I spend a lot of time around parents, whether they be first time parents or seasoned parents of three or four little ones. I run a support group, I see them on home visits, on postnatal wards and clinics. There’s one thing that they have in common and that is, most are struggling. The question is why? Why are we as parents, families finding it hard to daily manage the rigours of caring for our children?
According to the media there is a host of celebrity moms out there back to post birth weight, doing buggy runs and baby yoga, cooking and eating a wonderful, healthy, diet and basically living the perfect life. Covers of magazines show the celebrity mom’s hitting the red carpet, in stunning designer dresses just weeks after giving birth. Yet is this really the reality? Well deep down most of us know this isn’t and while you are struggling to even get a shower and a cup of coffee in the morning, in reality so are they. Yet still the myth is perpetuated that this is what we should all be striving for, the perfect family life, everything in control, everyone coping and being perfect.
When it comes to expectations there can be many on new parents.
Expectations to have a so called ‘natural’ birth, to breastfeed, to eat healthy, wean correctly, the list is endless. What does your baby weigh? Is your baby sleeping through the night? Are they crawling, walking, talking, eating solids yet? What about mom? Within days of birth there is an expectation to be up and about, seeing visitors and ‘getting back to normal’ while learning how to care for her new infant. Even after a C section the expectation is for mom to bounce back, and take up the mantle of motherhood. Within weeks she is expected to know all about her baby, everything her baby needs or cries for and how to soothe, and meet her babies ever changing needs. As well as all that to be at every baby group, baby yoga class or baby massage, helping her baby to develop, socialise and learn new skills.
Within a year she is expected to return to her career, like she has never left and work as hard as she did before. Oh and yes, she is suppose to do all this while keeping healthy herself, getting in shape, caring for a home and may be other children too, as well as coping with sleepless nights, a complete change in life while finding out who this new person is, that she has become. All this at the same time as navigating the 24/7 world that is motherhood, with its endless advice, endless demands and to boot, a tiny little person that is dependant on you for everything.
What about partners too, who often have little in the way of paternity leave and are expected to return to work after little time to support their new family and carry on as if nothing has changed. They too are affected by the sleepless nights, the new demands of parenting and trying to care for growing responsibilities.
There is no doubt that expectations are high, whether they be expectations of others or expectations we place on ourselves. It’s no wonder that more and more parents are reporting struggling with the pressure and sometimes then their mental health.
But what is the reality of parenthood?
Do parents know the realties?
Is unrealistic expectations causing the struggling felt by many new parents?
The reality is somewhat different from the happy pictures we see in the media and parenting books, parenthood is hard, relentless, a fulltime job. Pregnancy and birth take its toll, physically and emotionally, time is needed to recover. Years ago women rested for up to 2 weeks, in some cultures women rest for a number of weeks, being cared for by family and supported to care for their new infant. However now parents often go home from the birth and find they have very little in the way of support. Families no longer all live close by, and often new parents can feel isolated and alone. There is a saying ‘its takes a village to raise a family’, yet all to often rather than a village we see ones coping alone.
What about caring for their new baby?
At one time, midwives came to see new mums everyday, for a least a week, now most visit once during the first week and are struggling in the current system to give the time families need. Parents are often left stumbling through those early days, unsure about feeding and the other needs of their tiny baby. Breastfeeding in particular is an area where there is very little support, without it and correct information on newborn behaviour, parents struggle to know how to feed their baby. Again there is much advice out there, but a lot of it conflicting, a minefield of endless tricks, and techniques to try for everything from feeding to sleeping.
Are we preparing new parents enough for the days after the birth?
I did a home visit recently with a family who were very clearly struggling with the arrival of their very much wanted and long awaited baby. Like a lot of parents they had paid for, and attended, parent classes before the birth and yet they remarked that the reality of life with a newborn was very different from the picture they felt had been painted. This is important because we need to think about the information we are giving parents and whether we are preparing them for the challenges a head.
The reality is babies don’t sleep, they feed all the time, they cry and like to be in their parents arms, where they feel safe. Babies have different stages of development, emotionally as well as physically. They suffer with sleep regression (not a term I like, I prefer sleep development), separation anxiety, unsettled times due to immunisations, teething and illness. Babies are individuals, they have their own feelings, personalities and needs. My own daughters are like chalk and cheese, my older daughter was attached to me, I couldn’t leave her sight without her screaming, she wanted to be with me constantly and followed me everywhere. My younger daughter was the opposite, she would sit on the floor and play for ages while I cooked, or cleaned. My parenting of each of them was very different, I had to adapt the way I cared for them and understand their differing needs.
Also all babies develop differently. Parents can feel that everything is a competition of who can do what first. I great example of this is weaning. The recommendations for introducing solid foods are around 6 months, but still there can be a rush to give solids, many feel the need to give as much food as they can, as fast as they can. ‘My baby eats everything and is on 3 meals a day’ can be heard as an achievement, worthy of a badge of good parenting. Yet in reality, as with everything, your baby will be ready when they are ready and letting them lead the way, responding to their needs and helping parents to understand what those needs are. Also helping parents to trust in themselves to know their own babies development helps remove some of the pressure that can accompany the journey of parenthood.
One of the biggest myths around parenting is regarding sleep. Sleep deprivation is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. It is the subject I hear discussed week in and week out. Let me start of by saying babies are very rarely good sleepers. If they are then you are one of the lucky ones, but I can honestly say it is very rare that I hear of babies that sleep well all the time. I while a go a mum came to my group in tears. She had been to see her health visitor who had asked her if her five month old baby was sleeping through the night, the mum replied no, and hadn’t up until that point viewed it as an issue. She was subsequently told to stop feeding her baby at night, leave her to cry and if this didn’t ‘remedy’ things she would be booked into a sleep training class. The mum who prior to this had no issues about her baby’s sleep was now feeling distraught and like a bad parent, she was struggling. Yet in reality we have already said that babies don’t sleep well they aren’t designed to do so but instead to wake up in order to keep them safe from things such as overheating, Yet instead of this being the information we give, instead of everyone saying, “you know what babies don’t sleep well and its really difficult, but here are things that you can do to cope” we tell them that what is actually the ‘norm’ is abnormal. Why is this not a good idea? Because when we don’t tell parents the reality, when we don’t give them the information to cope with the challenges, when we try to make them fit a mould that isn’t the reality of parenthood, then we cause them to struggle. They will struggle because they will expect things of their babies and themselves that they just cannot achieve, they will push to move to stages that their babies are not ready for and they will think bad of themselves for not having a baby that does X, Y and Z.
So what should we do?
Lets help parents listen to their babies, let’s help them cope with the difficult side of parenting, let’s provide them with accurate information and instead of advice, let’s give suggestions that help them make informed choices about what works for them as a family.
Let’s praise them for all the good they are doing, which sometimes is just getting through the day. Let’s stop saying, “is your baby doing this yet”, but instead be acknowledging that all babies, parents, families are unique. Let’s tell parents the reality, because yes its hard, very hard, but when parents all know that babies will feed a lot, they will only sleep a few hours, they want and should be held, then this will become the norm. Then we help parents to instead of struggle with parenting, find ways to understand their babies and make their family work.
It’s important too that we provide support and help parents to know that there is help out there. Children’s centres can offer much in the way of support, (although in many areas they are being affected by funding cuts). Homestart too is a wonderful organisation providing much needed support. Health visitors have a wonderful part to play in supporting families, by building relationships and by providing information that can help a family parent in the way that is suited to them. This can be invaluable and really make a difference.
Grieving the change, embracing the new.
Becoming a parent is a scary, wonderful, amazing but also hard journey. It is full of joys and challenges. Part of the journey involves grieving the changes and embracing the new. What do I mean?
When we become a parent our life changes forever. We become responsible for another person, they are completely dependant on us for everything. Before we have children we may have had a career where we worked long hours, traveled or worked with little worry about anything else. Along with this came social interaction, we could go out whenever we wanted to, stay up late, enjoy lazy holidays and meet up with friends. Now you have a tiny little bundle, to get out the door is like a military operation and you have so much stuff to carry it’s a wonder you don’t fall over.
Your staying up late has turned into walking up and down rocking your baby, praying for sleep. Those lazy holidays now include a energetic, little person that demands to be entertained and as for friends it can be hard to find the time, and those lunches have become more difficult, with shopping trips spent looking instead for those perfect shoes, baby changing rooms and comfy sofas. You know what, sometimes it sucks, sometimes you will try to get out the door and you will give up because it’s just too much today, those perfect shoes, have become comfy flats and lovely lunches swopped for cake at mother and baby groups.
So grieve, grieve the changes. You will miss the things you once enjoyed, this does not make you are bad parent, but it makes you human.
You will have days when you miss the hours at the hairdresser getting highlights, or the spa day on holiday or just the freedom to walk out the door without the whole contents of your house. So grieve it, feel sad, cry and lament that things have changed, but then let it go and embrace the new.
Not only have things in your life changes but you have changed. You have become something wonderful, a mother. You have given life to another human being, you are your babies universe and more. The crying in the night are cries for you, you are everything to your tiny infant, the clinging to you is love, the need to be with you, is love, you have become the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars in the eyes of your baby. There is so much to come, first words, first steps, first teeth. New experiences wait to be had, magical christmas, birthday extravaganzas, early morning cuddles, and goodnight stories followed by goodnight kisses. Holidays full of fun and adventure, days out full of wonder and excitement.
Then there is the love, the love that only comes from being a parent, a fierce love, that consumes you and consumes your little one. It is that love that makes arms reach out for you, that takes your hand to feel safe, that snuggles into you and falls asleep and drives you on when you feel you have nothing left.
Things change too, babies become toddlers, then they grow up and fast. There will be many stages, many new challenges and you will continually be learning. It is a road, a journey that will take you to many new destinations, but it is the road trip of your life.
So instead of struggling lets help new mums, parents, families to flourish and grow, let’s support them to not expect more of their babies and themselves than is realistic.
Lets prepare them for the reality, and help them to cope with the challenges, because there will be many. Lets help them savour every moment, every memory, every new chapter in their story.
If your a parent then yes, your life has changed, maybe beyond all recognition, its ok to grieve those changes, but remember along the way to embrace the new, even the hard days.
Believe in you, you can do this, because you know what, you got this, this parenting lark, more than you know and the rewards are endless. There are perfect families it’s yours! Even those days when you nearly leave the house in your pyjamas, or you find cheerios in your hair and the only thing you really want is one more hours sleep. So hang in there, you really are doing ok.