Life is full of transitions. Some are big and some are small, but most involve saying hello to something new and goodbye to something old. There may be no transition for which this is truer than the transition into parenthood. Carefree, late nights out with friends are likely to be replaced with long, stressful nights spent pacing with a crying baby. Sleeping in and leisurely weekend brunches may be swapped out for early morning trips to the park. After work happy hours probably give way to dashing home to relieve the nanny. Most parents will tell you that all of these sacrifices are worth it when your child smiles at you, or says mama or dada (and actually means you), or takes those glorious first steps. And while the parents who say this usually do mean it, are they doing themselves a disservice by not also acknowledging what is lost?
This is a complex question partly because parents are told that joy is the only appropriate emotion to bring along on the journey into parenthood. Family, friends and colleagues offer congratulations and say things like, “you must be so happy,” “you are so lucky,” and someone of an older generation is bound to say, “these will be the best years of your life. As a new parent, if you are feeling quite overwhelmed with the task of trying to care for your baby (feelings that are inevitably compounded by hormonal shifts and sleep deprivation), you are probably also missing your old life‚ a life in which you got plenty of sleep and had much less responsibility. But when everyone around you is telling you what you must be, are, and will be feeling‚ and these things are inconsistent with what you are actually thinking and feeling‚ it is almost impossible to allow yourself to accept your true feelings. So you try to stop these thoughts and feelings, or worse yet, you berate yourself for having them in the first place. You may think it is abnormal or unnatural, not because it is, but because the world around you doesn’t allow for a real and genuine conversation.
So what can you do? First of all, give yourself permission to feel what you feel when you feel it. If you are feeling filled with joy as you gaze lovingly at your baby’s smile, feel joyful. On the other hand, if you are feeling sad about the loss of your carefree Saturday nights out, allow yourself to feel that sadness. After you have acknowledged the feeling, start thinking about how you can get that night out. Maybe you ask your partner to stay home with the baby, so you can go out with a friend. Or maybe you ask a friend to stay with the baby, so you and your partner can go out. Not acknowledging the sadness won’t make it go away and it might not allow you to move past the sadness and into problem-solving mode‚ a mode that might actually get you that night out on the town. The bottom line is that acknowledging and coping with your feelings is an important part of taking care of yourself, and if you aren’t taken care of, you can’t take the best care of your baby.
Second, develop a network of support. Find other new parents that you feel comfortable being real with. It’s easy to find people with whom you can swap information about pediatricians, sleep training and nannies; but make sure you find at least a couple of people that you can go deeper with. It may feel scary to admit that you feel like you’ll go absolutely insane from boredom if you have to spend one more minute doing “tummy time,” but if you are willing to take that risk with someone you trust, chances are they might agree and add some of their own parenting frustrations to the conversation.
Finally, if after actively working to acknowledge and cope with your feelings (the good and the bad), and after creating a supportive social network, you are still feeling overwhelmed by the demands of parenthood, consider seeking the assistance of a professional. A therapist will be able to provide a safe and supportive environment to explore what you are experiencing free from any judgment, and this can be healing in and of itself. A therapist may also be able to suggest some new coping strategies and connect you with additional resources within your community. Most of all, a therapist will be able to help you focus on taking care of yourself, and at the end of the day, taking good care of yourself is what’s best for your baby.
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