Before my son was born, I researched childbirth constantly. I meditated every morning, did yoga three times a week, asked an osteopath to balance my pelvis and crafted a custom labour playlist with five hours’ worth of music. A pile of library books teetered beside my bed, and vitamins and supplements lined the kitchen counter. My obstetrician said my birth plan was one of the most detailed ones she’d ever seen. But before getting pregnant, my husband and I rarely talked about what our new arrival would mean financially, emotionally, logistically or professionally. Big mistake.
Hours, days and months after my son’s birth, I was crushed by the magnitude of waking up every two or three hours to feed a tiny screaming human. Our plan to alternate my early-morning shift with my husband’s late-night one seemed hilariously naive and, like many new moms, I struggled with agoraphobia and breastfeeding, lack of sleep and self-care.
When it comes to having kids, the best time to start the conversation is well before getting pregnant, says Joanna Seidel, a family therapist based in Toronto. “Becoming a parent changes your whole core, physically and emotionally,” says Seidel. She knows that all too well: She is a mother of three children, including a newborn. “For the first year, you’re simply not the same person,” she says.
Figuring out where you both stand, early and often, can help smooth the ride into parenthood. Here’s a rundown of the big and little things to iron out—ideally before you buy that first pregnancy test.
1. Get on the same page.
In the face of such monumental change, start with a frank talk about each of your childhoods and how you would like to raise your kids. “As a parent, you are going to adopt some of the parenting styles you were parented with and you’ll try to leave behind the parts that aren’t so favourable,” says Seidel.
Talk about who took care of you when you were sick, how your parents arranged their work schedules and who took you to after-school programs—this will help determine your shared values and priorities. Were your parents overcautious? Did you grow up in a house with lots of yelling? What types of food did you eat? Did you have your own bedroom? How did you spend your extracurricular time? Talking through your experiences will help inform the thousands of choices—on child care, discipline, religion, diet, hygiene, sleep and more—you’ll make in the trenches of parenthood.
Eight years ago, Helen Earley was working as a flight attendant in London when she got pregnant with her daughter. The father was her long-time boyfriend, a senior university lecturer. “If there are any weaknesses in the relationship before kids come along, you can be 100 per cent certain that they’ll be amplified once kids come along,” says Earley, who now works as a teacher and freelance writer.
“We found ourselves pleasantly surprised when we discovered shared values we didn’t know we had,” says Earley. For instance, she and her husband both come from families where having breakfast and dinner together was important, so that became a priority for them. As well, they talked early on about how how many kids they wanted. “Neither of us had the experience of being an only child, so we couldn’t imagine that,” she says. They had a son almost three years ago.
2. Ask the big (and little) questions
Once the lines of communication are open, get to specifics before getting pregnant. Is your home large enough for your family? What language or languages will your child speak? Will they be raised in a certain religion? If you’re a vegetarian, do you want to raise your child with the same dietary restrictions? Where do you stand on co-sleeping or sleep training? What about soothers? Formula? Is one partner willing to take over a night feeding? Will you pump?
The questions and topics can seem endless and overwhelming, so it’s OK if you don’t immediately know where you stand. Remember that it will probably take some time—perhaps even a lifetime—before you know where you stand on absolutely everything, says Earley. “You don’t need to agree on everything,” she says, “but you should try to agree on most things.”
Tackle each issue as a team, when you have the time and energy to really listen to your partner’s point of view—not when you’re wolfing down breakfast or exhausted from a long day at work. As Seidel says, this isn’t an argument with a clear winner and loser; it’s a meeting of minds so that, once the baby arrives and you are running on four hours of sleep and haven’t showered in days, you and your partner can rely on a common front.
3. The dealbreakers: work and money
Few topics are as volatile as work and money—the top factors, says Seidel, in the breakdown of a relationship. Couples are much more likely to get divorced three or four years after having kids—in some cases, even earlier, she says. Be honest with yourself and your partner about your goals before getting pregnant. Do you both want to work? Is one of you going to stay home? Set realistic short-, medium- and long-term goals for your career and family lives, and revisit them as needed.
“Neither of us is really good at housework, so we both agreed that having a cleaning lady was a good idea,” says Earley. The couple have never taken a loan out on a car and neither owns a cellphone, both agreeing that they’d rather spend extra household cash on flights back to England to visit family.
You’ll also want to talk about child care. When you head back to work, do you want to send your child to daycare or are you more comfortable with an in-home nanny? I went back to work two months after my son was born, which meant that I needed to track down hard-to-find infant care. While an in-home nanny siphoned any income I made that year, the comfort of knowing that my son was safe and loved in our home was priceless.
Try to anticipate conflicts before they arise. If your child is sick and both of you are working, who will stay home? How will you handle disagreements or conflicts with grandparents? These can be volatile topics, rife with ingrained stereotypes on gender and division of labour, so it’s important to tackle these questions slowly, steadily and gently before getting pregnant.
4. Conflict resolution 101
When you reach an impasse, what do you do? My technique? Bombard my husband with complex, important questions and expect an immediate answer. It has taken me years to learn that giving him space to think and come back with an answer is invariably the better way to go.
In the heat of an argument, it can be hard to stay calm, so Seidel suggests approaching each topic as an attempt to understand your partner’s position. That means actively listening—not finishing each other’s sentences—and framing conflicts around how you feel, not about who’s right and who’s wrong. One brilliant mom friend of mine and her husband invented their own quirky technique: By standing or sitting in a certain spot of their house, they can gently signal that a conversation needs to happen, without conflict or confrontation.
In parenting, as with the airplane safety demonstration, put on your own oxygen mask first. Ask yourself what will help you relax and keep it together and what support you think you’ll need. The clearer you are about your needs, the more likely it is that your partner, family members and friends will know how to support you.
My husband and I have emerged from the gauntlet of my son’s first year, mind, body and relationship intact, with a walking, busybody toddler to show for it. No matter what your struggle—and there will be a struggle—just remember: Trust your instincts, and it’s never too late to talk it out.