Parenthood is great in many ways. Becoming a parent, however, is a growth process and it takes a lot of learning through trial and error. Bill Cosby says “Having a child is surely the most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit.” Those of us who are parents can agree it’s much harder than we thought, but there is also the potential for great joy and happiness as a parent. When I found out that my wife was pregnant the first time, I had only the slightest idea how my life was about to change. Before I had kids of my own, I had some friends who were parents. When I told them we were expecting, these friends – with spit up on their shoulders and crying babies in the background – would grin and say how much they were looking forward to us having a child to take care of. Looking back, I think the grin was more sadistic than celebratory. It’s like they couldn’t wait to see us suffer and stagger through the transition to parenthood.
In fact, I know these friends were enjoying our fear and panic about being new parents. They were rewarded by our new understanding of the great challenge of parenting. They wanted us to share in their uncertainty and anxiety, because everyone feels better when they don’t have to suffer alone. But it wasn’t just about the suffering. These friends weren’t just sadistic, because they were also excited for us to understand the great joy they experience as parents. It’s something you just don’t understand until it happens. This first-hand experience served to deepen our friendships with people who already had children.
For those readers who are not yet parents but are hoping and expecting to become parents, please know that becoming a parent will change you. The transition to parenthood is a great shift in the personal identity. It’s the taking on of a great new role in life that you’ll always have. You will forever be a mother or father once your child is born, even if (God forbid) that child dies. Its one of the few life roles you can’t take off once you put it on. Because of this fact, I believe it’s vitally important to prepare and educate oneself for this important role. This will increase the positive experiences of being a parent and reduce the anxiety and insecurity associated with taking on this new role.
Research in the social sciences has focused on this transition to parenthood for several years now, because it’s such a widespread and critical phenomenon. It’s widespread because so many people experience the transition (of course) and critical because it’s a stressful time for people. For instance, research on marital satisfaction shows that over time there is a decline in marital satisfaction that starts at the transition to parenthood. This decline stays constant until the children leave home, at which time research shows a drastic improvement in marital satisfaction! Imagine if you will, couples in their fifties crying and waving as their last child drives off to their own life. As the couple goes back inside the house, however, the cries turn to whoops of celebration.
The decline in marital satisfaction is an observation of a typical pattern. You, the reader, don’t have to experience this typical pattern however. Studies have found that certain factors will help make the transition to parenthood a thoroughly positive experience and buffer against the bad stress new parents can experience. If expecting parents can incorporate these factors into their lives, they will find the transition to parenthood rewarding and not so scary.
The first factor to be aware of is the mental health and well-being of the parent-to-be. Those who are happiest with their lives before parenthood have the best transitions to parenthood. Research shows that any dysfunction or bad personal habits that exist prior to having a child will just get worse after having a child. This suggests it is VERY important to make yourself as mentally and emotionally healthy as you can before the baby arrives. Get rid of any bad habits NOW! Don’t wait until you are a parent to straighten up, that’s usually too late.
To make your couple relationship as healthy as possible before a child arrives, research shows that nurturing the friendship between spouses is very important. Increasing an awareness and responsiveness to each other’s needs in the marriage will make a marriage stronger through the transition to parenthood. These means its important to be as nice and generous as possible to each other, to be concerned about each other’s comfort and security in the marriage. It means you can’t be focused on yourself as much.
Another very important factor is social support. Parents who seek out support from family and friends have a better time in the transition to parenthood. Becoming a parent is hard, and it shouldn’t be done alone. You will need encouragement, advice, and hands-on help from those you love and trust. Another part of this social support factor is getting a break from the parent role occasionally. Parents who engage in social activities with friends typically report greater satisfaction in their marriage and in their parenting role.
This shows its very important to keep yourself balanced. Its very easy to let the new role of parent consume you. If this happens, however, you will feel lost and overwhelmed because you are more than a parent. You had an identity before you were a parent, and you must take time to keep that identity intact. Incorporate the role of parent, but don’t let it consume you.
These findings from research on the transition to parenthood seem like common sense when you think about it. But most of us aren’t thinking too clearly when we become excited and anxious about such a huge change as that of becoming a parent. So heed these simple factors, keep them in mind, and put them into practice. Learn all that you can about parenting and becoming a parent. One organization I would recommend for new mothers is MOPS, Mothers of Preschoolers. This is an excellent way for new mothers to support each other and learn from each other. To find out about MOPS in your areas, visit http://www.mops.org/.