By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
1:00 AM EDT, September 14, 2011
On May 22, 2009, a little less than three years into his marriage, Michael Goodwin addressed a letter to his not-yet-conceived child, explaining why he wasn't ready for fatherhood.
"Your mother and I are still pretty young, and there are times right now where we have trouble taking care of just ourselves," wrote Goodwin, who was 23 at the time. "Life has given us a few lemons, as the saying goes, and I want to make sure that we can at least provide you with some half-decent lemonade before you come along."
The letter, Goodwin said, was an effort to clarify his reluctance to his wife, Nicole, who was eager to start a family. Mostly, he wanted more time as a couple, with the freedom to pop into a movie after work if they pleased.
Not many months later, however, Goodwin felt a shift. Watching the joy his infant niece and nephew brought into his sisters' lives and marriages, Goodwin started to feel that something was missing from his own. Though still beset with fears -- about finances, job stability, the potential toll that inconsolable crying could have on his marriage -- Goodwin declared himself as ready as could be.
On April 13, 2011, an 8-pound, 5-ounce girl named Amelia Rae Goodwin was born.
No one can ever be fully ready for a baby, parents and experts say. The nursery might be painted, the crib assembled and the folic acid loyally consumed, but the life-altering, physically exhausting, emotionally overwhelming experience of caring for a newborn takes even the best-prepared new parents by surprise.
But you can be more ready than not. And for the prospective parents who have the luxury of making the decision (about a third of U.S. births come from unplanned pregnancies), it's wise to do some soul-searching to ensure you have at least a few ducks in a somewhat tidy row before a toddler comes in and throws them across the room.
For Goodwin, who lives in Auburn, Maine, and, along with his wife, works at a technical support call center at a bank, getting ready meant admitting all of his fears so he could address them, changing his mindset about what's important in life, and being willing to put another's needs before his own.
Now a dad for several months, Goodwin, 25, has found he doesn't miss spontaneous after-work dinner plans, because the greatest anticipation is getting home to see his daughter.
"I don't want to be cliche, but waking my daughter every morning and getting a huge smile is the best part of my day," Goodwin said. "The echo of my old life was still there, but the absence of it is barely a ripple."
Not sure if you're ready? Some questions to ask yourself
Many people have no doubt that they do or don't want kids at some point in their lives; others are more ambivalent. Before weighing all the practical concerns about how a child will change your life, it's important to know what you desire.
"When you're looking at your fears without knowing your desire, it creates gridlock; you're forever stuck," said Ann Davidman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oakland, Calif., who runs programs to help men and women decide if they want to be parents (motherhoodisitforme.com).
Not knowing often is linked to unresolved childhood issues, sometimes unconscious, she said. People may be reacting to a bad childhood or to internalized messages telling them they won't be a good enough parent. Davidman's programs include guided visualizations to tease out these unconscious messages as well as writing assignments, such as writing a letter to your unborn child, to help get clarity around what they want.
Can you let go of perfect?
If you highly value having a spotless home or a sexy job that takes you around the world, be ready to pare down and give up trying to be the best at everything. "People talk a lot about work-life balance, but I would forget it," said Jean Fitzpatrick, a psychotherapist and marriage counselor in New York. "Instead think about making choices and not being stellar at everything."
Can you self-soothe?
Babies pick up on the anxiety in our bodies. For the sake of a child's emotional and cognitive development, parents should be able to manage stress calmly when under pressure — of which there will be a lot, Fitzpatrick said. Exercise,yoga and meditation can help, she said.
How do you and your partner resolve conflict?
Rather than blaming each other or blowing up when conflicts inevitably arise, parents need to feel like a team working on their problems and adapting to changes together, Fitzpatrick said.
Some marriage therapists offer pre-baby counseling to prepare parents for some of the biggest showdowns, such as the division of labor. A rigid schedule can be unrealistic given the unpredictable nature of parenthood, Fitzpatrick said, but going in with some guidelines helps smooth the path.
Is your relationship happy?
Some couples who don't get along, or suspect the other of infidelity, hope that a baby will set things right. It won't.
Take a look at how you and your partner interact.
"How nice are you to each other? Do you express appreciation for each other on a regular basis?" Fitzpatrick said. "That will be worth its weight in gold after you have a child."
Do you have a supportive environment?
Having family nearby, friends who are willing to baby-sit for a date night, a supportive congregation, and a means of meeting other local moms and dads provide a much-needed safety net, Fitzpatrick said.
Do you have a lot of debt?
While people can raise healthy kids under a number of financial circumstances, debt is a concern because it's easy for cute baby items to add up to massive interest payments, Fitzpatrick said. Make sure you can cut back on certain things to start accruing savings. Also, consider how the family finances will be affected if one person leaves work for a while, or severely cuts back on hours, to care for the newborn.
How's your health?
A woman should be within a 10-pound range of her ideal weight before she becomes pregnant, as obesity can contribute to myriad health problems during pregnancy, including gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, said Tori Kropp, a perinatal registered nurse in San Francisco and author of "The Joy of Pregnancy" (Harvard Common Press).
Prospective moms and dads should cut back on cigarettes, alcohol and recreational drug use and be prepared to eliminate them once pregnant.
If a woman is on antidepressants that are not compatible with pregnancy, she might consider starting the tapering-off process, Kropp said.
Do you think life is over once baby comes?
It isn't. While children require a great sacrifice of time and money, one day they'll fly the coop and you'll have a few decades left to focus on your career, Fitzpatrick said.
You may have to give up happy hours, but it's still possible, and advisable, to maintain a social life while raising kids. View it as an opportunity to assume a leadership role in organizing potlucks or parents groups.
Diagnosing 'baby fever'
In a new study to be published in the journal Emotion, Kansas State University researchers exploring the reasons behind "baby fever" — that visceral urge to have a child — found three factors that consistently predicted how much a person wanted to have a baby.
Positive baby experiences, such as holding and cuddling babies and looking at baby toys and clothes, made people pro-baby.
Negative baby exposure, such as screaming, dirty diapers and drooling, made people averse to having kids.
Trade-offs people were willing -- or not willing -- to make in education, career, money and social life.
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