Whether it's a surprise or you've been waiting to get pregnant for a while, being a parent can bring many strong emotions - not all of them good.
Candice and Dean are in their mid-thirties, have been married for five years and together for nearly 10. They plan to start trying for a baby in the next six months, but admit they’ve constantly found reasons to wait, including going on a European holiday, house hunting, and promotions at work.
“I know we have a fertility deadline, but we’ve been able to achieve certain things and tie up a few loose ends in our lives because we’ve waited,” says Candice.
It always makes me laugh when people say they need more money or a bigger house to prepare for kids
Candice and Dean aren’t alone – many couples want to become parents but feel they have to be at a particular point in their lives for it to happen. In fact, with the average first-time parent now firmly in their thirties, hesitant couples could be considered the majority in Australian society.
While there’s no doubt it’s easier to be a parent when all areas of life are in order, some parenting experts say that being emotionally ready is the most crucial thing.
Dr Melanie Strang is a medical practitioner who believes post-birth support is lacking in Australia. She says many parents prepare in a practical sense, doing things like learning how to bathe and settle a baby, but that very few examine what it means to be a parent on an emotional level.
“There’s a need to look inwards, because apart from the joy that’s associated with having a baby, there are many losses that need to be acknowledged – including loss of income, loss of freedom and loss of identity,” she says.
These losses aren’t something 25-year-old Sarah is concerned about. Because her and her husband’s jobs are stable, she’s planning to get pregnant this year – in spite of her flourishing career, a freelance writing job, a post-graduate thesis to complete and a novel to finish.
“No matter how prepared you are, it's still going to be a challenge, but it's a challenge I have been looking forward to for a long time,” she says. “My husband and I are putting things in place as much as we possibly can. I might sound naive but I guess I’ll never know until I’m in the situation.”
Dr Strang understands how couples come to have children before reflecting on the emotions involved. “For some couples the time may never feel right to have a baby – they may simply be swept along with peers who are all having babies at the same time,” she says. “Others may be trying to outrun their biological clocks. By giving them a few tools to cope, the transition can be made a bit smoother.”
Philip Pryor, of the Great Parents Institute, agrees that thinking about parenthood ahead of time can help. As a family and parent coach who runs courses in preparing for a family, he thinks the parents who suffer the most are those who overplan.
“Many parents are determined their kids won’t change their lives, but I’ve yet to see that happen. You can’t control babies, and after adding raging hormones, exhaustion and an overwhelming desire to do their best, people can be driven to distraction. I’ve seen a lot of very successful corporate women struggle when they become mothers,” Philip says.
For Kate, 25, this wasn't the case - she says she’s thriving due to not having many expectations about being a mum. She'd only been with her partner for three months when she discovered she was pregnant with their daughter Sienna, now 21 months.
“It's the norm to start having babies well into your thirties, because women want a career, a property and a heavily stamped passport before they get down to baby-making. Before I had Sienna, that’s exactly how I thought my life would play out,” she says.
The couple did their best to financially prepare as much as possible, minimising debts and buying family-friendly cars, and lived on a single income in a small apartment for a year. These experiences gave Kate momentum to take the plunge in other areas of her life, such as enrolling at university and starting a blog.
In many cases, people only find out if they’re emotionally ready for parenthood once the baby is born. It's only then that some people start to feel resentment and disappointment about their decision. Couples whose relationships have centred around activities that aren’t very child-friendly – such as travel, socialising and lots of one-on-one romantic time – can be shocked at how much their lives need to be adapted to include an extra little person.
Hayley, a 33-year-old mother of three, was able to overlook the things she missed when she fell pregnant on her honeymoon. Still living at her parents’ house to try and save for a home deposit, she and her husband had to resign themselves to a more limited lifestyle – at least for a few years.
“It always makes me laugh when people say they need more money or a bigger house to prepare for kids,” she says. “The truth is you really can't be prepared because each baby and situation brings a new set of challenges.”
It makes sense that it can be a good idea to get settled before falling pregnant, but Philip believes all parents should brace themselves to face challenges, regardless of how much effort they’ve spend setting up beforehand.
“I’m not sure anyone can be realistic about how time-consuming and demanding parenting is. It’s a matter of constant problem solving and the solutions you came up with for today’s problems may be totally irrelevant tomorrow,” he says.
Kate sums it up best when she says, “No one can say parenthood is a complete walk in the park, but if you keep an open mind, the whole situation will probably be less of a shock to the system. It’s all about compromise and planning ahead.”