Deciding when to have children and how many to have, are crtitical decisions that couples are faced with. Here's how I dealt with these topics in an essay that the Home News Tribune published on 07/24/07:
When Arlene, 24, and Jeffrey, 25, who are married for one year, made an appointment to see me, they were very specific about what they wanted to discuss. When is the right time to start having children? Is there an ideal number of children to have and an ideal space between children? There are no easy answers to these questions, but I gave them some guidance based on scientific research and personal experience.
Arlene will not wait until age 30 to have a child. "We want kids when we're younger," she explained, "but it seems like there is always justification for pushing it off. We're always busy; I am studying for a master's in speech pathology and Jeffrey is an IT (information technology) consultant. Based on that, it just gets delayed and delayed, which is not realistic."
They like to travel and feel they should delay having a child to vacation together. "To see the world and not dump our kids at the in-laws," Jeffrey explained, "We really enjoy quality time together. We love sitting and talking, and we are concerned that, once we have kids, it will be a lot harder to have that quality time for the two of us." Arlene adds, "A big concern."
My suggestions were twofold. Continue to seek quality time together. Having a child doesn't mean the end to togetherness. While there is considerable research showing that marital satisfaction decreases with the arrival of each child, it shouldn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They will have their quality time again, if they set it as a goal and if they establish a spouse-centered family and not a child-centered family. Second, take vacations now but save some exciting ones to experience as a family. Traveling with children can provide them with enriching experiences and expose them to new cultures and environments.
I assumed they would wait until Arlene finished her degree before having a child. But Arlene surprised Jeffrey by saying, "My career is not that important to me." Looking at Jeffrey, she added: "He was not expecting that; I chose speech therapy because I can make a decent salary working part time and I like to help people." Jeffrey wants her to have a second income so that all income for the family doesn't fall on his shoulders. "I'm in business," says Jeff, "and I remember from my Dad's business that you have good and bad years. I want Arlene's income as backup if I have business problems." Arlene stressed, "Even if he feels more secure by me having the degree, that's worth it."
When our discussion turned to family size, Arlene, who is an only child, said that her personality is geared to having things at home be very quiet. When she spends time with Jeffrey's sister and her three kids, she can't imagine being able to deal with that. Arlene: "I want more than one child, but the thought of three or four overwhelms me. My sister-in-law is so stressed that she can't even do her hair, and she has three terrific kids."
Jeffrey, who grew up with two siblings, wants three children minimum. I suggested it's unproductive for couples to decide their total family size as newlyweds for three reasons. First, fertility is only partially in the hands of the couple; they cannot know the future. Second, a better approach is to decide on each child one at a time, asking: "Are we ready to have a (another) child now?" Third, couples cannot predetermine how much they'll like parenthood; they can only know after experiencing it. After their first child reaches the age of 1, a couple can decide if parenting exceeded, met, or fell short of their expectations. Arlene thought that made more sense than having two kids just because most families have two kids. I also informed them that physicians urge couples to space children two years apart.
Jeffrey ended the session by saying: "We have the kind of marriage that if one of us is upset about something, I insist that we talk it out completely. And 99 percent of the time, we get it out of the way before we fall asleep, which works for us." Arlene concluded: "I'm not worried that Jeffrey will decide to push four kids on me, because he is very sensitive to how I feel about things. And how we relate to each other is more important than a specific number of kids."
In my opinion, this terrific couple will be great, loving parents.
Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer blogs at http://www.familythinking.com/ He is a marriage therapist in Highland Park and can be reached at DrAlanSinger@aol.com