Movies and TV sell us such a compelling reality of family life. Dad, mom and 2-3 kids gathered together in a gorgeous house that realistically they could never afford. They're smiling and laughing over dinner with no arguing or sarcastic comments. Mom looks great and dad is never stressed from work. They gaze lovingly at each other with hints of passion still burning, promising adult fun after the kids go to bed.
Where can we get that life? The answer: it doesn't exist. That is a fantasy of what family life is like, with the reality being much more...busy. And messy. Not to say it's not an amazing reality, but life definitely changes once 2 becomes 3 or 4 or 5. As a therapist, I often see couples who focus solely one their children, to the detriment of their marriage. Let's be honest, kids are tough. And if you don't have a really strong foundation before you have them, they can stress even a good marriage out or completely derail a somewhat off-track relationship.
The best defense is a good offense, which is why I've seen many marriages thrive even after baby if they were able to do certain things before life changed and baby's needs began to come first. Because once he or she comes out, alone time with each other is precious. So is having hour-long sex and not talking about poop. Here are my top 10 things I think couples should do before they have a baby to give them the best chance of staying connected as life gets filled with more love and more craziness:
1. Go on that dream vacation you two keep talking about and putting off. Share a bottle of wine in Florence, take a safari in Africa, or lay on a beach in Aruba for 10 days doing exactly nothing. Trust me, it'll be a whole lot harder with a kiddo slowing you down. And you'll have those amazing memories to reminisce about together when you go to Disneyland for the 20th time for "vacation."
2. Have long, boozy dinners filled with amazing conversation and 3-course meals. Talk about your dreams. Really get to know each other. Laugh over stupid stuff and bond over shared interests. Yes, you do this as you begin dating someone, but continue to do it as you grow a deeper relationship with your mate. It really keeps you glued together and creates the intense intimacy needed to foster a strong long-term union. And again, it will be 1000 times harder to do this once you have a family.
3. Buy each other cool stuff for birthdays and anniversaries. And make a big deal out of them. Spurge on that expensive pair of cuff-links he's always wanted or throw her an unforgettable surprise party. Show each other how much you care with the extra income you have now before it goes to the diaper/toy/college fund account and doing so would make you feel guilty for buying him/her something so frivolous.
4. Focus on your careers. Use the time before babies to really put your energy into establishing yourself at work so that when you do get pregnant, you a. won't feel like your job is in jeopardy when you're gone on maternity leave, b. won't feel guilty about staying late to work 4 nights out of the week, and c. have extra money saved up for unexpected expenses like you know, a house to raise all those kids in!
5. Talk about where you want to settle down and who will help you raise the children. When you're just starting out you don't really care where the best school districts are or if you're driving distance away from your folks. If anything, often you want some space from family to make it on your own. Flash forward to two kids later and it suddenly becomes incredibly valuable to live in a family-friendly neighborhood and have loving grandparents nearby to give you both a break. Planning ahead both prepares you and helps prevent you from having to make some pretty tough decisions later on down the road.
6. Get to know each other's families really well. Because once that little bundle of joy comes along, you're going to be spending a lot more time with each other. Hopefully you all get along and that's a good thing but if it's not, mend any struggling relationships before baby. Why? So that family gatherings are filled with happy, normal things like ugly sweaters and taking baby photos, not awkwardness and strained conversation.
7. Get in the best shape of your life. Take the time you have now to look your best for yourself and your partner. Spend 2 hours at the gym or perfecting your hair into perfect beach-y waves. Likely you will never be this size or this attractive again, so now is the time to be selfish and vain. It sounds odd, but in a few years your hair routine will consist of a brush and a hair-tie and those skinny jeans will be traded for flattering yoga pants. And for the guys out there, the term "dad bod" exists for a reason. You won't have the time or energy for working out as much as you did before so enjoy those washboard abs while you can.
8. Discuss how you'll raise the kids. As in what religion will they be, what discipline style will you practice, and who's going to be the primary caretaker or breadwinner? Not exactly sexy conversations but essential real-life decisions you both need to make together before she gets knocked up.
9. Talk about your childhoods and what traditions you'd like to carry on, along with what mistakes you feel your parents made that you DON'T want to repeat. This can be difficult, but analyzing your childhood is important for figuring out what either made it great, just okay, or terrible. Many people repeat generational patterns, it's hard not to. We model our parenting styles on what we witnessed growing up. This can be a good thing. But if you were unhappy as a kid because of something your mom or dad did, don't make the same mistakes. If you had a really shitty childhood, get into therapy way before you bring another life into the world. Trust me, I have seen far too may families destroyed by one parent's unfinished business that negatively impacted their kids.
10. Finally, talk about (and SAVE) money. As in, who is going to pay the bills, clean the house, cook, etc. Those things can be done on your own or paid for. Also discuss what your future will look like and who will handle financial planning for college/retirement and what your budget will be. The "funny" shopping addiction you two joke about can have serious long-term ramifications if not dealt with. Kids are ridiculously expensive so start saving NOW if you plan to have children in the next oh, 10 years. It may seem silly but money is the #1 thing couples fight (and break up) over, so be smart and decide what your plan is as a duo before new members of your team begin draining your funds.
This list is meant to be helpful and funny, but looking over it I see I make kids seem like annoying, no-fun leeches who drain you of your spirit and money. Not true! Kids are life-creating. They make even small moments remarkable with their innocent wonder. Having children will honestly be the best thing you will EVER do if that's the path you decide to take as a couple. Just be prepared so that when your family does grow you'll experience fewer growing pains. Having your whole life change overnight is shocking enough.