The First Year of Parenthood
As 2018 comes to a close, I find myself transported back to the end of 2017, when I was just a few days away from giving birth and becoming a mother. It feels almost impossible to think that I now have a one year old, and while the end of 2017 seems like it was just yesterday - the growth, change and complete transformation make it feel like a lifetime ago.
As I continue to read, discuss (and experience) the topic of matrescense (read my post here) and the transition to parenthood in both my personal and professional life, it is clear that while becoming a parent is instant, the transformation is multifaceted, complicated and comes in waves.
The same is true for the transition to co-parenting. You and your partner are both experiencing a personal transformation (which may happen at different rates, and in different ways), AND the level of teamwork, support and coordination required of the couple is greater than it has ever been.
Here are some of what I found to be the most helpful lessons for individuals and co-parents for the first year of baby! My hope, as always, is that transparency and discourse will help validate your experiences and continue to create a space for these topics to be explored and discussed amongst other mothers, parents & between co-parents!
1. Maternal Gatekeeping is a term I first heard in How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn. The term refers to a very common occurrence: a mother openly and perhaps aggressively criticizes her partner for doing things “wrong” with the baby. Whatever it may be - changing, feeding, carrying etc. Mom guards the role of “baby expert” and rather than getting the help she needs (and wants!) she is cutting her partner’s confidence down with each critique.
Eventually, this results in a parent (usually a father) feeling so demoralized and attacked, that he retreats from the parenting arena, leaving mom to her own devices, and feeling potentially abandoned and isolated. This is also where the team mentality can shift; mom thinks, its me & baby against the world because we are alone and my partner isn’t helpful, rather than the preferred position of mom & dad being a unified team, managing and troubleshooting the demands of parenting together. As you might imagine, if the first mindset (mom & baby against the world) is maintained long term can have very serious ramifications on the couple’s relationship both as lovers and co-parents.
So, my recommendation is, let your partner learn how to care for the baby on his or her own. Let them have the opportunity to put the diaper on backwards, or play too quickly after eating … they will learn. If the learning curve feels too scary, perhaps try a softer start up, like “Thank you so much for feeding the baby, it is so helpful. I have noticed that when I do this (what you’d like to see your partner doing) the baby reacts positively.” Then leave the room, or the house, and allow your partner to take ownership over the task. No one needs to be micromanaged by their spouse.
If this sounds really familiar, perhaps explore some of these questions - why do I need to be the baby expert? Am I scared to share this role with my partner? Who benefits if I am the only parent who feels confident with our child? What are the cycles and patterns that come up for us when this happens?
2. Create a sleep agreement with your partner. There is nothing worse than when your baby gets up in the middle of the night and you and your partner are fighting over who will be on baby duty. While biological mothers have greater sensitivity to their baby’s cries (thanks, evolution!), we are not exactly our most generous, patient selves at 3 am. A simple solution is agreeing beforehand, so everyone can be on the same page. Figure out what works for your family - if that is taking turns every night, or allocating certain days of the week - know the plan before you go to bed, so if you do have to get up, you can just focus on the baby and don’t have to worry about fighting with your partner.
Same goes for sleeping in! Figure out what works for your family (work schedules/travel etc. allowing) - and give yourselves an opportunity to catch some precious sleep in the morning, (especially if your baby is an early riser!) Just make sure you agree to it the night before, so there is no unnecessary conflict when you could be depositing an extra hour into your sleep bank.
3. Find your easy, accessible ‘self care’ go-tos, and do them often. Everyone knows the expression, you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you are not giving yourself at least something during the week, you are likely not able to show up for your child, your spouse, your job etc. Figure out a few simple, affordable, & quick escapes for yourself that make the biggest difference, and figure out a time during your week that you have some childcare, some wiggle room, or negotiate taking turns with your spouse (maybe you get the morning, they get the afternoon, or you get Saturday, they get Sunday - whatever works!)
Some examples - a bath; reading a book, going for a run outside, meeting a friend for a walk or coffee or drink. These all can be done in an hour and make the world of difference. Do not skimp on this.
4. Do not give up everything from your life before baby. We live in a society where the culture of parenting can be relentless. (Great article here.) There can be a narrative that once you have a child you have to give up on your old life. While yes, there is a lot that will change, you are still you. Becoming a parent doesn’t mean giving up on everything but your kids. In fact, you will be a better parent if you model your dedication to lifelong hobbies, the importance of taking time for yourself, and that adults are still allowed to have fun.
If you are a lifelong soccer player - find a way to stay in a weekly league; if you are a painter - find a way to make time to go to a painting class or paint at home (while someone else watches the baby). Yes, it will be hard to find the time and it may potentially be painful to separate from your child for a few hours, but you are investing in yourself long term and that will only make you a better version of yourself, and therefore, a better parent. And hopefully it goes without saying, support your partner in their own efforts - it will serve you both.
5. Find ways to enjoy staying in. One of the biggest transitions parents name is the amount of time they stay at home. It never used to be a big deal to grab dinner, go to the movies, or meet up with friends in the evening - now, unless you have a babysitter (or are a very lucky few who have live in support), you are putting the baby to bed, and staying in yourselves. Embrace this shift and try to find opportunities to enjoy it, both individually and as a couple.
This might mean watching a new series together, or picking up at home yoga practice that you can do in the living room, it could even be cooking your way through a cookbook you’ve been drooling over; all of these are activities you can get into solo or enjoy with a partner or friend in the post baby bedtime hours.
6. Prepare for the financial surprises and stressors that will arrive with baby. There is a lot you can do to try and make the first year with baby a little less stressful financially. When you first become pregnant (or before, if you are super organized!), you can begin by saving monthly for funds that can go towards extraneous hospital fees, decorating the nursery, saving for maternity leave (if you do not have paid leave, or if you are planning to extend your time at home without paid leave), and extra childcare and every day costs.
Obviously there are certain things one can anticipate - like diapers for instance, but it’s hard to anticipate everything. Give yourself a little wiggle room and realize that it takes many months to adjust to this new little person in your home. A little person whose needs may change and shift faster than you can change your budget. You may decide breastfeeding is not for you - and have to start spending more money on formula. You may decide that the last thing on earth you can do is clean your home, and you need some extra help. Or perhaps there is a change in your child careplan, and you need to switch things up last minute. Whatever it is - be gentle with yourself and your partner - and realize that perhaps the hardest part of parenting is relinquishing control.
6. Budget extra time to your departures. You may be used to getting yourself ready and out the door; perhaps it takes you a cool 15 minutes, or you know you need an hour. You and your partner may have the same idea around time (ie. both of you prefer to be 10 minutes early, or are always running 30 minutes behind schedule!) but a lot of couples struggle to align around time and it causes a lot of repeat conflict.
Now, add a little human into the mix! It’s going to take some time to figure out how long it takes to get your little one ready (with all their accessories/ depending on the season etc.) Once you know that, add another 10-15 minutes. Somehow, transit always takes a little longer than you anticipated and since time management is already a hot button for so many couples (even without children!) adding an extra time cushion a helpful way to avoid unnecessary partner strife.
7. Milestones will happen - comparison is not your friend. It is hard not to compare ourselves to others in our day to day. Somehow, it seems even harder not to compare our little ones - especially when we see them side by side with another. It’s tempting to ask the parents about milestones, or even brag about your own baby’s accomplishments…totally normal, AND, be mindful that these can create a source of anxiety around milestones that happen at different rates for different kids. For the most part, barring any sort of serious condition or developmental delay, your child will crawl, your child will feed themself, they will learn to walk and talk because we all do! Try not to get stuck on the comparison train, and work to stay present and enjoy the time with your little one, because it’s likely you will look back on this time and miss the early days.
8. There are parts of parenting that you may not like. That doesn’t mean you don’t love your child, or love being their parent. This one feels like the most *shameful* topic and that’s why I want to address it; to me, this is an extension of the conversation around not loving your baby immediately. There is a lot of pressure on parents, mothers specifically, that they love everything about time with their child. While that certainly is true for many parents, it is absolutely not the only truth. Having a baby can be exhausting, infuriating, boring, and isolating (amongst other feelings!); and it can be interspersed between moments of joy, wonder and love. It is mixed, and it is hard to ride that wave day in and day out.
Some parents choose to be with their children 24/7, and others choose (or do not have the choice) to go back to work, which inherently limits their time with their children. I know some parents who wish more than anything that they could stay home with their babies, and others who thrive being at work and find that they are better parents because the time with their babies is more precious. There is no right answer. Do what works for you -- you can love your child with every part of your being, and also dislike parenting them at times. You can enjoy reading books and playing, but bath time and feeding may feel like your personal hell. It may be the reverse for others. Do what feels good for you and your family and do not let yourself feel like you’ve failed because parts of this don’t come so easy.
Additional resources on the transition to parenthood: Becoming Us, Elly Taylor
How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn
The Birth of a Mother, Dr. Alexandra Sacks, M.D.
• Watch her TED talk
Survival Guide for the Fourth Trimester, Christina Caron for the NYTimes