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Surviving the First Year of Parenthood While Growing Deeper in Love

By Beth Moscov
Boulder California USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 2 March-April 2000 pp. 36-39

We were in love and we always knew we wanted children. We couldn't understand what had happened to us after the baby was born. It was as if we were strangers. We were both so busy, doing so much, and needing even more support than ever. We just sort of lost touch with how much we cared for each other.

It can be difficult to anticipate all the changes that follow the birth of a baby. Expectant parents often read and learn about the physical and emotional realities of parenting an infant, but they may not expect that their own relationship will change so much. Understanding what's going on can help parents cope with the challenges of first-year parenting.

Many family therapists today use a method called Systems Theory. Systems theory provides a framework for the family to use when looking at their problems. It likens human relationships to a thermostat. We become used to a relationship working in a certain pattern. This is like setting the thermostat. When anything in the relationship changes, it causes us to shift. It is like opening a window or cooking something in the oven. The thermostat kicks in turning on either the heat or the fan to bring the temperature in the house back to the previous setting. However, families are not this simple. When something in the family system changes, as happens when a child is born, other changes follow as everyone struggles to maintain the old setting on the family thermostat. If things go well, the family eventually resets their thermostat to a different level and everyone grows into a more mature way of functioning. This is one of the tasks of the first year of parenting.

A basic concept in Systems Theory is called "equilibrium." If the thermostat is set at 68 degrees, then 68 degrees is the equilibrium point. If something that influences the equilibrium changes (such as bringing in cold air from an open window), something else must change as well-the furnace must work harder. The same holds true in relationships. For one couple, equilibrium may be set at a level where both people rarely see each other and this is what makes the relationship work. If they suddenly start spending a lot of time together, both partners will have to make adjustments to recapture the balance in their relationship. Another couple's equilibrium may depend on frequent and intensive arguments (even though they may be unhappy while arguing). Still another couple may balance their time so that they spend equal amounts of time together and apart and not argue at all. Changes in a relationship affect its equilibrium and most people try to return to the way things were before the change, either consciously or unconsciously. This new behavior may not always produce the desired result or it may create additional stress for one or both partners.

Often, the equilibrium point for a couple is related to how their own parents' relationship worked. We learn a lot about how to interact with others through observation of our parents. It can be helpful to look back and examine childhood behavior patterns. We often find that we are reacting to situations in the present based on responses and expectations from previous relationships. Unhooking our responses from the past frees us to act in a thoughtful way, not react without thinking. Unfortunately, the first years of parenting are so full of emotional challenges that this is usually not a good time to focus on older issues. But it can be a good time to learn new, more functional behaviors and learn to use them regularly.

One very simple tool new parents can use is called "normalizing." Someone who is unhappy, fighting a lot with a spouse, and is feeling afraid for his or her marriage may feel as if they are the only one struggling so much. When people feel this way, they tend to isolate themselves from others and lose their support system. Normalizing allows people to realize that what they are going through is a normal part of the lives of most people. They are not different and alone; rather they are more like their friends than they realize. During the first year of parenting, there are three useful normalizing statements that can help parents get through the day-to-day ups and downs.

The first normalizing statement is "Emotional ups and downs during the first year of parenting are completely normal." Many people believe that they will "live happily ever after." In reality, the changes that come with parenting can be dramatic and are often unexpected. We cannot anticipate how the shift from being a couple to being a family will affect us. But knowing that tension, fear, anger, and sadness are as much a part of being a parent as joy and fulfillment reassures new parents during what could be a very confusing and lonely time in their lives.

The second statement is "The first year only lasts for the first year." After that, it's over. The birth of a second child will not affect a couple as dramatically as the first child did. I know of one couple who had terrible fights on and off during the first year of their baby's life. But they promised each other they would not even consider separation or divorce until after their baby was at least a year old. By that time, their fighting had decreased considerably, they had learned better communication skills, and they had a much better understanding of their goals as a family. Rather than divorce at one year, they felt closer than they ever had and chose to renew their vows to each other in a private ceremony they designed for themselves.

The third normalizing statement is "We wish to raise our child to become a capable, interesting, successful, and happy adult." Keeping this goal foremost helps when there are day-to-day difficulties. When children are tiny they need their parents more than at any other time in their lives. In only a few years they will be doing more and more on their own. How many times has someone older commented to you that babies grow up "so fast?" During the early years, parents often find themselves focusing on their children's needs first, then their own needs, in order for the children to grow up feeling secure and stable. As children grow, so does their ability to balance their needs with parents' needs. When a child is older, you can say, "First mom and dad need to finish this conversation. Then we will take you to your friend's house." But in that first year, babies can't wait.

While we become parents biologically once our child is born, developing a parenting philosophy can take much longer. Many of our first lessons in parenting were learned by watching our own parents. Sometimes this learning is very conscious, such as when adults choose not to spank their own children. Other times this learning can be quite subtle. We may not even notice it until we catch ourselves saying "Wow that sounded just like my mother!" Lessons in parenting also come from the wider world, for example, our friends' parents. As adults, we continue to learn passively by being around friends and family members and their children.

Learning about parenting can be more active as well, whether it comes from reading parenting books, attending classes or La Leche League meetings, or sometimes through our jobs. Often, spouses have discussed parenting at least a little before having children. They may have read books or articles together or observed friends' experiences with parenting. This learning process continues throughout life as parents adjust their behavior to fit with their concept of themselves as parents and their judgement of what works best for their family.

Sometimes there is a culture clash between how we imagine ourselves as parents and the style of parenting supported by society. This can occur when we are trying to be just like our parents and find that some of our parents' strategies don't work for us. Choosing a parenting style that is different than the norm can also make us feel different. If we choose to breastfeed, use the family bed, or carry an infant in a sling or pack rather than a stroller, we may be even more isolated from friends who have made other choices. Extreme differences in parenting philosophy may even weaken friendships that were formerly close.

Sometimes there is a clash between how adults see themselves as parents and how they see themselves as lovers. A husband may feel that now his role is to be the breadwinner and to protect his wife and child from outside criticism. But if he stays in that role when he is at home with only family members around, he may forget to be gentle or may be so tired that he forgets to make extra gestures of love. A wife may feel that as a mother her job is to be there for her new baby 100 percent. She may not know how to balance her needs for affectionate touch from her husband with her desire to not be touched after a long day of holding an infant.

A couple needs to find a way to combine the parenting role with the roles of being lovers and friends to each other. As we focus more on our jobs as parents and providers, we may forget to pay attention to ourselves as marriage partners. Some couples even find that their new roles inhibit their relationship as lovers. A man may find it hard to see a mother as someone to make love to, even when the woman is the mother of his own child. A woman may have difficulty remembering to nurture her husband after spending so much time nurturing their new baby. Some husbands and wives don't want to bother their spouses with their own needs when they see how much work the other person is doing. But when needs for emotional intimacy go unmet for too long, resentment builds. Often, just saying, "I really love you and miss spending time with you," can be enough to help your spouse feel nurtured at this time.

It is very important to respect the relationship between the mother and the baby. In the first year or two of life, babies are learning about trust. The relationship with his mother is what teaches a child that he can get his needs met. Of course, couples have emotional needs, too. It is possible to meet those needs while keeping baby close to his mother. A romantic evening out can occur with a baby in tow. A walk along the beach or in the forest is wonderful for adults to share and baby may be perfectly content to ride along in a sling. Even much smaller amounts of time invested in a relationship can reap many benefits. One father of a newborn found himself very busy between the extra work at home and a promotion at work that meant longer workdays. He scheduled doing nice things for his wife on his calendar at work. Some of the things he tried were: bringing her flowers, helping with dishes or laundry, or calling home to tell her something he really appreciated or to sing her a love song. Once, when she was particularly stressed from lack of sleep, he came home at lunch so she could nap while he played with their baby. A wife and new mother could adapt this same program to include remembering to tell her husband she appreciates all the work he is doing to keep everyone fed and clothed, planning his favorite dinner (even if it means take-out) or bringing him flowers!

During this time of major life change, it is normal for couples to find themselves arguing more often. It is helpful to remember that this does not mean that you are no longer in love. Research has shown that the number of arguments a couple has is not a predictor of whether they will divorce or not. Still, arguing hurts feelings and makes life much less pleasant. There are some ground rules a couple can implement that will make arguing a little safer and a little less hurtful:

  1. Be assertive rather than aggressive. It is okay to say that you are upset. It isn't to attack the other person's actions or motives.
  2. Avoid scorekeeping. Stick to what is bothering you now. It doesn't help to be a relationship accountant remembering every hurt or indiscretion. And it never helps to say something hurtful just because something hurtful was said to you.
  3. Don't lecture.
  4. Focus on the behavior that is upsetting you and use "I" statements. "When you rush to pick up the baby even when we are in bed, I get jealous"
  5. Stay away from details. Arguments can become sidetracked by details when each person remembers the situation differently. The important thing is that someone was hurt and became angry and now is the time to heal that.
  6. Use Active Listening, where each person summarizes what the other just said. It may feel silly when you start to learn it, but it helps for a few reasons. When fighting we are thinking so fast that we may not hear the other person. Restating in our own words what the other person said lets them know we understand their point of view and gives them a chance to clarify if we get it wrong. That often makes a world of difference in an argument. It serves to put us back on the same side!

There is more information about active listening and using "I" statements in the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk (Available from LLLI, 62-7, $12.50). These techniques can be applied to all family members and even friends and co-workers!

Sometimes, couples argue without much of a reason. This is like a flood of extra rainwater causing the banks of the river to spill over. Spilling over occurs when you just have too much to deal with. This can be at work, at home, with the baby, or anything. In these situations, arguing becomes a safety valve that lets off pressure. It helps to develop other ways of releasing tension. Some people exercise. Other people cook, go shopping, call friends, pray or meditate, or take a long, soaking bath. It is important to find a healthy alternative or spillover will occur again, just at a later date.

When your relationship is changing because of parenthood, try to get a bird's eye view and get away from the details. Remember that sometime down the road, your children will be grown, launched on their own journey through life. You and your spouse will still be together. Your adventures in child rearing will have brought you closer together and taught you both many important lessons. When a local newspaper asked many couples who were married for more than 50 years how they did it, the answer across the board was "we stuck it out." In the course of married life, feelings of passion and romance will come and go. Remember that being friends with your spouse is the most important thing. And right now, make the commitment to stay together even if she is irritable for a few months or he zones out in front of the television before bedtime. Things will change. They always do. If you feel as though things are just getting worse, seek counseling, but otherwise, stick it out. Make yourselves one of those Golden Anniversary couples sometime in the future! Maybe one day, things will come full circle, and the two of you will again be honeymooning in some exotic locale--this time with the memories of a lifetime to bring you joy.

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