The Modern Parent and the Importance of Self-Care in the Transition to Parenthood
**This is part 3 of a 3 part series on the Modern Parent. See The Modern Parent for part two of this series.**
The journey to parenthood is, at the very least, a roller coaster full of ups and downs. So much is changing for both men and women that it can be difficult to remember the importance of making time for one’s self. Without proper self care and support from others, parenthood can be an exhausting, isolating, and extremely confusing time. Navigating the formation of a new family and the creation of one’s parental identities can have lasting consequences on how a person experiences their world. A child brings about an endless amount of opportunities, especially when it comes to one’s own discovery. When discussing what it is like to be a parent, writer Linda Wooten sums it up beautifully. “Being a [parent] is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had, and dealing with fears you didn’t know existed.”
As you take on the biggest job anyone can embark on - raising children - the gravity and importance of this undertaking may start to settle in. Recognizing how different your world will be and integrating these changes is critical for a parent’s emotional health. Despite the joy and happiness that comes with a baby, this time can be bitter sweet. Never again will it be just you and your partner. The very dynamics of your day-to-day existence are altered. Many parents may feel guilty about feelings of sadness surrounding their changing relationship with their partner. Therefore, it is important to understand that these types of feelings are normal. Be fair to yourself by embracing that the unknown is scary. Allowing space to be authentic and process the grief for what the relationship was before having a child in a healthy, constructive way is one of the best ways to assure parenthood will be a positive experience.
Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the responsibilities that come with being a parent and the process of grieving one’s old self is no easy task. Research has shown that the relationship between intimate partners is strained by the introduction of a child. This decrease in partner satisfaction leads to a changes in one’s overall happiness. A myth that many young couples subscribe to is that having a baby will “fix” a broken relationship and bring two people closer together. In fact, the exact opposite rings true. Having a child tests the limits of a relationship. If a couple’s relationship lacks a strong foundation and clear communication, the odds are that those issues will not be resolved once the couple becomes parents. Psychotherapist and marriage researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. found that couples usually separate within seven years of the relationship. You may have heard of this concept, commonly referred to as “the seven year itch”. Dr. Gottman found that most couples transitioned from newlyweds to parents within the first seven years of their marriage, which is where “the seven year itch” concept developed.
Before children, partners are able to focus solely on one another. When children enter the picture, conversations becomes less about your partner’s needs and more about mundane tasks that are essential to keeping the household running. According to Matthew D. Johnson, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at State University of New York at Binghamton, the relationship burden of having children is present regardless of marital status, gender orientation, or level of income. Perhaps the question then becomes, “Why are couples still having children, even if it means possibly sacrificing their romantic life?” Well, the answer is simply, that overall, men and women who have children reported that being a parent was their greatest joy in life.
Reading this may sound a bit dismal. Many of you are possibly fearing that having a baby will mean the end to the days of flirty conversations, dates, and over all intimacy with your significant other. This kind of research can certainly cause people to question the value of having children. While many couples do experience a significant drop relationship satisfaction, this does not have to be your experience. Taking certain steps before and after the baby is born can prevent the decline of your relationship. In fact, it is possible for a baby to bring you and your partner closer to together and create a deeper sense of intimacy and connection -if you are prepared for the change. Therefore, instead of being scared of the changes that occur with a baby, lets look like a few areas that men and women can focus on that will help create a close and healthy relationship.
1. Openly Communicate: Parenthood offers up an array of feelings and experiences that are new and unique for each partner. This can often cause confusion and leave both parties feeling vulnerable and unsure of themselves. It becomes paramount to keep lines of communication open with your partner. Discussing how you feel about both the positive and negative aspects of parenthood will help your partner understand what areas you feel confident in, as well as areas that they can help support you in this journey. Because miscommunication and conflict can easily be born out of such a stressful time, being clear and direct on what is important to you will be key as birth partners move into these new roles. Odds are that each parent may have a different idea on the best way to parent. It helps for each party to explain the hopes and dreams they have for their child, and relate traditions and rituals that hold importance. Each person in the relationship should make space for their significant other’s views. When a disagreement arises, take the time to set non-negotiable points of view that each party sees as highly important, and actively compromise on the rest to come to a joint decision. Before the baby is born, discussing practicalities, like how to make time for one another, and who will be responsible for certain tasks, will help soothe anxieties and provide a general road map for how to manage certain areas of daily life.
2. Work Together: The way that couples approach tasks and make decisions will leave a lasting impact on their child, as well as their relationship. When a couple works as a team, both parties feel supported. By sharing responsibilities, each person in the relationship is more likely to feel respected and closer to the other. For each person, knowing that they are not alone in their decisions and daily chores reduces stress and provides confidence at a time when feeling uncertain and overwhelmed is the norm. Additionally, when children see their parents acting as a united front, they feel more secure and learn how to successfully navigate relationships with others by emulating the actions of their parents. By effectively listening to each other and honoring the differences between one another, partner conflict is more easily resolved. Parenting is full of problems, so having patience and with one another and taking the time to come up with creative solutions will allow both partners to feel like they are part of a team.
3. Maintain Friendships: There is no doubt that parents lead very busy lives. The chaos that surrounds parenthood can easily cause many new parents to ignore people that were once very important to them; however, maintaining friendships is the key to a healthy life. Why, you might ask, is it critical to continue your friendships after parenthood? The simple answer is that friends are a strong link to the very core of who we are. Remember, becoming a parent can dilute aspects of one’s character as they form new identities around their parental role. However, research shows that limiting one’s self to the singular role of mother or father is detrimental to the happiness and health of an individual. By engaging in friendships, parents can maintain a sense of identity and give themselves a break from the selfless parental role. If they are suffering from isolation, or even grieving their life before children, friends may lessen these painful emotions by listening, offering sympathy, encouragement, and even practical help. Besides being fun, spending times with friends adds a feeling of lightness to life. Being socially engaged encourages individuals to be more active, accomplish goals, and leads to positive emotions that assist in forming a better quality of life.
4. Make Time for Each Other: Generally, men and women have differing concepts of what it means to “spend time together.” When couples have a baby, time is greatly limited. Much of the time, a couple’s relationship takes second place behind daily chores, work schedules, and of course, their new child. This change in the importance of a relationship can leave partners not feeling valued when children enter the picture. In turn, that can act to create conflict within the relationship. However, making it a priority to spend what each partner views as “valued time” together can change that for the better. Men typically are looking to connect through having a good time and having sex, while women tend to value more of a romantic experience, in which they feel desired and listened to. The hustle and bustle of life can cause couples to put off this time together as they wait for their schedules to slow down. That slow down may never come, which makes a proactive effort to prioritize valued time together that much more critical. Not checking in daily with one another makes both people in the relationship feel isolated, causing a disconnection. That is why making time to sit down with your partner and provide them with the type of connection they need should be such a strong priority for couples going through this change. Whether it is waking up early every day to have a cup of coffee together, or scheduling a weekly date night, this priority will be a major contributor to the success of the relationship. Consistent rituals of connection keep partners in touch with one another and act to remind them of the reasons they fell in love.
5. Keep it Sexy: Sex is a pleasurable experience one shares with their partner, but it is much more than that. Sex is an incredible, intimate experience that can create a deep sense of connection between you and your partner. It creates a bond between partners, but more importantly, keeps the desire for one another alive and well. This is critical as couples enter parenthood since their time for one another is greatly reduced and conversations often transform from once flirty texts to mundane grocery lists. The continued creation of the “spark” in relationships keeps couples going, despite growing responsibilities throughout a life that may seem chaotic. Besides allowing couples to feel close to one another, sex also reduces stress. As mentioned, parenthood is a particularly stressful time for couples. The good news is that sex is a natural stress reliever. Laura Berman, Ph.D., an Assistant Clinical Professor of OB–GYN and Psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, says orgasms can reduce stress due to the endorphins that are released. These hormones activate pleasure centers in the brain that create feelings of intimacy and relaxation, and can even stave off depression. At the end of the day, parents may feel too tired to engage in sexual intimacy, but doing so may be the deciding factor to whether or not their relationship survives parenthood. Make time for sex, even if it means scheduling a date to do so. It may seem unsexy to mark it off on your calendar, but with children in the house, spontaneity can be difficult and a couple’s sex life doesn’t need to suffer just because they have added the role of becoming a mom or dad.
If you are reading this article and it strikes a nerve, or if you are questioning your own experience, desiring additional support through your journey, or simply toying with idea of becoming a parent, I invite you to contact me for a counseling session. Over the years, I have worked with countless couples that are attempting to make this transition, from first-time parents trying to lay a foundation for their newly formed family, to older parents that are adjusting to having a baby again. If new parents are informed on what to expect, allow space for one another to grow, and remember what qualities attracted them to their partner in the first place, anxieties can be better managed and a deeper connection can be forged. In couples counseling, you learn how to effectively recognize and work through these potential roadblocks. With some effort, combined with professional guidance from a therapist, you can identify these feelings and discover potential needs.
This is part three in a three part series on Parenthood and Pregnancy for the month of October, 2019
I whole-heartedly believe engaging in therapy cultivates a unique experience where individuals can process their hopes, fears, and excitement over entering into this relationship with themselves, their child, and partner. If you would like to schedule an appointment with myself, or any of the other team members at Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center, please visit www.austinstrongrbc.com where you can easily book an appointment online that fits with your personal schedule.
- Jamie Mayo-Buttry, M.A., LPC-Intern, LCDC-Intern, Licensed Mediator