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Every parent, at one point or another, wishes child rearing came with a personalized user manual– complete with tips for optimal performance and troubleshooting solutions. It’s no wonder, then, that some expecting couples are actually beginning to draft parenting contracts, akin to prenuptial agreements, to help them survive the overwhelming venture of raising a family.

Rebecca Onion of Slate magazine recently referred to it as a “pre-pregnancy agreement,” in which she and her husband would settle on certain demands before she bore any children. She argued that in a ”˜spontaneous’ household, “work tends to revert to the less spontaneous person, who is often the person who’s culturally expected to carry it out.” The disparity in domestic responsibilities, she reasoned, would make her resentful and become a consistent source of tension in her marriage.

To “guarantee” family harmony, Onion contemplated an agreement based on very pragmatic requests: 6-7 hours to write every day; getting her husband to cook and grocery shop; and demarcated leisure time that wasn’t spent teaching her husband how to do all his assigned chores. She believed a contract (her husband was expected to sign on the dotted line) would, at the least, give her “a process for discussing issues.”

A framework for decision-making is exactly what Drina Nibbe, a Colorado-based psychotherapist specializing in infant and toddler mental health, envisioned when she developed the Baby Prenupâ„¢ program for expecting parents. Whereas Onion’s proposed agreement addresses only the marital relationship, Nibbe’s is equally concerned with parent-child attachments and nurturing healthy child development. Her parenting contract, therefore, is less a division of household duties and more a statement of shared values, parental functions, communication practices, and self-care needs that aims to foster secure family bonds.

Under Nibbe’s guidance, couples explore positives and negatives from their own childhood, recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses as potential parents, define child-rearing goals, and agree upon effective methods of discourse. That awareness of their own capabilities, in turn, deters new parents from shutting down or anxiously obsessing over specifics; it also helps pinpoint stress triggers and minimize quarrels once the little one makes an appearance. All these conversations ultimately result in a “commitment document,” a road map of sorts for managing parenting expectations and decreasing familial conflict.

 “We put more time into creating a vision and defining values for a company than we do for the most important job of all””raising a child,” Nibbe said. “We need a family mission as well.”

A parenting plan extensively detailing each person’s roles and responsibilities is commonplace amongst divorcing and adoptive couples, but Nibbe feels it’s something that could really benefit all parents. She knows of one never-married couple with a very strained relationship, for instance, who constantly refer to their commitment document to resolve disagreements over the upbringing of their child. The pact works because it steers them towards evaluating their overall parenting vision and away from attacking each other’s shortfalls. Amazingly, Nibbe said the very act of writing down a parenting creed is enough to legitimize the contract and to make it binding in a parent’s eye.

At the end of the day, the objective of a parenting agreement is to serve a child’s overall well-being””whether that means vowing never to repeat the refrains of your own childhood or allocating laundry duty for the next 18 years.

Nibbe’s Baby Prenupâ„¢ classes resume at the Castle Rock Family Enrichment Center this fall; she is also publishing a workbook on the subject, due out early next year. For more information, please visit www.drinanibbellc.com.