Emotional adjustment to parenting

By Anne Cawood – social worker in private practice. Author of “Toddlers Need Boundaries: effective discipline without punishment” – Metz Press

During all the wonderful excitement of the months leading up to the birth of a much-wanted baby – the planning, shopping for little garments, decorating the nursery, choosing names, the baby shower, the antenatal classes etc – there is not much thought put into the  enormous impact this life-changing event will have on you – the parents. Then comes that incredible moment when you finally hold your brand new baby in your arms – and the process of adjustment really begins! From that moment it is no longer just the two of you. From now on that little bundle of needs and demands becomes an integral part of your lives, which have now changed completely. As with any momentous event, there is so much that is positive, exciting and challenging. However, as nothing can ever be all positive – there are also the inevitable negatives. The big problem is that the negatives are usually glossed over – to be dealt with if they do occur. Most first-time parents are not prepared for the harsh reality of life with a newborn!  Along with all the many wonderful and exciting challenges and new experiences, there are also the lows and the obstacles.

I believe that many marriages begin to disconnect at this crucial time – and mainly because the parents are just not adequately prepared for the stresses and losses that come with that bundle of joy!! For the mother there is the loss of time alone, of her pre-baby body, of sleep, of status, income and peer support. She may feel isolated and confused and guilty at feeling negative about something that is supposed to be a highlight of her life so far. Many new mothers suffer degrees of depression – and many do not even realise it until months after the baby is born.

For the new father there are many of the same stresses as his partner is suffering, although his life (and body!) will appear to be largely unaffected. He will almost certainly feel the loss of his previously calm, well–organised and affectionate partner. There may also be a feeling of loss of freedom and spontaneity in their pre-baby relationship. He may also feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the responsibility which a dependent baby brings.

There are also changes in the couple relationship. The shift from “lover” to “mother” is a vast one. For many couples this is a big adjustment – especially during the first weeks of the baby’s life. Libido is low – especially for the new mother. Going to bed is definitely for a much needed sleep. The thought of anything romantic or erotic is totally off the radar! Avoidance of intimacy can become an enormous issue. Misunderstandings and emotional disconnection can lead to disappointment and breakdown in communication. Expectations of the roles of mothers and fathers are often put to the test during this time too. During those early days of relationship building and looking forward to the baby’s birth, discussions seldom revolve around what each expects from the other as far as parenting is concerned. This can lead to unrealistic expectations – and huge communication breakdown.

Therefore, it is very clear that the birth of a baby leads to feelings of ambivalence – on the one hand an amazing, exciting experience and on the other, one which brings many negatives as well.

As with any situation that needs successful adjustment in order to cope, there are some guidelines that will certainly help new parents to come out the other side having grown closer emotionally and having gained in skills and personal growth challenges.

  • Try to show empathy for the other parent. Even though you may be wrapped up in your own experience and feelings, try to put yourself in the shoes of your partner and try to understand what he/she is going through. I read an article in which it was stated “Empathy is to a relationship what cement is to a building – without empathy the relationship will just collapse”
  • Practice the skill of active listening. We are usually so tied up in our own issues that we just never truly listen to each other. We are busy thinking about our response / retort while our partner is telling us something they feel or experience – so we never actually LISTEN. Listening is the key communication skill – we need to use more than just our ears. We need our eyes and our hearts too.
  • Express your negative feelings in a way that does not induce defensiveness. If you use “you language” you are almost certain to get a closed, negative response. Try to start a sentence with “I” – if you want to be heard. “I feel overwhelmed after a whole day with a baby” sounds a whole lot better than “You just don’t know what it is like to have the baby for a whole day”.
  • Another key skill in positive communication is to avoid too many direct questions. “Why didn’t you call me from work?” will only put your partner on the defensive. “It seems that you forgot to phone me from work?” is far more likely to evoke an open response.
  • Make time to share. It is very difficult during the first exhausting weeks – when things will be chaotic and you will be like ships passing in the night – but try to plan for some “us time” – even if it is just to sit and have a cup of coffee together. At first you may be too exhausted to even talk – but just sit and connect with each other.

The crucial part of the adjustment to parenting is to remember that the baby needs you to remain connected. He will put enormous strain on your relationship – but, with positive communication and loads of patience and mature understanding, you can grow together and become that incredible and indispensible unit – a well-functioning family. But, like anything that is worthwhile in life, it takes effort and resolve. And also the realization that there is a whole lot more to having a baby than you will ever be told in those antenatal classes. Because the truth is that it is only through the actual experience of parenting that you can truly come to understand the real challenges that it involves.

“The best gift you can give your child is to ensure that you look after your personal growth and identity issues, and nurture your adult relationships.”  

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