How can you tell if you're emotionally equipped for parenthood and what can you do to prepare yourselves as a couple?
Choosing to have a child is a major life decision perhaps the biggest one you'll ever make. Certainly, becoming a parent will change your life profoundly. So how do you know if you'll cope with the huge impact a baby will have on your life and what can you do to get ready for the parenthood journey?
As you contemplate being a mum or dad, there may be all sorts of emotions whirling around inside you, a mixture of longing, excitement and anxiety. Doubts and questions are common: will I be a good enough parent? How will I cope with the tiredness? What if I don't have any parenting instincts? Will I resent having to always put my child's needs first?
If you're worried about what kind of parent you'll be, it's important to acknowledge these feelings, says the CEO of Relationships Australia, NSW, Anne Holland. Talk about it with your partner or a friend or get some professional help.
"Everyone has ambivalence," says Anne. "Everyone is nervous and wonders whether they'll be able to be a good mother. You're not just dealing with looking after a dependent infant. You're dealing with a change of identity: you are a parent."
For some, the transition is harder than others. "There are some things that happen in our lives that make it a bit more challenging to become a parent," says Anne. If you're carrying emotional baggage from your relationship with your own parents, for example it can get in the way of you developing a positive relationship with your child if it's not addressed.
"Any concerns are a potential sign of something that needs to be talked about," says Anne. "Don't push it under the carpet. Find someone you can talk with."
When two becomes three
Becoming parents can deepen and enhance the love you and your partner share, but it can create stress, too. Making room for a baby in your relationship isn't always easy and a baby won't automatically bring you closer in fact, it can be catastrophic for some couples.
"If your relationship isn't very strong, don't expect a baby to make it stronger," Anne says. "Parenting is a real make-or-break test of your partnership."
This is especially true in the early months, when you're adjusting to your new roles as parents while your newborn is demanding so much of your time and energy. And becoming a mum can be so emotionally intense and physically exhausting that you may not have much emotional energy or time left over for your partner. As a result, new dads can feel a bit left out and not as loved as before.
You both may have to deal with feelings of loss and grief as you say goodbye to your old way of life and mourn the loss of your old spontaneity and intimacy. Your friendships may also change, especially those with childless friends who don't understand your new life.
Add overwhelming sleep deprivation to the mix and you can see that your relationship with your partner and in fact your whole self-image as a competent and capable functioning adult can come under a lot of strain.
So what can you do to get ready for these huge changes? Anne says that one of the best things would-be parents can do is to focus on their relationship with each other. Talking about your relationship and assessing its strengths and weaknesses and perhaps getting some professional counselling, "a health check-up for your relationship" is a great starting point.
"You've got to create a partnership that's going to last the distance," says Anne. "It's much more important than getting the nursery ready or buying a bigger car, because, ultimately, nothing will affect the quality of your child's life more than the quality of his or her parents' relationship."
Even if you have a loving relationship with your partner, there are bound to be areas you could improve on. It's going to be a lot easier to work on those niggly bits now, when you're still getting enough sleep, as opposed to waiting until your baby arrives.
And even though you may have known each other for years, you don't know each other as parents yet. Getting to know one another in this new way can be exciting and satisfying but may also provide a few shocks and disappointments. Sharing your hopes and expectations of each other as parents before you start a family will mean fewer surprises down the track. If you're aware of potential problems, you can work out ways to deal with them.
"Go through the what-ifs," says Anne. "What if the baby gets sick? What if I'm not coping? What if we keep arguing all the time? It takes away the fear factor if you talk about it beforehand."
In the end, though, nothing can prepare you for that moment when you first hold your baby. It's all ahead of you now. Parenthood: will it feel like a rollercoaster, a merry-go-round or more like the dodgems? Probably a little like all three at times.
Relationships Australia offers counselling and seminars in more than 200 centres countrywide. For more information, call 1300 364 277 or visit their site at www.relationships.com.au.
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