Having a young family changes everything. Alongside the joy of parenting, there are plenty of challenges too. And despite the goodwill of all of those around us, it is still possible to feel completely overwhelmed.
If you’re feeling like this, you will of course have a whole raft of reasons why which are specific to your own situation, as well as your own unique ‘backstory’ which may perhaps be nudging you in one direction or another in terms of how you manage to deal with all this. But here is a run-down (in no particular order) of some of the things that people can experience: perhaps you will recognise some of these, and perhaps not. They are more common than people generally let on.
The arrival of a first baby – and subsequent babies – presents some challenges for families that can test people’s abilities in negotiating and compromising: often these are things that we don’t find ourselves doing that often. There are, after all, a lot of people we could call ‘stakeholders’ in the life of a young baby: people with close family connections and a keen interest in being involved. Grandparents, aunts, uncles of course, but also the extended family, perhaps through separations and new partnerships, as well as friends, neighbours and colleagues.
For new parents, the challenge is to get on with the job of being parents while dealing with all those who’d like to get involved. But views on how this should be done will almost inevitably differ, in part because we each have a unique view on what ‘family’ actually means. One person may have a strong sense of obligation: ‘We should definitely invite them for the week.’ The other may not: ‘Are you joking?’
Suddenly the couple is having intense conversations about things that feel very important to both, and old loyalties are tested, sometimes to breaking point.
The arrival of kids can bring generations together in a way that nothing else can, and provide a sense of real joy and fulfilment to the grandparents – and through their involvement, much-needed babysitting services to the parents too.
There is another side to this. As young adults, we may have become quite good at regulating how much ‘face time’ we have with our own parents. When we start a family, that sense of independence can become eroded. Yes, we can become dependent on our parents again, or in some cases, resentful about aspects of their involvement in the fine details of our own parenting practice. Some people even find themselves feeling the same kind of frustrations they used to experience as teenagers, triggered by a comment or a look that provides an instant connection to a very different time in life.
There is a reality check to be done by everyone, across both generations: time has moved on, we are all adults, and the roles have changed.
Everyone with kids feels tired. And when we feel tired, we get snappy. So far, so predictable. But with fatigue, lack of sleep, and irritability all part of a package of symptoms that can indicate depression (see here for more on this) then it’s worth keeping an eye on things in case they get a little out of hand.
Being short tempered is something we all do, though what’s interesting to remember is that we all have a slightly different relationship with anger. There are some people who will show their anger quickly and easily, but the storm is over quickly and life resumes soon afterwards. This often will reflect the kind of family they grew up in, and how people dealt with anger at the time. For others, anger is a very difficult emotion to deal with: it is kept under a tight lid, for fear of what it could lead to.
People who grew up with angry parents are often extremely wary of anger, and will do anything to keep the peace. In a couple, what may feel (for one parent) like a measured but robust response to a naughty child may appear (to the other) like a completely over-the-top outburst. These differences in how we ‘do’ anger are often not revealed until kids come along and start to vigorously press our various emotional buttons.
Couples suddenly learn new things about each other, which can take some getting used to.
Working in partnership needs a bit of thought. It does not come naturally to any of us. When we say ‘we need to do this’ then often nothing happens, because nobody is nailed down as the person who will do whatever task it is. In families with young kids, there are a lot of what you might call ‘moving parts’ that need orchestrating. Childcare, drop-offs, pick-ups, appointments, visits, activities, household chores, admin, stuff to buy…
To work in partnership, we need to assign roles: ‘I’ll take care of this, you could handle that.’ Nothing that anyone does needs to be ‘excellent’ or ‘perfect.’ The strict guide for quality here is ‘good enough will do.’ Of course, for some of us, that is almost impossible to tolerate. Anyone with a tendency towards perfectionism is likely to want to do the very best job imaginable.
But perfectionism will erode the boundaries of who does what, and makes a true partition of the work almost impossible: ‘I’ll take care of this; you handle that; and then I’ll judge your performance with marks out of ten’ is not usually a winning formula for sharing responsibility. It is more likely to result in the most perfectionist partner taking on responsibility for pretty much everything that moves.
It is almost impossible that two people in a parenting role will have exactly the same ideas about how some aspect of the parenting role should be done, and what constitutes a good enough job. But talking this through early on, and dealing with the corrosive effects of perfectionism, can be well worth it.
However many people seem to be around you, there is still a chance that you can end up feeling very alone and unsupported as a parent. You might crave more adult company, or simply find that it’s hard to share your experiences with others, or struggle to do everything on your own.
When the birth of a baby is preceded by a family bereavement, it can feel bittersweet: ‘If only my mum or dad had lived to see their beautiful grandchild.’ A birth can stir up feelings that we thought had been settled before. A major loss earlier in life may feel like it has been ‘dealt with’ but it remains in the background – and a happy family event can be a catalyst for some strong feelings that can take us by surprise.
A relatively large percentage (10% in fact) of parents can become depressed within the first year of giving birth, with postnatal depression afflicting partners/fathers as well as the birth mother. Your health visitors are likely to be the first in line to pick this up, and of course, visit your GP if you have concerns. Visit the NHS website for more on this specific topic.
BOOK SUGGESTION: Postnatal Depression
EXTERNAL LINKS: Some good overview information from the UK's National Childbirth Trust (NCT) on postnatal mental health, and some more detailed information from the Royal College of Psychiatrists on postnatal depression.