Tips for Couples Transitioning to Parents
How to communicate, support, and just get through the early days of parenthood
I find there is so much emphasis on the birth process, or the adoption process, that once babies arrive new parents are scrambling to adapt to their new reality. I really try to stress in my clients, to think about the time after the baby arrives before the baby arrives. In this article, I hope to plant some seeds for helping your partnership bond become strong through times of stress and not the other way around.
Restrain from keeping tally
What we want to prevent here is the phrase “you change the diaper; I did the last one”, the tired demand that comes from a place that is completely understandable: exhaustion. The most common thing new parents argue about is who is doing more work. Keeping tally will build up resentment and lead to contempt. According to the Gottman Institute, contempt if not curbed can cause serious problems within the relationship. Resentment that simmers too long changes into contempt, which fuels conflict rather than reconciliation.
Instead of resentful practices like keeping a diaper tally, create a supportive team-like approach (more or this later) and acknowledge the support you are receiving. Practice not allowing your mind latch on to all the things they didn’t do, rather on what they have done. Perhaps your partner made you peanut butter toast, washed the dishes, took the dog out for a walk, or gave you an hour of sleep that morning. If you do not feel supported in the ways you want, we move on to the next tip, to ask for what you want or need.
Ask: Ask for help, and ask open ended questions
Opening up into the practice of asking for what you need is a crucial step that allows for a joining parenting experience. Try tuning into yourself throughout the day, bringing greater awareness to how you feel so you can start to understand what you need. Asking for what you need can be a vulnerable process but it's well worth it since it bypasses resentment due to neglected needs. It also prevents the unrealistic mind-reading expectations, the moody “well they should know what I need right now”. Many times your partner won’t know, so let them know.
Another supportive practice is to ask your partner open-ended questions. This is a very nourishing practice that is ideally done in a quiet moment together. This practice is not for problem-solving, which comes later, but to bring the other into your reality. You may be going through the same journey but have very different experiences. This time allows for venting off frustrations and sadness or sharing in joyful moments, and excitement. Examples of some good open-ended questions:
- “How are you feeling today?”
- “What did you find most difficult or stressful about that situation?”
- “What are your concerns?”
- “Help me understand the situation from your point of view.”
These exploratory statements help you as a couple share, and it builds empathy and understanding. Sometimes after venting or an emotional conversation a plan or action is needed. A good segway would be if one partner asked the other “do we need a solution or a plan here?”. Best to ask before jumping into solving mode.
Make a plan, make a new plan
Becoming a team and staying one is a lifetime goal for parents. Each of us has different ideals and approaches to life. Openly discussing these and creating a synthesis between your views will help you both feel supported and on the same page.
The nature of making plans as early parents, you’ll quickly realize, is that they sometimes need to be thrown out and entirely new plans drawn up. Don’t be afraid to pivot. You’ll try one form of sleep training and both feel a different approach might bode better. Talk about it, and adjust it. Go with your instincts and gut feelings. Recognize if you are doing something just for the other person. This is why I emphasize the fact that you are synthesizing a strategy rather than compromising and feeling unsure or not dedicated to that course of action. Teamwork will be a crucial element in your entire parenting journey, collaborate and create healthy habits from the get-go.
Make quality time happen. This is an action so it needs to be acted on for it to happen. It may seem overwhelming to step away from a baby or to trust someone else can care for them. You may not want to at that moment take the time for your partner. It takes practice to get comfortable stepping away, start with small mini dates first. Creating intimate one-on-one time for connection and nurturing the friendship between you and your partner is just as important as connecting with your baby.
Quality time does not need to be complicated or too long. Let other people give you this time together if they offer, what a gift! Taking time for intimacy is a big part of your family’s happiness, you need to make this time happen in order to make good memories with each other. Children love to see their parents love each other and connect; it makes them feel safe.
Gift of Solo time
Give each other solo time to visit friends, engage in self-care, or partake in hobbies. Relationships of all kinds are sustaining and replenishing. A coffee date with a friend can bring one’s self back to the wider world, and regenerate a sense of self that might feel faded after living in baby land.
Encourage each other to run, craft, ski, sing, whatever it may be that fills your cup. It is so hard to parent from an empty cup. That is where we see frustration, loneliness, loss of identity and loss of grounding come from. It is important to do things for yourself by yourself.
Know when to seek professional help
Parenting is hard, it’s normal to have difficulties in the transition to a new family. However, there can be unexpected elements thrown into the parenting journey, such as postpartum depression (which either parent can suffer from, not just the parent that carried the child), or unmanageable feelings. If either of you continues to feel overwhelmed and exhausted and find that being a new parent simply has no joy in it you may need to get professional help. It is important to notice when things are simply too much for you. Individual psychotherapy or couples counselling can be very helpful to help you navigate the new demands and challenges and to adjust to the new roles as parents.