We jokingly dubbed our trip "the last hurrah" — my wife, Debra, and I spent two wonderful weeks traveling around Ireland. We really couldn't afford the trip, and it devoured all of our vacation time. Yet we went anyway. Why? Because we didn't have any kids yet — but knew we wanted them. If we put off the trip until after we started a family, it might be decades before we got to see the Emerald Isle.
Today, four years and two children later, we know we were right. Children are a blessing to a marriage, but they certainly change life, profoundly and forever. Traveling may seem trivial in the face of a desire to hold that bouncing baby, but once you get the kid, there's no going back. There are things you owe it to yourself, not to mention to your marriage, to do before you have children.
"I continually meet couples suffering from baby shock," says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a marriage counselor in Long Beach, California, and author of How To Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page Books). "They tell me they had no idea what having a child would be like. They didn't think it through."
Wondering what the two of you should do before that seven-pound bundle snuggles its way into your hearts and your home? Here are 10 suggestions that, hopefully, will reduce your risk of being zapped by baby shock — and strengthen your marriage in the process.
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."
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."
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.