The Beautiful and Challenging Transition to Parenthood
Whitney Molitor, LMFT
The transition to parenthood can be joyful, expansive, rewarding, and purposeful. Parenthood can also be overwhelming, isolating, and can bring forward feelings of grief as we mourn the loss of our freedom and previous identity. Often throughout the course of a day and sometimes within the same hour, we can experience this dichotomy of emotions.
Previous generations have developed discourses that can often leave us feeling shame when we experience uncomfortable emotions as parents. A discourse, by definition, is a set of values and belief systems upheld by certain groups of people. Traditionally, the cultural narrative around parenting informs us to be overjoyed by the pregnancy and postpartum experience and to even remain quiet about times where we may feel differently. Speaking authentically about our challenges in the perinatal journey can be especially challenging due to several societal and generational discourses informing us that we “should” be overjoyed and thriving during this major life change. From the moments leading up to birth and afterward, we are fed several messages surrounding what the labor process “should” look like, regarding expectations about infant sleep, how to “best” feed our child(ren), and what parenting styles are “right.”
If these discourses are not aligned with our authentic and lived experience, it may lead us to shut down, isolate, and even experience internal or external rage. Furthermore from an evolutionary perspective, both parents’ brains go through major biochemical changes shortly after the birth of a baby that hardwire us to be hypervigilant and on high-alert. While these changes developed as a survival tactic necessary at one point in history, our modern-day brain cannot distinguish the difference between a real and perceived threat. This can lead to parental burnout and even symptoms of postpartum anxiety and depression such as intrusive thoughts as we adjust to our shifting identity.
There are a number of protective factors that can be helpful in navigating the perinatal journey with a greater sense of resiliency and confidence:
- Sleep: The number one protective factor is sleep. Similar to how our muscles need to rest following an intense workout, our brains and specifically our nervous system must be able to reset through quality sleep. Undoubtedly sleep is highly disrupted when a newborn enters the picture so one may need to become creative in order to prioritize quality sleep. This may mean trading shifts with a partner or loved one, choosing to bottle feed in order to allow other caregivers to help during the night shift, sleeping in another room, or even hiring outside support such as a night doula if this is financially feasible. Because our nervous system is on high-alert after the arrival of our little one, we may need to utilize sleep aids such as wearing a sleep mask or even earplugs to promote restful sleep. If we are the one that birthed the baby, this really asks us to surrender to the notion that others are fully capable and willing to help us, which can often be one of the hardest but most essential elements of receiving support during this delicate time.
- Asking for Tangible, Hands-On Help: If we are blessed to receive gifts during pregnancy and postpartum, asking loved one’s to financially contribute to funds for tangible help such as a doula or setting up a meal delivery system can be very beneficial in creating the type of postpartum experience where we feel nourished and cared for.
- Boundary Setting: Much of the focus once the baby arrives is on the baby, rather than the parents. Having assertive conversations with loved ones prior to baby’s arrival can be extremely helpful in reducing common, yet challenging points of contention postpartum. Letting loved ones know your comfort level with visitors, being willing to ask for and receive help with chores around the house, and having a back-up plan to exit social functions ahead of time can reduce anxiety with integrating into your new role.
- Gaining Clarity: Another very important protective factor in creating a nurturing postpartum experience requires us to take the initiative in setting up the type of support we will need. We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” and this couldn’t be more accurate. Most cultures around the world come together to support new parents in tangible ways following the birth of a child. This often is not the case in America, where productivity and “bouncing back” post baby are often at the forefront of our ideals. As we become parents, if we can shift our focus on what we deeply value versus getting caught up in unrealistic expectations, we are much more likely to approach our postpartum period with more grace and acceptance.
- Seeking Out Professional Help: Speaking with a therapist prior to the birth of a child can be extremely beneficial to not only gain clarity surrounding the type of support needed during this transition, but to also identify concrete ways to make this support happen. Becoming a parent asks us to confront the parts within ourselves that are still evolving. If asking for and receiving support is uncomfortable, learning how to navigate this challenge can make all the difference in our experience. Lastly, obtaining tools for challenging the multiple societal and generational discourses around parenthood that do not align with our personal values can help us to feel much more empowered as parents.
Most importantly, if you or a loved one are struggling during the perinatal journey, which can be both beautiful and challenging, please do not hesitate to reach out. There is a bountiful list of resources, tools, education, podcasts and books available on this very topic I’ve curated over the years that I’d love to share with you. I’ve been in your shoes and I want you to know you are not alone. There is hope and support out there; you just have to be willing to receive it.
Please visit goodtherapysandiego.com or contact us at (619) 330-9500 to get started with me or another therapist for support!