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 

 

Raising Boys in the Era of #MeToo

By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

I recently contributed to an article on Fatherly.com entitled “7 Toxic Phrases Parents Need to Stop Saying to Their Sons.” As is typical in articles like this, only a few of my thoughts made it into the final draft. This, along with my initial appearance on the Married AF podcast where we discussed the concept of toxic masculinity and the challenges of raising boys during the #metoo era, left me wanting to expand on the mixed and problematic messages boys receive throughout their lives about what it means to be a man.

Here are some of the common phrases today’s men grew up hearing. While many parents have softened, or removed, many of these from their lexicon they are alive and well in media and deeply imbedded into the narrative of our society.

1.     “Only girls wear pink/nail polish/dresses” or “Long hair/dolls/dress up is for girls”

As women began to fight for their rights, it became more socially acceptable for women to dress like men, wear short hair, forgo makeup, etc. If we are truly working towards equality, or better yet, equity, then this needs to be a two-way street. It can’t only be okay for girls to adopt things society has deemed masculine, it also must be acceptable for boys to embrace things society claims are feminine. If girls can be fully expressive, boys must be allowed to do the same. Adopting a less binary and restrictive view of gender norms is helpful for everyone.

2.     “Boys don’t cry”

This phrase teaches boys that “softer” emotions belong to girls, preventing boys from being fully human and having the full human experience. It teaches them that only certain emotions are acceptable, and others must be quashed. Part of why many men struggle with relationships and regulating emotions is because we, as parents and a society, have told them that expressing emotions other than anger shows weakness and being weak is not acceptable. Anger is easier to grab than pain, sadness, or fear. And when all you are given is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

3.     “Toughen up/Man up/Don’t be a sissy”

Life is full of loss, challenges, hurts, and disappointments. When we tell boys they must be stoic in the face of life’s ups and downs, we make it impossible for them process their complete range of emotions. When emotions are not felt and processed they come out or are coped with in unhealthy ways. The results of unhelpful or unhealthy coping can be violence, alcohol or drug use, physical ailments, and mental health issues.

4.     “You throw/hit/run/play like a girl”

When we say this to boys we are teaching them that girls are less than. We are giving permission for them to view women and girls as not enough, less than, unworthy. We are telling them that men are better than women and girls.  Mind you boys have many important and influential women in their lives. They have moms, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, female cousins, teachers, and coaches whom they love. Yet we tell boys that doing anything like them is shameful? How does that make sense? Constantly being told that women are less than or not people to be admired or emulated can lead to entitlement and a belief that even the most reprehensible of men is somehow innately better than the most intelligent, creative, compassionate, talented, and powerful woman. See the problem?

5.     “Boys will be boys”

This excuse does a serious disservice to boys and society at large. It teaches boys that they are not responsible for their own actions and are not going to be held accountable for their behaviors. In addition, it steals their self-efficacy. It says men and boys can’t help themselves. Why this is one is particularly problematic is that it feeds into societal myths around domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault and contributes to the continual victim blaming we see happening all around us.

 

Doing it differently

More and more parents are expressing concerns about raising boys in the aftermath of #metoo. Here are a few of the questions I have been asked in recent months:

·      How do I help my sons understand consent and sexual harassment?

·      How do I help my teenager understand the inappropriateness and severe ramification of asking for, sending, or receiving naked SnapChats/texts/Facebook messages, etc.?

·      What can I do to counteract the messages my son is getting from friends, media, and society?

·      How do I help my son grow up to have close, meaningful relationships?

·      What steps should I take to ensure my son can fully express and manage his emotions in a healthy way?

There are not simple, straightforward answers to these questions, but feminist thought can provide parents a foundation for how to develop a more equitable household, and society, for the benefit of all genders. Removing a few phrases from our vocabulary, like those discussed above, and knowing some things not to do, while a step in the right direction, is only the beginning. Embracing feminism yourself and raising boys to be feminists will help them develop a healthy understanding of equality, equity, power, oppression, and empathy. The readings suggested below can spark discussion and provide opportunities to question how we’ve historically raised boys into men, and how we might do things differently moving forward

Articles

·      In the #MeToo Era, Raising Boys to be Good Guys by David McGlynn

·      Six Ways Dads Can Raise Feminist Sons by Kristy Ramirez

·      How to Raise a Feminist Son by Claire Cain Miller

Books

·      Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

·      The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

Talking with Your Teen: 5 Things to Remember

By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

By Rachel D. Miller, AMFT

If social media postings, the array of parenting books, and the countless blogs and newspaper articles available are any indication, little is more mystifying, frustrating, or sanity threatening to parents than raising teenagers. Only the terrible twos and dreaded threenagers can rival teens in attitude, unprovoked outbursts, and confounding behaviors. And while at times talking to your teen may feel like you have reverted to speaking with a toddler, as a parent of teens myself, I can relate, there are a few key things that can aid you in having productive, meaningful, and relationship enhancing conversations with your teen.

1)    Leave your ego at the door.

Dr. Fred Hanna, a wise professor and therapist I know, specializes in working with some of the most challenging teenagers around. He and I share this belief that unless you can set your ego aside, there is almost no room for empathy which is key to being in any relationship, but particularly with teenagers (Hanna, 2016). While his work talks about the therapeutic relationship, I believe it is applicable to the parent/child one as well. When ego is involved a power struggle likely follows, and they rarely end positively for anyone involved. In the book, The Awakened Family, Shefali Tsabary, PhD, talks about how parenting challenges tend to stem from our ego, the blindly reactive piece of us that comes from a place of fear and a need to protect ourselves, our identity, and our desires and expectations for our children. When parents can learn to recognize when their ego is involved, the skills needed to be able to set it aside can be learned as well. Setting aside our ego allows us to take things less personally, and step into a place of empathy for the experiences of the teenagers in our lives. Teenagers often just need to be heard, and have their thoughts, experiences and feelings validated so they can reduce their own defensiveness and have space to hear you. I encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s video on empathy for a clearer understanding of the importance of empathy and consider how you might apply it in future conversations with your teen.

2)    Live your values; practice what you preach

It may seem that your teenager never listens to a word you say, but I promise they are watching everything you do. They can smell hypocrisy a mile away, and almost nothing turns them off faster. When teens in my office are the angriest at the adults in their lives, it tends to be around things they see as unjust or hypocritical. Are you setting rules and consequences based on the values you hold, and you are trying to instill in your child, or are they based the rules you grew up with, or what you have seen other set? Are they set up in a family meeting or given from the top down without any explanation other than “because I said so?”

People rarely like to be told what to do; teenagers are no different. But, when rules, or restrictions, or chores are given in context, with an explanation and discussion where there is potential for input, even teenagers can be convinced to go along. Where I have seen teenagers rebel the most is when they believe that certain rules only apply to them, or that their parents do not live by the standards and values they try to place on their children. One of the ways I have found to assist around this is to do a values exercise with parents and their teens. This can open discussions around the differing values of each member of the family, as well as opportunities to talk about how the family rules line up with its values. When you are clear about your own values, it is easier to remain consistent around the rules that you do set, providing the structure that teenagers need to thrive. As a bonus these exercises can enlighten you about both yourself and your teen. If you would give this a try here are a couple links:

https://www.nwabr.org/sites/default/files/ValuesActivities.pdf

https://www.taproot.com/archives/37771

3)    You were a teenager once too.

Do you remember yourself as a teenager? If not, I am sure your own parents would love to enlighten you about your attitude, rule breaking, talking back, and every other thing you did that made them nuts. This goes back to the empathy piece. You have an opportunity here to empathize with both your teen and your parents. Now might be a great time for that apology. You know they’re relishing that you have a teenager just like you. Take a moment to try and remember how you felt as a teenager. Put yourself back in that place where you felt unheard, unimportant, maybe even unloved. Can you remember how it felt to have your body seemingly go haywire on you? Do you recall how it felt to be left out, or have your first heartbreak, and to believe that nobody could really understand?

If you’re struggling with this, or maybe have some grandiose memories about your teenage years, or a belief that today’s teenagers are so much worse than the teens of our generation, you might want to be suspicious of your memories, as Ken Hardy discusses in Teens who Hurt. Memory becomes softer and more generous with the passage of time. In addition to its selective nature, memory also has a tendency to embellish. Few of us were as good, or respectful, or obedient, as we might like to recall. Find an old yearbook or a journal to see if you can refresh your memory a bit. Try if you can to put yourself back in that place, in those feelings. Consider what you would have liked from the adults in your life back then. See what pieces of that you can provide for you own child. Talk to your teenager, and ask overtly what they need from you, what you can do that would be helpful, and then listen to hear them, rather than listen to respond.

4)    Behaviors usually serve a purpose.

Too often it is teenage attitude and negative behaviors that get a parent’s attention. Too seldom is the question “What is the purpose of this?” asked. One of the quickest ways to determine what the potential purpose of any particular behavior might be it to check in with your own reaction to it. For example, if your child’s behavior leaves you with feelings of being provoked, challenged, or defeated, Jane Nelson, Ed.D. author of the book Positive Discipline, would suggest that the underlying goal of the behavior is around power, and a belief that one belongs only when they are in charge or at least not being bossed around. This scenario seems to resonate with many of my teens and parents. While this book is geared more towards those parenting younger children, I think it still has value for parents of teenagers. It has the potential to offer insight into what is going on for you as well as them, aiding in setting aside ego and increasing curiosity and empathy about what your teenager’s behaviors are trying to tell you. There is a quick reference chart from the book available here to get you started.

5)    Maintaining the relationship matters most.

If you want to continue having a positive influence over your teen and have them turn to you for counsel and support, maintaining your relationship will need to take priority over being right, having control, pride, ego, or your own emotions. This one can be tough. You will often find yourself walking the fence between maintaining structure and consistency, with maintaining the relationship. Flexibility and adaptability will be key to stage in parenting. The plus side is that even when you screw up, teenagers can be some of the most forgiving people I have ever met. When you as a parent can own your mistakes, apologize, and change your behaviors accordingly, teenagers can and do forgive even some of the worst transgressions. They want to be connected to you as much as you want to be connected to them, it just looks different now.  

Raising teenagers is not always easy, but it can be the most rewarding time you ever have as a parent. There is incredible growth potential for you and for them despite its many ups and down. Remember too, you don’t have to do this alone. Family therapy can help with the challenges of transitioning into this new stage of life and parenting. A therapist can assist with a strained relationship, or support for those difficult conversations so many parents dread. We are here to help you navigate this sometimes daunting journey called parenthood.

References

Hanna, F. J., (2016). Ten powerful techniques for helping difficult adolescents to change.

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.