebrity gossip, it raises serious issues. Most particularly, when one partner wants children, and the other doesn't, what does this mean for the future of a marriage, and is it fair to keep one partner in a marriage when their parenthood hopes and dreams won't be fulfilled as a result?

Like many, I know couples who are or have been in this position. Some involve partners who from the outset have never wanted children, some didn't then but do now, and still others did then but now don't. Whatever the combination, they all are in a very hard place and the partner desiring children can become increasingly frustrated and angry. Moreover, as the biological clock ticks ever more loudly, desperation can set in as parenthood dreams recede.

Popular lore assumes that only women are "clucky", but Brand's situation highlights that many men also want parenthood when their partner doesn't. A man's plight is perhaps harder to accept because he does not have the keys to the reproductive kingdom - only women have the unquestioned right to choose if and when they want both to become pregnant and raise a child. If at any stage of their relationship a woman decides not to have children, that is her choice alone and her spouse must respect it. A man may be frustrated and disappointed but he has no right whatsoever to force his reproductive demands on a woman against her will.

When a person marries on the understanding their partner also wants children, only to find that partner unilaterally changes their mind, or their circumstances (such as building a career) have delayed trying for parenthood beyond the point of reasonableness, he or she is confronted with a terrible personal dilemma. If the relationship is more important, they stay. But if parenthood is more important, he or she may consider leaving in the hope of repartnering with someone sharing their goal. Many do.

The Family Law Act's grounds for divorce are simple: irretrievable marriage breakdown leading to separation and living separately - even if still under the same roof - for at least 12 months. Without children, the process is relatively straightforward, if not painless, but it takes time.

For older would-be parents, however, time is what they simply don't have. Women in their late 30s and 40s, who have woken to the realisation that their husband has no intention of helping them achieve their family dream, know their reproductive sands are running out. Similarly, men in the middle years and older wanting to be fathers before their dotage also aspire to try for children before it is too late to enjoy fatherhood to the full.

If someone in business decides unilaterally to repudiate fundamental conditions of a contract, that contract may become void. Why doesn't the same approach apply to marriage? Surely no person should be trapped in a marriage or de facto relationship if their desire for parenthood is vetoed by the other spouse. But while divorce is relatively easy, the waiting requirement soaks up dwindling fertility time, especially if religious, social or cultural factors - such as conservative attitudes to de facto relationships - raise added barriers to quick repartnering.

When the ground rules have been changed unilaterally by one spouse in such a way as to impose a reproductive veto, and no amount of persuasion, counselling or conciliation will change their position, the marriage should be voidable and the child-wanting spouse given the maximum opportunity to achieve his or her socially desirable goal. While Reno-style quickie divorces are not part of Australian culture and never should be, new Attorney-General Nicola Roxon should amend the Family Law Act to allow the mandatory 12-month separation period to be waived if a party can prove both that they are being prevented from starting a family in the existing relationship and the enforced wait seriously reduces their chances of doing so successfully in a new one.

It is of course far better when those contemplating marriage know precisely where they stand on starting a family before they take the plunge. If, for example, Katy Perry said to Russell Brand at that stage that she had no great desire for children, he knew exactly what to expect. But if, once married, things change without their agreement, a person should be able to move on quickly if they want to, and the law should allow them the best chance possible to achieve their perfectly reasonable aspiration of starting a family of their own while they still have time.

The story What if you wanted a baby but your partner didn't? first appeared on Essential Baby.

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