Don't get married to have children.
And please, don't ever get married because you're going to have a child. There isn't a worse way to start a marriage, as millions of divorced, married-because-she-was-pregnant couples will tell you. Marriage is not about children.
Forget that part of your religion, or your guilty conscience, or your state legislature, that declares the only possible justification for sex and marriage is to procreate. Countless infertile, childless-by-choice, homosexual or older couples will tell you that children didn't factor into their decision to marry at all. Many opponents of same-sex and cousin marriage use this issue to further their argument, claiming that since no natural children can or should result from these unions, they ought to be illegal. But children are not the reason for marriage, and shouldn't be used as a reason against it either. They are a possible outcome of it, but ultimately should have very little to do with it at all.
Marriage is the highest romantic value two people can achieve. It is the highest form of love, the ultimate in sexual and romantic fulfillment, the perfection of friendship and mutual admiration. Babies don't change that, but they don't factor into it much either.
Yet most of us believe that they are inextricably linked, that kids follow wedding vows the way minivans follow kids. Parents of the newlyweds watch the calendar expectantly, and, if the coveted baby hasn't appeared within an acceptable period of time, will even go as far as to pester the couple to reproduce. And so legions of people dutifully conceive the minute they've put their rings on, and spend the next thirty years regretting it.
These days, most people choose to have children for three reasons:
(i) It's expected. This is what you do, after all. Why else are you alive? You've grown up, your parents have seen you graduate college and get married and put a down payment on a house, what's next? Of course you have a baby. Your mother wants to be a grandmother in the worst way. All of your friends have had at least one already. It's what people do. You don't question it, or over analyze it. Besides, you couldn't just spend the rest of your life staring at your boring husband....right?
(ii) You're not bound by convention or family expectations, but you have a void in your life, an emptiness that bores and dissatisfies you. Planning your big wedding took a year and half of excitement and glamor, now that you're settled into your routine you realize that you don't have much reason to get up in the morning. You need something to do, something to occupy your time and give you that emotional satisfaction you thought getting married would give you. A baby would be exciting, would make you an instant celebrity in the family, would give you a purpose in life. You like babies, they're cute. Why not go ahead and have one?
(iii) Because you've lived an interesting, fulfilling life so far, have a great marriage to someone you adore, and have learned enough by following your passions in life that you feel you have something to teach a child. Children are the next big adventure you want to undertake, secure in the knowledge that you've become the adult you always wanted to be, that you've spent your youth developing yourself and whatever career you've chosen for yourself and now you want to share some of your enthusiasm for life with your child.
Obviously this last reason is the only good one for having children. It's the only one that will lead to happy parents and happy kids, to the ability to handle the hard work and countless surprises of parenthood. Kids aren't toys, or a new hobby you can discard when it stops amusing you. You owe them, and yourself, a bit of consideration before leaping into parenthood.
I'm not against kids. I think they can be a wonderful addition to your life. But your marriage must exist away from the influence of children as much as possible. Your marriage must come first, always. You must enter into marriage knowing that if you are never able to have or adopt children, you will still be happy and fulfilled being married to the most amazing person you've ever known. Even if kids do come along, you must maintain the attitude that you are married first, a parent second.
The reason is twofold: First of all, your children won't be yours forever. Part of the process involves guiding them to adulthood and then letting them go. Empty Nest Syndrome results when two people who have dedicated their lives to raising children but not to cherishing their marriage end up sharing a large, quiet house and not knowing what to say to each other. They hardly even know who their spouse is anymore. They took twenty or thirty years together and treated it as a joint babysitting job rather than a vibrant marriage. Now that the kids are gone, so is the reason for their marriage. They end up lonely, frustrated, and likely over-dependent on their children - and the desperately needed grandchildren - for meaning in their lives.
Secondly, if you've entered into parenthood for the right reasons, you will naturally want to provide your child with the best care, the best education, the best skills for making his or her way in life. Your goal is not to raise great children, it is to raise intelligent, thoughtful, happy adults. Although this is seldom discussed, part of that includes providing them with a role model for marriage, and example that they can want to emulate when they grow up. It means showing them that if they too become the best they can be in life, if they too pursue their goals and interests with passion, if they learn to be self-sufficient and proud of their accomplishments, then they too can meet someone to admire and be admired by, and can have a wonderful, supportive, sexy marriage based on love, admiration and respect, just like their parents had.
Part of that, I believe, means establishing your marriage before you even consider having children. I maintain that a couple should be married at least four years - married four years, not simply together four years - before having a child. Common law marriage doesn't count. No one should be having children with someone they refuse to marry. If mother nature sends you an unexpected blessing, you may have to answer some difficult questions about why you conceived a child with someone you didn't even love enough to be married to.
There are obvious exceptions. There are co-habitating couples who would be married if outside circumstances allowed it. Many of these couples "feel" married and would like to start a family. Am I saying that these people should deny themselves children? Of course not. I simply suggest that they remember marriage is the ideal, and that they show their children the happiness that a deep, loving commitment can create. Neither am I saying that people ought to adhere strictly to the four year rule; if a loving married couple finds themselves pregnant six months into their marriage, hopefully their love for each other and commitment to their marriage will carry them through the stress of an early pregnancy.
I simply believe that, ideally, four years of marriage gives you a firm grounding with each other, gives you a chance to be truly free and adventurous together before the relatively structured life of a parent overtakes you. It gives you time to thoroughly get to know each other and to determine if you even ought to have children...some of the most passionate and rewarding marriages are childless because both people know parenthood doesn't suit them.
And, to be realistic, four years may give you enough time to know whether this marriage is going to last. A lot of marriages don't. While it can be argued that hitting the four year mark happily is no guarantee of lifelong bliss, and while it is true that marriages can fall apart at any point in their life span, I maintain that waiting four years will at least give you an indication of whether you feel close enough to your mate to contemplate parenthood together. Sometimes the euphoria of love carries marriages into two or three years, but if the marriage is built on the shifting sands of physical attraction or sex alone, it will likely start to crumble after the third or fourth year. Having children before this point is a mistake.
If, however, you wait and make every effort to make sure you both want children with each other, then even if divorce comes eventually, you will know you didn't rush into parenthood prematurely. Your divorce might even teach your children something valuable about marriage, and the validity of pursuing personal happiness in their own lives.
It can be difficult, when you see the smiling eyes of the person you love most in the world and imagine similar eyes looking up at you from the face of your child. It can be hard to resist the urge to have a baby when you are convinced you've found the only person in the world you'd like to have one with. And at times it may not be easy to put aside your desire for children until you are rationally and responsibly ready for them. But if you truly want to cherish the children you have together, give them an excellent romantic example to aspire to. Cherish yourselves first.