PETS BEFORE KIDS? Couples seek clues in how well they'll 'co-parent'
First plants, then pets, then kids.
That has always been Sandra Magura's theory, she said, so that's the course the 34-year-old wife, mother of two and children's book author followed. After marrying in May 2008, she and her husband, Josh, bought a house and revisited that daunting question: Do we want to have kids?
"We had talked about having kids before, but he told me that up until he met me, he had no plans on ever having them," Magura said.
In August 2008, the newlyweds adopted a golden retriever named Miller, and a month later, another dog, a shepherd/lab mix, named Lola. Miller has epilepsy and hypothyroidism and needs medication twice daily. Magura said caring for two dogs quickly taught the couple about dividing responsibility, a test they both needed to pass before having children.
"Josh was always wonderful, caring and gentle with all our pets. It was reassuring to see him like that," Magura said. "I would have to say watching him with the dogs did help to increase my desire to have kids."
In 2009, the couple, who live in Stafford, Va., welcomed their first child.
It's common for couples to adopt a cat or dog before they have children to see how well they "co-parent," said David Klow, a marriage and family therapist and owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Skokie, Ill., But, he added, it's rare to see a couple decide that parenthood is not for them if they notice that the other person isn't a reliable pet owner. Instead, it tends to illuminate a weakness in the relationship.
"Sometimes a couple will see that they really can't handle the responsibility of a pet, and that might make them realize that they are not a fit for one another deep down," Klow said.
On the other hand, for Saralyn Mark, of Washington, D.C., and her partner, Don, the experience of caring for Lucy, a 2-year-old Labradoodle with inflammatory bowel disease, has pushed the couple away from having kids. The pair adopted Lucy six months into their relationship and consider her "a member of the family," but her condition requires special attention, enough to keep their hands full.
"We spend about two hours a day trying to get her to eat," Mark said, adding that they may adopt another puppy when Lucy's eating becomes more regular.
Obviously, there are stark differences between caring for an animal and raising a human, but can the former help you prepare for the latter?
It teaches you about caring for a living creature that is dependent upon you, said Lori Bizzoco, relationship expert and founder of CupidsPulse.com.
Bizzoco and her husband cared for a Saint Bernard before having their two daughters. With dogs, she said, you have to feed them, take them on walks, bathe them regularly and take them to the vet as needed.
But, she emphasized, children are much more work.
Having a pet first does allow partners to learn more about each other and to grow more flexible as individuals, Bizzoco added. "Like a kid, a pet will require a lot of patience, interrupt your sleep and need much of your attention."
Unlike children, dogs wag their tails in happiness and give their owners almost perpetual love and affection when they see them. And also unlike kids, they don't talk back, Bizzoco said.
"Humans are exponentially more complex beings than cats or dogs," Klow said. "Though adopting a pet might give us a sense of what it's like to care for another, raising a child is an entirely different undertaking."
Steering the social (and) emotional development of a child — his or her ability to relate to others and the surrounding world — is a far greater challenge than training your pet to be social with other animals and friendly to strangers.
Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based family and relationship psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child," said the two aren't comparable.
"Certainly, if one partner is always the one who walks the dog while the other sits in front of the TV, that's not a good sign," Walfish said. "But how a person treats their flesh and blood is most likely going to (be of) much greater value and get priority."
Walfish said a better indicator of how much your partner will step up in parenting is how significantly he or she contributes to your marital relationship, especially with household duties such as cooking, cleaning and paying bills.
There are steps a couple can take outside of adopting a pet to help decide whether parenthood is right for them.
Spend time with other people's kids. "If you aren't sure whether or not you're ready to have children, start by surrounding yourself with other children," Bizzoco advised. These could be your nieces or nephews or your friends' children. Offer to baby sit for a night or a weekend.
Evaluate how you settle disagreements. No two people are always going to agree. Before deciding to have kids, it's important to examine how you and your partner handle and conclude arguments, Walfish said. If you and/or your partner engage in power struggles or have angry outbursts, this will pose a problem when you have toddlers exhibiting the same behavior that you will be trying to correct.
Talk about your values, goals and visions for the future. Couples should understand each other's family experiences and how that might affect a family they create together, Klow said.
Even if a couple decides to have children, they should not expect that sense of uncertainty and nervousness to dissipate completely.
"I don't think anyone is 100 percent prepared for parenthood," Bizzoco said. "But once you have a child, things tend to come naturally."