The First Year As Parents

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Before your first child arrives, you and your partner may already be so wrapped up in the birth and the child him- or herself, that you could become alarmed by the headlong change in your relationship. It’s all about a shifting of dynamics, a reshuffling of priorities and especially being upfront about expectations.

“The reality is that, for the majority of mothers without paid help, along with the feelings of joy and love, there can be those of sheer exhaustion from nights of broken sleep, and feelings of failure and frustration when an irritable baby cannot be calmed,” says author of the mothering classic, The New Contented Baby Book, Gina Ford.

Two becomes three

Have you thought ahead, planned ahead, and mentally adjusted to what will be feasible, going forward, in your professional, social, and romantic lives? The relationship that created that gorgeous bundle of joy (and angst), will also require a dose of attention – and often this “centrifugal force” may begin to unravel when there’s no support or energy for a “couple’s night”.

Support system?

Of course, the COVID pandemic has brought new challenges into the “new parent” realm. If your significant babysitting support was due to come from grandparents in the age groups of 65-plus, or siblings/trusted friends with a comorbidity, you’re going to have to rethink things.

 This could mean that resentments enter the relationship picture, if one’s job or profession is allowed to continue unabated; while the other’s career and interests must take a back-seat (for whatever reason).

Picture what used to be a fastidiously neat and organised home for two hard-working executives – which has now gravitated into a “baby-sick feeding cloth and other paraphernalia” dumping ground. This phase is not easy to navigate unless you have a strong and lengthy history together, no monetary worries, and a child whose health is not in question.

Special-needs baby

Couples with a special-needs child obviously face added challenges, pressures, and stresses. They may have to exert themselves with medical aids and insurance companies; there may also be a disconnect between partners as to what the best care is for the child. A more difficult set of circumstances does not, however, mean that your situation is worse. Professor in the department of counseling education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Laura Marshak, suggests that a strong marriage can be maintained if you:

• spend at least 30 minutes together each day, with no talk of kids;
• embrace your partner’s views on your child’s diagnosis;
• ask each other for help, rather than allowing resentments to fester;
• be creative about romance; and
• share responsibilities so that you always feel like a united team.

Not to be lightly undertaken

Even esteemed musician Elton John had always said no to having kids. “I’m too old (he’s 74 in 2021), too set in my ways, too selfish, and the lifestyle [wouldn’t] suit me.” But all that began to shift the day he met David Furnish in October 1993.

The lesson to learn is that you need to be with the right partner for yourself; and you need to have the right vibe going on to be able to tackle the challenges that ensue once you start a family, with the right mix of humor and care.

A stable relationship with David resulted in a natural progression towards having their own sons, via a California-based surrogate they say they “love as a sister”. Today, their sons Elijah, 10, and Zachary, 8, have two devoted parents who have made themselves available to do the school run, help out with chores, encourage tidy rooms, teach the value of kindness, and watch football matches, no matter what Elton or David are otherwise busy within their professional lives.

Episode of Survivor

It pays to think of starting a family in the same way as you would consider taking on a reality TV show – a series of “progressively frustrating challenges that you sometimes have to conquer solo and sometimes in a team. Essentially, it is the healthy dynamics between the two of you that would make the difference between conquest and happiness, or misery and having to leave the island.

These six points should help, advises psychotherapist Alyson Schaefer:

• divide up the chores;
• express your appreciation;
• pick your battles;
• invest in your marital relationship;
• seek couples therapy sooner rather than later; and
• laugh at the chaos.

Did you know?

The World Bank’s economic indicators show South Africa’s crude birth rate fell to 20.5 children per 1 000 women in 2018, down from 22.9 children per 1 000 women in 2000. More recently, data from Statistics SA reveals that this rate has fallen even further, to 19.7 children per 1 000 women, as of July last year (i.e. 2020).

Reasons for a falling birth rate include the high cost of education, a lack of time to dedicate to children what with the hefty demands of competitive careers and personal interests, and fears about the future – that include politics, economics, world health and the environment.

Expert advice

According to Joburg-based clinical psychologist Anele Siswana, “the difficulties that couples may experience when starting a family range from financial constraints and a lack of affection or romance between partners, to feeling rejected and/or abandoned by the other partner as a result of the demands of the new baby.

I specialise in relationship therapy and always encourage my clients to consider therapy as a ‘therapeutic ritual’ that is there to improve the quality of their partnership, rather than being something that you only do when a problem crops up or there is conflict.

Being a new parent brings massive changes and therapy can assist in exploring your blind spots and finding ways to make your relationship stronger, even in the midst of all the sleep deprivation.”