I was talking with a colleague recently about balancing our personal lives and our private practices, and she said something that really hit home. She shared her observation that the areas to which we direct our emotional and physical energies tend to thrive, while the others don’t. That’s not to say those other areas fall apart, but perhaps they stagnate a bit or just coast for a while. They certainly don’t thrive and grow. This made sense to me. Since we have a finite amount of energy to direct toward anything at any given point in time, not every aspect of our lives will get the kind of attention it needs to grow all the time. I think this explains why we so often feel that we just can’t have it all—at least, not all at the same time. This can cause distress, as we think we “should” be doing so much more. Sometimes we feel as if all areas are suffering because we feel pulled in so many directions at once. This is a common theme for many clients I see in my practice.
I often talk with clients about finding ways to balance the four “P’s” in their lives—parent, partner, person, and professional. Each of those areas requires time and energy, but when we have finite resources, they don’t each get the attention we might wish them to all the time. There is a natural ebb and flow as we direct our energies to the areas that are most pressing or meaningful at the time. Some parents put professions on hold to dedicate more energy toward parenting. Often, though, being a parent requires significantly more energy than we anticipate, and something’s got to give. I think this is why so many new parents struggle with being effective partners after the birth of a child.
I see this dynamic with many of the couples I see. This wondrous new being comes into their lives, one who is a physical manifestation of the love they have for each other. Yet this infant can actually drive them apart. Parents might feel like their partners no longer pay attention to their needs—not when there is a hungry, tired, fussy baby who has very pressing and immediate needs. It can hard to fan the flames of passion when you are sleep-deprived, you’ve been feeding every three hours, and you’ve spent much of the day changing diapers. As much as one might intellectually get why this is the case, it can still lead to feelings of rejection, abandonment, resentment, and even guilt about these feelings.
I know many new moms who wonder if today is the day they will actually get to take a shower. If they don’t have time for taking care of their own needs, how can they tend to those of their partners? They might be frustrated that their partners don’t seem to be making things easier. They might feel criticized or guilty for not meeting more of their partners’ needs. They might be frustrated with themselves that they can’t both feed the baby and do the laundry. A partner who comes home at the end of the day to a frazzled and exhausted new parent and asks “but what did you do all day?” can run the risk of alienating his or her partner. The frustration each feels at being disconnected from the other can sometimes grow into much larger schisms that threaten the relationship down the line.
There is good news, though. Some couples navigate these transitions without disconnecting. Often they are the ones who acknowledge and accept that their new roles naturally have an impact on their relationship and adjust their expectations accordingly. They don’t feel that their relationship is threatened because of the shift in focus or attention. They are able to continue to meet their needs to connect, and don’t personalize the perceptions of rejection or isolation. They are flexible. Most importantly, they communicate with each other. They tell each other honestly what they need and how they are feeling. They carve out time to spend together, and they find creative ways to stay connected.
When I work with clients who are struggling, we work on asking and answering the following question: “What do you need from me, so that you can meet my needs?” In other words, how can each partner make it easier for the other to connect and support the other? This is not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes one partner simply needs to hear the other say that he or she is doing a good job, is being a good parent, and that their child is thriving. Sometimes one partner needs the other to bring home dinner or do some laundry. Both usually need understanding and compassion as they shift into new roles and work on finding their balance. Whatever the specific strategies, the essential piece is to open the lines of communication, to validate the feelings and needs of the other, and to recognize and accept that taking on new roles means that some other areas will not get the same kind of time and attention as they did before—and that this is OK.
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