How do you decide when to start a family?
How many kids to have?
When to stop having kids?
Even if we knew exactly how many kids we hoped to have before we started, we’re often poor predictors of how we’re going to feel when the time comes. And we also have partners to consider.
One of the common arguments I see as a couples therapist, particularly serving a mostly religious population, is the one about planning procreation, decisions like:
When to start “trying”
How far apart to space the kids
When we’re “ready” for the next one, and when the family is “complete”
It’s a tough subject to write about, especially because so many couples struggling with infertility would love to have this dilemma. But a problem of privilege can still be a problem, and needs to be addressed, nonetheless.
The initial assumptions about family building are often very culturally based. Many religious systems prohibit or discourage the use of birth control and prioritize childbearing. So in these cultures, the baseline is:
“We should start a family immediately, or have another child, unless there is some clear, specific reason not to.” Predictably, in these communities, large families are the norm.
In the more dominant, secular culture, the baseline is generally the reverse:
“There’s no rush to procreate. Kids are expensive, exhausting, and time-consuming. We should build our relationship first, our careers, some financial stability. If or when the time is right, we will/ may try for kids/ another baby.”
Many contemporary couples find themselves somewhere in the middle, or split between the two.
Choosing to have kids is a big deal. Each child we have is a serious commitment to another human life.
When someone wants to have a child, particularly a first child, it can feel like an obsession. Especially for women. Some people equate meaningful adulthood with parenthood, and the idea of not being able to fulfill that need when and how you want to can be incredibly painful. When the reason for the delay is the spouse, it can take a serious toll on the marriage, especially if the onus of birth control is on the person who would prefer to be “trying.” It can also detract from sexual intimacy and pleasure, since the act itself becomes tinged with the tension of love-making versus baby-making.
There are different reasons people crave parenthood, most of them emotional: instinctive, religious, peer pressure, spiritual, the desire to give, to fill a home with the joy of family.
The objections are mostly logic-based, but sometimes emotional: Children change things. They generate expenses, more responsibility, mess, lack of privacy, sleep deprivation, stress, noise, constraints on travel and recreation. Even pregnancy itself can be complicated and unpleasant. The more kids you have, the more of all that there is.
Sometimes, the objections are anxiety based, people who say: “I definitely do want children/ another baby, but I’m just not sure if now is good”- for no specific reason and with no real time frame. This is particularly difficult for the baby-craving spouse, because it can feel like a tease, and seem like the partner is holding out without any real explanation.
There is no simple solution or formula for how to deal with this conflict.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe it’s healthy for either partner to feel pressured into an unwanted pregnancy. Or as some pressured would-be parents say: “I don’t want to be forced to have a baby.”
On the other hand, the prevention often yields a reverse accusation: “Well I don’t want to be forced to be on birth control or deprived of having a child that my heart yearns for constantly.”
Logically, the first argument holds up a little better, but the emotional pull of the second often comes on strong within the relationship, creating a rift that can’t be ignored.
Many parents will say: “I had to fight for each kid we had, and in the end, my partner really loves them.”
This is often true because an unwanted pregnancy doesn’t necessarily beget an unwanted child. Meaning: a parent could not want a pregnancy but then still feel connected to the baby (or sometimes struggle to connect with the baby.) That doesn’t necessarily always mean that in retrospect that it was the right choice for the family. (That varies by situation.) Hindsight is not always 20-20 or clear cut.
The plot thickens when the ambivalently conceived baby brings along other issues- such as medical complications for either mother or child, which serve as another stressor and further ongoing possible resentment. Even without them, there are some parents who will quietly, confidentially acknowledge regret over have their last child, even while loving them.
Sometimes there are external variables which make it more objectively inadvisable to conceive- health risks, mental health concerns, marital stability, or maternal age. Other times, it’s more a matter of individual, personal feelings, one spouse not feeling ready or wanting to have a baby, right then, or even at all. And generally, it goes deeper than the surface question about whether to, and touches on the why: what would having this child (or not having it) mean, signify, elicit from each parent emotionally.
This is a heavy topic, and there are no templated, simple solutions. You can’t really compromise- like: “let’s have half a baby.” But like with most areas of relationship conflict, the broader context and the way a couple navigates the discussion generally make more of a difference than the actual outcome. When one partner feels steamrolled or silenced by the other, the pain will build and fester. When the topic is handled with sensitivity and empathy, it might not get resolved easily but it can preserve the foundational love and respect in the relationship as they rumble with this very personal issue.
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