There are roughly 4 million married couples in the United States between the ages of 20 and 35 who don't have children. Many of them want to have children – at some point. Unfortunately, there's a growing gap between the desire couples have for future children and how things actually turn out. While only 3 percent of couples reported in a World Values survey that they don't want children, the reality is that about 20 percent of couples end up childless.
For some of them, the gap between desire and reality exists because they don't know the limits of their fertility. Couples who marry after the average age of 27 sometimes try to spend a few years enjoying life without kids, yet when they finally decide to start a family, they're surprised to find they are already past the peak of their fertility. Many of these couples end up having to work a lot harder to have children than their parents or grandparents did. (Many of these couples – as well as many couples who aren't infertile – have discovered the redemptive possibilities of adoption).
Other couples must deal with this gap between desire and reality because starting a family has become a wedge issue in their marriage. Often, one spouse is more ready to have children than the other. Even couples that are on the same page about kids tend to worry how becoming parents will affect their marriage, so they decide to just wait a little longer.
In the meantime, a third of all pregnancies in marriage are unplanned. That means a lot of couples who weren't sure how they felt about kids are sent headlong into parenting without a lot of vision or preparation. These parents often end up like people who are "taught" to swim by being thrown into the water; fear and desperation can work wonders. But learning to swim that way is all about survival – there's little, if any, enjoyment. Not surprisingly, we see a lot more flailing among parents today and a lot less visionary parenting.
The purpose of these articles is to help couples become more intentional about their path to parenthood. Couples who arrive at a shared vision and a purposeful approach to starting a family are able to experience greater joy in their marriages and in their future roles as parents.
"Why have kids?" That's a question couples are increasingly prone to ask. If you were to ask your grandparents or great-grandparents why they had children, they would probably give you a baffled look and say, "That's just what married couples did." Today's couples, however, stop to ask, "Why?"
We don't just do things out of tradition or expectation. We don't just have kids because that's what's expected or because it's what our parents did. We are more likely to have kids as a statement, as a lifestyle choice. But the choice to have children now sits on a shelf in a growing supermarket of options, prompting couples to ask why that particular choice is better than any other.
Couples weighing the decision to start a family are increasingly surrounded by books, articles and Web sites spotlighting the costs and sacrifices ahead of them. Those messages encourage couples to think long and hard about the world they'd be bringing children into, and remind them to count all the costs before making such a monumental decision.
Caution and preparation are helpful, but sometimes it seems that's all couples can find on the topic of having kids these days. Churches, as well as some pro-family organizations, often have little to offer on this subject. Even friends with strong families and children of their own seem unable to articulate why young couples should pursue what they have.
Plenty of people have started their families without some sort of great vision. Increasingly, though, it takes vision for "why" to overcome the growing – and often compelling – arguments for "why not."
To that end, here are four positive reasons why when it comes to starting a family:
Babies require a great investment from parents. The expense of their care, as well as the opportunity costs resulting from lost income, can be daunting even for marriages in a strong financial position. Those costs can seem more overwhelming for couples struggling through an economic downturn. Starting a family requires couples to show good economic stewardship, but raising a child need not be out of reach even in tight times.
Unlike many of the depreciating assets people take on, babies are a source of wealth, delivering a return on investment that is beyond measure. No cost/benefit analysis can capture the true value of a new little person. Children are truly priceless.
One of the few welcome side effects of the economic crunch that hit in late 2008 was that people became more likely to look beyond their wallets in order to experience the truly good things in life. After getting the message for so long that children stand in the way of exotic vacations and a catalog house filled with cool gadgets, many couples discovered that it's those (often disappointing) pursuits that stand in the way of experiencing the joys of parenthood.
The Bible tells us that children are a blessing, but that message seems at odds with the headaches our culture insists children bring. Yet new life continues to offer the wonder and goodness that often eludes us. It gives us a chance to see the world through fresh eyes – restoring the magic and innocence that tend to fade with age. It teaches us more about the "life of love" that God calls us to as His "dearly loved children" (Ephesians 5:1-2). And it gives mere mortals an opportunity to touch the divine – to participate with God in making a new creation in His image.
Babies require great care – especially as they transition from toddlers to teenagers. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. It is grueling at many levels, and this can be intimidating for many couples who don't feel particularly mature. But it's when committing to the needs of a new life that couples are stretched into greater maturity. Children shape our souls like few other things in life, conditioning us to be more other-centered and to take a longer view of life. The demands of children that frighten so many would-be parents are in fact a crucible that can bring out the person God designed them to be.
Many couples reading today's headlines are convinced that this world is too unstable – how can you subject children to such a place? And you can hardly blame them. Trying to raise a child in our current culture can feel like trying to raise a flower in the crack of a New York City sidewalk. But while fear and anxiety are natural emotions for would-be parents, the choice to be fruitful is an enduring and courageous encounter with hope.
In his book The Mystery of Children, Mike Mason describes babies as "renewers, groundbreakers and world-shakers, bearers of new seed, heralds of a new age." Instead of letting the problems around us frighten us away from having children, we should recognize God's pattern of using new life to fix those problems, to bring renewal and fresh hope.
Most couples have some kind of timeline in mind for when it feels right to start their family. Maybe it's vague, maybe you haven't talked it through thoroughly enough to land on a precise target, but you likely have a sense of how much "child-free" time you'd like to have in your early marriage, what you think needs to happen first, and what conditions you think would be optimal before starting a family.
Conventional wisdom says timing is everything – that it's essential when preparing to welcome a child. It seems that more and more couples believe that if they get going too soon they'll get themselves and their babies off to a bad start. Admittedly, there are few things in life more daunting than launching a new life into the world.
Anyone who soberly reflects on the magnitude of the venture and of all the things that could go wrong can be motivated to think more cautiously about their timing. But for today's couples, the factors guiding timing have grown more complex. Couples have always worried about being able to provide for a new family – economic challenges, employment concerns and debt issues have always been considerations. Today couples are more likely to go into marriage with much greater consumer and educational debt than their parents did, leading many to put off having children.
Unfortunately, the intention to have children someday – at the best possible time – often gives way to what one woman called "a creeping non-choice."1 The passage of time can lead couples to choices that are far afield of what they planned.
Reflecting on the brevity of life, Moses prayed, "Teach us to number our days aright" (Psalm 90:12a, NIV). Couples can apply that prayer to their timeline for starting a family in the areas of their fertility and energy level.
Extended life spans and fertility technology give couples the sense that they have quite a bit of control over the timing of starting their family. Surveys, however, reveal a growing gap between desire and reality when it comes to having children. While only 2 percent of couples say they don't want children, 20 percent actually end up childless. And while just 3 percent of couples say one child would be enough for them, 16 percent find themselves limited to one.2 Even though couples today tend to marry later and need more time to finish their education and kick off their careers, the window of natural fertility remains fixed. Women today are often surprised to find that their fertility begins to decline when they're in their late 20s, accelerates its drop when they're in their mid-30s and plummets when they're in their 40s.
Assisted reproductive technology can extend this natural window of fertility to some degree, but not without a cost. In addition to the thousands of dollars assisted reproduction can cost, many worry about the unintended consequences it can create. "Assisted reproduction is like so many technologies," writes Liz Mundy in her book Everything Conceivable, "in that it makes certain situations possible that never were possible before and it suffers from unforeseen glitches; it sometimes delivers the desired outcome faster, and in greater number than a person can handle. It solves problems, and creates them."
A clear pattern in the Bible is that God opens and closes the womb. Regardless of age and technology, He is able to work out His sovereign will. It's our job to be good stewards of the fertility He gives us and then trust Him with the rest.
A couple's age also affects their ability to keep up with children. As life expectancy lengthens, it's easy to forget that age matters. It's tempting to enjoy as many adventures and experiences as we can during the same years that our parents and grandparents were already diapers-deep into the parenting enterprise. Unfortunately it's much easier to achieve a lifestyle of endless youth than it is to keep our bodies from aging. In her article "How About Having Babies Earlier?" columnist Pamela Bone wrote: "Adolescence may now linger through the 20s, and 50 may be the new 40, but biology tends not to take notice of cultural change."3
Regardless of our perceptions of our potential – and the steady stream of technological breakthroughs – our bodies stubbornly grow less conducive to conceiving, gestating and caring for babies the older we get. But it's not just the wind-down of our biological clocks that we must consider. We should also consider those other factors that tend to coincide with when we're most able to conceive: energy, physical stamina and flexibility, and the ability to recover quickly from illness and injury.
While couples that put off having children are more likely to have more money in their bank account, they're more likely to find themselves exhausted by parenting much quicker than younger parents are. This is also true for grandparents. Children need grandparents who can get down on the floor to play with them … and still be able to get back up.
Your timeline, your launch, is important. It is worthy of careful prayer, but not hypercare. Think about your timeline. Are you being overly cautious? Are you being realistic about your fertility and about the capacity you have in the years ahead of you?
Many couples would like to start their family, but worry they can't pull it off financially.
I remember when my wife and I first started thinking about having a baby, one of the first questions I asked was, "How can we afford this?" Our combined income was manageable, but we had a lot of education debt and my wife really wanted to stay home with our baby – which meant potentially cutting our budget in half.
In the midst of our anxiety about affording a child, however, a mentor couple said something we'll never forget: "budget for everything except children – children are wealth."
On its face, this sounded totally irresponsible. Budgets are good things and children can be expensive. But we've found wisdom in this countercultural idea that might be helpful to you.
First, it's reminded us over the years that the costs and financial sacrifices associated with children really are different from the other ways we spend our money. Few expenditures provide as much return on investment or have the same eternal value. Seeing children as wealth can help you rethink which things in your budget really are must-haves and which things are worth exchanging for the gift of new life.
Secondly, this phrase has helped us realize that as important as it is to count the costs, our checkbook shouldn't be the final word. God is the creator of new life and He's also the one who sustains that life by providing for us as we follow His call to be fruitful. As you objectively look at your expenses and income, don't rule out God's desire to bless you. We've traded stories with our friends over the years about raises, gifts and other unexpected provisions that followed after trusting God to provide for our new families.
For some couples, a dedicated period of fiscal stewardship can help them knock out debts and build up savings that make starting a family more affordable. But as couples get married later, they also have to be good stewards of their fertility and energy.
If God has given you the desire to start a family, you can trust that He's also able to multiply your efforts as good stewards of what He gives you – including the possible wealth of children.
Looking at your personal circumstances, you might see challenges that could make the next year a tough time to start a family. Psalm 139 reminds us, however, that God ordains the days for each person before any of them come to be. If God has ordained this year as the time for a new child to join your family, you can believe that He is also able to "meet all your needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19). Whatever your circumstances, you can trust the Creator of life to help you start a family.
Do you and your spouse have different beliefs about starting your family – about when to get started or whether to have children at all? Often wives are ready for a baby before their husbands, but sometimes it's the other way around. What do you do when you're not on the same page about starting a family?
What you don't want to do is nag and drag – to cajole your spouse and drag them into the parenting enterprise. You both need to be committed to the mission. A spouse who is dragged into it is more likely to shirk the responsibilities ahead – and to justify their passivity by saying, "Don't look at me, this was your idea."
Contemporary marriages are often battlegrounds where two individuals with strong opinions clash over whose preferences will win out. As Christians we are called to the challenging task of becoming one in marriage. If you are on different pages when it comes to having children, God wants you to pray for unity.
A spirit of oneness and unity is a distinct concern of Christ. It was one of the most pressing messages in His prayer for the disciples during the Last Supper: "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" (John 17:20).
Oneness in marriage communicates even more about God. In the Genesis story of Creation, we read that when a man and woman are joined together they become "one flesh" (2:24). This concept from the first book of the Bible is reiterated in the last book of the Old Testament where the prophet Malachi writes: "Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth" (Malachi 2:15).
Because children symbolically represent the oneness of marriage, couples should be unified with regard to having them. But Paul's letter to the Ephesians takes it further: " 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:31–32).
From the marriage of Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the marriage of Christ and the church in Revelation, the marital union is intended to model a selfless exchange of love for those who participate in it as well as for a watching world. How might God use the decision about children in your marriage to demonstrate oneness to you and those around you?
Two valuable steps you can take as you pray for oneness about children include fasting and spending time with mentor couples. Too often, our prayer life suffers from distractions. Fasting from a meal (or two or three) can help you focus with greater intensity on your prayers to God, giving you an opportunity to better seek His purposes and to trust the timing of His plans for your marriage. Additionally, mentor couples can support you in your prayers for oneness, while also sharing their stories about the challenges and joys of children and becoming one in marriage.
Starting and raising a family is certainly a soul-shaping, world-altering experience – but first it's a marriage-shaping and relationship-altering experience. No marriage is ever the same once children come into the picture.
"When a baby arrives, everything changes," says family researcher John Gottman. "Parents must adapt to the 24/7 care of a new, vulnerable infant – an enormous task. Not surprisingly, 40 to 70 percent of couples experience stress, profound conflict and drops in marital satisfaction during this time."
Children can bring significant challenges for couples who married with the hope of spending their lives enjoying a soulmate connection. "Most Americans today don't marry in order to have children," writes author and researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "They marry in order to have an enduring relationship of love, friendship and emotional intimacy." But therein lies the rub. Whitehead explains:
Achieving this new marital ideal takes high levels of time, attention and vigilance. Like new babies, contemporary marriages have to be nurtured and coddled in order to thrive. The problem is that once a real baby comes along, the time, the effort and energy that goes into nurturing the relationship goes into nurturing the infant. As a result, marriages can become less happy and satisfying during the child-rearing years.1
Contrary to popular thought, however, your marriage can survive and even thrive as you take on the mission of a family. In fact, having children has the potential to deepen and mature a marriage.
Marriage therapists today often seek to correct the myth that having a baby will make a couple happier. They point out correctly that infants can add tremendous new stress to a marriage and aren't a good prescription for turning a bad marriage into a good one. What couples don't hear enough, however, is that letting their love spill over into a new life can give them a fresh sense of purpose in their marriage. Parenting requires couples to adjust expectations about their sex life, their sleep patterns and their ability to embark on last minute dates, but the parenting mission can mature and sweeten a marriage over the years when a couple commits to do it "as unto the Lord."
"[T]here is no substitute for the contribution that the shared work of raising children makes to the singular friendship and love of husband and wife," write Leon and Amy Kass in their book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. They go on to explain the unique distinction of that shared work: "Precisely because of its central procreative mission, and even more, because children are yours for a lifetime, this is a friendship that cannot be had with any other person."
A very old book about marriage and family offers a vision for how couples can grow through the process of starting a family. The book Home-Making, written by J. R. Miller in the late 1800s, uses some language we don't hear much anymore, but provides a vision that is timeless:
It is a new marriage when the first-born enters the home. It draws the wedded lives together in a closeness they have never known before. It touches chords in their hearts that have lain silent until now. It calls out powers that have never been exercised before. Hitherto unsuspected beauties of character appear. The laughing heedless girl of a year ago is transformed into a thoughtful woman. The careless, unsettled youth leaps into manly strength and into fixedness of character when he looks into the face of his own child and takes it in his bosom.
Yes, having children will change your marriage, but you can trust that God designed your marriage to grow and deepen through that change. The marriage ceremony in older versions of the Book of Common Prayer explain that marriage was ordained for "mutual society, help, and comfort," but it also says that marriage was ordained "for the procreation of children." God didn't design those reasons for marriage to contradict each other. With His grace and wisdom, you can have both kids and a great marriage.
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Jay and Nancy Gueldner couldn't have been happier when they discovered their first baby was on the way. Both in their 30s, with solid careers and a happy marriage, the Gueldners were confident they could handle their new roles as parents.
"We knew an infant was an enormous responsibility, and we knew it would be a huge life change," Nancy says. "But we had no idea that one little baby could be so all-consuming."
When Robby arrived, it didn't take long for the Gueldners to notice the effect on their marriage.
"I'm sure we neglected each other," Nancy remembers. "We used to have all the time in the world to spend together and nurture our relationship, and then suddenly, the baby was the first priority."
It's no secret that most moms and dads are blindsided by the magnitude of this transition. Indeed, even the most unflappable person can become unhinged following the baby's birth. But what many couples fail to realize is that stress, sleep depravation and emotional exhaustion can seriously damage a marriage.
Studies show that more than half of all married couples experience a decline in marital satisfaction following the birth of a baby. 1Furthermore, most couples report having eight times more conflict in their marriages after the baby joins the family. 2Trouble is, finding time to cultivate your relationship with your spouse – without your little one wailing in the background – isn't always easy.
"So many people told us to leave our son with someone so we could connect as a couple," Nancy says. "But we didn't have family nearby at the time, and we didn't feel comfortable hiring a babysitter we hardly knew."
If a weekend getaway or even a romantic dinner for two isn't realistic, there are other do-able ways keep your marriage on solid footing.
Communicate positively with one another. In spite of the emotional ups and downs common to new parents, make a habit of supporting and encouraging your spouse.
"Jay and I really tried to be kind to each other even when we didn't feel like it," says Nancy.
Scorekeeping, nitpicking and those niggling feelings of jealousy may be normal, but tearing one another down won't go unnoticed. Sharing emotions and coming up with appropriate solutions is a key component to a healthy marriage – now and in years to come.
Make it a priority to spend time together. Whether it's enjoying an evening walk, ordering carry-out after the baby has gone to bed or grabbing a few minutes to talk over breakfast, try to find ways to engage in conversation that work for both of you. It's easy to get hyperfocused on your baby's day-to-day care. Still, having fun together as a couple will create a loving foundation for the whole family.
Maintain an overall sense of team. On top of issues like who will earn what portion of the income and who will do the laundry when, ease the parenting transition by detailing role responsibilities. Nagging one another about who should load the dishwasher – all while the baby is screaming to be fed—will only result in increased irritability. Rather, compromise with one another, maintain flexibility and work through expectations. If each person helps out, then you can avoid resentment and establish a united front early on.
Understand that intimacy changes. It's common for a new mom to experience sadness and frustration at the ways pregnancy, childbirth and nursing have changed her body. Fatigue and sleeplessness further complicate the physical aspect of many marriages. With less time and energy for sexual closeness, it's crucial for husbands and wives to discuss new approaches to intimacy. As unromantic as it may sound, sex can be thoughtfully planned into your schedule. And don't despair: you can rediscover that pre-baby passion.
Remember: Parenting your infant won't last forever. Surely most moms and dads with little ones have heard the well-intentioned advice, "They'll be grown and out of the house before you know it!"
While this may be true, it may not feel like it during those first few years. Nevertheless, you and your spouse will be with one another long after the kids are grown. So in the midst of 2 a.m. feedings and emergency visits to the pediatrician, keep in mind that this is only one stage in your long life together.