Now That You're a Parent

My best friend had her baby a few months before I had my son. While I was in the hospital, she called and said,  "Congratulations! Isn't it wonderful being a mother!" I didn't know whether to cry or slam the phone down.

I got home but I still didn't feel any more like a mother than I did the week before. I was tired and scared. I loved my baby, but wasn't I supposed to feel some magic bond and know what he needed? Was there something wrong with me?

Adjusting to the Changes

Parenting is not instinctual; it is learned from experience—your experience as a child with your own caregivers as well as your experience as a new mother or father. Motherhood or fatherhood may come easily to you, but even so, the changes it brings must be accommo­dated. The amount of family adjustment required during the year following birth is greatly underestimated.

Let's consider some of the adjustments you'll be facing as a new par­ent in the days and months to come.

The "Baby Blues"

Many new mothers experience postpartum depression, often called the "baby blues," dur­ing the first three months after childbirth. Although this increased emotional sensitivity is caused by hormonal fluctuations, the feelings that arise are real responses to real changes­—both physical and emotional. Mild sadness may well up as the mother recovers from preg­nancy and delivery and adjusts to the life changes that having a baby can bring. Fathers, too, can experience a period of sad­ness as they "mourn" the passing of their for­mer lifestyle and adapt to new expectations, responsibilities, and schedules. Wnen depression becomes severe or lingers for more than three months, isolation may be the cause.

Reaching out for support from friends and relatives is important. Here are some ways to find the help you and/or your spouse may need:

1. Join a support group for new parents.

This can help you make contacts for babysitting, answer some of your needs for companion­ship, and banish the misunderstanding that motherhood or fatherhood is instinctual. Your hospital or obstetrician may be able to help you find a support group, or you can start one yourself by calling the parents in your birthing class or other new parents you may know.

2. Plan for help and interaction from friends.

Friends from church or work may be saying, "Let me know if I can help." Though sincere, they may not know how to give you or your spouse the help you really need. You might try asking a friend to:

  • bring a sack lunch and join you for half an hour midday—or a snack for another time that fits your schedules
  • come over and enjoy holding the new baby while you take a bath or nap
  • run errands, such as picking up dry clean­ing or items from the store
  • listen while you share concerns or frustra­tions
  • pray for you and, as you are comfortable, with you

Your Identity as a Mother

As a new mother, it is necessary for you to sort through your childhood experience of your own mother; then incorporate into your own mothering those things you find to be positive, and plan to change those things you find to be not as helpful or even negative. This does not mean you do not love and cherish your mother. Rather, it is your job to discriminate about your own parenting style—in cooperation with your spouse—and raise your child accordingly. Building upon the beliefs and teachings of the Christian faith will give you a solid founda­tion.

Your Identity as a Father

With both parents contributing economical­ly in over 80 percent of American families today, it has become necessary for husbands and wives to share more of the family respon­sibilities. Chief among these responsibilities is the task of nurturing children. When fathers participate in the nurturing role, both parents are more likely to have a greater sense of part­nership and genuine appreciation for each other.

In order to share in the nurturing of your child, you may find it necessary to revise some of your preconceived ideas about a father's identity and role. For example, it may feel odd or "weak" in the beginning to assist with feeding and diapering your new baby or to rock your baby to sleep; remembering the rewards of intimacy you will reap generally helps. If you begin the habit of participating in the everyday care of your new baby, you will experience a special closeness with your child—now and in the years to come.

Your Identity as a New Family

As new parents, the two of you must sort through the expectations you bring from your own families and then form a new family iden­tity. Your task is to come to an agreement about what constitutes "good parenting" and develop your own parenting plan, drawing upon your own experiences and observations as well as biblical guidelines and credible par­enting authorities. This can be difficult if in­-laws are critical instead of supportive when your choices or actions reflect a difference in values or parenting styles from their own. So it is important during this period of adjust­ment that you focus on strengthening your relationship, being careful to guard against any division that might be caused by extend­ed family or other outside influences.

Strengthening Your Marriage—and Your Family

Your marriage relationship determines the emotional atmosphere of your family. Two important approaches can help you nurture your marnage:

1. Take time for each other.

In addition to taking time daily to express your needs and share your feelings with each other, be sure to schedule regular periods for simply enjoy­ing each other. Even if you are able to spend quality time alone only once a month, you will reap great benefits from this special time together. Taking a night out for yourselves to nurture each other will help you to make your child(ren) feel loved as well.

2. Adopt a team approach.

Remember that no matter which one of you is carrying out a particular responsibility, both of you should share in the discussion and decision-making process. For example, both of you should share the responsibility of deciding how to care for your child or whether a job change is right for the family at this time. You will feel supported throughout your day if you share feelings as well as responsibilities with each other. This kind of team sharing and support will strengthen your marriage, making you less likely to turn to your child for emotional needs that should be met in your relationship with your partner.

Here are some sugges­tions:

Find ways to show that you recognize, appreciate, and value your spouse. Add your own ideas to these suggestions:

  • Offer verbal and nonverbal expressions of appreciation (hugs, kisses, notes, cards, occasional inexpensive gifts, etc.).
  • Make scheduling adjustments so that family may come first when necessary.
  • Make allowances in order to accommo­date work schedules as you agree it is nec­essary and appropriate.
  • Call your spouse during the day to say hello and see how the day is going.
  • Offer to take care of the baby for a while so that your spouse may have some time away. (Both mothers and fathers need occasional breaks from the demands of family life.)
  • Express your appreciation for any family or household duties your spouse may handle alone—such as financial planning, laundry, grocery shopping, lawn care, and so forth.

Be sure that both of you are "in tune" with what's happening in the family. Here are some ideas:

  • Schedule activities around family needs on evenings and weekends as much as possible. Recognize that there will be times when this is not possible.
  • Discuss and share family and household duties.
  • Practice joint decision-making around childrearing, child development, house­hold concerns, finances and budgeting, career goals, and family needs and plans.

Learning the Balancing Act

Every family struggles with the tension caused by competing demands, especially when those demands seem to put family and work in opposing corners. Even those families with only one working parent struggles to learn the "balancing act."

An important first step is to slow down. This is especially important in the first year of your child's life. Make your child and your new family the focus of your time and attention as much as possible. Your child will be older—and less in need of you—soon, and you will feel freer to pursue other things.

Next, place family (emotional needs) and work (economic needs) in equal relationship as much as possible. Of course, there will be times when family needs outweigh work needs, and vice versa. Making decisions and choices based on the best interests of your family will keep you on track.

Here are a few ideas to consider the first year:

  • Some new parents consider making a job change or taking out a loan so that one parent may stay at home during the first year. Other couples explore options such as flexible office hours, telecommuting, or part-time work so that one or both parents may spend more time at home than at work.
  • Keep in mind that a family has a "life cycle," and consider where you are in that cycle when making choices involving how much time to be away from your family. Some periods of your child's life, such as the first three years and adolescence, may be time-limited periods when your child's needs for your involvement are greater than at other times.
  • Men and women are different. Women may feel more drawn to nurturing, while men may feel more pressure to provide security by performing well economically. Recognizing these differences will help you to understand and respond appropriately to your spouse's feelings and needs.

Remember, whether or not you make your family a high priority will determine the health of your family relationships and the quality of your life together—both now and in the years to come. Recognize that the tremendous changes you are already experiencing will bring conflicts, and be resolved to handle them together. The church and Christian counseling services are always there to help if you need them.

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