Are You Ready for Pregnancy

Prenatal experts offer advice to parents-to-be on emotionally preparing for a baby.

7 min read

The night before I went into labor, I came down with a severe case of jitters. My husband held me close as I sniveled my fears into his shoulder. Would I be a good mother? Did I know how? Would I learn before doing irreparable harm to my helpless baby?

My trepidations followed into the hospital. At least three times I called the nurse to my room to demonstrate yet again how to diaper my baby, how to bathe her, how to take her temperature and the myriad of other tasks that awaited us -- alone -- just hours away.

It's not that we hadn't thought ahead of time about having a baby. We'd spent hours fantasizing about what she would be like, attending a childbirth class, following the stages of fetal development in our books.

But in all our rose-colored enthusiasm, my husband and I simply couldn't fathom that we were getting a real live baby out of the deal, for keeps.

Of course, no parents-to-be can completely prepare themselves for the profound experience of becoming a first-time mom or dad.

But prenatal experts say that the more nitty-gritty that couples can discuss about what it really means to be parents -- before they even get pregnant -- the easier the transition can be.

Here's their advice on that emotional and philosophical preparation, including 12 questions that prospective parents should talk about first.

"Most couples don't deal with the cold stark realities before they have a baby," says Dr. John Queenan, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University and author of "Preconceptions: Preparation for Pregnancy" and "A New Life: Pregnancy, Birth, and Your Child's First Year." "They don't think about the loss of freedom, the increasing financial burden, or what they're going to do if they're both working and the child gets sick."

But the whole approach to getting ready for a baby is changing: Doctors and midwives now view pregnancy as a yearlong endeavor. Along with the physical and lifestyle preparations to consider even before conception, parents-to-be would do well to contemplate emotional readiness before jumping into a pregnancy, too, says Dr. Larry Culpepper, chief of the department of family medicine at Boston Medical Center and an expert in prenatal care.

Many hospitals and childbearing centers are even adding special preconception classes to their repertoire. They discuss issues such as juggling career and family, how kids affect marital relationships and attitudes toward discipline.

The conclusions couples draw will vary. For some, the insights might mean bracing themselves for heavier negotiations. Others may decide they're not ready for the lifestyle changes parenthood takes. Some might want basic parenting instruction before assuming the responsibilities of a newborn.

"Getting it all out in the open in the beginning, letting that partly make your decision about whether you're going to have a child or not and trying to resolve the conflicts can head off some of the problems that might develop," says Diana Taylor, a nurse midwife who conducts preconception and breast-feeding classes at The Maternity Center in Bethesda, Md.

Nancy Karabaic, a personal trainer from Wheaton, Md., who just gave birth to a baby boy less than a month ago, says that taking a preconception class with her husband Chris LaChat was beneficial since neither one had spent much time around children and weren't sure what to expect.

"We walked out of that class, and I remember thinking, 'Boy, if they wanted to prevent you from having a baby, this is really the way to do it.' The message was 'Really think about this before you do it because it will change your life.' "

But it was good because we could say to ourselves, "We know all of those things and we still feel like this is what we want to do."

While the evidence is still inconclusive, working through potential anxieties and trouble spots early on may even contribute to a healthier pregnancy, says Dr. Ezra Davidson Jr., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. "Unwanted pregnancies have a higher incidence of complications and poorer outcomes, while women in a supportive, unstressful environment where the pregnancy is eagerly anticipated by both partners are in general going to do better."

The transition to parenthood will be tough, so whatever you can work out ahead of time could be one fewer thing to resolve amid the relentless demands of a newborn.

"The realities of being responsible for another human being 24 hours a day are something that most people have not experienced before, so they're in a very challenged place emotionally and physically, and that doesn't make for good decision-making," says Barbara Schofield, a childbirth educator and education coordinator of the Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center in New York City.

New parents struggle with huge financial, emotional, physical and sexual strains, but those with more realistic expectations at the outset will endure the transition better, says Jay Belsky, author of "The Transition to Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage." In a study of 250 couples from their last trimester to their baby's third year, Belsky found that half the couples grew further apart -- 12% to 13% were so divided by differences that they started losing faith in each other and their marriages. Thirty percent kept their relationships at about the same levels, and only 19% grew closer together.

"There's this perception that a baby brings a couple closer together, and that's rarely the case," says Belsky, distinguished professor of human development at Penn State University. "It's more likely to amplify differences than to create common ground. It's like having new dance steps and the music's speeded up."

So often, unless couples consciously examine their motivations for becoming parents, their own differences and how gender and society affect the way they respond, there's more room for misunderstanding and stress.

"No matter how much progress we've made, we still grow up with the message that the only legitimate lifestyle is to grow up, get married and have children. As long as there's that message, we don't actually stop and think about whether that's the way we want to live our lives or not," says Randi Wolfe, assistant professor in early childhood education at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, who holds parenting workshops and has created a parent support and education program called "Listening to Children."

Wolfe believes the pressures to jump into parenthood are harder on women. "A man could decide not to get married or not to have children and while eyebrows might be raised, people wouldn't think it's a terrible loss to humanity. But if a woman simply says she doesn't think she wants to have children, it's a really big statement, and there's no one who's going to say, 'Good for you,' " says Wolfe.

Belsky's research also indicates that even though many couples nowadays expect that household and child-care duties will be shared 50-50 or even 60-40, those proportions are rarely realized. "So there's greater opportunity for disagreement and resentment and misunderstanding, and it just gradually erodes trust and confidence and feelings."

No matter how hard you prepare and discuss ahead of time, there will still be surprises. Parenthood doesn't come with any guarantees about a baby's temperament, for instance, or how parents will react to all these new situations.

Beth Graue, associate professor in early childhood at University of Wisconsin at Madison, was accustomed to being organized and prepared. In fact, people who didn't have control over their lives baffled her -- until she had kids, that is. Now her children, 5 and 2, get sick, the babysitter cancels and she's not the woman she used to be. "People talk about getting to know your baby, but more importantly I think you have to get to know yourself as a mother, and you're meeting a whole new person."

That's why the more issues you can agree on beforehand, the better, says Susan Spaeth Cherry, a poet and journalist from Evanston, Ill., with two daughters, 16 and 11. "The truth of the matter is that most of the things that come up during parenting can't be anticipated, and it's because of those many, many things that it's even more important to talk about the things you do have some control over -- religion is a big one -- so that you're not overwhelmed with everything."

Even negotiating a resolution doesn't mean smooth sailing. Cherry and her husband Dale agreed that it was important for their children to have a stay-at-home parent. Since his job selling municipal bonds earned more money than hers, they decided that Cherry would free-lance from home, and when one of their daughters, now 16 and 11, was sick, she would be the one to adjust her schedule. "Even though we had decided beforehand, sometimes I still resented it because while my job was more flexible, my deadline was still there and I would just have to deal with it."

But while it might seem backward to think about being a parent before you're even pregnant, experts say good parenting doesn't just happen. It's learned. "It's hard for parents to take it as seriously as it needs to be taken -- how much time it takes to parent, how much energy, how difficult, how important -- when we're raised with these ideas that anybody can have a child, anybody can raise a child, and that somehow you can make it work if you just try hard enough," says Wolfe. "It's not true."

And don't fret if preconception planning doesn't yield all the answers. Pre-baby is a good stage to start the process, but it's still a process. "Fortunately new babies really need very little -- they need to be fed, nurtured, and cleaned," says Schofield. "But that's the beauty of it. We really don't need to have all the answers at the outset. We can just make our first year easier by beginning to look at the issues early."