Preparing for Children
The decision to have a child is one of the most significant decisions two people can ever make. Now, due to many scientific advances, the decision is one that has many more dimensions. Specifically, couples can typically plan when to begin a family, how large a family they want, or whether to have children at all. Thus, if a couple is planning on having a child, they have both the luxury as well as the additional responsibility to consider and discuss many things involved in parenting. This segment has two purposes: (1) to assist couples who are considering having a child to at minimum discuss, or ideally, try to resolve before the birth of their child; (2) identify resources that a couple can use so as to assist them with such questions.
Do We Want to Have Children?
The first decision facing a couple, is whether or not to have children. This is an option that has not always been available to couples. It was always assumed that if you married (or, in current times if you are in a serious, long-term, committed relationship), you were also going to have children. Now however, there is a viable alternative and that is to not have children at all (i.e., sometimes called "childless" or "childfree", with each term having its own connotation). While some argue that the decision not to have children is a selfish one, many others observe that the decision to have children is of such importance and responsibility, that it is not one that we should obligate people to fulfill. Similarly, the decision to remain childless/childfree is growing in its acceptance given the amount of neglect, abuse, and violence in the world – and how children are often victims of such social ills. Thus, some couples may decide that they would like to promote social welfare through other roles (i.e., vocation, religion, volunteering, mentoring).
We Want Children, But When?
If a couple decides they (both partners, not just one partner) do want to have children, the next decision often concerns "when". Again, given many advances in the field of gynecology and obstetrics (as well as pharmacy), it is now often very possible to have more control regarding the timing of conception. Thus, partners need to consider the state of their relationship, their finances, their work goals/demands, their respective ages, and overall level of functioning. For example: Why are both partners seeking to have a child at this particular time? Can they afford a child? How is the health of both partners? Are both partners content with their educational level or are either/both planning on returning to school for additional training sometime in the future? If so, when? Furthermore, what are the fears and dreams of each partner in relation to being a parent?
In all, having children can be a wonderful, exciting and significant time in a couple’s life. Yet, this same time is also marked with much additional stress (physically, emotionally, and financially). Children can be a source of much happiness, yet the decision to have children should not be based on an attempt to strengthen a marriage; as even the strongest of marriages can be tested during pregnancy and child-raising years.
We Want Children, But How Many?
A couple now has more choices regarding "How many children would we be comfortable with raising? How many children could we provide for adequately?" Partners often look to their own family of origin as a way to evaluate how many children to have. For example, one partner may have been an only child and seeks the same in his/her own family. Or, that same partner may have always wished that s/he had a sibling(s), thus, may not want to have more than one child. Thus, it is important for both partners to discuss not only a possible preference for how many children to have, but to also be able to identify and share their reasons for such.
Couples benefit from also discussing whether or not they anticipate the sex of a child influencing their decision as to how many more children to have. For example, a couple who had anticipated only having two children may have assumed that they would have a child of each sex, for example. However, if this same couple then has 2 daughters (or 2 sons), one or both partners may then decide that they would like to have a third child (so as to "have one more chance" at conceiving a child of the opposite sex). How will a couple decide when to stop having children? And, how many years apart does each partner perceive as the ideal? Why?
Again, there are no "right" or "wrong" answers to these questions. What is important to consider and discuss are the reasons behind each partner’s opinion/need. In other words what are the benefits, as well as the additional stressors, related to additional children and the reasons behind each partner’s beliefs/needs? Cultural, religious, and financial factors need to be considered as does each partner’s mental and physical health and intrapersonal needs, dreams, and fears.
Child Care Decisions
Other important and more specific issues that need to be discussed include: "Who is going to stay home and take care of the new baby? Will one partner feel as if s/he is sacrificing his/her career to do so? Couples may decide to share the responsibility equally (50-50) or maybe 30-70. Couples may even decide to hire someone to take care of their child. When considering this latter option, a couple will need to spend some time considering how comfortable each will be with that decision (What feelings might each partner experience? Why? For example, how might partners resolve possible feelings of guilt or neglect? Also, how might both partners later feel if neither stayed home with the child? These questions are structured not as a way to "invoke" guilt, but rather to provoke consideration of likely feelings or questions given society’s continued belief (that is both subtly and not so subtly voiced) that a child "does best" (however defined in a multitude of domains) when cared for by a parent, and "does okay" when cared for by someone else.
Thus, regardless of a couple’s eventual decision as to who (a parent, grandparent, friend, nanny, or public daycare) shall care for their child (and how much, when, under what circumstances, and for how long), a couple needs to work together in strategizing how to combat some of their current as well as potentially future fears or concerns. Furthermore, such child care decisions must also include consideration of how much time a couple needs together. Some couples need a lot of time together, some need little, and still others, need somewhere between these two extremes. How will a couple plan for time alone? Hiring a sitter one night a week so as to ensure some much needed and enjoyed "couple time" might be one solution. Other couples may ask family or friends to visit one weekend a month at which time the couple can spend several hours away from the home while the family/friend uses the opportunity to build a stronger rapport with the young child or baby. In all, couples benefit from being creative and conscientious about making time for each other as couple-time very rarely spontaneously occurs.
Children can also place a financial burden on parents. Often this is not thought out clearly before having children. Couples need to decide what is the realistic cost of having children and to consider the following questions: Will we need to give up some things so that we have enough money to afford the child that we are planning to have, and if so, what are the things that we are willing to sacrifice?
Feelings of jealousy may appear with the birth of a child. Typically, the parents have had lots of time for each other and the birth of a first child implies that there is going to be less time together and more time involved in childcare. It is important for new parents to let each other know if they are beginning to have some feelings of being left out, and/or resentful of the time and attention involved in taking care of the child.
Expectations of Child
Parents can sometimes have different expectations or goals for their children. This area of discussion is something very few parents sit down and think about when planning children, yet it is important for partners to share with each other the nature of such expectations. These areas may include but are not limited to the following: religious affiliation; academic/vocational experiences and decisions (e.g., private/public school; vocational school or college); and social behaviors (e.g., introverted or extroverted). Discussion of such areas is necessary so as to identify where differences in expectations occur. After such identification, parents can share with each other their reasons for such expectations and work hard to negotiate with each other so as to agree on some common goals. If such a process feels too overwhelming, it may be helpful to seek out the guidance of others (e.g., books or counselors that can help partners develop or strengthen conflict resolution skills as well as enhance communication skills).
Parents may also differ in their ideas on rearing children. One parent may tend to be very lenient, permissive, and comfortable in having the children run around the house and other places. However, the other parent might become uptight or anxious with this parenting style and may prefer an authoritarian style of parenting in which there are definite limits for the children. In terms of limit setting and discipline, there are many different approaches. The approach you choose is probably not as important as whether or not the parents consistently use the same approach. Thus, parents will need to sit down and discuss these things and arrive at some mutually satisfactory compromise if there are some real significant differences currently between them. Again, this is best done before the children arrive.
It is important that couples discuss these issues together. Some might find it easier to jot down their feelings and views independently then compare notes. Any disagreements can then be discussed and negotiated. If engaging in problem-solving or conflict resolution is difficult for you or your partner, then you may benefit from some short-term individual or couples counseling. Also, there are some helpful books on the subject of parenting. Some are listed below under the heading "Resources".