Things you should talk about before you have kids

Having kids is one of the biggest changes you'll ever make in your life. Everything will be centered around your new baby, and you won't have as much time to connect with and talk to your partner as you do now. That's why it's so essential to talk about issues that are important to both of you before you have kids.

As certified parenting coach, Elisabeth Stitt, told me, "The more parents can talk to each other before getting pregnant, the better. Ideally they would have the same kind of 'getting to know you' conversations that they had when they were courting, only this time their conversations would center on their expectations as parents."

She added, "One of the reasons that these conversations are so critical is that we don't actually spend a lot of time around babies before we become parents. That means that our knowledge of 'the way things are supposed to be' is very limited."

The more you plan ahead and discuss important issues with your partner before you have kids, the better off you'll be when you become busy and overwhelmed parents. I went to the experts to find out what's really important to talk about when you're preparing to grow your family.

Why do you want to have children?

One of the first things you should talk about is why you want kids in the first place. Dr. Gretchen Slover, Psy.D., licensed marriage and family therapist, told me, "Of course everyone wants to have children for the same reason, right? How many reasons can there be? The answer — many. In reality, not aligning with the same reasons to have children can cause the children and you grief in the future."

She said that often, expectant parents want children to heal their own wounds from childhood or to make up for things they missed out on as kids. She told me, "One parent may want children to fulfill their need to be loved because of past hurts, or to complete that imaginary white picket fence scenario, while you want children to carry on the family name and to raise them to make up for how you were raised. Having this discussion can help alleviate some of the future parenting obstacles that are in store for you."

Do you know why your partner wants kids? Have you really thought about why you want them? The clearer you can get about your reasons for having children, the better.

How will you take care of your mental health?

Having kids is one of the most stressful things you can do, and you need to be prepared to handle any mental and emotional issues that will arise. If you currently have mental health issues, things become more complicated, with children. Discussing your needs and making a plan with your partner will help you be prepare for when your child comes.

Clinical therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, told me, "If either of you have any mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, substance use, or an eating disorder, it should be discussed before having children. Will you continue medication once pregnant? Are you in a mentally stable place to handle a child? What kind of support will be needed with the added stress of a child?"

Your mental health concerns needn't stop you from having children, but you should know what to do when symptoms arise so that they don't affect your child or your relationship with your partner.

What is your baby's sleep plan?

One of the first things to decide on, is your baby's sleep plan. This may seem like a simple issue, but there are lots of complications that can arise if you're not on the same page.

Stitt gave me an example of two parents with very different ideas of how their baby should sleep. "I knew a family where the German husband grew up with the expectation that babies are put to sleep at 7:00 p.m. in their cribs by themselves. His Italian wife hadn't ever even considered the issue of a bedtime for a baby. In her experience, babies got passed around from adult to adult until they fell asleep in someone's arms, whether that was at 8:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. The couple didn't even know to talk about the issue ahead of time because each assumed that the way each of them grew up with, was the way."

She added that even if you don't experience cultural differences, sleep can still create a rift between you and your partner if you don't talk about it beforehand. "Sleep is one area where if there is not agreement or a plan for compromise, lots of damage to the family unit can get done. For example, in situations where co-sleeping works for the mother but not the father, while the baby does benefit from the mother's closeness, overall the family suffers because the father feels alienated and marginalized," she said.

How involved should the grandparents be?

It's wonderful when you or your partner have parents who can help you out with your new baby, but you do need to think about how involved you want them to be.

Stitt told me, "Another critical issue for expectant parents to discuss is how and how much the in-laws should be involved. New parents are very vulnerable to criticism. Most need some space to work out their own parenting style without being told what to do by a grandparent. On the other hand, new parents also need help and support."

She had some great suggestions for how to get loved ones involved while figuring out your parenting style, saying, "I recommend that expectant parents write up a list of ways that friends and relatives can be helpful. Even if it feels too rude to actually present such a list, the writing of it will help expectant parents to talk through what they think they will want."

Do you live in a different place than your parents? If so, they may want to stay with you for a while after your baby comes. Stitt told me, "This is a good time to check out whether grandparents expect to stay, for how long and where, and for the couple to have some conversations about what issues that might bring up and how they will deal with them."

How will you divide baby-related responsibilities?

When your new baby comes, you will have a lot more responsibilities and things to do. One of the most important things you can discuss is how you and your partner will divide up the work.

Stitt told me, "One of the most essential conversations for expectant parents to have, is around the post-birth division of labor. Many couples these days are making the shift from two parents working to one parent staying at home for some time and the family as a whole having less money. Too often, the expectation is that the stay-at-home parent also becomes the stay-at-home housekeeper and manager." She continued, "That assumption is harmful because it does not acknowledge that the parenting in its own right is a full time job."

She suggested that future parents make a detailed plan for how they will handle work of having a child. "Parents that take the time to write down daily/weekly/monthly/seasonal and yearly tasks and decide ahead of time how to divide them fairly do much better than couples that never discuss the issue explicitly," she says.

Choosing roles beforehand can also help you divide up your parenting research. Stitt told me, "If before the baby even arrives, one partner has agreed to be in charge of bath time and ablutions, then the other parent doesn't even have to read up on it. Likewise, if you know you are not going to breastfeed, it doesn't matter which partner researches formula, bottles, nipples, etc. Only one person needs to be the expert."

How will you communicate once the baby is born?

Good communication is an essential practice that will keep you and your partner happy and sane throughout your marriage — especially when you have a new baby. You can plan for how to be open and honest with each other, so when you're stressed out and harried with a new baby, you already know you have each other's backs.   

Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D., Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, told me, "Parenting partnerships are best when feelings, needs, and behaviors are openly and honestly talked about. This begins with each partner's curiosity and willingness to always look within first. Being accountable for our own behavior, owning it, and then expressing your needs to your beloved significant other makes for long lasting relationships. Talking is the glue that holds people together!"

Conflicts will inevitably arise when you have a new baby, and it's important to plan for how you will manage them. Dr. Walfish told me, "Evaluate the way you and your partner deal with disagreements. It is absolutely natural and normal for two people to not always agree. Your goal is to encourage healthy expression of anger and for each partner (and, ultimately, your child) to tolerate listening without interruptions when the other doesn't agree."

How will you handle your finances?

Your finances will inevitably change when you have a child. Financial concerns range from issues in your child's babyhood, when one of you may stop working, to your child going to college, when you may want to help finance their education.

Hershenson told me, "You want to be financially stable before having children and it is important to discuss how you will handle expenses and bills. Will you start saving for your child's education? Who will handle paying for childcare? Will one of you stop working?" Gaining clarity on these issues will help you minimize disagreements and stress later on.

How will you raise your child?

Sit down with your partner and get as clear as possible on how each of you wants to raise your child so that you can present a united front in the future.

Dr. Slover told me, "Parenting styles are numerous and many and continue to be ever-changing. Unity between parents is essential for the normal development of the child. Working together from the same set of rules and standards you set for your family will minimize confusion. When those trying times come, and they will, the parents will be more apt to work together harmoniously to resolve the issue."

You should specifically discuss discipline and how you plan to handle situations when you need to make rules and set boundaries with your child. Dr. Stacy Haynes, Ed.D, LPC, ACS, CEO and counseling psychologist at Little Hands Family Services, told me, "Before having children you should talk about how you will parent, including discipline. Many of us learn parenting from our parents and we make assumptions that our mate will parent the way we do."

If you or your partner affiliates with a religion, you would be wise to discuss issues of religion and faith as well. Dr. Slover told me, "This is an issue that raises its head and roars into a relationship after the child is born. Considering how each person's faith will be honored through their children is essential, especially when the parents come from entirely different backgrounds and religious practices."

How to start the conversation

Now that you know some of the issues to discuss with your partner, how do you go about having these important conversations?

Therapist and family coach, Kate McCauley, M.Ed, LCSW, suggested planning a specific time to talk about these issues, telling me, "It's important to discuss this when you each have had time to think about it. It should look something like this — 'We haven't spent much time talking about raising children. I'd like us to put a day and time on the calendar when we can start this conversation. I imagine that we will have thoughts that we share that we might want more time to think about, so this will probably be the first of several conversations that we have.'"

Dr. Slover recommended that you let your partner share their thoughts before you give your own. She told me, "It would be best to start the discussion by inviting your partner to give their input first by asking their opinion about what they believe is important to consider before having a child. With their response, you will be able to assess where your similarities and differences lie."

Stitt added, "Parents need to be brave about really pushing for clarity — even if the issue feels so big it might break the couple apart. The more specific couples can get with 'How will you feel when…' questions, the more they will find where their vulnerable points are."

Tips for handling disagreements

What if you and your partner feel differently about an issue? While it can be difficult to negotiate and compromise, it is totally doable. Stitt told me, "Sometimes when partners have differing opinions, when both partners don't feel that strongly about an issue, a mix or compromise can be found. Other times, one partner can decide he or she really doesn't care and just give in. In cases where both parents feel strongly, however, parents need to ask themselves if they will be betraying their own values and priorities if they give in."

McCauley added that you can take a break and come back to the conversation later if you need to. She told me, "Schedule another time to talk about this. In the meantime, spend time thinking about your partner's perspective and what that would mean for you, if you followed what he or she wants."

She shared a personal story to illustrate her point, saying, "My husband and I initially agreed to having three children, but the amount of work having young children was overwhelming for my introverted husband. We went for a long hike and discussed our personal thoughts. He wanted to wait longer before we had the third. I wasn't willing to go into my 40's and have a pregnancy with more risks. We settled on our two wonderful boys who are now young men."

Know your partner in and out

This is a great time to get to know your partner better and to make sure that you're both equally invested in having a child. Having these conversations will help you strengthen your relationship and set you up to raise a happy child.

Dr. Walfish told me, "Know your partner in and out before you have a baby. This is one life decision that is irreversible. Once the child is here….it's forever. Be sure that both you and your partner want a baby to love, take care of, and celebrate every increment in his growth toward independence to make a difference in our world."