Aside from the initial choice you make about whom to marry, few decisions will be as significant or life-changing as the one about why, when, and how to have children (and perhaps how many to have).
While a relatively small—but growing—percentage of couples never have offspring, the majority of married couples still have progeny and the factors and circumstances behind every story are as unique and numerous as these couples themselves.
Whether you choose to adopt or have biological children of your own, there are a few questions worth pondering before taking this important step with your mate.
1. Do we want children?
In times past, this question would have been considered silly and indulgent, as having children was (as my mother puts it), “just what you did” and often directly relevant to a clan’s ability to continue the family business or family farm. Whether or not one actually desired children or wanted to be a parent was an afterthought, if even a thought at all.
Today, however, when so much emphasis is placed on individual choice and self-actualization:
>> Some couples are opting to be “childless by choice.” They may not have ever aspired to be parents or may be very involved and committed to their careers. They may enjoy the kind of travel or lifestyle that would make it difficult to parent well, or perhaps may have had an upbringing that made parenting seem dangerous or unappealing.
>> Others look forward to sharing this stage of life with their spouse when the time is right. They view parenting as a shared experience that not only involves nurturing their children but bonding with their partner as a result of co-parenting their brood.
>> Yet others see marriage as a vehicle for producing children and the experience of having them as even more essential than marriage itself. They have always known they wanted children and these children may become the priority when they arrive.
Are you yearning to have children but struggling with infidelity? Check out our article on
The Empty Crib: How to Deal With the Pain of Infertility in Your Marriage.
Whatever your leanings, it’s important for you and your partner to discuss them before marriage so you have a shared understanding of what’s ahead. But having this understanding doesn’t mean that things won’t change down the road, because they often do. Just because you don’t want children now doesn’t mean you won’t want them in the future, so don’t consider your decision “final and binding.” In fact, it’s a great idea to agree to revisit the issue regularly to make sure you’re still on the same page.
2. What are our prerequisites, or non-negotiables, for having children?
As any parent will tell you, babies are expensive!—and a couple’s financial cushion is one of the biggest considerations for parenthood, though plenty of couples have children before they have a rainy day fund.
The definition of being in “good financial shape” can differ greatly from person to person and couple to couple. Having children can create the need to make complex decisions and monetary sacrifices, often for the first time. After the basic necessities like cribs, car seats, and diapers, there may be little left over for savings or a college fund and this may put a strain on the relationship.
To have a better understanding of your finances and ability to budget for children, it’s helpful to start discussing finances on a regular basis before kids arrive. Seeing where money is coming in and going out, both partners can spot leaks and try to tighten the reigns or start saving for the future.
Talking openly about money—sometimes for the first time—can also bring up much more than just personal knowledge of one’s bank account. We often attach personal values and experiences to saving or spending and may need to explain these to our partners in order to arrive at the right answer.
Other considerations can include:
>> Location: Some couples choose to move closer to parents to have additional support after children come.
>> Living arrangements: A couple living with parents or roommates may need to move out and into a larger space before adding to their family.
>> Education: Sometimes a couple will choose to delay childbearing until one or both spouses have completed their fields of study.
>> Health: Most couples know that—the more children they want—they earlier they may need to start having them for health reasons.
3. Do we agree on the number of children we want to have?
After deciding whether or not to have children at all, the next question is almost automatically how many you want to have. You may feel very strongly about the answer if it’s based on what you experienced or observed as a child so it’s helpful to remind yourself that your partner may feel just as strongly as you do about their answer.
Whatever “ideal” number you come up with—and the reasons you choose it—know that your answer may and probably will change. For example, you may decide to have:
- One, but later feel that giving them a sibling is the right choice.
- Two, but after two boys, choose to try once more for a girl.
- Three—of whatever sex—but stop after one when they have some special needs.
- A large family but stop at two when that feels like enough or you experience health issues or financial complications that prohibit you from having more.
Do you see the pattern? Having a general idea of how many children you want but allowing this to be a loose and flexible understanding of how life might turn out is best so you can roll with the changes. Many a couple has been thrown off by a “surprise”, only to say later how big a blessing it was.
If you’re still talking (or disagreeing) about what the right number is,
check out this great article on Figuring Out How Many Children to Have.
4. Do we agree on major parenting issues?
There is no limit to the number of parenting issues that can arise after children land on the scene. Having a family of your own often brings values and issues from your family of origin into the picture—values and issues that may be very different than those brought to the table by your partner. Understanding how your mate was raised and discussing the “why” behind your priorities can be extremely valuable and help to diffuse future conflict.
Depending on the culture you live in and how close you are—literally and figuratively—to your extended families can also have a direct bearing on your parenting style. For sure, you will have lots of “opportunities” to discuss how the choices you make as parents may differ from those of your own parents and how to deal with the criticism or negativity that comes your way as a result.
The point is not to agree on everything or decide on a time for your teenager’s future curfew (whew!), but to agree on the basics. Agreeing on your general approach to discipline and punishment, responsibility and work ethic, and affection and rewards will go a long way to ensuring that you work collaboratively as parents to raise a happy child and functional adult.
5. Who will provide childcare and how will this impact our finances/careers?
This is an area where dangerous assumptions can be made so it’s definitely worth hashing out some of the details here and considering all the possibilities. You may decide to:
>> Stay at home to raise your child/children, at least until they reach school-age. Many parents feel strongly about this and choose to have one partner—usually the mother—remain home with the children while the father is the breadwinner for the family. This choice is sometimes unavailable to single parents or parents with insufficient income. (And other parents—even with enough income—choose to return to work almost immediately).
>> Have extended family take care of your children if they are close by. This is one of the most obvious and trusted solutions for young children, who can be cared for in your home or theirs. Part of the reason this can work well—besides the security you feel when entrusting a child to a loving family member—is that family members may be more likely to share your child-rearing approach and values.
>> Hire an au pair or babysitter to care for your children. This works well for some families when they find someone they are very comfortable with who is also very competent. The downside is that it can be very disruptive—both for your children and the household as a whole—when they need to leave and you need to find a quick replacement.
>> Take your child to a daycare center. These centers, which are a popular option, range in price and purpose and can operate as non-profits or be owned by the public school system, churches, government agencies, or even an individual. State regulations and standards differ so you’ll want to check this out carefully before making your selection. (Places that may not be required to have a license include centers operated by schools, summer camps, faith-based programs and part-time centers).
>> Enroll your child in a preschool program, which offers a way for young children to learn and play with others their own age. A typical preschool is offered for children ages 3-5. Depending on the type of care, preschool may be offered through a church, non-profit organization, or school. Although some preschools offer full-time care, many are part-time. Knowing what your child is capable of handling at what age is helpful when choosing the best age-appropriate option. Like many childcare centers, license regulation can vary so make sure you ask about this.
The decision about when to relinquish your child to others’ care—and what this means for your finances and careers—is an important one. Consider talking it over with friends and family, particularly if they have gone before you and have a helpful perspective to offer. Just remember that their input may be strongly influenced by their own personal values and experiences and may not be right for your unique circumstances.
Also realize that each of these options comes with advantages and disadvantages. If one partner decides to work while the other stays home, the partner who works may need to work longer hours to make ends meet, or the person at home may feel bored and lonely without adult interaction. Each option has trade-offs and its own set of difficulties and rewards.
Discussing the timing and number of children you will have as a married couple takes more than one conversation and may feel scary and overwhelming at first. Exploring your desire for children (and desired number of children), financial resources, views on major parenting topics, and who will care for your children is a great start and will help you build a solid foundation for healthy children and a happy home!