In the days of the village parenthood was considered a rite of passage. Traditionally, this involves three main phases: saying goodbye to the old way of life, facing the uncertainties of the new and re-emerging into the community with a new sense of responsibility and social standing. In our modern day world, where parenthood is much more complicated, we give and get little preparation, guidance or support. You’ll likely find plenty of resources and courses for pregnancy and birth and just as many for parenting.
Parenthood is the gap in between.
As a Relationship Counsellor and a new mother at the same time, I found our lack of preparation for parenthood caused stretch marks between my husband and I. So, after over fifteen years of working with couples and researching parenthood (and stumbling through it ourselves), I have discovered eight steps on the parenthood path. I’d like to guide you through them.
Step One: Prepare for your Baby
Your relationship with your baby begins long before they are born. Even before they are dreamed about or conceived, the space for a child is created between a couple. It’s room that’s ripe with hope and possibility.
Pregnancy is known as a time of expecting, a time of waiting. But with changes on the horizon, you’re better served to use this time for exploring and preparing. If you’re using assisted reproduction or waiting to adopt, you have more time for this. The more preparation you do now, the less pressure there will be on you both afterwards.
As bellies ripen and grow, booties are knitted and nursery furniture assembled, you may also experience an evolving sense of self. As you prepare to farewell your life and perhaps your job as you knew them, it opens new space inside you, ready to be filled with new experiences.
You may have to let some things go to make room for the often unexpected gifts of the parenthood adventure: new priorities, clearer values, deepened spirituality, heightened emotional awareness and perhaps even a more well-rounded sense of self. Some find parenthood is the perfect time for women to embrace their inner strength and for men to embrace their inner softness. A new balance can be created both within and in between.
Aspects of pregnancy, birth and parenthood can change second or more time around. Facets that disappeared in the newness of the first time come to the foreground. You may circle back to old issues again, but you’ll have more insight and experience to deal with them and so the back again actually spirals you forward. Changes, especially big ones, can take time to consolidate and new issues emerge as a family grows.
As becoming a family gets closer, most couples are so preoccupied with the practicalities of parenting-to-be and the prospect of birth is so huge, it’s hard to focus on anything else. But as you both anticipate bonding with your new baby, be aware that the bond between you two is equally important–and it supports your baby too.
Your adventure awaits.
Step Two: Build a Nest
Important changes are happening to each of you in your family’s first few months. Your baby is adjusting to life outside the perfect environment they’ve been growing in, getting used to light, sounds and sensations. They’re also getting used to being separate from their life-source. Some call this period ‘the 4th trimester’.
At the same time, you are adjusting to your new roles as a mother or a father, and as partners in parenting. As each of you begins a relationship with your new little person, you are also renegotiating your partnership with each other. There will be fresh aspects of your relationship, new decisions to be made and different points of view to consider. How you manage these between you begins to lay foundations for your new family and establishes the tone of the home, the nest, you will bring your baby up in.
You are becoming the new “us.”
Step Three: Adjust your Expectations
One of the earlier, but less obvious, ways becoming a family transforms you involves the adjustment between your expectations of what you thought life after baby would look like with the reality of it. You may expect certain aspects of the parenthood terrain will be challenging and be prepared for those. But most parents find that becoming a family can be challenging not only in ways you don’t expect, but that you may have never before, as a couple, experienced.
Expectations are powerful. They shape what you think and feel, how you cope and adjust. Realistic expectations are good–if you expect mutual respect, you will give and receive accordingly. But unrealistic expectations can create unnecessary pressure and hardship.
When you go into a situation with high standards or imaginings that are not met, you will naturally be disappointed. The higher and less realistic they are, the more disillusioned you’re likely to be.
Unmet expectations can cause confusion and distress, and for many couples, anger or resentment towards a partner. When expectations aren’t met, people tend to focus on the closest person to blame, rather than examine the expectations themselves. Reconsider them.
Expect to be learners. Expect that it will take time to find your feet and that each stage of your child’s growth will also require some adjusting. Give your partner and yourself time, space and support to grow into your ‘new normal.’
Take the pressure off.
Learning how to negotiate expectations with your partner reduces blame and resentment, brings you closer together and prepares you for the time when both your expectations will be directed towards your children.
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Step Four: Set up Base Camp
As your relationship with your new baby unfolds and as children go through their different stages of growth, you get to know what they need and how to meet these needs. So too, you are being introduced to your own emerging needs as a mother or a father, and the new needs of the relationship between you.
As parents, your needs often take second place to your baby’s. In the early weeks and months of family you are likely to be more dependent on your partner. For the time being, the balance of your normal sense of “us” will shift as your circumstances change.
By becoming aware of your needs, being able to articulate them to your partner and getting them met in a mutually supportive way, you begin to lay the groundwork for your family’s growth and at the same time build a platform for exploring the next stages.
Whenever times get tough, come back to base, rest and recover here.
Step Five: Embrace your Emotions
Here the adventure really begins! One of the things that surprises–or appals–many new (and plenty of not so new!) parents, is the strength of emotion that can wash over you like a tsunami. You may discover yourself capable of elated highs and depressing lows and everything in between. You can feel extremes: love until it hurts, protectiveness so intense you could kill if you had to, and that some days are so incredibly boring you could scream. You may find a level of patience you never knew you had, or joy so acute it feels like flying.
You might also be plagued with new insecurities. The awesome responsibility of caring for an infant can be overwhelming; the unending daily chores can leave you depleted and depressed. Physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation and the steep learning curve involved in every stage of parenting can leave you feeling the rawness of yourself. Perhaps for the first time, you’ll discover the rawness of your partner too.
New parents, mothers especially, but fathers too, are primed to be more sensitive. Your brains are adapting to be responsive to your baby’s emotions and their needs—which means you’ll also be more sensitive to each other. Most of us weren’t taught how to tolerate or manage strong emotions, either in ourselves or others.
With the expanded and deepened feelings that come with your new parenthood world, you also get to learn how to travel through it.
Your emotions are also what bond you to your partner. They bring life, richness and depth to your relationship. As parents, you are presented with countless seeds for expanded and deepened emotional connection. Connection is the life blood of relationships.
This is something your children will learn from you.
Step Six: Welcome Your New Parent Selves
This is where the landscape starts to get really interesting! Most of us expect having a baby will, in some ways, change our life. What most of us don’t expect is that having a baby will also, in some ways, change our selves. Our sense of who we are as a new mother or a new father, our levels of vulnerability and self-esteem, and how we feel about ourselves (or our partner), our parents and friends can shift. Our relationships can change when we do and vice versa.
That’s a lot of change.
As aspects of your life change, you may change aspects of yourself in order to adapt. You may feel expanded in some ways and reduced in others. Both take some adjustment. For some, parenthood can feel like a midlife crisis, a time where you re-evaluate yourself–or discover who you really are for the first time.
Having a baby is an opportunity to look deeper. Parenthood invites you inwards, to look at the innermost core of your being. To ask the questions: What’s important to me? What do I think, feel and want for myself? For my family? And while the asking of these questions may leave you a bit dazed and confused for a while, discovering the answers is empowering.
With a new palette of emotions and shades to your relationships, you may find a new richness in and between you. Being validated by those closest to us is a fundamental relationship need. When your inner self is not recognized, acknowledged and appreciated, it can become a quest. You may try to meet your need for validation in other ways, like buying the right ‘something’ or trying too hard to be good at something else. Your partner may do the same.
But the transformation of identity, probably more than any other, can lead you to being more connected with your partner. Because the closer you get to the core of yourself, and the more comfortable you are there, the more you can let your partner, and others, in.
If you can reveal your inner landscape to your partner, and them to you, it creates a sense of ‘us’, a shared world that in turn supports your individual growth, your partnership, and the emerging sense of ‘us’ for your family as well.
This transformation involves peeling away the layers that can build up over time, back to the essence of who you really are. A mutual sense of curiosity and wonder inspires sharing. Accepting and appreciating your truest self creates a deep sense of personal wellbeing. Accepting and appreciating the new-parent self of your partner creates emotional wellbeing for your family. It’s also good practice for supporting your child’s own sense of their unfolding self.
Becoming a parent is a journey of self-discovery. You’ll want your partner along for the ride.
Step Seven: Grow Together through Differences
This is the mountainous challenge for most parents. We grow up fighting. Tussling over toys as toddlers. Competing with brothers and sisters for attention. Arguing with parents as teenagers to be understood or to be different from them. As young adults we battle to prove ourselves, to separate and move away from our family, in proximity, in beliefs, values or life goals, and towards independence. In families where we aren’t allowed a voice, this battle is waged on the inside.
We go into our adult relationships knowing, in our own ways, how to fight. But a relationship with a partner requires a very different approach. You can’t fight to move away and become completely independent–if you go too far, you risk losing the relationship. But if you don’t fight to retain your unique sense of individuality, you might lose yourself.
When you become parents, exhaustion, broken sleep, a loss of freedom, new responsibilities, stronger emotions and steep learning curves are a recipe for conflict. There are also new differences introduced into your partnership. Conflict is a way of saying, ‘You are different to me and I don’t like it.’
Like most of us, you probably weren’t taught how to work through differences in close relationships so you may to react to them in one of two ways: you fight or you don’t talk about them. Either way, you end up on separate trails.
But here’s the thing: being able to share your ‘negative’ emotions, your whole self, with your partner is what builds trust between you.
Knowing how to deal with conflict brings you closer instead of pushing you apart–and while this can make a dramatic difference to your own partnership, the real winner is your child. Unresolved conflict or competition between you can undermine your ability to work as a parenting team.
Much of what you’re experiencing as parents will be confusing and difficult to put words to, but sharing your thoughts, feelings, preferences and ideas as they unfold reduces the potential for conflict that is increased when things are stored and hidden.
Parenthood is a time of considerable changes inside you and the adjustments you are negotiating inside yourselves also need to be shared with your partner so you can go up the mountain path together. This way you grow “us”. The ability to manage conflict is a real indication of the maturity of a relationship—and real practice for parenthood. Assertiveness and self-control are life skills your children are unlikely to be taught by anyone else.
Step Eight: Connect and Reconnect through Intimacy.
Over the next few years you will scale many mountains, but if you’ve made it this far together, you’ll soon be at the top and from here you can see there are countless places for you both to plant seeds for your family’s growth.
Intimacy seeds hold a relationship together. Intellectual intimacy is sharing thoughts, ideas, opinions and beliefs; physical intimacy is spending quality time, giving and receiving affection and doing fun things together. Emotional intimacy grows as we share feelings, hopes, dreams and fears. Spiritual intimacy can evolve out of all these things: sharing the wonder of a waterfall, the peace of meditation, the reverence of prayer. Sexual intimacy sets our partnership apart from all other relationships we have.
Intimacy gives us our mutual sense of belonging together. Intimacy is an invitation, a revealing of yourself to another and having this glimpse acknowledged with acceptance and appreciation. Intimacy involves trust and reciprocation. Shutting down or shutting off in any of these aspects will affect the others.
On what levels do you connect? Would you like to connect more? With yourself? Your partner? Where might you, as a couple, grow?
Intimacy is the aspect of your relationship that probably suffers most as you become a family. Especially when one is at work all day and the other is at home with the baby, it’s easy to lead parallel lives and feel disconnected, like you have nothing in common any more–except your children, of course.
At a deeper level, you are both developing new aspects of your parenting selves and you may not know how to share these with your partner. There may be whole chunks of you that are newly unfamiliar to each other. This may leave you feeling anxious, lonely or adrift.
On the other hand, parenthood is a time of new connections. It can be a window into the depths of yourself and your partner and create multiple opportunities to become your new version of ‘us’, to create a relationship that’s stable, safe and secure at its foundation–but has potential for exploration and adventure–so you have done the groundwork for a fulfilling family life.
Babies teach you all you need to know about connection.
The ways you bond with your baby and continue to nurture them– holding them close, paying attention, gazing into their eyes, ‘reading their signals’ and responding sensitively, are the same ways you connect with your partner.
Reach out to each other and return to the same path even when your lives and roles are changing and you may sometimes feel worlds apart. Because here’s the secret: you can do step eight at any time.
Get ready to write, and share with each other, the adventure story of your lives.