Should We Have Children?

Letter #1

Introduction: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Susie in a baby carriage." Is that really the way it goes? Many couples I know have defied expectations by having Susie before love or marriage. Others, after love and marriage, have decided not to have Susie. Still others are in serious conflict over whether or not to have Susie. It's the conflict over Susie's existence that's the subject of this week's Q&A.

Children are clearly a source of marital conflict. The fact is that affairs and divorces are more likely after the first child than before. It should be the other way around, of course, because children should give a couple a very important reason to avoid affairs and stay married -- children need the cooperation of both of their parents to thrive, and they suffer when their parents divorce. But the negative effect of marital conflict sends many parents running for cover, leaving their children to fend for themselves.

Why are children so rough on marriages? Because children force their parents to make new decisions that are needed to accommodate them. If parents are not skilled in making mutually agreeable decisions that take each other's feelings into account, the lifestyle created by these new decisions can become intolerable.

This week's letters are from spouses who want a child. One is trying to convince her husband that it's a good idea, and needs some ammunition to win the argument. As you will see, my advice may actually weaken her case. Of course, there is a way to go about having children that makes everyone happy, and I will offer that advice as well.

The other letter is from a husband who is resentful about his wife's unwillingness to have children. Now that it's too late, he is depressed about a life that has been very unfulfilling. What can he do to overcome his depression and resentment?

Dear Dr. Harley,

My husband and I have been married for three years. Before we got married we agreed we would wait 2-3 years before having children. I knew before we got married that he wasn't really a kid lover, but I specifically asked him if he wanted children and he said "yes." Well now that the time has come to have them, he all of a sudden changes his mind and doesn't think he can deal with having children in his life. I asked him if it's possible that he could change his mind and he said yes, but he needs time to think about it. What am I supposed to do? How much time does he need to think about this? I love him a lot, but also want to fulfill my dream of having children. I'm so confused, and thoughts of this whole situation are just making me sick!


Dear R.W.,

In my seminars, I will often rhetorically ask the audience if they discussed pre-conditions to their marriages (I don't ask them to identify themselves). For example, did anyone ask the other, "Will you agree to be gainfully employed throughout our marriage." Some people have so much trouble finding a suitable career that they spend their lifetimes chronically unemployed. Should that make a difference? Should employment be a condition for marriage?

Another question might be, "Will you agree to have sex with me regularly after marriage?" What if a spouse at some point during marriage refuses to make love for, say, three years (not an uncommon experience). Should willingness to have sex be a condition for marriage?

We could mention other conditions. "Will you agree to show affection to me, tell me you love me and hug and kiss me?" Would you have married someone who could not commit themselves to being affectionate to you? Should affection be a condition for marriage?

"Will you agree to take time out of your busy schedule to give me your undivided attention?" That's often neglected.

"Will you agree to be honest with me?"

"Will you agree to not to hit me?"

"Will you agree not to have an affair?"

I could go on and on with conditions that most of us assume of each other when we marry. But the conditions are rarely stated, except the one about having an affair -- in most wedding vows, we promise to be faithful (not that it does much good).

There are reasons not to state pre-conditions for marriage. The most important reason is that the marriage itself is considered to be more important than the expectations for marriage. In other words, when you marry, you agree to share your life with another person "for better or for worse." You agree to marry even if things don't turn out as good as you had hoped. That's why specific expectations, such as having sex, being affectionate, earning a living, or in your case, having children, are not usually stated in the vows.

In your case, you asked your husband if "he wanted children." I'm not sure you intended it to be a condition for marriage, or if he took it that way. Even if you had given him a legal document to sign committing himself to children, should you hold him to his agreement?

For your sake, for the sake of your unborn children, and for the sake of your husband, I advise you not to have children until you have your husband's enthusiastic agreement. I don't think you married him just to have children -- you married him because you loved him and wanted to share your life with him. Having children, like any other objective in life, makes sense only when you and your husband share enthusiasm for the objective, and want to carry it out together.

The same thing is true for earning a living and having sex. You should only do it for each other when you are in mutual agreement. Neither you nor your spouse should force the other to do anything. All of your care for each other should be willingly offered.

That doesn't mean that you can't spend a considerable amount of time negotiating for what you want. There are ways to encourage your husband to want to have children. It's the same method I recommend to encourage spouses to meet any of the important emotional needs, or objectives in life. I have mentioned it in most of my Q&A columns already, but it doesn't hurt to review it once more.

1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.

Before you start to negotiate about having children, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.

Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.

2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.

Be able to state each other's position regarding parenthood before you go on to find a solution. Why do you want children? Why doesn't he want children? Be sure you don't argue with him, just get to know how he feels.

3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.

Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to do that during the fourth step. He may suggest that you get a puppy instead of a child. Don't say anything, just write it down along with other suggestions. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of possible solutions.

4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.

From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.

When couples have a serious conflict, I usually suggest a test of solutions before actually implementing any of them. That allows them to consider worthy alternatives even though one spouse may not yet be enthusiastic about it. In the case of having children, how could you test a solution without actually having a child?

One possibility is to baby sit other people's children. Offer, free of charge, evenings watching your friends' children while they go out to see a movie. As you baby sit, think about how you and your husband would make decisions about the care of your own children. How would you divide responsibilities so that your husband would not feel suffocated by it all? How would you preserve your privacy, so that you could continue to meet each other's emotional needs the same way you meet them now? How would you avoid his trying to escape it all by forming new friendships and activities that do not include you or the children?

Your first baby sitting experience may turn into a disaster because you have never considered some of these questions before. In fact, it may be so bad that it may even shake your resolve. But as you begin to make wise decisions that take each other's feelings into account, you may get to be so comfortable with baby sitting that you will be the envy of all your friends -- a couple who love children so much that they would rather baby sit than spend a night out.

There are other considerations that may come up as you discuss his objections to having children. For many men, children conjure up visions of burdensome child support, awkward visitation and endless legal expenses. If you and he are having any trouble getting along now, once a child comes along, your marriage could be over, and your husband may be thinking about that possibility.

If you go about trying to resolve your conflict over having children the way I have suggested, it may illustrate the way you should solve all of your problems. Instead of ending each conflict with resentment and hurt feelings, you may find yourselves beginning to create a lifestyle based on mutual consideration. That, in turn, would erase any worry about the disaster of divorce after your child arrives.

Try to get everything you've ever wanted in marriage. But do it in a way that has your husband's enthusiastic agreement and support. Otherwise, you may find yourself getting what you want, but losing your husband.

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