Transition to Parenthood Series

By Sasha Taskier AMFT

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

You Might Not Love Your baby Immediately, Sara GaynesLevy 

 

Transition to Parenthood Series

By Sasha Taskier, AMFT

By Sasha Taskier, AMFT

Part IV: Sex after baby.

Most of us have heard the age-old narrative that your sex life disappears after you have children. You are exhausted and sleep feels substantially more important than sex; perhaps your focus and intimacy is on the baby – not on each other; or, perhaps your body no longer feels desire or arousal the way it once did. No matter the reasons (and there are countless more), for some, it is a terrifying prospect that your once beloved sex life may be one of the casualties in the transition to parenthood.

There is good news: Your sex life does not have to disappear when you become a parent. It does, however, have to change and evolve for your new life and the new (very significant) constraints of having a baby. The key is to approach this change with care, curiosity and flexibility for yourself and your partner.

Let’s visit some of the significant constraints that new parents face in rebuilding their sexual relationship and therapeutic strategies you can use to address them:

1. Sleep Deprivation; This is perhaps the biggest reason that parents name when they discuss the difficulty in reigniting their sexual relationship, post baby. Especially if your child hasn’t begun to sleep in longer stretches, the idea of trading in precious sleep for sex is hard to imagine.

It’s also important to note that sleep deprivation and exhaustion can impact your hormone levels, increase anxiety and irritability, and has been associated with greater conflict between partners. It’s hard to imagine wanting to have sex or any type of physical intimacy when your sole focus is trying to maintain enough energy for a baby whose needs are continuous.

Strategy: Take turns with the night time feedings and early wake ups (if you can) so each of you can get some longer stretches. Offer support if you know your partner is especially tired. If you are breastfeeding, your partner can sit with you during a middle of the night feeding - even if he can’t “do” anything, his presence is important and signifies that you are a team. You may be sleep deprived, but you are exhausted together, and can see the experience as a bonding one. Sex might not be on the table at this point (it is likely you will want to wait until you have more energy) but building the foundation of your new co-parenting role can be incredibly intimate, and knowing you are a united front will ultimately translate into an easier transition towards physical intimacy when the time is right. (There is nothing that will put you in the mood less than fighting with your partner about who is more tired. So, try to stay on the same team and avoid the rabbit hole of sleep resentment.)

2. Hormonal impact; the hormonal impact on your postpartum body can be very significant. Many women report feeling like they’re on an emotional roller coaster in the first few weeks and months after giving birth. (Read more about the signs and impact of postpartum depression and anxiety here.)

Breastfeeding mothers are producing a hormone called prolactin, while necessary for lactation, it is also responsible for lowering libido. Breastfeeding mothers bodies often suppress ovulation and their lower estrogen levels impact cervical mucus. Vaginal dryness may be an issue – causing sexual intercourse to be less enjoyable and even painful. If that wasn’t enough, breastfeeding also lowers female testosterone, which contributes to overall decreased libido. Source

Strategy: Talk to your doctor or therapist about concerns if you notice signs of postpartum depression or anxiety in yourself or your partner. If you are ready to have sex but it feels unpleasant, you can use a water-based lubricant to help with vaginal dryness and consult with your doctor for other alternatives. Most of all, remember what your body went through; give it time, and communicate if you are in pain. Share with your partner what you know about the shift in your hormones and the potential impact that may have on your libido. This will help create an environment of openness and help him or her understand that your lack of arousal may not be about them at all (they will likely have their own beliefs and reasons for why this is happening.)

3. Mismatched needs & expectations; This bullet point could be the topic of an entire book. Childbirth in couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) is entirely one-sided for a period of time. The parent who gives birth will inherently bear the burden in a different way, and if she breastfeeds, that one sidedness can continue for months (or years) postpartum. All this to say, that especially in heterosexual couples, fathers may have a difficult time understanding the multitude of changes happening in his partner’s mind and body. These factors impact desire and arousal, and it may cause frustration and confusion between partners that there has been a significant change in the couples’ sex life and perceived desire for one another.

Strategy:  Talk about expectations with one another; so much of this chapter requires an open, honest dialogue about what is happening for each of you. Many partners may make assumptions about the reason for the changes in their sex lives; without asking your partner what they are feeling, both emotionally and physically, you may be completely missing the mark (and missing an opportunity to help.)

If this topic feels particularly fraught or scary, I’ve listed a number of resources at the bottom of the post that you and your partner can look to and, you can always schedule an appointment with a couples therapist or sex therapist to better understand and process the new sexual dynamics in your relationship.

4. Body insecurity, low self-esteem and not feeling sexy; Women – you just did something miraculous: you grew a human life inside of you for the better part of a year, and then went through a significant medical event in order to deliver the child. Your body went through a trauma and you may not be feeling your best, or look the way you did prior to your pregnancy.

In our current medical model, women have a 6 week postpartum check up (after a vaginal birth) in which, if everything is ok, they can be “cleared” to have sex with their partner. OBGYNs often hear their patients begging for more time, asking for a medical excuse to postpone this event, while many fathers are waiting anxiously for the green light.

Strategy: There is absolutely nothing wrong with not feeling ready at that point to jump back in the saddle; be gentle with your body and yourself. You may need more time to heal than a 6-week window. Take it slow and do what you need to do in order to feel your best. That can be anything from making sure you take a shower each morning, to putting on some makeup, to making sure you go for a walk outside and feel the fresh air, and drinking enough water each day. Self care looks different for each of us.

5. Overwhelmed by the new workload & lack of time; There are only so many hours in a day. Those hours are significantly decreased when you take on a newborn feeding schedule, or are chasing a baby around. Your free time feels virtually non-existent, and it can feel like there is a never-ending mountain of work (both domestic and professional) that builds. These stressors can act as a “brake” to halt sexual arousal and desire (Nagowski). If our minds are always thinking about what needs to get done or how stressed we are, we will likely have a much more difficult time transitioning to a sexy mindset.

Strategy:  If we know our sexual drive and desire is negatively correlated with stress levels, this can be an opportunity to our partners not to complain about the lack of sex, but to ask – “what do you need help with?”

Parents need to practice self-care in order to be able to think about accessing desire for their partner. Often, this means lightening the load for your partner so they can have time to get back to themselves, and momentarily step out of mommy or daddy mode. Give them some time to see their friends (and get out of the house), to exercise (increased blood flow increases libido), and make sure you both are hydrated and fed (you need energy to have sex.)

Another helpful strategy for some is to schedule sex. For the partners who would like to increase the frequency in their sex lives but struggle to find the time in their schedules, try planning ahead. Either create a sexy calendar invite for your partner to let them know you are thinking about them, or have a standing date/time that you can connect physically. This requires a regular check in to make sure expectations are clear and flexibility with changing schedules. (For example, sending a text mid-day for your weekday “sexy time” to ask if your partner is still interested and committed to the plan for the evening. This not only helps avoid disappointment if things change, but can also help to build anticipation as the day goes on.)

6. Relying on baby for intimacy; This is a common trap for many new parents, especially new moms. As mentioned above, there is an evolutionary “one sidedness” to childbirth that is much more pronounced in the first months and year of a child’s life. Mothers often find themselves with longer parental leave to bond with the baby, and may choose to breastfeed, which requires nearly constant touch and necessary attunement with a baby’s feeding schedule.

This bonding is incredibly special, and it can be all consuming. This connection can feel so intense and magical that it begins to replace your partner’s intimacy. This quote from Esther Perel, in her book, Mating in Captivity, describes this phenomenon beautifully:

“Children are indeed a source of nurturance for adults. Their unconditional love infuses our lives with a heightened sense of meaning. The problem arises when we turn to them for what we no longer get from each other: a sense that we’re special, that we matter, that we’re not alone. When we transfer these adult emotional needs onto our children, we are placing too big a burden on them” (Perel; Kerner & Raykeil, p. 50)

Strategy: Make time for your connection outside of baby. As a couple, you need to build your reservoirs of connection physically, but also emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes date night can be just for that – for connecting, talking, laughing, eating. You can even try a “no baby” rule on date night - talk about anything but the baby. Remember how and why you connected before you became parents. Another favorite tip about date night from Esther Perel!

(Side note about date night: It can be hard to feel sexy and in the mood after a full meal, late at night. Be clear about how you’re feeling and help to differentiate between date nights and sex. If you wait for sex only on date night, it may be a while, and it can heighten the pressure around the evening.)

This list of constraints and strategies is obviously not exhaustive, and quite honestly just scratches the surface of this topic. I focused mostly on parents who are transitioning to parenthood for the first time, with one child and many of the strategies are “mother-centric”. Below are additional resources that I’ve found incredibly helpful and normalizing for couples in this stage of their transition to parenthood.

Additional Resources:

  •      Love in the Time of Colic, Ian Kerner & Heidi Raykeil
  •      How not to Hate your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn
  •      And Baby Makes Three, John & Julie Gottman
  •      Becoming Us, Elly Taylor
  •      Come As You Are, Emily Nagowski

Transition to Parenthood Series

By Sasha Taskier, AMFT

By Sasha Taskier, AMFT

PART II: Becoming a Mother

We are all taught to believe that pregnancy & motherhood are magnificent times in a woman’s life and that we, as women, intuitively transition into parenthood. What we aren’t taught is that often this transition also comes with shock, disappointment and fear. One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog series is to shed light on certain parts of this transition that may not be discussed as easily or openly in our communities and amongst our friends. In this post, I will be exploring some of the stories and myths around becoming a mother.

I recently listened to an interview with Dr. Catherine Birndorf, MD – a psychiatrist and obstetric gynecologist, who specializes in perinatal mood disorders, working almost exclusively with pregnant and postpartum women. She referred to the period of becoming a mother as “maitrescence.” Similar to adolescence, which we widely acknowledge to be a time of intense struggle and transition, maitrescence is another highly destabilizing time in a woman’s life, yet it often doesn’t get the same attention or acknowledgment.

Becoming a parent is a massive identity shift; once it happens, it is forever. You may have months and years to think about it and prepare, but the transition is instant; one moment your baby is safe and secure inside of you and the next, he or she is out in the world, needing your nourishment, warmth, and safety. You are responsible for a tiny little life and it is terrifying and wonderful all at the same time.

Many of the struggles Dr. Birndorf sees in her work are about the expectations women have about motherhood, and the disappointment and confusion that sometimes sets in when those expectations do not meet reality. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve heard and had on the difficulties of becoming a mother:

  • There is a narrative that I heard constantly when I was pregnant. That is, the moment you see your baby, you will be instantly attached and in love. Yes, many women do feel instant love and connection to their baby, but for others it takes more time to bond and experience feelings of love. It can be embarrassing, or even shameful to admit that your experience is outside this “norm.” More often than not, we keep these ‘shameful’ feelings a secret and let them ruminate.                                                       
  • You may need to mourn the loss of your freedom. Often we cannot even conceptualize the immense sacrifice that motherhood entails until we are in the throws of it all. Learning to give up your solo time, to no longer be able to run out of the house for an errand or walk the dog without a plan in place, or to have an impromptu date night with your partner – these are all difficult adjustments.                                                                                                                                                                        
  • Productivity is a trap and it is not serving you. Many of us measure the success of our days based on how productive we were. Give yourself permission to step off that productivity treadmill during this transition – because feeding a newborn (every two hours!), feeding yourself, and trying to sleep somewhere in between, is a full day. This is not the time for more work (or to worry about checking things off a to-do list, no matter how much your internal overachiever wants you to!) One helpful tactic I like to fall back on is to ask myself, what would I say to my best friend if she were sharing these feelings with me?                        
  • Your body has just gone through a major trauma and depending on your delivery, you may be in a huge amount of pain, and unable to care for your baby the way you hoped you would in the first weeks. Treat your body like you are treating your newborn – with care, concern, love and patience. Again, what would I say to my best friend if she were in this position? Can we work to show the grace and love we show to others, to ourselves?                                                                                                   
  • You are no longer the center of attention – for the doctors or your partner. For nine months you are under the care of a doctor every month (and eventually every week); you have a treasured spot in our society as a pregnant woman and often you are doted on, cared for and pampered like you have never been before (totally deserved by the way, you are growing a human life.) But, often all of that love and attention (from doctor, from partner, from the world) is transferred over to baby, and you may be left wondering where all the attention went. (Women are often not required to see your doctor until six weeks after your delivery, while newborns see his or her pediatrician 3-4 times in six weeks.)

This is such a hard thing to acknowledge, and it might feel embarrassing or inappropriate to say that you need some extra love and attention when there is a little baby in the picture. Honor those needs and communicate what you are feeling to both your partner and your doctors.

  • Becoming a mother can elicit questions that might feel overwhelming; Am I ready to be a mother? Who do I want to be as a mother? What do I want my child to experience in their childhood? But also, how was I mothered? Are there pieces of that story that are upsetting or triggering? Setting time aside to truly reflect on these questions can be daunting, but the reward is just as much yours as it is your baby’s.

If all of these weren’t enough, you may be experiencing a shift in your hormones, sleep deprivation, depression and anxiety symptoms all while you are caring for a newborn. See my post about Postpartum Depression (& Perinatal Mood Disorders) in Part 1 of The Transition to Parenthood series.

Additional resources & books:

More about Dr. Catherine Birndorf, MD and her most recent projects: https://www.themotherhoodcenter.com/         

Postpartum Support & Information

Nurture by Erica Chidi Cohen

Bringing up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly

Art of Waiting, by Belle Boggs

SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

NorthShore MOMS Line
1-866-364-MOMS (866-364-6667)
The NorthShore MOMS Line is a free, confidential, 24/7 hotline staffed by licensed counselors who can help you find the information, support and resources you need to feel better. You don’t have to be in crisis to call.