Many couples wait to have children until their careers are on track.
By KAREN GUZMAN
In about two months, Mary Catherine and Chad Collins will welcome their first baby. Married in 2001, the 28-year-olds initially put off parenthood. Financial obligations -- car payments and credit cards -- took precedence, as did building careers.
"We were both new in our careers and have now gotten to the point where we're more established," Mary Catherine Collins said. "We weren't really ready till this year."
Baby-timing is a potent force in relationships today. Often a culprit in marital squabbles, it's rumored to have been one of the factors that broke up Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. With two careers in the mix, lifestyle choices and the ever-escalating cost of raising kids, even ordinary couples face challenges and options of which previous generations never dreamed.
It can all be a bit daunting.
"It's probably a decision that people spend a great deal more time making than they did in the past," said Barbara Risman, a professor at North Carolina State University and co-chairwoman of the national Council on Contemporary Families.
Work and family
The main problem, according to Risman, is that the American workplace is incompatible with modern family life. So despite the fact that the National Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 61.1 percent of women will work outside the home in 2005, "You've got two people in jobs that are organized as if each person has a wife at home taking care of everything," Risman said.
Work isn't the only reason people delay having kids today.
The Collinses, for instance, wanted to give their marriage time to settle. "You have to feel comfortable with yourselves as a couple, feel grounded in the relationship, before you bring somebody else into the equation," Collins said.
Exactly what are the hallmarks of a relationship that's ready to welcome a child? Good communication and conflict resolution skills for starters, says nurse and licensed marriage therapist Pam Richey.
Another major building block: The couple should be firmly established as an independent and committed unit. "They should have a sense that they're a family without kids," Richey said.
When is too late?
There are risks to waiting -- especially if you're an older woman. A woman's fertility declines with age. Between ages 35 and 39, it drops 25 percent to 50 percent. And from 40 to 45, the decrease is 50 percent to 95 percent, according to reports from the Mayo Clinic.
"I'm aware the optimal time for having children is closing," said Christina Gibson-Davis 34, and an assistant professor at Duke University. "And we're trying to balance that with the desire to have our marriage stand on its own two feet."
While fertility is primarily a woman's concern, men have their own concerns.
Greater roles for dads have also profoundly changed the way many men approach fatherhood.
"Men do this differently than women," said Mark O'Connell, psychologist and author of "The Good Father, On Men, Masculinity and Life in the Family."
Women tend to be more naturally attuned to the realities of biology and parenting, while many men play catch-up.
O'Connell stresses that he's speaking in generalities. Certainly there are men with a natural knack for parenting who've always wanted to be fathers. But some warm to the idea more gradually. "It's important for women to not necessarily think they got a bum deal if their husbands aren't totally on board."
Getting on board requires communication and agreement. Serious misgivings on the part of either a man or woman should be red flags.
O'Connell advises couples to sit down and talk. "It sounds simple, but people don't take enough time to do this," he said.
He suggests that each partner have the chance to say how he or she feels without fear of judgment. Topics covered should include expectations, "what you think life will be like with a baby," time, money and maintaining a sexual relationship after baby arrives.
There is no single right way to go about this, he says.
"We're all different. People need to make room to appreciate these differences," O'Connell said.
That said, once a man is committed to becoming a dad, there are generally a few things he likes to have in order.
"It is really important for a lot of men to feel like they're making a good living," O'Connell said. Some even put in longer, harder hours at the office. It's their way of getting ready. "Women need to take seriously that men are sincere when they say this: I'm doing this for my family," O'Connell said.
O'Connell brings up another common reason some delay child-rearing -- the fear that life will be inexorably altered, for the worse. Partners can fear loss of income, loss of freedom and loss of intimate time alone.
"Remember, people have been having babies for a really long time," O'Connell said. "We live in a culture where people feel everything has to be perfect. Don't worry. You'll work it out as you go along."