Tag Archives: new parent

Commitment and Kids

Why the Couple Relationship Is So Important When You Are Parents

baby shoesWhat is it exactly that makes a committed relationship work, after kids come into the picture? It’s maintaining a loving and safe connection that  allows new parents to weather the storms of raising kids with their relationship intact.

If you want to maintain a good marriage, your relationship with your partner has to come first. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and some of us even enjoy our work. And we all have to take good care of our children. But if your partner always comes last, even a good relationship may fail, which will impact both your children and your financial future. A committed partnership takes love, commitment and hard work, and it’s a rare one that can stand many years of neglect.

Most of us want to be the best parents we can. But we don’t always remember that keeping our relationship happy is one of the most important things we can do for our children’s well-being. This means finding a way to spend time together away from the kids, as well as doing things together as a family. It also means keeping your sex life alive and kicking, whatever that takes. And it means working through your relationship difficulties and finding a way to connect and create time for your relationship despite whatever else is going on. It also requires that you accept your partner as a human being and a parent, as imperfect as they may be. Studies show that children fare much better in a family in which the parents’ relationship is solid, even if the parents do an imperfect job.

Communication is crucial. In the short run, it is always easier to bury resentments and avoid conflict. But in the long run, resentments build up and fester – killing intimacy and poisoning your sexual relationship. Learning how to communicate clearly and connect on an emotional level while remaining responsible for your own feelings and reactions can save your relationship.

For example, if your partner spends time caring for the baby and you’re annoyed that you find him sitting in front of the TV watching football, take a minute to think about how you want to respond. Angrily attacking him for not being engaged with the baby will only drive a wedge between you. On the other hand, biting your lip may be even worse, if it will lead to you feeling resentful and unloving toward your mate. If, after letting yourself cool down, you find that you are still resentful about it, one way to start a conversation is by saying something like: “I know you have had a hard day and you enjoy watching football to unwind. And your time with the baby is yours, so I don’t want to tell you how to do it. But I can’t help feeling resentful, after spending the day entertaining and caring for the baby, when I see you watching TV rather than playing with her.”

It may be that this discussion will involve some conflict, and your partner may express anger. But he also might acknowledge that he is at a loss for how to interact with the baby, or that he feels inadequate or inexperienced with parenting a baby. And you might express your concerns about exposing the baby to TV, and your desire for both of you to be good parents, while acknowledging that a football game probably won’t ruin your child for life.

After such a discussion, you might find that you don’t feel angry anymore. You may understand where your partner is coming from and recognize that the baby will survive some football-watching with Dad. Or, the discussing may spark the idea of giving Dad more time with the baby to improve his confidence. But either way, your feelings of resentment will be less if you work through the issues and understand each others’ feelings.

This is not to say that there are never times when it pays to let something go rather than discussing it with your partner. But the important question to ask yourself is: “will I truly be able to let this go?” If the answer is no, then you have to talk about it, preferably when you are both feeling calm, so you can move past the feelings of resentment and reconnect with your partner.

Remember that there is no intimate relationship that can remain loving without dealing with some conflict. Expressing feelings in a sensitive way is how you grow closer and resolve difficult situations. If you find that these discussions are unproductive, get the help of a qualified couples’ counselor sooner rather than later, so there is enough good will between the two of you to work on making the relationship better.

Often, the issues that keep coming up between you two mask fears and anxieties about the safety and security of your relationship. Reestablishing that bond can make all the difference in resolving the little conflicts that arise and maintaining a strong, healthy bond with your mate.

My Journey Through Postpartum Depression and Panic Disorder

Whenever I talk about the symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I always include “unusual physical symptoms.” What does that mean? It means that any new physical symptoms that begin during pregnancy and postpartum can be related to mental health.

My own experience with postpartum depression and anxiety was quite atypical, and that was partly why I suffered for months before receiving the proper diagnosis and treatment.

I had lots of risk factors for postpartum depression: a previous bout of depression, the death of a loved one, a high-risk pregnancy, a traumatic childbirth, an unsupportive marriage, and breastfeeding difficulties. But even though I had suffered from depression before, after the death of my mother, my postpartum symptoms were not recognizable to me.

After my second child was born, my stress level was off the charts. My older son got kicked out of two preschools (he wouldn’t use the potty!) and I was scrambling to find a preschool that would take him. I never made enough milk for the new baby because he was so big and I was so stressed out, and he refused to nurse completely as soon as he started solid foods. I felt guilty about “failing” at breastfeeding and I was also afraid that I would not be able to go back to work after maternity leave because I couldn’t find full-time daycare that would take my challenging and potty-resistant older son.

In the meantime, I had difficulties in my marriage. My husband worked a lot, and when he was there he criticized my parenting style, my cooking, and my housekeeping. Even our challenging preschooler was my fault! I was trying my best to make everyone happy, but I was clearly failing.

During this time, I started to have odd physical symptoms. I started feeling that the room was tilting and that I was off-balance. I had to lie down and felt the room was spinning around me. My doctor thought it was either an inner-ear infection or possibly Multiple Sclerosis, and I was sent for neurological testing. The tests came back normal, although MS couldn’t be ruled out (a bonus for my anxiety, of course!).

My symptoms came and went, and then began to include nausea and vomiting along with the dizziness, a complete lack of appetite, and an inability to sleep. I had a low-grade fever on and off for a couple of months and my white blood-cell count was high. I lost 16 pounds beyond the baby weight, slept about three to four hours a night, and threw up regularly — out the door of the car, in the sink at the pediatrician’s office, etc. I felt that my body was swaying even when I was perfectly still, and my bed felt like it was shaking as I lay in it trying to sleep. My skin felt prickly, my chest burned and my hands tingled. The dizziness made watching TV or reading impossible, and walking or driving became difficult. I felt sure that I was dying.

My doctor considered an inner ear problem, hormones, diabetes, thyroid issues, and even encephalitis, but every test came back normal. I was living on Ensure and Gatorade, because I couldn’t keep any solid food down. The stress of caring for my children became unbearable, so we hired a babysitter and I spent most of every day lying in bed, praying to fall asleep for a couple of hours to get some rest. I was prescribed Ativan, but it just knocked me out for an hour or two and I would wake up feeling even worse than before.

After about four months, I fell apart completely and told my doctor that he had to hospitalize me because I was dying, and at that point I wanted to die if they couldn’t stop the misery I was living in. I was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient unit, but my doctor was still sending me around to specialists, trying to figure out what was physically wrong with me.

I stopped vomiting as soon as I was admitted to the hospital. That was when I realized that whatever was going on with me had to do with stress. I spent 12 days in the hospital, during which time I started taking antidepressants and was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that allowed me to sleep. For a few days, all I did was sleep. When I was awake I was no longer nauseous, but I was filled with unbearable emotional pain. I was terrified that I would never be able to care for my children without getting sick. I felt like the worst mother in the world.

After I was released from the hospital I did a full-day partial hospitalization program for a month, which gave me time for the antidepressant to start working and allowed me to take care of myself for a change. I learned in group therapy about the ways in which I had prioritized my responsibility for others way above self-care, in unhealthy and unhelpful ways, and I began to heal. With the help of medication, therapy, and later couples counseling, I recovered. I still had anxiety at times, but I also had joy and passion for life. I became a lactation educator, started a small business helping other new moms, and led new parent support groups for several years. Eight years later I went back to school to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.

I still have to be vigilant about managing stress and maintaining good self-care. I tell myself that this is the “gift” of being prone to depression and anxiety: I don’t have the luxury of tolerating a great deal of stress like some people seem to do, or living life in a way that generally makes me unhappy. I am obligated to do work that I love, to have a healthy relationship with my husband, and to prioritize joy, peace and comfort as well as caring for my family. I know that I always have to be mindful to avoid a recurrence of depression, but I also know that I am strong and resilient and will do whatever I have to do to be healthy and take good care of myself and my children.

My mental health issues began when my second child was seven months old, and yet no one ever considered a postpartum condition. My symptoms were fully consistent with panic disorder and depression, and yet my doctor and my therapist (yes, a trained therapist!) never considered these diagnoses. My hope is that in the future, mothers and their caregivers become better educated to recognize perinatal mood and anxiety disorders so that they can be treated early and mothers can return to enjoying their lives again.

  • If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • If you are looking for pregnancy or postpartum support and local resources, please call or email Postpartum Support International:

Call PSI Warmline (English & Spanish) 1-800-944-4PPD (4773)
Email support@postpartum.net

Feeling Clueless? Reading Your Baby’s Cues

By Meri Levy, MFT

father babyPeople have a physiological reaction to the sound of a baby crying. Our hearts pound, our blood pressure rises, and we start to sweat. This reaction causes most of us to try to stop the crying, regardless of how tired, irritable, or hungry we might be ourselves. And that’s a good thing. It’s how our babies learn to trust that their needs will be met and that the world is a safe place.

But sometimes (often!) new parents wonder what the baby is trying to say? What does the baby need? We run around randomly, trying different remedies: jiggling the baby, rocking the baby, changing her diaper, offering a breast or the bottle, or a pacifier. And sometimes the baby still cries. We desperately want to eliminate the cause of the crying, and we become frustrated, angry or guilty when we fail.

I faced this situation with my first child, Benjamin. I never knew what he wanted. He seemed to be constantly fussing, and I was never very good at calming him (and I did not feel calm myself). My second child, Elijah, always wanted to eat, so it was easier to consistently meet his needs. But I had not really improved my ability to read a baby’s signals.

With my third child, Emma, I hoped and prayed she would never (or rarely) cry, so I wouldn’t feel quite so inadequate again. But in the meantime, I picked up a copy of Secrets of the Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg. I had heard her on a talk show, and she claimed she get babies to sleep through the night, on their own, without letting them cry. This was a secret I wanted in on.

What I got from the book was very different from what I expected. The book is not for everyone. The author is not an advocate of “attachment parenting,” for example. But regardless of your parenting philosophy, The Baby Whisperer has a lot of good information about caring for your baby in a respectful way. She focuses on honoring your baby’s individuality, understanding how babies communicate, and learning how to meet their individual needs.

The book prompted me to stop when Emma began to cry, and to really listen and observe her, rather than jumping in and trying to “rescue” her without knowing what she was asking for. When I figured out what she was saying to me, I was in a much better position to meet her needs.

Here are some of the body language cues discussed in the book that I have found helpful:

Tiredness:

    • Yawning;
    • Moving head from side to side;
    • Flailing, uncoordinated arms, clawing at face;
    • Strong, uncoordinated kicking;
    • Bloodshot eyes.

Overstimulation/overtiredness, same as above, plus:

    • Turns away from objects and faces;
    • “Seven-mile stare.”

Hunger:

    • Turning head to one side and craning neck back with an open mouth;
    • Bringing hands to mouth, trying to suck them;
    • Pursing lips;
    • Curling tongue at sides.

Coldness:

    • Quivering bottom lip;
    • Extremities turning bluish;
    • Mottled skin;
    • Goose pimples;

Pain/gas:

  • Silent screaming, then gasp and audible wail
  • Grimacing, often scrunched up face
  • Arms shaking, slight tremor
  • Rigid torso
  • Legs pulled up to chest

What I discovered, from observing Emma more closely and choosing how to respond to her body language and cries, is that frequently what I used to interpret as hunger or gas was in fact tiredness or overstimulation. What happens if you feed a tired baby who isn’t hungry is that frequently she may get gas and be overtired and more difficult to put to sleep.

The goal is not to stop all crying. Babies cry to express themselves, and even a “perfect” parent, if such a thing existed, couldn’t prevent all crying. Nor should you, necessarily; your baby may benefit from having a chance occasionally to self-soothe, which is an important skill as your baby grows older. For subsequent children, this skill is learned by necessity because parents can’t always respond immediately. But by learning to read your baby’s cues, you can avoid some frustration for yourself and have the confidence to know you are doing the best you can for your baby.

Co-Parenting With a Partner

The First Year Can Be Rough, by Meri Levy, MFT

family twinsIf you’re like me, I really thought that, despite my decision to breastfeed, my husband was so gung ho about being a Dad that we would share the parenting responsibilities pretty equally once our first child was born. I was in for a rude awakening. Breastfeeding meant that much of the time I was literally attached to my new baby, and when I was not, I had an easier time calming him than my husband did. And even when I didn’t, I couldn’t stand to have my husband trying to comfort our fussy baby without stepping in and trying to help. Whether due to biology or psychology, I was so attached to my new baby that I couldn’t tear myself away long enough to really get a break. As a result, I became more comfortable in the baby care role, and he became less.

There are many reasons why fathers often take a backseat in the early days with a new baby. Whether because of a hormonally-afflicted “helicopter” Mom, an inexperienced Dad, a baby who is more easily calmed by the mother, or gender-related attitudes about who does what, newborn care often falls disproportionately to the mother. And since Mom is generally recovering from childbirth, likely adjusting to breastfeeding, undoubtedly sleep deprived, and in the throes of huge hormonal changes, this disproportionate share can become a BIG PROBLEM. You know that saying that “if Mom isn’t happy, nobody is happy?” I think the truth of that statement is widely underestimated.

So, we’ve got a Mom who can’t let go to allow her partner to care for the baby, a Dad who is either mildly incompetent or feels he is (or is being treated like he is), a baby who’s getting used to being cared for by Mom, and a Mom who is at the end of her rope and feels like she just can’t get a break (and is not sure she would take one if she could). Not a recipe for a happy family.

Negotiating who does what, recognizing the barriers to fairly allocating parenting and household responsibility and actually making and carrying out a plan to address those barriers and create a cooperative, supportive and fair allocation of workload is one of the major tasks of the first year of parenthood. Working out a plan for who does what, figuring out how to set goals for change if change is needed, and implementing those changes, can make a world of difference.

I once read a study (and I don’t have a citation, but I like to believe that it is true) that claimed that of all the factors that might predict the well-being of children as they grow up (e.g. praise, affection, discipline, structure, etc.), the one variable that is most predictive of a child’s future well-being is the degree to which his or her parents have a cooperative relationship around parenting. So, if that is true, it matters less who does what (or if it is done correctly), and it matters more that parents are supportive of each other as parents and partners.

Becoming a Parent to Your Newborn

By Meri Levy, MFT

Regardless of your expectations, the arrival of a first baby is, first and foremost, a radical role adjustment for the new mother and father. As you grow from being a child to an adult and into a partner in an adult relationship, most of us experience shifts in our relationships as daughters or sons, sisters or brothers, and friends or lovers.

But the birth of a baby changes everything! Now perhaps your most significant role in life is as a parent. This is an altogether new role, and babysitting experience aside, there is no real preparation for it. But it is truly amazing to see how our babies foster and nourish our growth as parents, almost from the beginning.

While you adapt and grow to fill your new role, it can be difficult at times to hold onto formerly cherished roles, as a professional, a friend or lover, and an independent person in your own right. You may find that you are redefining yourself in ways that make these roles change (e.g. leaving behind a career, changing roles in your marriage, etc.)

Ultimately, however, we are ourselves. While we adapt to our role as parents, we also must adapt our view of parenting to include who we are as individuals — to allow ourselves to fit into our vision of a good parent.

Some mothers plan to stay at home full-time, but must still figure out if staying at home with their new baby is what makes them a happy mom. Or conversely, working mothers may find that they cannot leave their baby in another’s care. For fathers, you may have expected yourself to be the provider, but you still must figure out if spending the weekend satisfying that picky client at home is how you want to be a father — or if your partner is even the better choice as the bread-winner! And parents must weigh all sorts of other priorities, to friends, yourself, and the world, in figuring out how you will incorporate being a parent into your life.

No one can do this for you, because you are as unique a person as your new baby, and uniquely qualified to create the best family for your child.

If the process of evolving into the parent you want to be is more challenging that you thought, working with a therapist who specializes in this transition is a good way to work through your competing goals and figure out the path that is right for you.

Nurturing the Nurturer

By Meri Levy, MFT

Taking Care of Yourself as a New Parent

As parents, our job is never-ending. For the next 18-21 years, you are either “on duty” or “on call” 24/7. Strangely, while this never-ending job doesn’t necessarily get easier with time, it often seems less like “work” as our children (and we) mature, and more like “life.”

But it is easy, as we grow into our role as caretakers of our children, to forget another important person who relies upon our care – ourself. We all make this mistake sometimes. If you don’t make sure that your own nutritional, health, emotional, and spiritual needs are met, who do you think will? It has been my experience that the answer is “no one.” As much as our partners may want to attend to our needs, they cannot do it for us. No one but you really knows what it is you need, and many of the things that fulfill us as human beings cannot be done for us.

No one but you can make sure that you eat a balanced diet, get regular exercise, indulge in treasured hobbies or activities, get needed downtime, or connect with beloved friends and family.

How important is it to make sure that your own needs are met? Only you can say. One mom might be able to tandem-nurse twins and a toddler while home-schooling her older two children and never see a movie or have dinner out for five years. And be perfectly content. Another might feel burdened and overwhelmed if she doesn’t have lunch with a friend or enjoy a leisurely uninterrupted bath weekly. Or maybe you need an hour every day to drink a cup of tea and read the paper or a good book. You are the only person who can say when your engine’s running low on gas, and what it takes to fill it up.

And it doesn’t help to feel guilty about what you need to do to take care of yourself. If your child needed a nap long after his peers had given it up, would you tell him to “tough it out” and be grumpy for half the day? No, you would do whatever you could to arrange things so that he could get his nap. You deserve the same recognition for your unique temperament and needs.

And you don’t do anyone any favors if you let yourself run on empty for too long. No one wins if you allow yourself to run out of gas on the side of the road. And everyone is affected when you are running low, not just you. You don’t make it to the finish line any faster if you never slow down and take it easy.

This is your life. And raising children is a path, not a destination. You cannot travel the path with joy and stamina without giving yourself the same care you give your children. So take some time this week and plan a couple of activities you can do that will help “fill up your tank.”