Have you ever taken a ski slope with no knowledge of the sport? Or taken a curve while driving only to find you were going too fast, threatening to spin out of control? You can parent by the skin of your teeth. Many do. Or, you can make the decision to become a parent, based on knowledge and preparation that give you the edge to make it an exhilarating ride, if you choose to take it.
When two people join together in marriage, it is said that they must blend their unique "cultures"--- beliefs, attitudes and traditions from their childhood families--- into one shared reality. With the arrival of a newborn, it is as if these two people must now blend two galaxies, as differing family patterns may clash rather than blend under the challenges and stress that parenthood brings to couples lives.
Becoming a parent puts you under pressure. This is not a bad thing. Character is defined and strengthened through life's challenges. Diamonds, after all, are made from carbon under pressure. Parenthood can also bring out the splendor and resilience in our relationships. But, of course it must be the right conditions for pressure to create positive instead of negative results! Getting ready for the challenges that parenthood brings will help you know the difference between wisdom and folly. This chapter provides you with knowledge about the blueprints you carry into parenthood, whether your relationship is strong enough to thrive under the pressure of parenthood and what you can do to make it more resilient.
Traveling through time on the family life cycle
A new definition of family is born when a baby arrives. Husbands become fathers, wives become mothers, mothers become grandmothers, fathers become grandfathers, daughters become sisters and sons become brothers. A myriad of changes cascades through several generations on what sociologists define as the family life cycle.
When we are born we enter into a family. The purpose of family is to nurture us, not only when we are vulnerable and helpless as a newborn--- but later, as we face the challenges of adulthood. If we marry and have children, we travel through the seven stages of the family life cycle over time. Below is a graph of the family life cycle and its stages. The arrow represents the flow of time.
The seven stages represent transitions in the family, each one building a foundation for the next. Each stage has its own challenges which, when met smooth the way for the stage that follows. The stages evolve like consecutive steps on an ascending stairway. Each step brings you closer to the next one without undue strain. Variations such as divorce, remarriage, stepfamily and single parenthood also create alternative routes along the family life cycle path.
When the challenges of one stage are not met, or a stage is skipped altogether, the next stage is a double-whammy. It is like taking 3 steps at once up the stairwell, instead of a more gradual climb. For example, early marriage right after high school, precipitated by pregnancy throws a young couple into the stage of becoming parents, having skipped the stages of establishing individual adult lives separate from their parents and establishing a foundation as a couple. Compacting three transitions into one is extremely stressful, often doomed to failure of the marriage and struggles in parenthood that can prove overwhelming, as statistics show.
Another example of skipped stages occurs when a stepparent with no parenting experience is expected to parent newly acquired stepchildren. A lack of knowledge about the normal family life cycle stages and stepfamily changes is one of the reasons that over half of remarriages fail. Knowledge of the family life cycle and its stages help an already pregnant young couple or a stepfamily better adapt to their unique situation, despite the added stress. Knowing these stages before you decide to have a baby gives you a framework to understand, evaluate and more successfully meet the challenges of becoming a parent. The first part of this chapter will help you determine the strength of your couple's bond and the extent to which you have successfully navigated the stage of coupling.
Evaluate the Strength of Your Relationship
In this chapter you will not only learn about the stages of the family life cycle pertinent to your decision of whether or not to have a baby, but you will be given tools to help you evaluate the strength of your relationship, clarify the kind of parent you want to be, and become knowledgeable about the blueprints you carry into parenthood. This information will provide a foundation to examine the challenges of work, money, sex, discipline and other dilemmas you will face on your journey of parenthood. At the end of this process, you will be able to make an intelligent decision about whether parenthood is right for you at this time. And you will be better equipped should you decide to do so!
Making certain that you have met the challenges of the coupling stage before you enter the next stage of parenthood means that your voyage will be smoother, filled with more delight and less discontent as you adapt to your new family. Healthy families serve as a nest for human growth and development. Are you ready to become a parent? The focus of this book is the transition through and stage of becoming parents. Let's begin by examining the two stages immediately preceding parenthood.
Single adult stage
Living on our own, we establish intimacy with others outside of our families. We leave home, hopefully enjoying a supportive connection to our parents while becoming independent, both emotionally and economically. By doing so, we learn what we like and what we don't like in our environments. We practice thinking for ourselves, solving our own problems and making choices for ourselves, rather than feel compelled to make choices that may have been right for our parents, but are invalid for us. If things go well, we enjoy an ongoing connection and warmth with our families, while engaged in an increasingly independent life. This period is the stage of the unattached or single adult on the family life cycle.
Becoming a Couple
The next stage, coupling, requires partners to establish the new "family of two". Decision-making must now involve the other partner! No longer do unilateral decisions fly. A partner is expected to make plans for everything from daily dinners to career, work and vacation plans with their spouse in mind.
Although newly married couples may enjoy help and suggestions from in-laws and others, they must develop their own capacity to resolve differences and find successful solutions to their conflicts. Misplaced loyalties (consulting with a parent instead of a spouse about daily life decisions that affect the couple) and unilateral decision-making (announcing, rather than discussing a decision which affects the couple) are common problems to be overcome in the beginning of a new relationship. If a couple fails to develop a cohesive bond to deal with life's problems together, the relationship has not successfully navigated the challenges of the coupling stage. The couples bond can become vulnerable to the corrosion of love and respect rather than the establishment of a strong, supportive partnership.
The result of meeting the challenges of the stage of coupling is a healthy realignment of the new couple, whose primary commitment is to each other, and who enjoy connection to a larger, supportive network of family and friends. The extended network accepts and includes the new spouse in their social circle.
Ideally, partners have found security in their commitment to each other and the couple has found a comfortable place in the larger family network. Naturally, this stage is a process and a work in progress. Still, by understanding the direction that things should be going, you can better navigate the family life cycle stages, resolving the problems you face in the specific family predicaments of work, money, in-laws, discipline, sex and other related topics this book will cover. You will also be better able to know whether you are ready to have a baby. The more secure your foundation as a couple, the smoother your transition should you decide to move into the next stage, becoming parents.
Five Dimensions of Couples Health
The exercise below allows you to identify 5 major dimensions of couples health: how you make decisions, whether you have established a healthy boundary around your relationship, support from family, how well you stay connected when you argue, and the warmth of your overall connection. The first step in asking yourselves "Should we have a baby?" is to evaluate the strength of your relationship without children.
Take the quiz below separately, rather than together. Take 20 minutes to consider the questions below and answer them while you are apart from one another. Then set up a time to get together and share your answers with each other. Sharing can happen immediately after you take the quiz, or you can wait until the weekend when you have time to exchange quizzes to view your partner's answers. Taking the quiz separately will allow you to see if there are discrepancies between the two of you with regards to your experience of the relationship. For example, if one partner feels they are always consulted about decisions and the other does not, this difference will need to be discussed to improve the relationship for both partners. Your relationship is only as strong as the weakest link.
Evaluate the health of your relationship with this quiz. The information you gain will help you become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship as the first step towards facing challenges that parenthood will bring.
These five dimensions form the basis for being able to resolve problems and stay connected through conflict when it does occur. This quiz helps you determine the manner in which you currently relate as a couple and helps you anticipate your potential for future success or difficulties when pressures of parenthood bring these dimensions into the foreground of your relationship, for better or worse.
Exercise: How strong is your couples bond?
1. How often do you complain that your partner does not consult with you about decisions that involve you both?
What To Expect Before You Are Expecting:
Questions every parent should ask before having a baby
2= most of the time
3= 50 % of the time
2. How would you describe your partner's relationship to decision-making with regards to his or her parents?
1= partner always takes his or her parents suggestions over mine
2= partner always agrees with his or her parents but acquiesces to my point of view if different
3= partner is overly influenced by his or her parents suggestions but discusses decisions to be made with me before coming to a conclusion
4= partner always opposes his or her parents suggestions
5= I feel my partner and I work as a team in making decisions for ourselves. His or her parents' suggestions are not an issue.
3. How would you describe your relationship to your partner's parents?
1= cool and emotionally distant
3= overly close
4= close knit
5= comfortable and supportive
4. When disagreements occur my partner and I:
1=get angry and cannot complete discussions
2= get stuck in blaming and withdrawing from each other
3= emotionally shut down and stop talking for at least 24 hours
4= take some time apart, but are able to reconnect and talk about the disagreement within 24 hours
5= remain emotionally connected through the argument even if we continue to disagree
5. My partner and I verbally express love and appreciation versus complaints and criticism: (Which comes closest to your ratio?)
1= 20% love and appreciation to 80% complaints and criticism
2= 50% love and appreciation to 50% complaints and criticism
3= 60% love and appreciation to 40% complaints and criticism
4= 70% love and appreciation to 30% complaints and criticism
5= 80% love and appreciation to 20% complaints and criticism
There are no right or wrong answers. Compare your answers with your partner to see how you fare at this time in the coupling stage.
Score of 20-25
Congratulations. You are both fairly comfortable with your relationship with one another when it comes to teamwork and honoring the intimacy of your relationship. You both feel successful with making decisions and feeling appreciated by the other. There is warmth expressed and felt in your relationship. The couple's foundation is strong.
Score of 15-19
Not bad. You are having some conflict around decision-making and need to work on developing a style of interacting that makes both of you feel considered and comfortable. You love one another but sometimes experience too much stress when difficulties arise. Your relationship needs some tweaking to not be overly stressed when a child arrives on the scene.
Score of 5-14
Needs work. If you are not able to resolve conflicts and remain emotionally connected through arguments now, before having a child, your relationship will likely falter under the weight of new parental responsibilities. Work on verbalizing appreciations to be sure that your partner is feeling loved and appreciated before having a baby. And learn how to have disagreements without punishing, withdrawing or attacking your partner before becoming parents. Warm up the atmosphere between you with genuine verbal expressions of love that are not over ridden by criticisms.
What if my partner scored significantly differently than I did on the quiz?
If your questions reflect a feeling of consideration and comfort, while your partner's do not, or the reverse, look out! One of you is not in touch with reality. Your partner is 50% of the equation. Remember that it takes two to get married, but only one to file for divorce. It is not uncommon for one person, who does not feel heard by the other to be dissatisfied in a marriage, while the other person discounts their concerns, experiencing the relationship as mostly satisfactory.
However, the partner that feels mostly satisfied, while his or her partner does not, is not in touch with what is naturally absent (warmth, connection) until the relationship deteriorates. Discounting your partner's feelings deteriorates your relationship over time. Instead, make room for feelings without feeling pressure to "fix" it. Most of the time, partners just want their feelings heard. Swallowing false pride is in order. Being able to accept and acknowledge your partner's feelings goes a long way, even if you do not completely understand. Blocking feelings because they make you uncomfortable will be an even greater liability for parenthood.
If you determine that you are having trouble with how you make decisions, how you handle conflict, whether warmth, love and understanding are alive and well in your marriage, counseling could help. Investing in your relationship before you have a baby is not only wise but will save you heartache later. Learning to listen without being defensive and to reflect your partner's feelings, even if you do not agree with his or her conclusions will go a long way in releasing emotional pressures so that you can feel connected even if you disagree. Chapter four offers further exercises for developing healthy communication and problem solving.
Now that you have explored some of the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship, it is time to dig deeper into the past. You may feel that you formed your couple's relationship very differently from either of the models presented by your respective parents. You may be right. For example, you may bask in warmth and consideration from your partner and make decisions together with ease before becoming parents. So far, so good. But when children are added to the mix, old family patterns learned in childhood begin to haunt the scene like ghosts. Your behavior towards your spouse can and does often change, sometimes in dramatic and perplexing ways.
Power of Role Models
The power of role models in childhood cannot be underestimated. When you become parents you must learn a completely new skill set in order to navigate your relationship at this new level of family identity. The birth of a baby causes us to fall back upon instinctive family blueprints that are activated when you become parents, and not before. Prior to parenthood, couples may succeed where their parents faltered in having a loving and successful marriage. However, after acquiring the roles of mother and father, couples find themselves in similar territory to their parents. This was not the case when you were a childless couple.
Remember that you only know the quality of your parents' relationship after you were born, right? The tensions of negotiating for free time without a child, or who will sleep through the night when a sick child cries out in the night have not been experienced. The first instinct of a new parent is to act in a similar manner to what was learned and observed from your parents. Some of these instincts will be positive and you will be happy for them. But others will cause difficulty and need to be changed. Without identifying the family blueprints you absorbed, you are more likely to repeat patterns automatically. If your mother lashed out at your father when she felt exhausted by children's needs, you too may find yourself blaming your spouse for the restrictions that parenthood brings. A more extreme example of repetitive patterns cascading through generations occurs in child abuse. Child abuse is stopped only when an adult remembers and comes to terms with their childhood abuse. That is why it is important to become aware of the family blueprints we carry into parenthood. The next step in your decision about parenthood is to explore your family blueprints.
We do not come to this stage of the family life cycle without blueprints already embedded. How we were raised as children, watching how our parents treated each other, how money was handled, work and nurturing roles performed, and even the sexual or loving nature of your parent's relationship form the backdrop for how we behave, or what we expect from one another.
Women and men may feel particularly vulnerable if they have not received the nurturing needed as a child. Feelings of love and anger may come up as each of you does the following exercise. This exercise will help you to acknowledge feelings about your own relationship with your parents and stimulate discussion between you and your partner about the parents you want to be. Don't forget that your relationship with your father and mother was important in creating a vision of the kind of parent you want to be to your children. You may also be aware of additional role models in your past. Aunts, Uncles, babysitters, grandmothers and grandfathers may have contributed to what you bring to your own parenthood.
The following exercise will bring out the blueprints you have for becoming a parent and help you clarify the kind of parents you want to be!
Exercise: What are your blueprints for parenthood?
Ask your partner or a friend to interview you as if you are your mother. Answer the questions spontaneously. Trust that whatever you say holds some emotional meaning for you even if it is not necessarily the "truth" about your relationship with your mother or father. Later, you may want to ask her these questions and compare your own answers to those your father or mother give. The value of this exercise lies in your own interpretations of your childhood. Whatever comes up will be what you feel now, as you are becoming a mother or becoming a father. Your answers will speak the truth about your own feelings of being parented. Insert your name in the blanks. Ask your partner to listen supportively and attentively, and to be present to comfort you if you need it or to laugh with you as well.
Role-play your mother while answering the following questions about you as a child and her life as a mother. Have your partner ask these questions of you. Fill your own name in the blank.
1. What was the experience of being a mother like for you?
2. How did having a baby change your relationship with your husband?
3. What was the agreement between you and your spouse with regard to decisions about money?
4. What was the agreement between you and your spouse about child rearing?
5. What was the agreement between you and your spouse with regard to decisions about discipline?
6. What was the agreement between you and your spouse with regard to decisions about work and family priorities?
7. What was the agreement between you and your spouse about how responsibilities for children, housework and economic providing would be shared?
8. Do you feel affection was expressed between you and your spouse?
9. Did you feel appreciated as a mother?
10. Did you enjoy motherhood?
11. How did having children affect your sex life?
12. How did having children affect your aspirations for career, work?
13. How were decisions made in the family?
14. What did you like most about raising _______?
15. What was most difficult for you in raising ______?
16. If you had it to do over again, is there anything you would change or do differently?
17. What are your feelings about _____ having a baby now?
Do the same exercise with your partner role-playing his father while you ask the questions of him about his father. Then, ask one another these same questions from the perspective of the opposite sex parent. In other words, answer the questions about your father and about his mother. The information you glean will allow you to answer the next important question: What kind of parent do you want to be?
What Kind of Parent Do You Want to Be
Our interpretation of our parents' experience in raising us forms the blueprints for our own expectation and beliefs about parenting. You may feel very loved by your mother or father and positive about your own ability to parent. Or you may feel that your parents were lacking in some way, which you want to make up to your own child. Becoming aware of where your strong feelings about parenting come from will allow you greater freedom to form healthy relationships with your children. Strong beliefs that "make up" for early pain may lead to a wounding of your own child in the opposite manner from which you were wounded. For example, if your mother's style of discipline was overly strict, and you have unresolved feelings of hurt and anger, you may feel deeply committed to being permissive and giving to your child. However since your own child cannot feel the pain of your childhood, he or she may experience your lenience as a lack of discipline or even neglect. By becoming aware of your own wounds, you can heal without projecting your needs onto your child.
Whatever attitudes towards parenting your mother and father expressed will be a part of your heritage. Now, if you haven't already begun--extend your questions even further, into a discussion on the blueprints for parenting that you and your partner experienced in the previous exercise. Use the following questions as a guide for further discussion.
1. What kind of mother/father do you want to be?
2. What kind of parent do you think your partner will be? Identify strengths and weaknesses.
3. How do you see needing help from your partner? What is important to you in this parenting partnership?
4. What were the messages you received about yourself from each of your parents?
5. Were they accurate or not? How did you feel about these messages?
6. What are the strengths of each of your childhood experiences? What do you see as the weaknesses of your childhood experiences? How will you help each other with parenting?
7. How do you see yourselves working as a parenting team to nurture each other and your child?
8. What are your feelings about raising a boy? about raising a girl?
9. Are there things you would do the same or differently from each of your parents in raising a child?
Each of you will have strengths to bring to the parenting experience and each of you will have weaknesses. Find out what these areas are and make a plan for helping each other with your own respective blind spots. For example, if you feel you may be overly critical, or you see that your partner may have a tendency to overcompensate for his father's strictness by being too permissive, begin discussing these concerns now. It will help you to know you are not alone and that you do not have to do it all yourself.
Working together as a team to reflect on the past and plan for your future is the beginning of your parenting partnership. Remember that it is your job to criticize the last generation, in order to make improvements in the next! Criticizing how your parents raised you does not mean that you don't love them. It means you are simply doing your job in determining from the vantage point of the present how well their leadership worked and where it failed.
Have a discussion!
In fact have several discussions over candlelight dinners at home or talk while you take a nature walk along a river or hillside. Take time in between each set of questions to discuss the feelings, thoughts and reflections that arise from answering these questions about your respective mother and father. Discuss together how each of you were parented, and what you want to repeat and incorporate in your own parenting and what you do not. Make it your priority in the next two weeks to continue these discussions until you feel you have a beginning vision of the kind of parents you want to be and what you would keep from your parents and what you would change. And remember to identify how you might help one another with difficult or painful areas. You are partners on this journey, so you don't have to do it all alone!
Remember that it is not possible or necessary to be a "perfect" parent. There are none! But it is feasible to be what the famous British pediatrician and child psychiatrist D.W.Winnecott was fond of calling "the good enough" parent.
© copyright 2005, all rights reserved, no part of this excerpt can be used without express permission from the author
Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing
in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her
prenatal counseling model and is the author of
An Easier Childbirth,
and her latest book,
Her articles on family relationships appear
in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular
magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting.
She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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