Navigating the Transition to Parenthood

Beth Goss
Certified Gottman Educator and Training Specialist

Tenured Faculty, North Seattle College

Sarah and Daniel were excited to become first time parents. They took all the birthing classes, had a beautiful space set up for their new baby, and their friends put together a meal train for them. They felt prepared. Fast forward to three months after the birth, where Sarah is deciding if she’ll reenter the workforce, the house is a mess, the baby is getting over colic, Daniel feels like he doesn’t know how to soothe the baby, and everyone is exhausted. What happened?

Sarah and Daniel, welcome to the transition to parenthood! Becoming a parent can be wonderful, exciting, and fulfilling but it can also take a toll on our adult relationships. In fact, research done by Dr. John Gottman and the Bringing Baby Home Program shows that for 67 percent of new parents, this transition causes decreased happiness and relationship satisfaction. Part of my job, as a Certified Gottman Educator, is to teach parents how to avoid common pitfalls during the transition.

Why is the Transition to Parenthood so Tricky?

When “we” becomes “three” (or more) there is a huge philosophical shift that needs to happen. We go from being someone’s child to someone’s parent. Think about that, not only do we have to redefine who we are, but we need to redefine our partner’s identity as well. You’ll be waking up in the morning to a mom or a dad sleeping next to you! It can take some time to get comfortable with your new identity, and to get comfortable seeing your partner through new eyes.

We also know that conflict tends to increase, and communication tends to decrease after you bring baby home. Everyone is tired and adjusting and is missing that deeper well of patience you may have been able to draw on before baby.

And we can’t forget the typical decrease in intimacy and sex those first few months. The birthing parent may be adjusting physically and/or emotionally and may be getting used to their new body. They may also feel “touched out” because they constantly have a little person on them and needing them. The non-birthing parent may feel excluded from the close bond forming between the other two members of the household.

To sum it up, new parents often report feeling more like roommates than like soulmates. They are running the family business together and missing the shared connection they had before baby. “I’ll do the dishes while you put the baby down and then you can run to the drugstore while I start the laundry”. You probably decided to start a family together because you love each other and support each other and have fun together. After baby it’s very easy to slip into roommate-mode.

The Bringing Baby Home program emphasizes the Sound Relationship House model, which explains that you can’t build a sturdy house without a foundation. The foundation for your child’s “house” is your relationship. If you always put children first and neglect each other, you have a weak foundation. As I say in class, you can’t build the upstairs nursery before you build the first floor. New parents may feel guilty putting their relationship ahead of the baby, but it’s actually better for your child. We know from our research that kids who grow up with parents who like each other and have fun together tend to have better outcomes across the board.

Feeling good about your partner and your relationship isn’t rocket science. Our pilot project in the early 2000’s actually showed that couples who take the 12-hour Bringing Baby Home workshop report higher relationship satisfaction, lower interpersonal hostility, and less incidence of postpartum depression in both parents. And it doesn’t end there. Parents who took the workshop showed greater responsiveness to their infant’s cues, demonstrated better co-parenting abilities, and their babies expressed more smiling and laughing during family play the first year of life.

So, what does it take to maintain a satisfying relationship after baby?

We have discovered a variety of strategies to build a supportive relationship:

  • Intentional open-ended conversations (“What do you want our life to be like in five years?” vs “Are we out of cereal?”)
  • Notice when you partner expresses and need, and respond positively
  • Verbally appreciate your partner and point out the things you like
  • Find ways to discuss conflict that feel safe and respectful to both of you
  • Make time for connection and intimacy
  • Plan together for a shared future as a new family

The Bringing Baby Home workshop guides parents through a variety of experiences to acquire these strategies and gives them the time and space to decide how they’ll incorporate them into their daily lives.

The transition to parenthood is just that, a transition, and most of us have a little trouble with change. Expect that this new season of life will take some getting used to. Dr Gottman says that “the greatest gift you can give your baby is a strong and healthy relationship between the two of you”. Take the time to invest in your relationship so you can be that solid foundation for your children.

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