This post features a personal story illustrating what I call “counter-intuitive brilliance.” It’s the story of an interaction between a new father and a new mother. It’s about how to diaper their baby. It’s a conversation that surely takes place alongside the changing table in virtually every home where there are new parents blessed with a newborn. But this conversation went very differently.
First, by way of setting the stage: I recently had the best, juicy conversation with relationship counselor and Becoming Us author Elly Taylor. We talked about some of the common ways that new parenthood takes a toll on marriage. And more importantly, we covered some really practical ways we can ease that toll, and nurture our relationship as much as we nurture our kids!
We discussed some of the signs to watch for, signs that may signal stress on the relationship of new parents. Two of these stress signs are being competitive and reducing your life. The first is somewhat self-explanatory, but the concept of reducing your life was a revelation for me! I think this is a very common dynamic with new parents, particularly new mothers for whom — either temporarily or longterm — their “new normal” of being with baby is unsettlingly foreign territory.
By “unsettling” I mean…well…terrifying. That is how it can feel when we have a handle on nothing, whereas in our previous life we had a pretty good handle on most things. Some new parents roll with the new flow more easily than others, but it’s common to sort of “seize up” and try to wrestle this new territory into submission — you know, try to force it into the recognizable shape of “how things used to be.”
So one of the ways new parents may try and manage the stress of life being so different with a new baby, is to try and get back to the “old normal” rather than patiently letting a “new normal” find its shape.
Here’s a thought or two from Elly on this:
Don’t Be a Lonely “Expert”
Another way new parents may try to resuscitate their gasping sense of self-esteem in the topsy-turvy new life is to become really expert at some small aspect of it. (I’m guessing this is on big reason why some new parents really get into tracking and cataloging Baby’s poops — it’s something to (pardon the image) hold on to!) This “expertizing” can lead them to reduce their life, as they tune out everything else (self-care, friends, their partner) and zero in on this one area of mastery. As Elly writes,
“This gives the person a sense of being on top of that one thing (and this is normal in the early weeks of parenthood) but if it continues, it can cause further problems.”
This tendency toward “becoming expert at” can also lead you down some dicey pathways in your relationship, toward competition and resenting your partner’s interference (another sign of stress on the relationship). You can end up in separate corners of the marriage, where things can get pretty lonely.
Here’s where Elly’s story comes in — a particularly instructive story from her own life with her own husband. She had an unexpected inspiration about how to respond when he asked for diapering instructions — for the exact reason that she did not want to be a lonely expert!
A Precious (Free) Gift Idea for New Parents
This illustrates what might be (counter-intuitively) a wise move to keep your parenting partnership strong and balanced. (And this doesn’t just apply to new dads wondering about diapering — it can apply to ANY area where us moms can tend to be The Experts!) Here’s Elly’s 2-min. anecdote:
Please note Elly’s important clarifications:
“How we ourselves were parented comes back to us when we become parents. When a husband asks a wife if he is ‘doing it right’ with a diaper, he may unknowingly be inviting his partner into a space that used to be occupied by his mother. Expecting to be instructed was something my husband had learned and had I stepped in and taken over, it may have too easily set the tone for other aspects of our parenting. I didn’t want take that leadership role: I wanted us to learn together. Had I used a different tone of voice, my husband may have taken it badly, but the words were said with both an internal and an external smile and they felt like liberation to him.
“If a partner has grown up with a dismissive or abandoning parent however, there is always a risk that they are likely to interpret comments in that light–so my same comment that was a gift to my husband could have been felt as dismissal or abandonment by another man with a different upbringing.
“Part of the gift of parenthood is insight into how we and our partner were parented, to see below the surface into our partner’s unique history and to give them opportunities to heal it in the day to day parenting present.”
So with your individual partner’s experience & sensibilities in mind, consider giving this precious gift to the new father in your life. And actually, because these “Expert Power Struggles” can take place at any point in your parenting life, this is a gift that can be given on any Father’s Day… or any old day the rest of the year!
“We disconnect in tiny little ways…
we reconnect in tiny little ways.”
Find more about Elly’s resources at her website here, including her helpful Layers of Intimacy model.
I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to Mothering readers I’m offering a free copy of my “Empowered Birth Checklist for Couples” ebooklet: 25 concrete ways you can confidently parent during this momentous family experience!