Thoughtful Parenting: Transition to parenthood
Several major transitions often occur in adult life: leaving home, first major employment, marriage, empty nest, retirement. All these events create both excitement and challenge, however the transition to parenthood ranks as the most exhilarating, but also the most challenging of all.
At the heart of this stage of life is the marital relationship. Successfully becoming parents together can significantly impact the early stages of child development. Research indicates children’s social and academic adaptation to elementary school is predicted by their parent’s adaptation to parenthood and by the quality of the marital relationship during the preschool years. The happier a person feels about a marriage, the more sensitive and nurturing his or her parenting.
Most expectant couples are braced for sleep deprivation and dirty diapers. But the reality is quite different in ways even the most informed new parents may find surprising. Almost everything about the pre-baby way of life changes, including the amount of time alone and as a couple, leisure-time activities, desire for intimacy, relationships with friends and family, self-identity, “distribution of labor” within the home and more.
Change is stressful, thus both husbands and wives in perfectly wonderful pre-baby marriages tend to experience times of dissatisfaction with the marriage after becoming parents. In most cases, this change in the marital bond is normal, expected and temporary.
So, the bad news is that babies can be hard on marriages. Accept that some amount of marital upset, particularly during the first years of parenting, is normal and expected. Exhaustion and stress often lead to cycles of mutual blame, which is never productive.
The good news is, keeping the marriage in mind during the transition to new parenthood makes a difference: The more couples feel secure with one another, the more able they are to handle the myriad changes that occur. Here are some “tips” for baby-proofing your marriage:
• Directly address all the changing workload issues that arise once the baby arrives. Babies create a lot of new “work” along with the joy they bring, and partners who feel the added responsibilities are equally shared fare the best in marital satisfaction. Studies show this issue causes the most conflict during the first year of new parenthood.
• Create feelings of “we are in this together.” Husbands who help with household and baby tasks as well as wives who provide their husbands with attention, despite the seemingly all-consuming needs of the baby, are most likely to create this togetherness bond.
• When conflict arises, treat it as a clue that some issue needs attention. Make sure there is a cooling-off period from emotional upset before trying to mutually understand and address the area of conflict. Good marriages are not conflict-free. Sweeping upsetting issues under the rug is never a good strategy for building a satisfying marriage.
• Try to have a 20-minute conversation with each other each day to decompress and catch up on each other’s lives. Although a temporary decline in sexual satisfaction often occurs, be prepared to accept some decline, while also trying to express more affection and scheduling intimate times when possible.
• Find time alone, without the baby, to maintain your friendship. Babysitters of one kind or another are important … find and use them. As the psychologist Joshua Coleman suggests, the airline warning to put on your own oxygen mask before you place one on your child also holds true for marriage. Providing your children with the security of a happy marital home is one of the most important gifts you can give to them.
Dr. Lynn Dubinsky, a clinical psychologist, is in private practice with her husband, Dr. Ira Dubinsky, in Steamboat Springs. They specialize in working with couples.
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