It's the very first mitzvah in the Torah. And for some, it's very straightforward: Get married, start a family, don't stop until your body does. But for those who believe in the option to practice birth control, whether autonomously or in consultation with a posek, important questions arise:
How do you decide when to start trying for a baby?
How many kids should we have?
When do we stop having kids?
Even if we knew exactly how many kids we hoped to have before we started, we’re often poor predictors of how we’re going to feel when the time comes. And we also have partners to consider.
One of the common arguments I see as a couples therapist, particularly serving a mostly religious population, is the one about planning procreation.
It’s a tough subject to write about, especially because so many couples struggling with infertility would love to have this dilemma. But a problem of privilege can still be a problem, and needs to be addressed, nonetheless.
The initial assumptions about family building are often very culturally based. Many Halachic authorities and other religious systems prohibit or discourage the use of birth control and prioritize childbearing. So in these cultures, the baseline is:
“We should start a family immediately, or have another child, unless there is some clear, specific reason not to.” Predictably, in these communities, large families are the norm.
In the more dominant, secular culture, the baseline is generally the reverse:
“There’s no rush to procreate. Kids are expensive, exhausting, and time-consuming. We should build our relationship first, our careers, some financial stability. If or when the time is right, we will/ may try for kids/ another baby.”
Many contemporary religious couples find themselves somewhere in the middle, or split between the two.
Having kids is a big deal. Each child we have is a serious commitment to another human life.
When someone wants to have a child, particularly a first child, it can feel like an obsession. Especially for women. Some people equate meaningful adulthood with parenthood, and the idea of not being able to fulfill that need when and how you want to can be incredibly painful. When the reason for the delay is the spouse, it can take a serious toll on the marriage, especially if the onus of birth control is on the person who would prefer to be “trying.” It can also detract from sexual intimacy and pleasure, since the act itself becomes tinged with the tension of love-making versus baby-making.
There are different reasons people crave parenthood, most of them emotional; instinctive, religious, peer pressure, spiritual, the desire to give, to fill a home with the joy of family. Theologically, some say that having children is a practice in giving, an opportunity to improve our character by working on patience and investing in the world's future.
The objections are mostly logic-based, but sometimes emotional: Children change things. They generate expenses, more responsibility, mess, lack of privacy, sleep deprivation, stress, noise, constraints on travel and recreation. Even pregnancy itself can be complicated and unpleasant. The more kids you have, the more of all that there is.
Sometimes, the objections are anxiety based, people who say: “I definitely do want children/ another baby, but I’m just not sure if now is good”- for no specific reason and with no real time frame. This is particularly difficult for the baby-craving spouse, because it can feel like a tease, and seem like the partner is holding out without any real explanation.
There is no simple solution or formula for how to deal with this conflict.
The plot thickens when the ambivalently conceived baby brings along other issues- such as medical complications for either mother or child, which serve as another stressor and further ongoing possible resentment. Even without them, there are some parents who will quietly, confidentially acknowledge regret over have their last child, even while loving them.
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Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a psychotherapist in private practice. Her book, Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking, is available on Amazon.com. She can be reached for sessions or speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org More of her content can be found at ElishevaLiss.com