Not sure about having kids? Try caring for a pet first

It's common for couples to adopt a cat or dog before they have children to see how well they "co-parent", says a marriage and family therapist

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 7:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 7:47am

First pets, then children. That has always been Sandra Magura's theory, so that's the course the 34-year-old children's author followed. After marrying in 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 says.

The newlyweds, who live in the US state of Virginia, soon adopted a golden retriever named Miller, and a month later, another dog, a shepherd/lab cross, named Lola. Miller has epilepsy and hypothyroidism and needs medication twice daily. Magura says 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 says. "I would have to say watching him with the dogs did help to increase my desire to have kids."

In 2009, the couple 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", says David Klow, a marriage and family therapist. The problem is that even if half of the couple decides their partner isn't a reliable pet owner, they tend to go forward with parenthood anyway. And that 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 realise that they don't fit together deep down," Klow says.

Or it might make them realise they shouldn't have children. That was the case with Saralyn Mark, of Washington, and her partner, Don, who have a two-year-old labradoodle with inflammatory bowel disease. They 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," Saralyn says, 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 a human being, but can the former help you prepare for the latter?

Yes, says Lori Bizzoco, relationship expert and founder of because it teaches you about caring for a living creature that is dependent upon you.

Bizzoco and her husband cared for a St Bernard before having their two daughters. With dogs, she says, you have to feed them, take them for walks, bathe them regularly and take them to the vet as needed.

But although having a pet first does allow partners to learn more about each other and to grow more flexible as individuals, she emphasises children are much more work.

"Humans are exponentially more complex beings than cats or dogs," Klow says. "Raising a child is an entirely different undertaking."

"Certainly, if one partner is always the one who walks the dog while the other sits in front of the television, that's not a good sign," says Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child. "But how a person treats their flesh and blood is most likely going to be of much greater value and get priority."

Other steps couples can take to help decide whether parenthood is right for them include spending time with other people's children. "If you aren't sure whether you're ready to have children, start by surrounding yourself with other children," Bizzoco says.

These could be your nieces or nephews or your friends' children. Offer to babysit for a night or a weekend.

Walfish suggests evaluating how you settle disagreements. No two people are always going to agree. Before deciding to have children, it's important to examine how you and your partner handle and conclude arguments, especially if they lead to angry outbursts.

Talk about your values, goals and visions for the future, and try to understand each other's family experiences, Klow says.

But even if a couple decide to go on and have children, Bizzoco says: "I don't think anyone is 100 per cent prepared for parenthood." Tribune News Service