Stresses of parenting that everyone needs to know about

(photo credit © See-ming Lee 風暴雲光 God rays during the storm, via Creative Commons / Flickr)

Welcome to Part 2 of our “book club” on Gottman and Gottman’s “And Baby Makes Three”.  In Part 1, we introduced the book and the scope of the problem.  In this installment, we share insights about the stresses of parenting that are common, but that we often struggle to talk about with our partners, friends, and communities.

You’re not alone – that’s the point of Chapter 1.  Indeed, as we’ve discussed earlier, approximately two out of three couples become unhappy in the wake of their first child’s birth.  Many couples feel alone in their parenting because gender roles and parenting values have shifted so much in the past twenty to thirty years that many young couples may feel they can’t look to their parents for advice.  Take discipline:  you may feel uncomfortable asking your parents for advice on parenting if they spanked you and you’ve concluded that that’s not how to raise an emotionally healthy kid (rightly so; see Alfie Kohn and Madeline Levine for more).  And you may not have an older, wise person to call on for advice (like a mentor or friend from a church or other group).  Add to this the tendency for men not to talk about their emotions (though this can affect men or women) and you’ve got a recipe for silence and pent-up tensions that lead to relationship problems getting worse rather than resolved.

When I got started as a father (our daughters are now 4 and 1), I felt very awkward about raising topics like romance and fights with close friends.  I incorrectly thought I was having these feelings because I was not doing a good enough job as a father and husband.  I had no idea this stress was normal.

Thus it can be cathartic to simply acknowledge what specific stresses parenting involves.  Earlier, emphasizing the father’s perspective, we discussed stresses including decreased emotional and sexual intimacy, the dramatic increase in child rearing, household, and administrative tasks, the increase in conflict between parents, the challenges of juggling work with engaged fatherhood, sleep deprivation, and the resulting fatigue.  The Gottmans go further, citing data that suggest most parents are likely to become mildly depressed because of sleep deprivation.  They also discuss the emotional stresses and conflicts between parents, and the huge list of admin tasks a couple needs to juggle (see p. 20-22).

Do mothers and fathers experience the stresses of early parenting differently?  We might wish not.  We might hope that we’re all blank slates, that mothers can father, and that fathers can mother equally well.  But unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be the case.  The Gottmans cite sixteen relevant studies of parents and conclude, in terms of gender differences:

It is normal for a mom’s sexual desire to drop precipitously after birth and even stay low for the first year, especially if she is nursing…

Moms usually become very involved with their babies.  But due to their fatigue, they have less to offer their partners emotionally…

Right after the baby is born, many women close to new moms arrive to help out.  But this society of women can crowd out the new dads.  Dads often respond by withdrawing from their babies and working more, especially if there’s conflict at home.

Babies withdraw emotionally from fathers who are unhappy with their relationship with their fathers.  But babies don’t withdraw from unhappy moms.  This withdrawal from dads can be tragic for babies. (p.23)

The Gottmans also speculate that expectations of mothers and fathers alike may be at the heart of many conflicts.  New fathers may expect to feel more appreciated and desired as “manly.”  New mothers may hope their men become more emotionally sensitive, nurturing, and loving (see more detail on p. 24).  Of course the reality is that changing our expectations and mindset takes time and practice.  Without making a dedicated effort to change how we act in our relationships – what this book club is all about – we will likely bring our habits and mindsets from before baby into life with baby.

And that can be toxic, not only for a marriage but for a baby’s healthy development.  Here’s what the Gottmans say about how high the stakes are:

The issue [of an unhappy couple] is momentous because of what might fail to develop in the baby.  In the first three years of life, fundamental neural processes are being laid down that have to do with the infant’s ability to self-soothe, focus attention, trust in the love and nurturance of his parents, and emotionally attach to his mother and father.  This means that a baby born to parents in an unhappy relationship might not develop the neural networks needed for school achievement, healthy peer relationships, and a future happy life. (p. 29)

There is much more in this chapter than what we’ve touched on.  Going forward, we’ll continue to riff on the themes covered in each chapter, create our own exercises that complement those in the book, cite other sources when necessary, and steer you to exercises and passages in the book.  If you haven’t bought your copy yet, please click here.

First quick exercise:  Readers, please try this and let us know in the comments if you find these exercises helpful.  On a fresh piece of paper, mark out three columns.  In the left one, list all the situations you feel are stressful as a parent.  Be as specific as possible about what you or your partner does that stresses you out, such as, “when [your partner] doesn’t do their share of the night time feedings.”  Then in the middle column, next to each entry write the feelings you have as a result.  Feel free to review our article about emotions and this detailed inventory of emotions.  In the last column, list why you think each situation bothers you.  Here you should focus on what about you is triggering the particular feelings, rather than blaming your partner (e.g., “I feel irritated when I get interrupted” instead of “so-and-so is a jerk for interrupting me”)  Finally, circle the two or three items that are causing the most problems for you and your partner.  These will be situations you can focus on as we move along in this book club.

Second quick exercise:  Make a list of all the tasks you and your partner have to juggle as parents.  See pages 20-22 for a starting list.  Then put either you or your partner’s name next to each item.  If you are fortunate enough to consider it, decide what you might ask a relative to help with, or what you can pay someone to help with.  You may want to highlight or rank the items by most to least time, and make sure you and your partner feel okay with the division.  While from time to time you may need to update or ignore this plan altogether, it should be something you both commit to in general.  You may want to type up a version of this list and post it somewhere obvious, like on the refrigerator, until you and your partner get used to new routines.  In addition, you can use this list to remind yourself about all the things your partner does do and then make sure to thank them whenever you can.  Lack of appreciation is a big problem in marriages, but gratitude is like most other things – it gets easier with practice.

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