Cuddling her newborn baby, and just minutes away from entering the operating room for a tubal ligation, Regan Long, 31, was overwhelmed with panic. She was now the mother of three children – the family size she and her husband had always agreed upon – but somehow she felt, with a flash of visceral awareness, that her family was not yet complete.
When hospital staff approached Long’s bedside with surgery-approval paperwork, she wept and refused to sign off on the procedure. “I knew in my heart that there would be a fourth,” she recalls.
One year later, she was pregnant again.
When she told her husband, he turned sickly pale. Working a full-time job, the father of three was overscheduled, financially strapped, and sleep deprived. He could not find the words to adequately express how overwhelmed he felt.
The tension between Long and her husband lasted several gruesome months after her announcement. "I was so worried. I honestly didn't know if we were going to make it," says Long, who lives in central Pennsylvania. "It became really bad between us. And it was [about] everything: money, sanity, our relationship. Could we survive another child, emotionally and mentally?"
According to a Gallup survey, finances and the unstable economy are the primary reasons U.S. families cite for limiting family size. Correspondingly, birth rates reached an all-time low in the most recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Decisions about timing, spacing, and number of children in your family are some of the most important choices that you will make as a couple," says Alan Singer, PhD, family therapist and author of Creating Your Perfect Family Size. "There are lots of issues to consider but only one basic guideline: Couples should have as many, or as few, children as they desire as long as both adults carefully think it through."
Being thoughtful when one (or both) of you feels close to the breaking point is the key.
Consider how you feel
"Take the time to think through why you feel how you feel," says Melissa Appleton, a mediator at the New York Peace Institute. "Carefully consider what really matters to you and take the time to articulate that to your partner." This could happen in a neutral conversation with a close friend or family member, or in a journal, but it's important to understand what you really want and why.
Be open to how your partner feels
"Be open to understanding what matters to the other person," says Appleton. "And do your very best to be genuinely curious about it. This is where you work on figuring out the real reasons your partner doesn't want another child." Appleton says it's important to remember to listen, be as neutral as possible, and allow your partner to explore his or her feelings fully.
Reframe the question
Reframing the question is an important mediation technique. It means pulling back from the loaded issue of whether to have another child and looking at the big picture. Questions to ask each other include:
• What are our goals as a family?
• What are our goals as individuals?
• What makes us happy, both individually and as a family?
• Where do we each see our family in five or 10 years?
Then the conversation is no longer about winning or losing but about achieving a deeper understanding of your partner's (and your own) perspectives and goals. This might not immediately solve the question about having more children, but it will bring you one step closer to finding common ground. "People might start the conversation with a strongly held position of yes or no," notes Appleton. "But when they truly allow themselves to hear what matters to the other person, their perspective might shift."
Remember the relationship
"When it's a question of peace in the family, your marriage is key," says Singer. "You need to ask: What's better for your family?" As challenging as this might be, Singer advises putting your relationship first as you work through the issue.
For Beth (not her real name), 46, of New York City, the yearning for another child swept through her as soon as she returned home from the hospital with her second child. "My husband thought I was hallucinating," she recalls. "He just didn't have an urge to have another baby. But for me, it was pure, blind desire." The couple was never able to agree on having a third child and although Beth is grateful for her healthy family and stable marriage, the yearning has never left her. "I don't think I'll ever get over it. It's a constant loss," she says.
Unfortunately, decisions about family size can play a major role in whether couples stay together, says Singer. "A healthy, loving, low-conflict parenting relationship is the heart of your family."
Get professional help if necessary
If it's no longer possible to have a conversation without one or both partners losing their cool, it may be time for mediation or couples therapy.
Mediation, led by a mediator specializing in parenting and marital issues (or co-mediated with a couples therapist), can be productive, especially if one partner feels reluctant about traditional couples therapy. "Mediation allows both parties to share their voice and to delve under their initial positions to their interests, feelings, values, and goals," says Catherine Grace Hannibal, an attorney with Mediation Works, a family and divorce mediation practice in New York. You can find a mediator in your area by visiting the National Association for Community Mediation.
In couples therapy, partners work on resolving conflict and improving their relationship. You might begin your search for a therapist by asking a trusted friend, your primary care physician, or your ob-gyn for recommendations. You can also locate a therapist through the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
For the Long family, finding common ground involved a simple concept: space. "You have to respect each other's space to get a handle on this," says Long. "He was slow to come around. Very slow. But he did eventually. I think it happened just around the time when he first felt the baby kick inside me."