Anyone who has had a baby can tell you the first year of parenthood is likely the biggest transition an individual or couple can go through in their entire lifetime. Although miraculous and awe-inspiring at times, giving birth to a new baby (or babies) can jolt the reality of many an unsuspecting couple.
Given that at least 20% of all childbearing women develop the number one complication of childbirth (perinatal depression/anxiety), the new mother and her partner have entered a vulnerable time of role transformation as they become new parents. Initially, new parents are wrought with sleep deprivation as they adjust to the newborn’s awakenings for feedings every 2-3 hours and endless daily diaper changes.
Suddenly the couple’s world is not their own, and it belongs to this little new person who is demanding, requires soothing, and generally is on the receiving end of much nurturance. Fortunately, what is often called the “fourth trimester” (the newborn period) is a finite, short-lived time.
The baby develops and grows rapidly to evolve into an increasingly fascinating little person with his or her own temperament, smiles, and love reciprocation for his primary attachments, his parents. The initial stage of parenting a newborn passes, and parents are then adjusting to the next developmental stage their child enters.
Yet the emergence into parenthood can be overwhelming for many parents who are weary with lack of sleep, coated in spit-up, elbow-deep in diaper changes, and attempting to decipher the different cries of their hollering baby. Many a client of mine has asked, “Does it get better?” Others state, “Pregnancy was so much easier. There was so much anticipation to delivery, and now I am just so exhausted.” “I don’t have my life.” “My life is not my own.”
Yet once that hurdle of the newborn stage passes, most parents who have adequate support and resources will adjust and embrace their newfound and important role of parenting a new life. It helps to learn a few coping skills before the baby arrives so that support systems are in place to ease the transition.
Some tips for new parents:
- Expect that the newborn stage will be very trying—sleep deprivation and role adjustment as parents will tax your reserves. Enlist the support of extended family members and plan on going in shifts to get adequate sleep
- Read up on the number one complication of childbirth: perinatal depression/anxiety (see Postpartum Support International for more information, or my previous articles on the subject). Partners can also be vulnerable to depression/anxiety after a baby is born.
- Schedule a date night at least once per month (more often is better), even when the baby is young, to focus on each other as a couple. It might be a picnic on the living room floor while the baby is asleep, but the point is focusing on creating time and space for your partner. Try not to talk about anything related to finances, baby care, or stressful topics. The point is to nurture the couple relationship with affirmation, laughter, shared entertainment, and affection.
- The transition from couple to family can also feel like the loss of exclusivity of the relationship—it’s ok to mourn that loss and also simultaneously celebrate the new family you are creating. Your couple relationship needs nurturance and attention while your family expands.
- Create a finite, fixed period of time to talk “business” (chores, bills, child care, household) and when the hour is up, stop. Use the hour constructively to problem solve. End the discussion on a positive note and affirm what you appreciate in one another.
- Your sex life is in flux after you have a baby. Mom’s body is going through dramatic physical changes, recovering from childbirth and possibly breastfeeding. Plus, you are both exhausted and likely drowning in a sensory extravaganza of baby exuviae. Be patient with the process and know that at some point in the future, you will get the zing back into your relationship.
Resources for helpful support on new parenthood:
- Barnes, Diana and Balber, Leigh. The Journey to Parenthood: Myths, Reality, and What Really Matters (2007)
- Bennett, Shoshana, PhD, and Indman, Ped, EdD, MFT. Beyond the Blues- A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression (2005)
- Brott, Armin A. The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year (2004)
- Dunnewold, Ann, PhD. Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting (2007)
- Dunnewold, Ann, PhD. Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide (2010)
- Dunnewold, Ann, PhD, and Sanford, Diane G. Postpartum Survival Guide (1994)
- Einhorn, Amy. The Fourth Trimester: And You Thought Labor Was Hard….Advice, Humor, and Inspiration for New Moms (2001)
- Lerner, Jennifer. The Couple’s Comfort Book: A Creative Guide for Renewing Passion, Pleasure and Commitment (2012)
- Kerner, Ian, PhD, and Raykell, Heidi. Love in the Time of Colic: The New Parents’ Guide to Getting It On Again (2009)
- Kleiman, Karen, MSW, and Raskin, Valerie, MD. This Isn’t What I Expected (1994)
- Kleiman, Karen, MSW. The Postpartum Husband: Practical Solutions for Living with Postpartum Depression (2001)
- Rasking, Valerie Davis. Great Sex for Moms: Ten Steps to Nurturing Passion While Raising Kids (2002)
If you suspect one or both parents are struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, contact a qualified therapist for help. You can search for psychotherapists in your area who are skilled in postpartum depression/pregnancy and birthing issues on GoodTherapy.org by going to our advanced search.
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