You are a competent, responsible, successful, high-functioning adult. You thought long and hard about taking on the joy and challenge of starting a family. Or, even if your pregnancy was a surprise, you’re happy about your baby. You have a good relationship with your partner and have a host of friends and acquaintances. Then why do you feel like a bumbling, awkward, tongue-tied, can’t-even-think-straight, irrational jerk?
Welcome to parenthood.
I wish I knew an easy, shortcut way around the most profound adjustment you’ll ever make in your life, but I’ve yet to find one. And I’d venture to say that for those of us who are parents in the good old U.S. of A. at this point in time, the adjustment is a particularly challenging one. Here’s my take, based on some beginning research, of why this is so.
We are a culture that greatly values individualism, self-sufficiency, independence, equality, self-determination, and doing our own thing. We have few models for valuing, to the same degree, interdependence, complementarity, connectedness, and difference. We want things to be clear and not fuzzy, communication to have one clear, easy-to-figure-out meaning.
Then all of a sudden our lives, as new parents, are totally dominated by a little creature who doesn’t talk, signals with behavior that we’re left to figure out by trial and error, remains as connected to us as if the umbilical cord were never cut, is totally dependent, has absolutely no concern for our feelings, our schedules, our desire for private time with our partners, and doesn’t care if we’ve had time to eat or sleep, much less shower and get dressed. None of this means we don’t love our babies. In fact, we’re frequently so overwhelmed by a new kind of love that we can’t easily grasp the breadth and depth of it.
We know that our babies are new, but until it happens, it’s hard for us to appreciate how new we are, too.
While I will address many aspects of new parenting in forthcoming posts, for now I simply want to suggest some adjustment strategies that might help along the way.
1. Give yourself a break. Keep your expectations of yourself and your partner pretty minimal. Given the gap I’ve described between your public world, with its prevailing values, and your new lived reality, you need time to put the two together. Parental work leave is an opportunity to at least begin that process. The findings of my own small study, plus those of others, suggest that it takes the better part of the first year of your baby’s life for you to completely emerge into a new personal reality. Your baby isn’t the only one celebrating that first birthday.
2. Get help. As a new mom you need to be mothered, too, at least through the initial adjustment of the first couple of weeks. Confine yourself to feeding and caring for your baby. Let somebody else—frequently your own mom—take care of you, your house, and the rest of your family. Many cultures have clear rituals to help a new mom with initial adjustments, but ours doesn’t. So make your own arrangements. If your mom isn’t available, many areas now have doulas, or mother’s helpers, who can fill the bill. Sometimes they’re available through home health agencies. Check to see what’s available to you, and whether or not your health insurance covers such services. If friends offer to prepare meals, accept and thank them.
3. Make a list of caregivers who can help. That could mean your midwife, your obstetrician, your pediatrician or pediatric/family nurse practitioner, your childbirth educator or a lactation consultant. Perhaps even before you deliver, list your potential helpers and their phone numbers. Post the list in a place that you can access without having to think twice. And don’t hesitate to use it.
4. Sometime in the weeks and months after your baby’s birth, you may find yourself making new friends of others with young families. Frequently these are people you’ve met in childbirth classes. You might also forge new relationships with siblings or other relatives who have young families. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving up old friends who are either single or don’t have children, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself with new and different interests. You need these new friends to share your journey.
Future discussions will address other issues that affect new parents, such as “reading” your baby’s behavior, variations in baby personalities, sleeping issues, and situations in which adjustment to parenthood is especially troublesome. Stay tuned.
Mary Ann Zettelmaier, MSN specializes in maternal-infant communication, with a comprehensive clinical focus on developing programs of family-centered care.