How do you prepare emotionally for parenthood?
Having a baby is a huge life-changing experience. It is both joyful and daunting. As first-time parents, how can you better equip themselves for this challenging role?
By Aruna Raghuram
No one is ever quite ready; everyone is always caught off guard. Parenthood chooses you. And you open your eyes, look at what you’ve got, say “Oh, my gosh,” and recognize that of all the balls there ever were, this is the one you should not drop. It’s not a question of choice.”
Dr Marisa de los Santos, poet and author of Love Walked In
Whether you are a to-be mother or father, you are experiencing a surge of several emotions at the thought of having a baby. There is excitement and anticipation, anxiety and fear, joy and a feeling of intense love for your unborn child. At times you are committed, at others you feeling slightly ambivalent and doubtful whether you are ready for this major change in your life.
PREPARING FOR PARENTHOOD
It has been said that parenting is the hardest task a person can be faced with. Preparing emotionally is the best way to ward off postpartum anxiety and depression. As expectant parents, think of the skills you will need, the tasks to be done, and the resources you have to support you. Introspect about the past experiences and your personal qualities that will make you a good parent.
Described below are a few suggestions on how you can emotionally prepare for parenthood.
1. Accept that life will change: Your life will never be the same again once you are a parent. From a world where your thoughts, needs, and deeds have held centre stage, you are entering a world that will be dominated by your baby. American television actor Paul Reiser has put it this way with honesty and humour: “Having a baby dragged me, kicking and screaming, from the world of self-absorption.”
You are taking on a new identity and role in life – that of a parent. This is quite different from that of a son/daughter, sibling, spouse/partner, student, or worker.
2. Keep your expectations realistic: Do not expect to be a perfect parent. That is a pitfall that will only cause anxiety and perpetual dissatisfaction with yourself. Parenting coach Sue Atkins has put it succinctly: “There is no such thing as a perfect parent. So just be a real one.” Never compare yourself with other expecting couples or other parents.
3. Address the job-related matters: Discuss with your partner about how much time each of you will take off work. Should you, as the mother, take more time off work after your maternity leave is exhausted? How will this impact your career? As a father, when and how much of your paternity leave should you avail? Making all these decisions brings a modicum of stability to this period.
4. Keep connecting with your partner: The changes of pregnancy can cause ‘relationship stress’. In some cases, the quality of the relationship suffers a great deal during the transition to parenthood. To avoid this, talk to your partner regularly about what to expect and plan how to deal with various issues. Also take time to nurture your relationship, besides parenting talk.
5. Face fears: These may be related to childbirth or the responsibilities of parenting. As it is your first baby, the fears may be linked to venturing into the unknown. Neuroscientist, author and actress Mayim Bialik has said: “I came to parenting the way most of us do – knowing nothing and trying to learn everything.”
Equip yourself with knowledge. Find out about child development and the milestones you should look out for. Read books on parenting, watch parenting shows, and videos. Talk to other parents and find out what challenges they faced and how they overcame them. You could also consider joining social media parenting groups for participating in discussions on various issues, such as breastfeeding, weaning, toilet training, and disciplining.
6. Make detailed plans: Planning the finances is a big step in warding off stress. Then there are the adjustments to be made in the home and shopping for the essentials –a crib and pram, baby clothes, and other necessities. Planning these tasks is linked to lower anxiety levels and stress. The more you plan, the more in control you will feel. Just the belief that you can cope will put you in a better emotional space.
7. Be aware that the first year will be tough: Sleep deprivation is a major reason for this. You should know that you will have to get rest whenever your baby sleeps. Plan to enlist all the support you can. An important practical issue to discuss with your partner is how the household and child care work will be divided after the baby arrives. How much support will you require from a domestic help and/or nanny? (e.g., who will do the cooking once you bring the baby back home from the hospital? Who will assist you during nights when the baby is awake? Is there someone to take care of the baby for a few hours if you want to take a nap?) Planning this will help you work on building your own confidence.
8. Ponder over what kind of parent you want to be: What kind of mother or father do you plan to be? Are you like to emulate your own parents or be diametrically opposite in attitude and parenting style? It is also important to discuss and agree on what parenting style to adopt in the future. Decide together on the values you will focus on and which traditions you would like to reinforce.
9. Resolve past issues: Psychologist Dr Juli Fraga writes in Psychology Today in the article ‘How to Emotionally Prepare for Motherhood’: “Pregnancy and impending motherhood often re-awaken a vast array of memories surrounding our own mothers and childhoods…When childhood leaves us wounded in any way, we may revisit these once hazy memories with new reactions and surprises as we attempt to create our own maternal map.” It is important that you work to resolve painful childhood issues, either by talking to a friend, reading books, or visiting a psychotherapist.
10. Connect with other to-be or new parents: Social support is important. Connect with friends face-to-face or virtually through social media so that you can share your misgivings and get information too. But you should realise that your experience will be your very own.
Prenatal exercise or yoga classes, parenting classes or breastfeeding classes are good places to connect with other parents-to-be.
11. Ensure you spend time on self-care: Meet up with old friends or make new ones and try to make time to pursue your hobbies. You need to do this even after the baby arrives. However, do keep some ‘alone time’ for yourself so that you can process your feelings.
12. Build a support system among family and friends: It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, you have to find this village for your coming baby – people who love you and whom you can trust to be there for you. This would include parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues. However, it is important not to take all the advice heaped on you by well-wishers as the gospel truth.
Here are some specific suggestions for to-be mothers and fathers:
- Realise that recovery could be slow. Know that you can’t bounce back in a few weeks from childbirth. A 2012 study titled ‘Bouncing back? – women’s experiences of their own recovery after childbirth’, authored by Dr. Julie Wray, says that it may take up to a year to fully recover from childbirth.
- Be aware of the impact of hormonal changes. During pregnancy and soon after childbirth women experience mood swings and memory lapses due to hormonal changes. In addition, some women go through post-partum depression. Read up about these changes.
- Take good care of yourself. The physical stresses of pregnancy can make you emotionally vulnerable. Take plenty of rest, short naps, go for a walk in the park, get a massage and eat healthy. Yoga and meditation are other great stress-relievers.
- This is also the time to shed unhealthy habits. If you drink, smoke or take recreational drugs, this is the time to stop as these habits can harm a growing baby.
- Guard against feeling neglected: If you are a to-be father you must accept that you will have to share your partner with your baby henceforth. In fact, initially a mother is extremely absorbed in her baby due to hormonal factors and the strong emotional bond she feels. Men tend to feel neglected even during pregnancy.
- Plan to be a hands-on father: Babies need fathers around and form close bonds with them from an early age. Many dads change nappies, hold their babies, sing lullabies, and rock them to sleep. Are you going to be one of them? You should know that your involvement in your baby’s life is vital for her to grow up to become an emotionally healthy adult.
- Men too can experience anxiety and depression during this time: In fact, up to one in 10 Australian men experience anxiety or depression when they welcome a new baby or when their partner is pregnant, says Helen McAllister, who leads a team of specialists helping parents-to-be with issues of anxiety and depression.
- Support your partner: As a father-to-be, support your partner. You may have your anxieties but she is going through much more.
Clinical psychologist and founder-director of Ahmedabad-based Anahata Mental Health Clinic, Purnima Gupta gave us a case study of a woman in her late 20s whom she counselled.
“The girl was apprehensive about becoming a mother as it would cost her considerably in terms of career progression. Also, she felt that she did not want to be responsible for another life especially when she herself was emotionally dependent on her family. Her concerns primarily revolved around her financial independence and the responsibility of raising a child and giving up on her own life for a few years. However, she was facing family pressure to have a baby. Also, somewhere, she wanted to win their appreciation by becoming a mother. So, she was in a dilemma. After we started talking, she opened up about how she had always felt the need to be cared for. Ultimately, she decided to wait for a few years to become a mother. Meanwhile, she would work on herself,” narrates Purnima.
According to Purnima, these are the three things a couple need to ensure before opting for parenthood:
- Self-awareness that they are not planning to become parents because it is a social responsibility
- Realising the pressures parenthood is going to bring along and preparing to adapt to the responsibilities
- Developing an understanding of one’s limitations and challenges in terms of time, efforts, finances and individual strengths, finally leading to an informed choice
While having a baby is a joyful thought, it can also bring fears of the unknown and anxieties whether you will be able to cope and measure up as a parent. One of the ways this can be minimised is being kind to yourself and not expecting to be a perfect parent. Remember these words of American author Jill Churchill when you have the urge to give yourself a tough time: “There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”
In a nutshell
- Expecting mothers and fathers experience a rollercoaster of emotions – from joy and love to anxiety and self-doubt
- It is important to prepare emotionally for a baby. One major way to do this is by discussing important issues with your partner beforehand
- Ensure that you are not going to be too proud to seek help from family and friends when you need it
What you could do right away
- Make sure each day you do at least one thing you enjoy so that you keep in touch with yourself
- Start deep breathing and meditation which are useful relaxation techniques that will allay anxieties
- Talk about the 5 dearly held values you would want to inculcate in your child
- As a to-be dad, spend time with your friends to share your fears and de-stress
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 6 March 2020.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 6 March 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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