Guest Post: How to Emotionally Prepare for Parenthood

Quinn-Hafner-Headshots-287x300The below guest post is written by Quentin Hafner, an old friend from Grad School who I have a ton of respect for. He is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in practice in Orange County, CA where he specializes in marital therapy for prenatal couples and couples with young children.  He is a new dad himself and lives with his wife, Hillery, and their son, Levi.

For more information about Quentin, please visit:  http://www.QuentinHafner.com

Lots of wisdom here… Enjoy!

Introducing children into the marital relationship will be one of the most difficult transitions new parents will ever make.  Multiple marital satisfaction studies have shown again and again that having children is one of the biggest stressors any relationship will undergo, and the results are depressing when considering how many marriages end shortly after the baby arrives. When working with couples in therapy that are considering having children, the work typically evolves around considering the emotional impact children will have on their lives and their relationship.  It’s so easy to become enamored by the innocence and idyllic beauty of babies, but then be swept off our feet and overwhelmed when we realize how difficult the reality can be. For many, the fantasy of family life is incongruent with the likely reality of family life, and this disparity can catch a lot of new parents off-guard.  So, what can potential first-time parents do to prepare themselves emotionally for this transition?  Here are a few suggestions:

Evaluate Your Marriage:

Although babies are a significant stressor to even the best marriages, babies also get a bad rap for many relationships falling apart.  The truth is, many relationships that struggle after having a baby were not in great shape prior to the baby arriving.  Having the baby was the final straw, but certainly not responsible for an unhealthy relationship.  Preparing emotionally for the introduction of babies is also about having the hard conversations that no one wants to have.  What a downer, right!?  But these conversations are so important for prospective parents to participate in because it sets the stage for what’s most likely to be expected for new parents. Study after study shows that marital satisfaction is at its lowest level when there is a child in the home under the age of 5.  That’s a difficult statistic to digest, but it doesn’t change its validity.  Are we ready for that?  Does your relationship feel strong enough to endure that statistic?  Marital satisfaction is at its all-time high prior to children, and then it shifts drastically to its all-time low very rapidly.  Is this something we’re prepared for?  Find a trusted marital professional to help make your relationship as great as possible before your baby arrives.  Having your relationship on solid footing before the baby comes is the biggest advantage successful parents have transitioning into parenthood.

Prepare to Grieve:

When working with prenatal couples that are getting ready to make the transition into parenthood, I talk with them about the importance of grieving. Grieve, you say?  Yes, grieve.  Becoming a parent is filled with many joys, much beauty, and a multitude of overwhelmingly happy moments.  And we are so grateful for this! But having a baby also brings with it a multitude of losses that parents must feel free to honestly acknowledge.  We may grieve our changing roles, our changing identities, our limits to free time, the financial strain, the loss of friends, the changing relationships with extended family, and the loss of connection from your spouse.  Talking about these losses is difficult in our culture because we’re told things like, “you should grateful”, or “don’t you feel so lucky!?” which carry implicit messages that unintentionally may disallow new parents to freely acknowledge the  hardships of being a parent.  Engage your spouse in conversations that find balance in talking about what you look forward to, and what you imagine is going to be most difficult.  These are conversations that increase intimacy with your spouse.

Know Your Past:

For better or for worse, none of us can escape some semblance of pain from our own family histories.  We all experienced it, and part of our journey of “growing up” into adults is taking an honest appraisal of how early family experiences impacted us.  Some of us were impacted more than others, but no one comes from a perfect family.  To prepare emotionally for having children of our own, we need to become conscious of our own family histories – conscious of the parts that were healthy and conscious of the parts we want to leave behind. From my perspective as a family therapist, I often see new parents unconsciously carry forward with them the “baggage” or unresolved emotional pain from their family of origin that gets in the way of having a meaningful family life that is rich with peace, happiness and contentedness. One of the first questions I like to ask people when I meet them in therapy is to have them tell me what they enjoyed most about their family, and what they enjoyed least.  Many people have a hard time recalling the parts of their family they didn’t like, and this can present it’s own set of problems.  And others, adamantly proclaim they will be “nothing like my parents”, but unfortunately repeat the very same unhealthy patterns they were desperately trying to avoid.  As we prepare emotionally for the journey of parenthood, it’s vital that we become increasingly aware of what was modeled for us as we grew up in our own family of origin, so as to become conscious of what we want to repeat, and what we want to leave behind.  This is all part of the emotional preparation of becoming a family.

Having a baby is one of the most wonderful experiences that life can offer any of us.  It’s filled with such awe, mysteriousness, and joy beyond measure.  But just as the cliché suggests, anything worth having doesn’t come easy.  And this is the story of having a baby.  We love our babies, and that goes without saying, but we need to do ourselves justice by fairly acknowledging the challenges of having a baby as much as we celebrate the joys.  The more we can be comfortable with acknowledging the “negative” parts, the more we move toward becoming increasingly prepared for the journey.

Quentin Hafner, LMFT

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