I have the opportunity to work with many couples who have transitioned into parenthood recently. As a mother of a 15, 13, and 9-year old, those times (for me) seem like yesterday. Yet, when I am around infants and toddlers, I realize just how much I have forgotten! I wanted to take a moment to focus on some of the common struggles. Please know that you are not alone.
First of all, just bringing people into your family is quite the undertaking. I look back on my experiences with bed rest, cesareans, version, NICU, and medication with appreciation that we just made it through. In the moment, we just did the next right thing, but looking back, there was some significant stress for two 20-somethings. No pregnancy/birthing experience is the same, and we all end up with a story. Take a moment to value what it means to enter parenthood. It is generally not a simple process, and that's just the beginning.
Once we embarked on parenthood, life became, and still is a blur. We just keep moving through the stages. Although there is something new to learn at each stage, at this point I have not encountered a more exhausting stage than when our children were under five. I am currently knocking on wood, hoping that my teens don't prove me wrong. If they do, I will update this blog. :)
One of my sisters has two little boys at the moment. Visits with them have helped me realize how much my life has shifted now that the kids are older. I was sitting on the couch with my mom looking at an antique bookshelf and wondering why my sister didn't put anything on the bottom two shelves. Now....all the parents with little people know exactly why the bottom two shelves were empty. I started to think about brilliant gift ideas until I remembered...how quickly I had forgotten. I had forgotten that my interior decorating ideas used to be determined by whether the objects could be put in little mouths or broken by little hands, instead of by what cute bird figurine I found at TJ Maxx.
I sat that weekend, watching my sister and her husband dance between the two boys to meet all of their needs. Diapers, feedings, naps, breakdowns, sticky surfaces -- you know the drill. However, this time I watched with a new interest. I wondered how Brad and I ever managed this dance! My nephews were in constant motion, which meant the adults were as well. I had forgotten how much parents of little people are on the move -- no time to sit and chill, no ability to just jump into a car and go. Restaurant outings turn into a juggling act instead of a way to unwind. I remember when I was in that stage, I used to look at people who could just sit in chairs for a prolonged period of time as incredibly lucky.
Many of the couples I work with (who are parents of infants and toddlers) feel like their person does not appreciate all that they are doing. It always brings back a memory of one of my favorite fights with Brad. You see, our middle daughter did not sleep through the night until first grade. She has always been a happy soul, but she did not believe that sleep was very important, so we functioned on years of sleep deprivation. We were both working and taking care of the household, but during this stage of life, there is never enough time to truly do it all. One particularly awesome night, we were standing in our family room at 2 AM listing to each other why we were more tired than the other. I am pretty sure I opted to then sleep on the couch, which I am sure helped the issue. Looking back, I have so much appreciation for what we were able to do as a family, but in those moments I did not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Please understand, sleep deprivation has a significant impact on mood and how we view the world. Therefore, most couples struggle with an increase in conflict during this time. Sometimes, I wish I could just let them sleep for an hour in my office because that might be the most helpful!
Of course, there's also the shift in intimacy. I love Esther Perel and was able to attend a training with her last year. She pointed out that our brains are wired to separate caregiving from sexual desire. We simply can not be in mom mode and sexual partner mode at the same time. Therefore, many couples experience a decrease in intimacy once they have children. Some worry that they are no longer connected, or that their person is no longer attracted to them. Some worry that their relationship is in trouble. There a couple things that may help. First, have the conversation about how you can create enough space to get out of parent mode for a minute. Maybe that means an hour out of the house or a hot bath. The key is having the time to shift. Second, be patient with each other. Understand that this is a phase that you will get through. As soon as you start applying guilt or shame to a lack of intimacy, you're creating a bigger problem to overcome.
Speaking of guilt, is anyone getting comments about how you need to really enjoy your little people? I remember strangers in the grocery store telling me to soak in the time because they grow so fast. I remember a co-worker telling me I should reconsider working so much as I would later regret it when the kids left home. Yet, I was exhausted and feeling like I must be terrible, because I wasn't "soaking in" the time as much as possible, and I have always enjoyed my work. I want parents to understand that there are moments when we soak in the snuggles, and giggle with our toddler, and enjoy arts and crafts. And, there are times when we are exhausted, and we wonder what we signed up for. I have never met a parent who stays in a constant state of joy and admiration.
One way to help combat the "guilt" is to make to try and carve short, meaningful moments. Maybe that is a special bedtime routine; maybe that is coloring together. Maybe that is building a lego tower. The key is to stop multi-tasking for a moment and just be with them.
What about the house? I have a pretty good routine figured out now. On most weekends, we get through the household tasks, and I am the laundry queen of our home. I am able to see the bottom of the laundry baskets by the time Monday rolls around. However, when the kids were little, this simply was not the case. I had a queen-sized bed near the laundry room that used to hold a mountain of laundry -- literally. Again, I would experience guilt.
To any parents out there, please know that there is no way to get it all done. Things will fall off the plate, and that is okay. Providing a safe and nurturing environment for your children is way more important than trying to see the bottom of a laundry basket. Also, take strides to ensure that individual self care and time together as a couple are priorities. Healthy, happy adults provide environments that foster healthy, happy kids.
Travel and adventure with little people is a whole new world. I am someone who loves to go on adventures, so we just kept on going when we became parents. As I am writing this, Brad is reminding me of the amazing stories we could tell about children who get car sick. I won't go into too much detail, but picture a seven-hour car ride with a toddler who was sick about every 30 minutes, and an infant who hated the car seat and screamed six out of the seven hours. That trip still makes me bristle when I think about it.
On one hand, we have had a lot of fun memories, and on the other, trips and holidays were always exhausting. I tend to have dreams in my head about how things will go, and the reality is rude at times. If you are choosing to get out and about with your little people, bravo! Your kids are gaining new experiences. Please, again, be understanding with yourself. Know that the more flexible you can be, the better.
Every family is different, so you have to find what works for you. During this phase of life, I encourage couples to be gentle with themselves and each other. Get as much sleep as you can. Know that you literally spend a great deal of time in survival mode, and that you will not get it all done. Know that we are all just trying to figure this out, and every time you master a stage, your child will present you with the next puzzle.
And one more thing...this stage will end. I remember the day I realized that all of our kids could use the bathroom, use a fork, and buckle a seatbelt independently. I felt so free! There was even a "sweet spot" in parenthood where they all really liked Brad and I and wanted to spend time with us. Alas, we have hit teenage years, but I am sure that needs its very own blog.
Part of our mission at the Thriving Relationship is to provide resources, support, and community. Every Tuesday at 7 PM MST we do a Facebook Live on a relationship topic such as this. We would love to have you join us.