Reader question: If starting a family is in my future, what should I do now?

IMG_0504Our reader question today comes from Caitlin, who is getting married this fall. She and her soon-to-be husband would like to start a family soon. To be sure, one cannot completely control the timing on these things, but they intend to begin that project next spring. So, as she said, she has a year and change before she might be pregnant. What would I recommend she do during that year?

Some back story: She is a librarian and has been in the same job for seven years. She likes it. She plans to continue working full-time, and thinks that should be doable. As she puts it, “Librarianship is not investment banking or journalism — I have pretty set hours, and I work one evening a week and one weekend day every four weeks.” She occasionally covers other shifts, but “I am pretty set at 40 hours a week.”

As for what she does outside of work, “I enjoy my uninterrupted sleep, savor my free time and make time for the things that matter to me, and I feel that I have a good balance overall.” She and her fiance “do like to travel when vacation time and money allow, and we have done quite a bit in the last few years and will do more before we have kids.”

Caitlin is a long-time reader of this blog, and so she know that lists of Things To Do Before You Have Kids are one of my least favorite genres of literature. These lists often contain items such as “run a marathon” or “visit Europe” or “write a book,” when you can do all of these things after having kids too. So, as Caitlin puts it, “I do not necessarily see this time before parenthood as ‘do or die,’ but I know things will change and just want to use this time well. I am pretty happy with how I arrange my life but am looking for a reasonable perspective from the other side of anything I might be overlooking.”

I agree that nothing is do or die. I do, however, have a few ideas. One is to build up savings. This can be slightly at odds with the goal of doing more traveling, but I think one can do both by not spending money on things that do not matter to you. If your morning latte makes your day, by all means get it. If it is just a caffeine delivery mechanism, doable with home brew, two people skipping the coffee run for 5 days can translate into another 3 hours of babysitting. Consciously spending a wee bit less on the wedding itself can also have a big impact. It is not that kids themselves are so expensive, it is that some of the rougher aspects of parenthood are less stressful if you have a financial cushion. If you need a break, you can hire a sitter for a few extra hours without worrying that you will not be able to pay your bills. Cooking now when you have the energy means you can rely on prepared foods sometimes when you have young kids and do not have the energy to cook. A year gives Caitlin and her husband time to consciously sock away cash wedding gifts, tax refunds, any overtime pay and so forth.

On the career front, I think it is helpful to recognize that sometimes parenthood requires us to draw upon our career capital. You may want flexibility, or there may be extra sick days, or you may be sleep deprived and not bringing your A game daily. Of course, plenty of non-parents do not bring their A game daily either, but sometimes in the professional sphere people are more quick to blame parenthood for issues than other things. So… I am big into the idea of leverage. What can you do to increase the odds that your work is being discussed when you are not in the room? Producing some example of thought leadership would be good here: a white paper, a curriculum of some sort, a video, etc. Dorie Clark wrote Stand Out about this idea. I am not exactly sure what thought leadership in the librarian category looks like, but the idea is to have your external network (that is, the one outside your own organization) building itself on its own. If you have enough career capital, you can trade it in for the kind of life you want, which many parents choose to do. You can build up your career capital with kids in tow, but if you are thinking of this now, now is also a good time.

Caitlin is smart about filling her free time with things she enjoys, so she should continue to do so. She should pay close attention to what she truly finds most energizing and enjoyable. Some activities fall by the wayside after kids arrive, but it is entirely possible to preserve space for the best stuff. If she knows what that best stuff is, she will be ahead of the game.

Then, per our discussion last week of planning leisure time, and whether that changes the enjoyment factor, I think she and her soon-to-be-husband should consciously enjoy doing stuff spontaneously. Try that hip new restaurant even if, when you stop by, you find out it has a 90 minute wait, because what do you care? You can just sit at the bar chatting with each other. Decide on Friday night to drive 3 hours and spend the weekend somewhere interesting. You can put a toddler in the car at 6 P.M. and drive 3 hours somewhere without a reservation, but the potential pain factor tends to keep most people from trying it. Before you have kids, the pain factor is more likely to be counter-balanced by the pleasure factor.

Also, I would sleep in whenever possible.

What would you tell Caitlin to do?

33 thoughts on “Reader question: If starting a family is in my future, what should I do now?

  1. I second the suggestion to sleep in whenever possible.

    It’s also really important to get finances in order ahead of time. I would go so far as to tell her to save up money in case she decides to stay out on a longer maternity leave.

  2. Save like crazy, declutter like crazy and think about building your support network.

    We have always been good with money and saved before kids but not as aggressively as we could have, which would allow us more flexibility now. We have two kids in daycare and are paying $20,000/year – we weren’t saving $20K/year before kids but we could have been!

    On decluttering – we went through the entire house two years ago and dealt with everything. Our home and life feels so much simpler and efficient now and I wish we had done it before we had kids, I would have enjoyed our pre-kid house even more, and it has freed up time too because we don’t have to tidy/clean as much. I could have enjoyed that time in the years before kids 🙂

    Having a support network is the most essential thing as new parents, if you don’t have any friends nearby with kids or who want kids looks for ways to expand your circle so that those people will be included by the time you are having kids.

    What an exciting time of life, and it just keeps getting better 🙂

  3. Another vote for saving money! It makes life a lot easier.

    I’d also say to spend time strengthening your friendships. Babies take time and attention, and you may not see your friends as much as you’d like. So, put in the time and effort now to last you through the “dry” spells.

  4. I sympathize with this question and remember feeling the same sort of pre-baby panic before my first. But my advice is just to relax about it. Parenting a child, coupled with the tightening of time and finances, forces you to prioritize- and that’s not a bad thing. You’ll find yourself doing and spending money only on the things that are truly important to you. The rest will fade away naturally, and you won’t miss them. In fact, you’ll wonder what you did with your money and time before children. I personally think it’s a gift, a perspective shift that I didn’t expect but deeply appreciate.

    1. @Leanne – I agree that one can overthink these things. As I have been thinking back on what I would tell my younger self, I cannot think of much. All is what it is. I think my life would have been a lot easier for the first two years if I had gone ahead and hired a nanny from the get-go, but then I would not have made the wonderful friends I did at my son’s daycare. So even that advice is not particularly helpful.

  5. I agree with decluttering your house and life. Kids bring in a lot of stuff. Also remember that she had more time than just the year from now when they start trying. There’s the whole pregnancy too. And maybe write down your pre-baby daily routine. I am always wondering how I spent my time before kids, especially on the weekends! If you want a pet, get it before baby. It makes the house a lot less lonely when you’re home with baby alone.

    1. @Marci – yep, she has the 9 months as well. On the other hand, it is hard to know how one’s body will react to that. I was tired but mostly fine. I wrote three of my books while pregnant! Some people are flat on their backs for 9 months. And while I did travel to various places while pregnant, some people are not comfortable doing so. I think Caitlin views whatever she can do during the 9 months as a bonus.

  6. Haha- I love advanced planning!

    My suggestions include:
    – securing your financial situation (paying off any consumer debt like credit cards or car payments), work to build a 6 months minimum emergency fund, sock money away in savings.
    – I also agree with decluttering your space!
    – take good care of yourself. Eat well, exercise in whatever form is appealing to you, start taking folic acid and a multivitamin.
    – research childcare/daycare and have a plan for so you can contact them as soon as you know you are pregnant (some places actually have waiting lists!)
    – enjoy yourselves and each other’s company. It’s definitely a different dynamic once a child arrives.

    Best of luck!

    1. @Kim – ah yes, the daycare lists! We put our deposit down in November or December of 2006, which meant that my son could start at 4 months in September 2007. Waiting until you are on maternity leave often means a high quality center will not be an option.

  7. Ditto on the money.

    Also, talk to your future husband about what married life (with and without children) looks like. Discuss division of labor and how to support each other. You can’t anticipate everything, but it’s good to get expectations aligned before the first day someone has to stay home with a sick baby. Vow to support each other and be a team of equals. Maybe one of you will be better at (or more biologically equipped) for late night feedings. Then the other can lighten the load in some other way.

    Come up with Plan B (and maybe C) for back-up childcare.

    Have standing personal time on the calendar (running every Saturday morning with friends, having a monthly girls’ night, etc.) Yes, you have time for a social life after kids, but it’s much easier if you can skip the back and forth deciding a time, date and place and you already have childcare planned.

  8. Oh I thought of another one! I unexpectedly had my son 1 month early. The nursery had literally been demo’ed the week before and NOTHING was done in there. Luckily, my two brother-in-laws did everything while I was in the hospital. So, I’d suggest that, once you are pregnant, you get your nursery in order sooner rather than later.

    1. @CNM – I think any major renovations in the last trimester are a bad idea. They always take longer than expected and you don’t want to come home to workmen trooping in and out, or not having a functional kitchen, or whatever.

  9. I would suggest paying your savings weekly like you would pay your future daycare. It will give you a sense of how much money you’ll need and whether or not you can afford it. Plus after your child arrives, it’s tough to put any extra money away and that money you’ll have put away will come in handy.

    We live in Philadelphia and newborn daycare averages about $300 a week for full-time care in the city. Before I had children, I had no idea how expensive it was. I knew it was expensive, but I had no idea that it was that expensive. When we had two children in daycare, it was over $552 a week. So if you want two children that are close together, keep that in mind.

  10. Having your life in order (financials, house, daycare options, medical care, etc) is a good idea. But having those things in order is good whether or not you are having children.

    But really I can’t think of anything that would have really prepared me for motherhood until I was living it. And I am an excessive planner (really excessive). I can’t think of anything that I could have done that would have made me feel like I was now ready or would have made the transition easier/smoother.

  11. I married and had kids just a few years out of undergrad, however, in the years I had before kids I went to business networking events almost every night of the week (which is possible here in DC). It was hard when I was 21 and just graduated to get out there, but over the years since my “extreme networking” has paid enormous dividends. I met our company’s founder at one of these events just after my first son was born, and am now a senior exec at a small, and rapidly growing firm. There are many women in my field who have waited to “build their career” and are my age and don’t have kids who are not in the same place career-wise, at least for now. I still get out to many industry events, but I def. don’t go out every night anymore! I’m really glad I put that time in.

  12. This goes along with many other suggestions, but perhaps is more radical: I would say that you and your husband should strive to live on one income from the start of your marriage.

    There are a few reasons for this:
    1. The aforementioned cost of daycare.
    2. Preparation for emergencies.
    3. Preparation for potential change in life goals.

    I think that it is wise to consider what your Plan B and C might be, both financially and professionally, if you don’t (because of circumstances or choice) choose to return to work full-time after the baby. Once he/she arrives, you might not want to go back full-time–and that’s a totally legitimate desire/decision! If you’re already living on one income, that takes a LOT of pressure off of you to go back ASAP, and gives you a lot of freedom/flexibility for the future.

    That said, regardless of your savings strategy, I would also suggest that you think through options for part-time work as well and/or weigh what it might look like for your career if you were to stay home for a time while your kids are little. The worst scenario would be that you have the baby, decide that you don’t actually want to go back full-time, but go back anyways, because it doesn’t seem like there’s another option. Some informational interviewing may be a good thing to do at this point to figure out how you might potentially parlay your degree and experience into part-time work (in library science or a related field).

    So that would be my advice: think about scenarios that are possible (even if you don’t imagine them to be likely at this stage) and explore them!

    1. @Anne- I do agree that living on one income as 2 people can be smart. It allows you to achieve financial independence quickly, and gives you a lot of wiggle room for emergencies. On the other hand, I am not sure that part-time work is the best of all worlds. I also think that if you know yourself, and you know what you like, having a child will not completely change that. I got very frustrated with people telling me “oh, just you wait” — when in fact what I wanted pre-kids is pretty much what I wanted post-kids too. I also think that people might be better off going back to work full-time after leave, and then deciding after a year or two if that’s really what they want to do. The first year is going to be rough regardless, and sometimes people make life and career altering decisions that they would not have made had they held on until the sleep deprivation wasn’t so bad.
      This may be it’s own blog post…

      1. Yes, its own post! A woman I work with recently shared news of expecting her first child and that was what I told her.. don’t make any really big changes the first year in terms of career. Come back part-time and ramp back up to full-time quickly if it feels right, take an extra-long leave, come back full-time and cut back to part-time if it’s not working, whatever… But just if you like what you do now and want to do it long-term, don’t give up in that first year back and leave because “it’s not possible”. I left a job in the first year back after my first and prepared to leave the next job in my first year back after the second child. I wish I’d given the last job a longer runway after having a child, but am grateful now, 2 years later, that I didn’t give up on that second job (that I still have and enjoy even more today!).

        1. @Karissa- ok, will work on a post! Yes, I think people underestimate how hard it is to get back in. Some women can do it, but in many lines of work it is not that easy. So the calculus is not exactly what people think it is when they decide to take a few years out.

          1. Thank you both for your responses to this! I’ve been a reader of this blog for a long time and read Laura’s thoughts on working part-time and I tend to agree with them. I also have seen two types of women in the library world: the women who apply for part-time jobs under my supervision who haven’t worked in several years (and I respect everyone’s choices but that situation scares me, personally), and the women who work full-time and have kids. Full-time library jobs are pretty rare, and I get along very well will nearly all of my co-workers (even more rare).

            Since I’ve been here for seven years I’ve also built up quite a bank of sick time and paid vacation time, which isn’t an option with part-time work (and both of which I think tend to get dismissed when calculating the cost of staying home). In addition, part-time library work tends to include more weekend shifts as opposed to my current four-week rotation. The library world is mostly run by women, and a large number of those women have children. So I have great role models and also bosses who understand and are pretty flexible. While my hours are pretty set, I’ve been a reliable team member for seven years so I’ve built up some career capital and I also have the opportunity to make up hours in some ways, making my schedule somewhat flexible. I appreciate the advice to try to live on one income and it’s a great idea. However, for personal and professional reasons I prefer to continue working full-time.

          2. @Caitlin- you’re right that the sick days/vacation days upside does not necessarily figure into the calculation, and benefits and the like. And yes, people applying for PT jobs after a few years of not working are facing a tough road. I’m sure you hire some awesome ones, but re-entering the workforce is not easy. I think the worst case scenario is someone has been out of the workforce for a while and then suddenly really needs to work (spouse job loss or health issue) and cannot find something.

  13. This might seem sort of silly, but make sure your teeth are in good shape! I had been neglecting going to the dentist (young and invincible and all) and found myself down a rabbit hole of dental complaints post-partum…and found out that was pretty normal.

    I’m sure you’re more responsible than I was (we had dental insurance even! Why oh why didn’t I use it?!), but just be extra kind to your teeth now and especially once you are expecting.

    1. @MK- agreed! I wound up with a really bizarre gum inflammation after kid #3. Painful! Fortunately, the dentist prescribed this antiseptic wash that got rid of it.

  14. I am also a librarian and have a 13 1/2-month-old son. If she has the opportunity, this might be a good time for Caitlin to attend some ALA (American Library Association) conferences or take some professional development courses. This is something I wish I’d done more of pre-baby and that isn’t quite feasible for me right now.

    1. @Gisela – going to conferences is good — pre and post kids! Do you think you might be able to come up with a plan to get back to such things in a few years? This is definitely something I have been working on, and one reason we have the childcare that we do now. (Plus some help from extended family).

  15. Here’s my disclaimer- I, like Laura, don’t believe in the whole “soak it up now because you won’t be able to do x,y,z when you have kids.”
    Here are two thoughts:
    1) Invest in your marriage. Small children (and I’m sure big children too!) can add stressors to your relationship, and a good foundation will support you through the changing seasons of married life/parenthood.
    2) Develop a good exercise routine. Much easier to tolerate pregnancy/recovery.
    3) Develop relationships with a few key “mom” role models/mentors.

    1. @Virginia – I like the mom role models idea. I’m not quite sure where one finds such a thing! I did not know a whole lot of women who reflected what I wanted — I knew some, but not many. The good thing about being a writer is that I have gotten to meet many subsequently through writing about them! I like actively building my own tribe.

      1. My husband is a few years older than me, so I met most of my mom role models through his friends who had started having kids before us. Every mother that I know is 100% committed to their children. I wanted to find women who were also leaning into their careers, and who were genuine about both the joys and the challenges that come with this. I found a handful (one was a Neurosurgeon who lived next door to us!) who were instrumental in supporting me through that first year, and now I try to be that person for other women!

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