My dear friend, Stephen, called me a few days ago while on his morning walk. We don’t speak often, but when we do we always dive right into the heart of the matter, and this time he started the conversation with a loud declaration through his cell phone on the crowded streets of Santa Monica: “Consc….trans…. are hard!” I couldn’t quite make out what he said and asked him to repeat it. “CONSCIOUS TRANSITIONS ARE HARD!” he yelled. And I laughed in knowing agreement.
Stephen and his wife, Chariya, are in the midst of the parenthood transition; their daughter is almost three months old, and the newborn parents are hobbling through their fourth trimester as most new parents do. Daddy feels like a third wheel, an outsider peering in on the magical and exclusive mommy-baby bubble and Mom feels caught between the needs of her husband, her own needs, and her baby’s 24/7 needs. The need-dance is such a shock and it generally takes years before everyone’s needs are moderately attended to, but it’s really the first year where the family wobbles around until they find their stable new family-legs.
I tried to offer him some helpful advice, and while there are tangible bits of information and practical suggestions that can help them navigate their new roles, the truth is that it just takes time to figure it out. Eventually dad accepts that he simply won’t be received the way he’s always been by his beloved partner. Eventually mom comes up for air and realizes that connecting with her partner isn’t just to meet his needs but actually rejuvenates her as well. And eventually baby isn’t quite so dependent and needy and allows for increasingly longer stretches of time for her parents to connect with each other separate from her.
But for now there’s a lot of grieving and a lot of letting go. In the early stages of parenthood, the couple inevitably grieves their former exclusive twosome, when they had endless time to go to the movies, walk on the beach hand in hand, and connect at the end of the day. The grief is real and needs to be acknowledged, and there’s simply no way to prepare for the grief prior to baby’s arrival. Once the grief passes through enough (it never fully passes through because the relationship will never be the same), the couple can find their new relationship as mother and father together and discover the unparalleled joys that arise from co-parenting. But the new relationship cannot be born until the old one dies, and it order for it to die it needs to be grieved.
There is no greater gift on this planet than becoming a parent, and with gifts of this magnitude the challenges are in equal proportion. To a certain degree, we expect to be challenged as new parents. Everyone says it’s hard; people try to tell you that life will never be the same. But until you’re in it diaper-deep, you simply can’t know how life-alterting and earth shattering it really is. Like all transitions, you have to walk through the darkness so you can experience the light. And for a newborn mother and father, that essentially means consciously talking about and grieving the life that is irreversibly over so that the magic of the new life can be solidly embraced.
Conscious transitions are SO hard. I’m currently in the marriage transition. Just got married a few months ago to my now husband of 10 years. I have been working so hard to work with these fears for months and months. I just keep thinking that it’s not supposed to be this hard and if the fears haven’t gone away by now then something obviously isn’t right. It’s weird each time I deal with a fear another fear that I hadn’t even thought about will pop up in my mind. It just seems like marriage should be so much easier. Some days are really great well other days I am a mess. I pretty much have squashed all of the silly fears, i think!
I think that sometimes the odd part for a father with his child is that it can be more than just a few months before he realizes how much his little one will love and cherish him. My husband was bitter after a few months of my son crying every time he was held by anyone but me. It made him feel so low to feel so unneeded, and yet when my son was older, around 3, his father became a big part of his world, and now at 7 he worships the ground his daddy walks on.
How can you ever really explain that transition? It is hard, and it has it’s purpose, and now I am going through the difficulty of being the center of my son’s universe, to a very secondary role. The exact same pattern happened with our second son, but that time my husband took on more one on one time with him, and it did make a difference in his own feelings (although the baby acted the exact same way).
Now as we are onto our third, the pattern will once again repeat itself, for all of us.
Beautifully written Sheryl. Thank you
Exactly, Heather – and well said. If only dads could read the manual that told them, “Don’t expect much from your wife for the first year” and “You’ll be the cat’s meow in your kids’ eyes in a few years.” I wonder if part of the problem is that we send fathers a mixed message that says: “Be a part of the pregnancy, go to every prenatal appointment, be an active participant in the birth, and then don’t expect much bonding for the first year or two.” It’s not really fair to them, and in other cultures or tribal cultures a new dad would be off on his hunt without an expectation of bonding with his child until the kid is older. So I think it’s very confusing to them about what their role is and how much they’re able to connect with a newborn.
When our son was born, I wish more than anything that my husband had been able to support, cherish and protect me in my vulnerability as a new Mom. I sometimes wonder if that is an unreasonable and needy wish, but if I could have it my way, I would add that to the aforesaid manual as a positive and productive role for the father in making the transition to fatherhood and family.
Not unreasonable or needy at all. I think it’s quite common (if not universal) and probably closer to how things used to be when men would protect and women would nurture (not to gender stereotype but that seems to be the roles in traditional cultures – and it probably works pretty well). I don’t think the answer is to go backward to the 50s stereotype but it seems we’re in transition regarding parental roles and it’s not ideal for either sex. Hopefully when our kids are grown we’ll be further along in a model that works for everyone!