1. Live A Little
Married three years, Lisa Giassa has a lengthy to-do list of tasks and experiences she'd like to complete before she and her husband start trying to have children. Giassa, 30, a book publicist in New Jersey, wants "to live life uninterrupted." By her definition, that means traveling as much as possible, renting a sports car just for fun, trying out new restaurants, seeing all the first-run movies she wants and—hey, why not—having sex in every room of their house. Marriage counselors call Giassa's approach a healthy one. Newlyweds should wallow in their coupledom in the early years. From sleeping late on Sunday mornings to taking off on a European jaunt, indulging yourself now will leave you with fewer regrets after you have children. Plus, having fun and trying new things as a couple will bring you closer and get you working as a team - which will be essential once you're parents. How do you know when you've had enough of just-us-two? There may never be a time you'll feel one hundred percent ready to give up the couple-centered life, but if you're truly dreading the end of the free-wheeling years, think carefully. "It's a red flag when the prospect of losing your sense of spontaneity makes you feel desperate," says Tessina. "Although you'll certainly have to slow down once you become parents, you should know that having children is not the end of fun in life."
2. Hang Out With Some Kids
A couple my wife and I know, who were contemplating whether to have children, took a unique approach: They "borrowed" kids. No joke: This pair asked friends if they could babysit their children for a day, or even a weekend. Over the course of a year, they ended up spending time with children of all ages, having fun and learning important lessons about parenthood. While you may not do just what our friends did, being around children is a good idea for potential parents. And we're not just talking about cuddling your sister's sleeping infant for five minutes. See if a friend or relative will entrust you with their baby for a half day, or even longer. The experience can teach you (although in a limited way) how to deal with kids, and will give you insights into how each of you interacts with them. "It's easy to get goo-goo-eyed over a baby when you hand her back to her mother in a half hour," says Tessina. "But having a squalling infant on your hands can be really stressful - and you need to see both the good and the not so good about parenting to get a clearer sense of its realities."
3. Create A Baby-Friendly Network
My wife often wonders how we'd ever make it if her parents didn't live nearby, or if we didn't have so many friends willing to help out in a pinch. Having a good support system is essential as you deal with the day-to-day logistics of children and careers, and provides valuable moral support during those challenging infant years. Before you try to get pregnant, you should evaluate your support system. Couples without friends or family living close by should think about getting involved in activities through which they'd meet other young couples and families, such as church or community groups. "The more isolated a couple is, the more difficulty they are going to face," says John Evans, Ph.D., author of Marathon Dad: Setting a Pace that Works for Working Fathers (Avon Books). "The issues you will be facing will seem to exist in a vacuum" if you don't have someone to bounce ideas off or fellow parents to share woes and joys with, says Evans.
4. Grow Up!
Evans and his wife waited seven years before having children. "We figured it was very important to get our own maturing needs squared away and get the bugs out of our relationship before bringing kids into the picture," he says. Of course, not all couples need to wait that long before having children, but regardless of how long you've known one another, it helps to have a sense of stability in your relationship—and in other aspects of your life—before starting a family. Katrina Blauvelt and her husband, David, also chose to wait seven years before having a child. Now in their thirties, the couple traveled, got their careers established and remodeled their old farmhouse in Marietta, Georgia, before trying to conceive. The proud parents of a four-month-old daughter, the Blauvelts are glad they can spend time with their baby—instead of retiling their bathroom.
5. Get Kid-Friendly Jobs
When she interviewed for her job as director of corporate communications at Philips Electronics, Blauvelt made sure she'd be traveling less than she did for her previous job. Smart move. Although most working parents manage to balance career and family, the reality is that climbing the corporate ladder often clashes with caring for a baby. Couples need to plan their careers so that during their children's early years at least one parent has some schedule flexibility and a job that does not routinely require lots of travel or 14-hour days. Evans suggests exploring your company's family-friendly policies before you try to get pregnant. Find out about maternity and/or paternity leave, flex-time, and on-site day care, and whether the company is receptive to the needs of working mothers. Do the parents in your workplace get flack if they have to dash out for a soccer game or doctor appointment? Does the culture at your company truly place value on balancing work with childrearing, or do they only pay lip service to being family-friendly? If it's the latter, maybe it's time to start looking for a new job. Think about your individual career priorities and goals, says Evans. "If you need to put career first right now, if family and children won't rate at the top once you become a parent, then maybe you're not really ready."
6. Agree On Your Parenting Philosophy
Trust me, the time to decide on your approach to discipline is not when you have a screaming toddler flailing about on the floor of the supermarket. Before you have a child, the two of you should talk about discipline, religion, values and other issues that involve the daily realities of raising children. For couples who wait a few years before having children, these issues often come up naturally, as you spend time with nieces and nephews or when you share stories about your own childhoods. But couples who plan to have children shortly after marriage might need to address the issues more formally, by reading parenting books or attending parenting classes. "Better to talk about it than to learn, when your child misbehaves, that your spouse believes in spanking and you don't," says Evans.
7. Work Out Your Couple Conflicts
Nearly every couple quarrels, and everyone has bad days. But if the bad days outnumber the good, or there are major unresolved issues in your relationship, having a child will not improve the situation. Quite the contrary: The added stress and demands of parenthood will only magnify existing problems. Children rarely "solve" problems between parents, says Tessina. "No relationship is perfect, but you need to be able to work things out as grownups, not as two kids fighting in a sandbox." Couples grappling with issues such as lack of trust, irresponsibility, rage, or alcohol or drug problems need to seek counseling before they consider bringing a child into the world, she says.
8. Get Over Your Childhood Woes
Therapists see it all the time - you have a child yourself, and suddenly all your unresolved issues are unearthed. Childhood, notes Evans, is often full of unfinished business. If you had a difficult childhood that included alcoholism, abuse, divorce or the death of a parent, consider therapy before you have a child. "If you don't work through those issues, you are in danger of repeating what was done to you in the past," says Tessina. "I hear bewildered parents say it to me all the time: 'I can't believe I just did that; that's what my mother used to do, and I swore I would never do that to my own children.'"
9. Assess Your Lifestyle
Many couples don't "decide" to have a baby—it just happens. Other times, couples simply throw the condoms in the trash and caution to the wind. But that approach can potentially expose a baby to unnecessary risks. Better, if you can, to plan. Many obstetricians recommend that couples undergo a prenatal health screening before trying to conceive. Reviewing family history and undergoing some simple tests can indicate increased risks for genetic disorders and inherited birth defects, says F. Sessions Cole, M.D., an expert in prenatal care and director of the division of newborn medicine at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Couples also need to evaluate their lifestyles and cut out behaviors and habits that can threaten their chances of having a healthy baby. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and high stress levels can all adversely affect your ability to conceive and can compromise the health of a growing fetus. "Planning ahead does not mean making a doctor's appointment for Wednesday and then getting pregnant on Thursday," says Dr. Cole, who recommends making lifestyle changes at least six months before trying to conceive. "You need to make sure you optimize your chances for a healthy baby."
10. Get A Financial Plan
If every couple waited until they were completely financially secure before having children, the world's population would be significantly smaller. And if you're waiting to be rich, forget it: A child does not need wealthy parents so much as he needs loving, capable and supportive parents. Besides, you can reach your loftiest financial goals, have a child, and then watch it all come crashing to the ground tomorrow. That said, you should at least put a financial plan in place before little Johnny or Josie arrives. When you make your first appointment with your obstetrician, also think about calling a financial planner to help you establish some goals. Expectant parents should devise a "baby budget" that lists current expenses as well as anticipated first-year expenses such as child care diapers, nursery furnishings, toys and clothing. A recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture stated that parents of a child born in 2003 can expect the cost of raising that child over 18 years to total about $190,000 - and that's not including college! So start saving now—right after you pay off that dream trip to Ireland.