By Madeleine Naleski, The Catholic University of America
As a young girl I remember talking with my parents about their love story. How they met, how my dad proposed, and how they still show each other love is always a plotline that lives in the back of my head. It affects the way that I view dating, marriage, and childbirth. As a Catholic woman I know that I am supposed to grow up to date a man, marry him, and have children with him. Nobody ever told me that there was a “right” time to start a family, just that it had to wait until after marriage. I knew that my parents had followed this pattern as well as my grandparents. I deducted that this was the ideal life– marrying my perfect match and having beautiful babies.
As I grew older and started to become more interested in dating, I realized just how many aspects are part of a serious relationship, such as opinions on contraception, how many children a mate would potentially want in the future, and how other people (specifically men) plan their potential married lives in their heads. As a student in a social research class about how families affect society and vice versa, I have learned a lot about how the forms of marriage have changed over the past six or seven decades. In the later decades of the 1900s, (1984-1996) men and women seemed less interested in a “traditional marriage” (much like a marriage in 1939) and instead sought a “companionate marriage” (much like the marriages seen in the 21st century). In 1996, mutual attraction and love in a partner was the most important factor in a potential mate for both men and women. In 1939 the most important factor was a dependable character for men and maturity for women (A Half Century of Mate Preferences, Buss et. al.). This pattern correlates with the pattern that women in relationships are birthing children later in life, because they either get married later in life, or want to pursue more individual priorities first. Married couples typically have children in the first six years of marriage, but that is only for the typical married couple in 2020 (flowingdata.com, After Marriage How Long People Wait To Have Kids). I, as a college student, have a general idea of when I would like to be married and how long after that I would like to start having children, but I also do not consider myself the average college student. Therefore, I took my research to the large and diverse network of students at the Catholic University of America to learn from them: What do they think is the right time to start having children after marriage?
The goal of this study is to understand the ideal time to begin having children after marriage from the standpoint of a college student. I wanted to know how much time should pass between first marriage and first child. How the students determined or defined this amount of time was up to them. Answers ranged from “when you’re ready” to “one to two years”. I started by asking each participant for informed consent. This way, I knew that they understood what I would be asking them and how I would use the information they gave me. I also read to them an introduction to the research project and asked if I could record our conversation, to which the participant supplied verbal consent. Then, I asked a few background questions concerning their occupation, age, and relationship status. The three participants were students who ranged from 20-21 years old. None of them were married or had children.
After these basic questions were answered, I moved on to some more project-focused questions. The first question was about their parents or other people that they knew. I wanted to know how much time had passed between their first marriage and when they had had their first child. Note that I did not ask how many years or months existed in this time period. I wanted to understand their definition of time in this sense. While the interview questions varied throughout the interviews, the general path to the main themes of the interview was the same. Some questions included the following: What do you think is the average amount of time between first marriage and first child? Do you have a rough plan for yourself about your family timing after marriage? What are some cultural or background factors that contributed to the timing of your parents’ first child after marriage? What are some reasons that you might decide it is time to start trying for your first baby after your first marriage?
The answers to these questions varied, so the findings were extremely interesting. However, a few themes emerged from the data I heard. The first theme is the resounding sentiment among my participants that waiting for a certain amount of time to have a first child after first marriage should happen. The suggested amount of time varied between participants. The 21 year-old male stated, “for me personally I think one to two years. I think I would be concerned (laughs) if it took longer than that”. This participant in-particular has a strong sense of his Catholic faith that guided him to this response. He continuously referred to the “traditional sense” of marriage, which I took to understand as the Catholic sense of marriage. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is for the purpose of children. Through the Sacrament of marriage, couples are called to unify and expand God’s kingdom on Earth. The Catholic Church also teaches that any form of contraception is a detriment to a couple’s vocation to procreate. By this understanding, the participant’s concern for a child to come later than two years after first marriage makes sense.
There are other reasons as to why this participant chose the one to two year timeframe, which also relate to the second theme of my research. The participant deduced that the waiting period is necessary– a common thread among all participants. Earlier in the interview I asked the participant why he believes that two years is the average amount of time a couple waits between first marriage and first child. He responded that he thinks that “most traditional couples tend to want to spend just a little bit of time together… to the traditional sense of marriage, um, where you’re not living together beforehand, I think that gives couples some time to basically know each other better”. Clearly, getting to know one’s partner does not end after “I do” but is considered an ongoing process to this participant. From this participant’s perspective, the couple should use the time without a baby to learn about each others’ lifestyles, since cohabitation before marriage seems to be nontraditional.
I offer two theories that may explain his thinking, here. First, understanding one’s partner’s lifestyle and incorporating their routine with one’s own could be beneficial to the family dynamic. Having a daily routine in place before having a baby could potentially make life a bit easier for the couple because the routine will change in the same way for both parents when the baby arrives. Second, understanding small things about a spouse like, what makes them tick or what makes them excited, things that will not necessarily change drastically after a baby, might be good to know before a baby comes so that those aspects can be discussed and worked-out without the added aspect of raising a child.
After one to two years, this participant feels as though the couple might be “ready” to have a child. But what does “being ready” for a child mean and why should a couple start trying for a baby? How can this preparedness be measured? Herein lies the third theme of my research. According to this participant (and the others) financial stability and job stability play a major role in being ready to bring a child to this world. When asked to comment on his beliefs on waiting for children until financial stability is reached, this participant stated, “I’m not sure what a good number would be for financial stability, so I’m not sure. Like I’m not sure what a good balance in the bank account would look like for starting to have children so if you wait too long, I think you’ll consider yourself never ready. But, I think if one or both people have a stable job for at least a year, maybe longer, maybe shorter, then I think you’re ready”. Here, the participant was less concerned about financial stability than the other two participants, but he still mentioned job stability as a necessary aspect of preparedness for life with a child. Later, he alluded to the need for financial stability, saying, “well from my understanding of it, marriage is… the purpose of it is procreation and unity. So, babies is just part of the deal. Ya know, you get married and have kids, they just kind of go together. Also, raising a family is something I respect and admire and if you do it right, you can add a lot of good to the world and I want to be able to provide for people. It would make the most sense to provide for my own family”. In line with the sentiments of the other participants, this one hopes to be able to sustain a family before a family even begins. While I was never provided with a qualitative amount for what qualifies a couple to be financially stable enough to begin trying for a baby, the idea was still present. Kids cost a lot of money, that’s no secret, but exactly how much money, many college students do not know. According to the average college student, under five years is enough time to become financially stable enough to raise children.
Another reason why a couple might start having children at a certain time after marriage is because a couple might base their timeline to follow a similar timeline to their parents. This participant guessed at an average time between first marriage and first child based on his parents’ experience: “I guess an average would actually be one year, but for my parents it was two”. This theme, that a couple might follow the same rough time period as their parents, is prominent in the other interviews as well. After all, if it worked or did not work for our parents, it must work for us, especially if the background reasoning behind our parents’ decisions is similar to our own.
We now look at a 20-year-old female who grew up in a family dynamic different from the 21-year-old male previously analyzed. She also believes that waiting for a certain amount of time to have a first child after first marriage is essential. I asked her if she had a rough timeline for herself to start having children after her first marriage. She, without hesitation, said “Yes, like, at least five years”. Five years can be a lot of time for some people, but this participant’s reasoning for this length of time is consistent with the themes of the research.
When I asked the participant why she thinks five years is an appropriate amount of time to wait to have children after first marriage, she explained, “to make sure I don’t get divorced first”. This response makes sense because just after this response, the participant shared that her parents are divorced. Naturally, I wanted to ask more questions about the family dynamics she experienced growing up. She told me “I think that a lot of friends that I have that come from divorced families, their families got married quicker, so they hadn’t waited that extra time [to have children after first marriage]”. From this pattern, I theorized that there might be an association between the amount of time a couple waits to have children and the likelihood of the couple later divorcing. However, I was quickly proven incorrect, as the 20 year-old’s parents did not fall into this category.
When I asked about the timing of her parents’ divorce, she told me that her parents divorced after being married for 12 years. She remembers the divorce because she was old enough to realize what was happening in her family. The real kicker was that her parents waited for five years between their wedding and when they had their first child. I later asked about why her parents chose the timeline they did, to which she responded “my parents wanted to travel after they got married. So they spent like three to four years traveling the world a little bit while they were working”. What was most interesting to me, is that the participant’s parents did not wait five years because they wanted to avoid a divorced family dynamic, but the participant still chose five years for her personal waiting-for-children-after-marriage timeline for the sole purpose of making sure that she did not get divorced first. I find this especially interesting since later in the interview she admitted to knowing that “no one gets married thinking that they’re going to get divorced, but then 50 percent of marriages, so after you think that already that’s your person, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce”. The theme of following one’s parent’s footsteps was prominent here, but on a different level from the first participant. This participant used her family history to help dictate her own future family plan.
Once I understood why she wanted to wait five years after marriage to have children, I looked for reasons alluding to why she might start having children after that time period. These responses fell in line with the other participants’ responses as well. She remarked, “Once I am married and successful in my job. So, I don’t want to stay home and raise my kids. I want to, like, you know, have my career aside. So, I’d want to be established in my career so that taking time off to have children wouldn’t really affect my trajectory there. Yeah, but if I’m financially stable, I’m in a stable marriage, then I think those are the two big things for me”. Still, no qualitative definition of “financial stability” was given and no interpretation of “job stability” was explained. However, the presence of financial stability, job stability, and now marital stability seem to be the main reasons a couple would begin having children, according to college students.
The final participant is the 20 year-old boyfriend of the previous female participant. His family dynamic is more similar to the first male participant. He is part of a family in which both of his parents are married, but he mostly related to his older sister who became a mother a few years ago. When asked about what he believed was the average time for a couple to wait between first marriage and first child, he said “so my sister now has four kids, and for her, I think it took under three years for them to have kids… they had four kids within about five years. And then for my parents, they had kids in under five years too. So, I think, for people I know, it’s like, not like a long wait, not like over ten years or five years”. This does not directly answer the question of when is the right time to start, but it correlates with the theme that college students consider their parents’ timeline to their first child when thinking about having children in general. When asked about his personal timeline, he readily answered, “I would say like, even if the time is right under five years… if I want a big family, maybe I should start, you know, early”. The comment about knowing how many children a person wants to have was a new development to the research. No other participant mentioned the biological clock of having many children and how it might affect the start time of a family.
Immediately, the second theme of the research emerged for our interview. The participant thinks that he and his spouse will not be ready right after marriage because they may not be financially prepared or secure in a career. Specifically, he said a person is ready, “when you’re financially stable and you have, like, your finances together, maybe a home for child to live in”. This was the only reason this participant could think of that would keep a couple in the waiting period between marriage and children. Now, in addition to financial stability, career stability, and marital stability, a couple is also believed to take whether or not they have a house into consideration when deciding when to begin having children after first marriage.
Finally, the participant’s reasons behind starting to try for a baby are derived from his experience with his sister’s first-marriage-to-first-child timeline. Again, this derivation correlates to the theme from the research that college students ruminate on their family’s history in order to make informed life decisions. He commented that his sister has always wanted a big family and so, she started sooner after marriage than his parents in trying to have children. His other reasons correlated inversely with the reasons to wait to have children. He believes that a couple should start having children when they are stable in both their career and their finances. Yet, I received no explanation as to what either of those stabilities look like qualitatively or otherwise.
After my interviews, I was left with many varied responses and no average or common answer to my question, which would have been disappointing if I had not learned so much about the college student’s thought process about a future family. According to college students, a good (qualitative) amount of time to wait between first marriage and first child is anywhere between one and five years or more, or until (qualitatively) a couple is ready. “Being ready” for a child means having financial stability, career stability, marital stability, and a place to live. There was no numerical definition of financial stability given and no explanation about what it means or looks like to be stable in a career and a marriage. “Being ready” also means that one has spent enough “alone time” with their spouse but without a child to feel as though they know their spouse well enough to begin parenthood with them. The reasons to start having children include being stable in finances and career, and having a house. In addition, a college student might look to the timeline of their parents to determine how they might plan their future as a married person and parent.
I was not totally surprised by many of the responses I received from my peers. The idea that a couple should be financially available to host a child in their lives was not a shock. However, it does baffle me that students were so confident in their belief that a couple should have their finances in order before having a child, but that they could not then provide even a rough estimate of how much money having a child costs. I also was not surprised by the belief in the necessity that future parents should be established in a career before trying for a baby. I figured that career stability lends to financial stability, which is clearly important to the college students of the 21st century. What was most interesting to me was how much the students relied on their parents’ first-marriage-to-first-child timeline. I knew that many students still consider their parents’ decisions vaguely. I knew that many students know their parents’ marriage and/or childbirth story. What I did not realize was how much college students still thought about their parents’ decisions and used them to form their own big life decisions. This idea that college students see their parents as formative people in their lives is refreshing and also a topic that I would venture to research further. I would examine how a student’s parent’s love history affects their ideas about relationships, family, and love.
If I were to change anything about this project or do anything differently, I would have taken more time in the interviews. I would have had a longer amount of time to do the project in total so that I could transcribe more material and interview more people. Even though the three participants I interviewed held generally similar views in their responses to my questions, I would have liked to have hosted more interviews so that I could come closer to an average answer to my question, or even an answer at all. With better data I could have provided more insight or linked more themes together in my final write-up. Also, if I knew how much my data would be skewed by one participant from a divorced family dynamic, I would not have interviewed her for this project. She, by no fault of her own, provided a differentiation from the data that was too harsh to allow me to come to a definitive conclusion to my original question. I think that an entirely separate research question would apply to participants like the 20 year-old female.
Regardless I am glad that I interviewed the participants that I interviewed and I am pleased overall with their responses. It would be interesting to see how a professional social researcher would execute a project from start to finish. Even though I was only able to interview a small number of participants, the information I gathered and the things I learned in the process are invaluable and I am excited to do more research in the future.