Having a baby is a big decision that requires couples to do some serious self-reflecting and communicating. But some couples don’t exactly contemplate parenthood — or they have the wrong idea about having kids.
Some mistakenly assume that having a child will fix their relationship problems and bring them closer, said Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, which offers a Pre & Post Baby Couples Counseling Program. Unfortunately, this usually backfires, because the new stressors that come with having a baby just amplify existing issues, she said.
Other couples decide to have kids because they think it’s simply the next step after matrimony. “Many couples do not give themselves permission to thoughtfully explore whether or not having children is right for them because of fears of being different, disappointing others or missing out on life experiences that couples with children experience,” Marter said.
So how do you know if you’re making the right choice? There are many key considerations. But the most important one is that both partners want to have a child. “In heterosexual couples, it is critical that, specifically, the potential father, independently desires to — and feels ready to — transition to parenthood,” according to Nicole Massey-Hastings, MA, a Doctor of Clinical Psychology candidate with a concentration in families, couples and kids. One longitudinal study revealed that 100 percent of couples with a husband who didn’t want to become a parent were divorced by the time their kids were 6 years old (Cowan & Cowan, 2000).
Relationship satisfaction also is critical. In fact, research has found that marital quality is one of the best predictors of parenting quality (e.g., Kanoy, Ulku-Steiner, Cox & Burchinal, 2003; Fishman & Myers, 2000). “A couple needs to have a healthy, satisfying relationship with a clear understanding of, and strategies for working with, the pitfalls in their relationship,” said Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. Rastogi and Massey-Hastings are currently studying a new program, Choosing the Parenting Lifestyle, that helps couples realistically identify their motivations to have kids and better understand the personal, emotional, relational and financial costs. (Learn more here.)
Questions to Consider Prior to Parenthood
The below questions can help you figure out whether having kids right now is the right choice for you.
Why would you like to have a child? All the experts stressed the significance of both partners figuring out their motivation to have kids. Are you internally or externally motivated? “A motivation is internal if it has to do with your own personal desires and wishes. It is external if it has to do with pleasing others — your parents or your partner — or if it is to meet societal expectations,” Marter said.
According to Cherilynn Veland, LCSW, MSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, these are other important questions to ponder: “Why now?” “What was your own experience as a child and how might that be affecting your own reasons for wanting children?” and “Are you motivated to do what needs to be done to take care of the needs of someone else?”
How is your relationship? Consider whether you and your partner work well together and whether you tend to agree on important issues — and if you don’t, whether you are good at problem solving and compromising, Veland said.
How do you communicate with each other about your needs, dreams and fears? According to Massey-Hastings, how couples communicate about these issues speaks to their relationship as a whole and provides a window into parenthood.
Have you passed the honeymoon phase? Consider the length of your relationship and whether it’s been stable for at least one to two years, Marter said.
Are you financially ready to have a child? “A baby brings new financial responsibilities and stressors,” said Marter, who sees conflict over money as one of the most common reasons couples come to therapy. She cited the USDA 2010 report on Expenditures on Children by Families, which provides estimates on how much it costs to have a child: Depending on the age of the child, expenses ranged from $8,480 to $9,630 for households with gross income less than $57,600; from $11,880 to $13,830 for households with gross income from $57,600-$99,730; and from $19,770 to $23,690 for households with gross income of more than $99,730.
Are you prepared for the lifestyle changes? Marter also sees many couples with kids who end up on the “hamster wheel of work/kids/household responsibilities because of a busy lifestyle, which causes them to neglect their own self-care and doing things that nurture the relationship.”
Have you achieved your core goals? Marter suggested considering whether you’ve “achieved the foundation of your educational, career or social goals as a childless adult,” because your resources will be limited once you have a child.
Can you lead a fulfilling life without kids? “ Ask yourself why you are choosing to have a baby and start a family rather than pursue other life goals or lifestyles,” Marter said. “Give yourself permission to consider a less traditional life path.”
Do you have support? “Having a good support network or the means to hire support — in the form of babysitters, housekeepers or other helping services — certainly makes the transition to family easier,” Marter said.
Red Flags You’re Not Ready for Kids
According to Veland, having a baby is like planning a wedding. “All the crazy stuff that has been bubbling under the surface in your relationship comes out for some reason during wedding planning. The same is true for having children,” she said. While this creates challenges for couples, it also provides them with an opportunity to work through these issues, she said. Couples may want to seek professional help before starting a family, Rastogi said.
Red flags include:
- Physical, emotional or verbal abuse in the relationship, Marter said.
- A partner that has an untreated addiction or mental illness like major depression. “These issues should be addressed prior to starting a family or they will likely worsen and cause difficulty in the relationship and family,” Marter said.
- Couples who haven’t figured out how to support each other’s differences, Rastogi said.
- Couples who aren’t sure why they want to have kids, Rastogi said.
- Frequent arguing or dissatisfaction in the relationship, Veland said.
- Trust issues, such as infidelity, Marter said.
- Irresponsibility from one or both partners, when it comes to work, money and basic responsibilities, Marter said.
When in Doubt
“Fleeting moments of fear or doubt about the decision to have a baby are normal,” Marter said. But don’t ignore cold feet that stay around for several weeks, keep you up at night or cause serious conflict in your relationship, she said. If experiencing doubt, Marter suggested the following:
Write down your concerns. “This will help you clarify the actual source of your anxiety,” she said.
Talk to your partner. “Address your concerns diplomatically and directly,” Marter said.
Talk to your close friends and family. For instance, ask your friends who have kids to talk about their experiences transitioning to parenthood, Marter said. This will give you more information to figure out if you’re making the right choice.
Seek professional help. Consider attending individual therapy or couples counseling, Marter said. “Therapy is a place to process your feelings with an objective professional and to obtain the support to have assertive communication and advocate for the choice that is right for you,” she said.
If you’re still iffy, Marter said to err on the side of caution. “When you take the plunge to start a family, you want it to be with confidence and joy that you are taking the right step with the right person at the right point in your life.”