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.