Last week, I attended a birthday party at which the hosts had set up a fun ice-breaker. Each guest was asked to select a card from a box. Each card had the name of one of the guests on it, and a suggested question. The game was to find the person named on your card and to ask them the suggested question.
I was a bit of a bad sport and didn’t pick a card. But someone found me and asked: “What are five things you should do before you have kids?”
I didn’t have very long to think about it, so I don’t know how well thought out my response was but these are the five things I picked.
1. Be okay with having kids (or not having kids)
People have kids for many reasons – wanting to be a parent, have a family of your own, share your life and experiences or because of sheer biological need (your clock, it’s ticking!) but also because of community, family or spousal pressure. Before you have kids, make sure you and your spouse are very clear on whether you want to have kids and why you want to have kids. Also, it is okay to want a kid, or two, or five – or none.
I have always been convinced that three kids was the ideal number, the recipe for a perfect family. But when we had one child, I fully understood why some people are perfectly happy with just one child. And when we had two, I started to understand why some people want many, many kids – and also why some people want none at all. Now these all seem like good choices to me. And the key word here is choice.
We are fortunate enough to live in a country where women (and men) do have a choice about how many children to have and how to space them out. In a perfect world your decision would not be affected by a lack of access to birth control or medical care, or colored by the expectations of a spouse, parents, family, friends or community.
Of course we don’t live in a perfect world. But before you have kids, you should do what you can to get to a place where you are okay with having, or not having, kids.
Many people are capable of having children and traveling the world. But these are very fortunate people. Most of us don’t have the luxury of flexible work, or work that pays well enough to allow us to travel extensively once mortgages, medical bills and childcare (not to mention the rand/dollar exchange rate) are factored into the equation.
Generally, it’s easier to travel alone or with your partner because all you’d have to worry about is yourself and your partner.
A very brave person might be able to trek through Central America with a toddler in tow but it is not for everyone. So if visiting Machu Pichu is on your wish list and you are able, do it before baby comes along or be prepared to put your trip on hold for a good few years.
The same goes for education. Many men and women with families have successfully completed degrees. But it is much harder to enjoy your studies when each week means making sure there are no calendar clashes with your partner or traffic jams on the commute home making the parental handover before the mad dash to campus a nightmare. Let’s not even talk about the difficulties of studying full time and having to balance the books so the family can live off one salary until you graduate.
It’s not impossible but finishing a degree is administratively easier when you don’t have to factor a kid into the equation.
4. Solidify your career
You know how people always go on about how children need structure and predictability in their lives to stay on an even keel? The same goes for the parents of those kids. Because when a parent has a wobble, it affects the whole family.
So if you think you might want to switch careers in the near future, and that this might entail further study or a pay cut, you probably want to investigate that before you bring a baby into the mix.It is also much easier to negotiate flexible working hours or change jobs when you are in a more senior role than it would be if you were still in a junior role.
I hate to go all “lean in” on people but I’d argue that it’s easier to strike the work/life balance you might want when you’ve had kids if you’ve spent some time sharpening your skills and carving a niche for yourself in the workplace.
5. Make peace with your family
Babies have a way of bringing families closer together. And that can be a good thing and a bad thing. When Junior comes along, Grandma is going to be over at your place like all the time, and the thing is, you’re going to want her there because you’re going to need all the help you can get. Your mum might always be lecturing you on your life choices, your weight and your hair but in the grand scheme of things, these issues are kind of moot. When you get pneumonia and find yourself shivering violently and puking blood into the sink with your partner away at work, you’re going to need your mum, dad, sister or cousin because while you might need to collapse into a heap, the baby will still need to be fed, burped and changed. We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child but the saying takes on a whole new meaning once you actually have a child.
And those were the five things I told poor hapless, recently-engaged Keegan last week. (Sorry about talking your ear off, Keegan.)
But after all the speechifying, the bottom line is that life isn’t always easy to plan for. And sometimes practical considerations, like that ticking biological clock, take precedence over all else.
From a career perspective, I would have loved to have waited a few more years before having kids. I also often feel I didn’t travel or study enough. But I wasn’t ready to bet on my fertility as a 40-year old, so I picked the baby.
At this point all I can do is work around it. On the plus side I’ve discovered that most things related to the having and raising of children are nice-to-haves, rather than need-to-haves. It would have been nice to have done a further degree before I had the kids, but if I really want it, I’ll get back to it. Just maybe after the next round of potty training.
If someone who was considering starting a family asked you the same question, what would you say? Tell us in the comments.