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?