Having a baby is supposed to be one of life’s most wonderous events. But for the one in seven new mothers and one in 10 new fathers who experience postnatal depression, it can be the beginning of one of the most painful stages of their lives.
After observing couples’ journeys into parenthood for over 15 years, Daily Life’s counsellor Elly Taylor says that people are simply unprepared for how a baby will change them as individuals and as a couple, which can lead to postnatal anxiety and depression.
‘We have Hollywood expectations about what parenthood is going to be like,’ says Taylor who is the author of Becoming Us. ‘Most parents experience the reality of parenthood very differently. They think there is something wrong with them and this causes conflict in their relationship and they end up struggling.’
Taylor says that most new parents transition through the same stages as they adjust to their new roles. The future happiness of the couple and stability of the family depends on how well couples work through and support each other during these stages.
Stage 1: Pre-baby preparation
Pre-baby preparation is all-important says Taylor, although this doesn’t just mean painting the nursery and assembling the cot.
‘The couples who are most prepared for the reality of parenthood and anticipate that there will be changes that they will need to adapt to, adjust to parenthood more easily,’ says Taylor.
Expectant parents should have some awareness about what a baby will do to their social lives, sleep, sex life, work/life balance, as well as understanding that they’re going to make mistakes.
Also, breastfeeding can be harder than expected and post-baby bodies take more time to heal than the standard two-week period allowed for princesses, celebrities and celebrity princesses.
Stage 2: Becoming aware
This stage usually occurs about three months after the baby is born. Shock, disillusionment and ambivalence are typical. Things have settled down a bit and the reality of what parenthood is really like starts to sink in.
Taylor says that new parents should give themselves the time and the space to adjust to their new life and new roles.
‘Parents are rushing — and struggling — to get things back to normal but it isn’t necessarily in their interest to do that. They should be thinking about the “new normal” instead,’ she says.
Stage 3: Adjusting expectations
This stage can occur anywhere between birth and six months. It’s about closing the gap between the new parents’ expectations prior to birth and the reality they’re now experiencing. Conflict often arises when couples are not meeting each other’s expectations about parenthood.
‘Couples need to work through what they expected and why. Often their expectations were really unrealistic and unhealthy,’ Taylor says.
‘It’s a lot easier to change your expectations than it is to change your partner. When you realise that you just weren’t prepared then it stops couples blaming each other for the problems they’re having.’
Stage 4: Understanding your family’s needs
This is the time to put in place the foundations for the family by identifying what each member of the family needs.
‘You’ve been so focused on the baby’s needs, but parents have needs too and it’s about working out a way for the new family dynamic to work,’ says Taylor.
Stage 5: Expanding emotional intelligence
Parents are often overwhelmed by the heightened emotions that accompany parenthood. The highs are higher the lows are lower — and the stretch in between the highs and lows can be intense.
‘This stage is really pivotal because if parents can recognise that the increased emotionality serves them and they work out how utilise the emotions by becoming more emotionally intelligent, it can take them to new depths in their relating and sharing,’ Taylor says.
‘But if the dad doesn’t know how to handle the mum’s increased emotionality — if he feels like he has to problem solve or is frightened by it — he can start to emotionally withdraw. This can increase her risk of postnatal anxiety and depression.’
Stage 6: Identity and self-esteem
The 6-18 month period after the baby is born is about bedding down your new identity as a parent. Your relationship with your partner is critical in defining your new sense of self.
‘Even very confident, capable career women can feel very vulnerable as new mothers and the same is true for new fathers. If we haven’t resolved some of the previous issues and we are feeling disconnected and critical of our partners we can inadvertently undermine their new sense of who they are as a mother or a father,’ Taylor says.
Stage 7: Growing together through differences
Nora Ephron famously said, ‘Having a baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage.’
This stage is about recognising that differences and conflict are normal in new families. Trusting that these differences can be worked through is vital.
‘All couples have the same conflicts. It’s often not about what the conflict is about but rather how they approach it,’ Taylor says.
Stage 8: Connection or disconnection
‘If couples have managed the previous stages well, they will become more connected and lay solid roots for the family’, says Taylor. ‘If they haven’t managed the previous stages well they will become increasingly disconnected.’
If you’ve just thought, ‘Oh crap!, we haven’t mastered any of these stages and my home life is like a war zone or a frosty deadlock,’ then don’t despair. It’s not too late to get a new perspective on parenthood and repair your relationship.
‘Couples can come to recognise that it’s not anyone’s fault. They can forgive each other and begin to have conversations to heal the hurt that being unaware, unprepared and unsupported may have caused,’ Taylor says.