Today? Tomorrow? Next week? Two months from now? Next year? You toss the questions around in your mind and discuss them with your partner, hoping for some clarity. Daunting, isn’t it? How can you know—for yourself and as a couple—that this is the “right” time to try to have a baby, and that you’re becoming parents for the “right” reasons?
As a family counselor, I’ve spent years talking with people about parenthood. Among the things I’ve learned is that there is no absolute “right” time to attempt conception nor any defining characteristic that deems you “right” for parenthood. Just as the decision whether or not to have children is an intensely personal one, so is the judgment as to whether the time to try is now.
For those who do feel a desire—even a need—to raise a child, judging emotional readiness often involves asking yourself and/or your partner some key questions.
Why Now? Am I Doing This for the “Right” Reasons?
Although there’s no magic formula for deciding the right time to try and conceive, there are some reasons that may sound compelling but aren’t very good factors to base your decision on. Some of these include: Because all your friends or coworkers seem to be having babies. Because your parents are getting older and you want them to be grandparents. Because you’ve reached the age at which you always planned on starting to build a family.
Ellen Lefkowitz, M.S.W., a Santa Fe, New Mexico, psycho therapist, suggests that you ask yourself: Am I in a “good place” in my life right now? “On the positive side,” Lefkowitz observes, “most women today don’t seem to feel compelled to follow a preordained ‘schedule.’ Some choose motherhood in their twenties, while many wait longer. I’m pleased to see that many women arrive at a decision feeling really ready to love, care for, and nurture a child.” Still, she adds, “There are some women who make the ‘mom decision’ for flimsy reasons, such as that they haven’t found a satisfying career, or they are feeling bored. Even worse, some women attempt to get pregnant in an effort to save a bad marriage.”
Being very happy in your job and marriage help make for an “ideal time” to opt for parenthood, even though pregnancy and childbirth can radically change both. After all, it’s easier to prepare to give a great deal of yourself to another person when you’re feeling good about yourself, your circumstances, and your partner. As one woman put it, “I want to see myself and the one I love most in a child— to see the combination of both of us.”
Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Carole Lieber Wilkins, M.A., recommends asking yourself whether you’re ready for the tradeoffs that come with parenthood, and even before. “Are you ready to trade independence and spontaneity for planning and structure? Are you ready to trade the ease of travel with being more of a homebody?” she asks. While planning for a baby often invokes fantasies of becoming a child again, it really requires recognizing that you’re now an adult.
Is My Partner Ready?
It’s not uncommon for one member of a couple to feel ready before the other does, notes Rosalyn Blogier, M.S.W., a psychotherapist and adoption counselor in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, this offers both members some balance—with one pushing ahead and the other holding back a bit, they may arrive at a pace that feels right for both of them. However, Blogier notes that there are times when people really are at different places. “It’s important that the more hesitant partner be willing to look at his/her concerns and feel more comfortable before moving ahead,” she says. “It might help to talk with close friends who have had children to find out how they worked on possible differences in time schedules. The couples I really worry about are those who didn’t address the topic of having children before getting married and later discover that one wants to be a parent and the other does not.”
Assuming that you know your partner wants to become a parent, but you fear he may not be ready, you need to explore what might be holding him back. If you’re planning to be at home with the baby or to take an extended maternity leave, he may be feeling pressured to earn enough to support the family. Or he may be reflecting back upon his experiences with his own father, wondering if he can measure up or fearing that he will repeat his father’s mistakes. Be sensitive, also, to the possibility that your partner may be reluctant to share your love, affection, and attention with a child. Each of these concerns should be something that you talk about together and, if needed, with a trusted therapist or in a couples’ group.
Are There Reasons We Should Wait?
Even when partners feel they are “on the same page” and ready to become parents together, it’s worth asking the question: “Are there reasons we should wait?”
Some couples may be concerned about financial or career security. You may be asking such questions as, “Should we wait until we can afford to buy a home and are settled there?” Or you might be wondering, “Maybe we should wait until I have tenure in my teaching position so I’ll have more time and energy to devote to the baby.” These kinds of questions are compelling, but on the flip side, many couples are understandably concerned about fertility. Perhaps you’ve watched friends struggle for years to conceive a child, enduring seemingly endless fertility treatments and wondering, with regret, why they didn’t start trying earlier. In fact, these friends may be warning you, “Don’t make the mistake we made.”
It’s easy to see how you can find yourselves in a debate about timing, with valid reasons to postpone parenthood. . .and equally compelling arguments to move forward right away. “Many couples have ‘social’ reasons to try now or wait—issues related to jobs, homes, fertility,” comments Susan Medoff, M.S.W., adjunct professor of psychiatry and social work at the University of Rochester, New York. “Unfortunately, some overlook the primary question they should be attending to: ‘Is our relationship ready for a child?’ Ideally, a couple has taken the time to be together, to have some years of committed life, so that they can pursue parenthood without feeling something is being sacrificed in their own relationship. Since so much of parenthood is a ‘seat of the pants experience,’ it’s very helpful, even essential, to feel that the relationship has a strong foundation.”
As you look towards parenthood, try to anticipate what it will be like to share your partner as well as your own personal time with a third person. And not just any third person: one who needs you 24/7. If yours is a relationship that sometimes get bogged down on questions of “fairness” or “division of labor,” you may have some work to do. Think of it this way: If you’re arguing over whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher or take the trash to the dump, will you be able to be a “team” when you’re sleep-deprived, the babysitter cancels, or you run out of diapers in mid-air on the way to visit your parents?
While it may be difficult to accept, taking the time that’s needed to tend to a relationship ahead of time can be the best baby-making decision in the long run.
How Do I Know I’ll Be a Good Parent?
We live in a society that idealizes parenthood and puts tremendous pressure on couples to be exemplary parents. Walk into any bookstore and see the array of parenting guidebooks, ranging from those that focus on early childhood to the piles of publications about how to get older kids into the best colleges. Little wonder that before a child is even conceived, women and men may worry that they’re not up to the job.
It’s crucial that you take some of the pressure off yourself. Everyone has certain strengths and weaknesses as a parent, just as they have these strengths and weaknesses in any endeavor in life. What truly matters is being honest, and accepting the many feelings—from ambivalence, anger, and frustration to joy, pride, and satisfaction—that the future is bound to include.
How Can My Partner and I Prepare for the Changes We’ll Face?
Pregnancy and parenthood are both “on the job training” and hence, something you can never really “prepare” for. If you feel strongly about any issues, though, you should talk about them as a couple. Together you should decide how you feel about the fact that getting pregnant may not come easily, and what you want to do if it doesn’t. You should talk about whether or not you want to share with friends and family that you’re trying, or wait until much later in the process (like the end of your first trimester). And for the longer term, you should discuss how you feel about being a dual career family or whether you want or can afford to have one of you stay at home. But even the best-laid plans may change, so don’t mistake preferences for hard-and-fast rules.
After all, you’re planning to make a lifelong commitment to a total stranger. Daunting isn’t it! That’s what parenthood is: a giant leap of faith. And people have been happily taking that leap for thousands and thousands of years.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Conceive Magazine.