There is a lot written in social media and print about being a good parent, good enough parent, ‘the best you can be parent’. We hear of the importance of looking after ourselves as parents before or so we can best look after our little people. Anyone who has travelled by aeroplane will have heard the air hostesses instructing parents to put on their own oxygen masks first before attending to their child. It seems counterintuitive, but let’s look at the detail as to why this matters.
Self-care – who takes care of the parent? When the parent is constantly giving to others, do they ever think about how much they are giving of themselves? It’s probably not something that parents ask themselves or even consider often, until they are overwhelmed, feeling exhausted and irritable with their children. Then comes the guilt because they are not being the parent that they ideally want to be.
Let’s put it simply. We cannot give what we haven’t got. So if you, as a parent, are not looking after yourself, not showing yourself the love you show your loved ones, not treat yourself the way you want others to treat you (i.e., with respect), this not only affects you but potentially every member of your family.
Children can be viewed as the barometers of the parent’s functioning. Their behavioural outbursts or emotionality or sensitivity may reflect their parents’ imbalance of ‘all work and looking after the family’ but not themselves. When the parents are balanced (i.e., calm, consistent, non-reactive) there is a much better chance the children will be too. Hence the very important flow on effect of parent self-care.
Self-care includes aspects such as sufficient sleep, regular physical movement, nutrition, rest and relaxation, social connection, and engagement in pleasurable activities. Self-care is giving yourself a break, to recharge, taking time off. Self-care shows you matter. It models to your family the importance of your needs, that each member of the family is important. It reduces stress. Self-care is good for your well-being and that of your family.
Further engagement in each of these aspects of self-care demonstrates and models to your little people important life, coping and self-regulation skills. This is much more powerful than anything you could say or ‘lecture’ your child about. Demonstrating to your child that when you’re frustrated you engage in deep breathing, or when you’re anxious you run a bath, or at the end of the day if you’re tired you go to bed a bit earlier, and so on, are invaluable life lessons.
Self-care doesn’t have to be time intensive. Even engaging in breathing exercises for 2 minutes or watching the clouds, or listening to your preferred music is likely to shift your energy and provide you with a little joy. Getting up a little earlier than your little people to plan or consider your intentions for the day, perhaps whilst you sip a cup of tea, is also important self-care. You’ll likely be more calm, and therefore more intentional in your interactions with your loved ones and less reactive overall.
Our team of highly skilled and professional clinical psychologists are able to compassionately support your journey to being the parent you want to be, that makes your heart sing, a parent who prioritises their own self-care because they acknowledge their own importance and their own needs; and that ultimately flows on to a more contented family. Opening yourself to growth by learning and incorporating skills such as relaxation and mindfulness of thoughts and emotions techniques, means you are prioritising your own wellbeing and that of each member of your family.
It is no secret that bringing home a baby is time if immense love and joy. Yet it also signifies a time of enormous change for each new parent as an individual, as well as for the couple relationship. Thanks to excellent initiatives from Beyond Blue and public health groups, there is now much greater understanding and acknowledgement of postnatal depression and the benefit of seeking help. While this is fantastic, there are other dimensions to becoming a parent that also deserve to be spoken about.
1. I’m just not “me”
Not every new mum experiences PND, in fact most don’t. But what every new mum does undergo a significant transformation of herself. All of a sudden she is not doing the things that she often took for granted, the sorts of things that allowed her to be her. Formal work may suddenly stop, leisure activities and sports cannot be engaged in, the ways she socializes need to be adjusted, even going to the loo in privacy needs to be reconsidered! Beyond that, the woman’s post-birth body continues to experience vast physical and hormonal changes. Some of these changes are temporary, while others may not be regained for months, or years, if ever at all. In his book The Birth of a Mother, psychiatrist Dr Daniel Stern calls attention to the fact that all of these changes often mean that new mums must create a new identity. While some of this is easy to do, other parts tend to take new mums completely by surprise. The more I come across this phenomenon in new mums, the more I wonder why there isn’t more discussion or preparation for what seems to be a very normal event.
What you can do: The more we can raise awareness that the transition to motherhood includes changes to a mum’s identity (in positive and challenging ways), the better-placed new mums will be. If you, or someone you know are on the path to motherhood, try talking with them about how they think they will manage the good and not-so-easy parts of this change
2. Don’t forget Dad!
Even though the hormones and physiological changes aren’t an issue for new dads, the adjustment that men go through on a practical and psychological level is still worthy of some attention. Unfortunately, there is often so much focus on babies, and to a lesser degree on mums at this time that dads are often forgotten about. Up to 1 in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression and many others report heightened anxiety about their new role as protector/provider. There are fewer social supports in place to support new dads and, knowing what their partner has going through during pregnancy and labour, many men feel uncomfortable talking about their own struggles.
What you can do: Partners, friends and family can help to change this by remember to ask a new dad “how are you going amongst all of this change?”
Take the time to listen, to acknowledge the struggles of fatherhood as well as the good times. This will go a long way to changing the pressures felt by new dads.
If you are concerned about a new dad, encourage him to speak with his GP about a referral to a psychologist. More information about postnatal distress in Dads can be found here: https://www.panda.org.au/info-support/how-is-dad-going And don’t forget that June 18 is International Father’s Mental Health Day
3. Three is a crowd
When a new baby steals its parents’ hearts and relies on them for basically everything, it is easy to slip into a pattern where the needs of the couple relationship are entirely neglected. Approximately 70% of couples experience a sharp decline in relationship closeness and happiness when a baby comes along.
What you can do: While some of this is a normal adjustment of sharing attention between 2 to 3, there are simple things that new parents can do to nurture their couple relationship alongside nurturing their baby.
- Don’t forget that you are not just parents! Ensure that you talk about parts of the day that didn’t involve baby.
- Get out of the house. Going for a walk as a family gives benefits to everyone. While the sensory stimulation will be good for your bub, some fresh air and exercise in great for parents too, releasing endorphins that promote positive feelings.
- Simple touch. Don’t forget that hugs, holding hands, or snuggling up on the couch are an effortless way to maintain intimacy even when you are exhausted. Like exercise, physical contact with a loved one releases chemicals in our brains that also promote positive feelings.
- Connect, on and off devices. While mobile phones can be great for new parents to keep in touch during the day, try to make sure that you have some device-free time when you at home together too.
Bringing baby home means big changes for every part of a family, in good and challenging ways. Being aware of these changes in advance will help to make adjusting to these changes as smooth as possible.