Parenthood brings us face-to-face with how we cope under stress, adjust to major life changes and manage pressure in relationships. Motherhood confronts women with an entire reconstruction of self identity. For a father the journey is similar but with a different set of personal, and social expectations. It’s a time of great adjustment and re-defined goals.
The are several significant changes that women are presented with in motherhood. There are changes to her personal identity, her body, her relationship and the responsibility of raising children. It comes with many joys but also many limitations. For men the changes are also profound. The relationship with their partner changes almost overnight in terms of affection, sex and roles within the house. Through parenthood, men are forced to confront their own identity at the very moment their partner is confronting hers. This period of adjustment presents an opportunity to grow.
Some research suggests that relationship satisfaction is at it’s peak at the beginning of the third trimester of a first pregnancy and then drops by 80% in the first year after having a baby. Other research claims that up to 93% of first time mothers experience decreased relationships satisfaction with their partner after the baby arrives. How a couple communicate and collaborate under this pressure will determine how well the relationship fares. For many couples, becoming parents brings about a whole new range of areas of disagreement – particularly in regards to expectations of each other’s roles and household management, finances, sex and the involvement of extended family. There are also differing expectations of each other’s communication style under stress and in disagreement – communication usually gets stuck in blame and defensiveness. What I observe in couples therapy is that interactions between couples have a tendency to become highly procedural post children – painful disappointments, escalating conflict or emotional withdrawal can often dominate over intimacy and pleasure between partners.
Children are naturally intense and evocative and this can be very challenging for parents. We sacrifice our sleep, forgo career opportunities and have to learn to better manage our own emotions in the face of guiding our children through theirs. We manage the balance between our own independence with being there for our children and the associated mixed feelings of joy, guilt and loss. Often this is a time where we reflect on our relationships with our own parents and identify some of the difficult stuff we’ve had to deal with that we wish to do differently in this role. Other times, we have to acknowledge that we aren’t the parent we expected to be and these differences need to be reconciled.
Extended Family Relationships
Is having a baby a private experience between the two parents? Or a public event that draws in all the extended branches of the family tree? Interlocking family subsystems – that is, the coming together and involvement of the two family systems of the two parents - offers opportunity for greater wisdom, care and security. The whole tree has abundant opportunity to grow and connect and open up. But the differences in which these subsystems operate frequently bring about stress, tension and resentment. Why? Because extended family members come with their own ideas about how family interactions should operate - the giving and receiving - both in physical and emotional terms. Pre-conceived ideas about what they will contribute become apparent early on and these expectations are not always consistent between members of the family. It becomes evident when extended family members either support or criticise how a couple’s children should be raised. Innocent evaluations are given about how those parents are faring in their new parenting roles and how they could fare better. These good intentions run the risk of being perceived as negative judgment; curiosity and interest as intrusiveness, and a whole range of other misaligned communication that leads to tension, resentment and disagreement among family members. On the flip side, when these extended family relationships are based on good quality connection and communication, the smaller family unit are likely to feel more confident and secure in their adapting circumstances. Typically, these relationships are described as warm, supportive, non-judgmental with an implicit sensitivity to boundaries of privacy.
In motherhood, we are acutely confronted with our coping capacities and how we manage stress. The response to stress varies from woman to woman. We are often torn in two between our careers and our babies, or even at times the needs of our partners and the need of our babies. Our intimate relationships undergo radical change in complex ways. Our personal identities shift and change and this can be confronting. It’s often a time where we reflect upon our own mothers somewhat. Integrating what feels uncomfortable about motherhood - like the limitations on career development or changes to our relationship - with specific and defined strategies for managing competing demands can propel women into feeling more self-anchored amid the chaos. Postnatal Depression Anxiety Many of the women I treat for PNDA mask their negative feelings with excessive busyness combined with bouts of feeling defeated, overwhelmed and trapped. The women I work with tend to have come from either highly successful and interesting professional lives, or are isolated from family, or both. There’s lots of research to suggest that these are significant risk factors for PNDA. Women with PNDA tend to push off the recognition that they are struggling, and this is in itself part of the mind-set embedded within the thinking structure of a woman with PNDA. For these reasons, PNDA can go unnoticed until reaching a crisis point or when someone else points it out. Birth Trauma Women who experience distressing circumstances with their birth are at risk of postnatal distress. The women I treat for birth trauma have remained experiencing PTSD symptoms years down the track if the psychological trauma has been left unprocessed. I use a specialised form of cognitive processing therapy to help women resolve and reconcile birth trauma. Postnatal Flourishing I feel wary about talking about this concept because I am fiercely against painting an idealistic picture of motherhood – simply because it’s a dangerous false idea. However, when women can integrate conscious understanding of their whole narrative of motherhood – both the negative feelings combined with the positive ones, new understanding with old, processing pain, lost opportunities and regrets with reality, then I see women experience something akin to post traumatic growth. I see women use guilt in creative restorative ways, parenting stress to create intimacy with their children and take their maternal being into their professional lives. When we use adversity to grow, we can flourish far more than if that adversity hadn’t happened at all. Prenatal Counselling Some women who experience immovable ambivalence about their pregnancy are often flagged with General Practitioners. Counselling can help with negative feelings about pregnancy and life with a baby.