Adjusting to Parenthood: Common Challenges and Experiences – By Dr Sofia Rallis

The Transition to Parenthood

Pregnancy and the early days of parenthood are characterised by significant changes across physical, emotional, psychological, and social domains. Relationships with key people such as partners, family and friends are also altered. As a result, it is common for expectant and new parents to experience a complex array of thoughts and feelings, in response to these changes including a sense of loss for their ‘old’ self or life. A significant number of parents find that pregnancy and parenthood is more challenging than they expected and requires a considerable level of adjustment. They may feel disappointment or shame because they are not coping as well as they thought they would, or guilt because they feel frustrated and resentful. It is important that parents recognise and acknowledge both the joyous and distressing emotions that can be experienced as they adjust to their ‘new’ life; and to be mindful of when additional support may be needed to help manage the more difficult emotions.

Some of the most common challenges experienced by new parents include:

  • Recovering from birth while also caring for a newborn (and possibly other children)– recovering from birth while also meeting the demands of a newborn can be particularly challenging. Recovery may also be affected by a caesarean or complicated delivery, if the birth experience was traumatic, or if you were dissatisfied with the quality of care you received.
  • Feeding difficulties – for some women breastfeeding comes ‘easily’ and may be a relatively straight forward process. However, for a significant number of women breastfeeding can be difficult to establish for various reasons, and may be a rather different experience than what you expected or hoped for. Painful conditions such as difficulties with latching-on, cracked nipples and mastitis may be experienced throughout the breastfeeding period adding to the physical and emotional distress. Some women may not be able to establish breastfeeding, which can also be a source of stress if there was a strong desire to do so.
  • Lack of sleep– every new parent experiences a degree of fatigue and lack of sleep. This can impact on your mood, energy, motivation, patience and ability to think clearly and make decisions. The exhaustion experienced as a result of prolonged lack of sleep can also make it difficult to adapt to what is usually a very demanding infant feeding and settling schedule.
  • Feeling overly emotional– most new parents will have some days or periods where they are feeling ‘more emotional’ than usual. This is often exacerbated by lack of sleep and/or a sense of being overwhelmed or ‘not in control’ of things.
  • Coping with an unsettled baby – every baby brings with it its own unique temperament, with some being more unsettled than others. This can place additional demands on your patience, coping resources and may affect your feelings towards your baby.
  • Bonding with your baby and understanding your baby’s cues– there are lots of reasons why it may take longer than you expected to develop a strong connection with your baby. It is important to remember that the parent-infant bond can take time to establish and it is not always ‘love at first sight’. Most parents need some time to ‘get to know’ their baby. This will often include getting to know their temperament, their likes and dislikes, and how they communicate their needs to others. Babies don’t come with a manual (as nice as that would be sometimes!) so it is not uncommon for new parents to feel unsure or confused about what their baby needs/wants and how to best respond. Effective parenting involves learning a new set of skills; just like any other skill in life time and practice is one of the few things that helps it get easier.
  • Body image disturbances– pregnancy and birth are associated with many physical changes. It can take time to adjust to the way you look and feel, particularly as you recover from the birth experience. This may impact on your self-esteem and body image, particularly if you are finding it difficult to find time to focus on your own health and fitness.
  • Managing priorities – it can seem like an impossible task trying to find time for all the household tasks, while also meeting the needs of your baby, other children you may have, as well as your own. You may need to accept that you need to ‘let go’ of some things for a while and instead prioritise the most important tasks/demands each day.
  • Managing the expectations and advice from others – it is almost a certainty that endless advice will come your way as you try to navigate through the early days of parenthood. This can leave you feeling overwhelmed, confused and at times you may question yourself and your decisions. As hard as it might be, trust yourself and your instinct, even when you’re feeling unsure about how to handle a situation. Remember that you are the expert on your baby and that sometimes the only way to work out what works best is by trial and error.
  • Changes to your sense of self– new parents often struggle with the changes to their personal identity. This is often due to a number of factors such as ‘losing’ your work role and status, even if only for a short period of time, loss of your social life as you knew it as well as a loss of independence and sense of freedom.
  • Changes in the relationship with your partnerthe partner/couple relationship changes considerably as you go through the process of adjusting from being partners to parents. Common areas of tension often include different ideas on how to care for the baby; managing familial expectations, division of labour and changes in attitude and needs towards physical intimacy.
  • Changes in family dynamics – changes in the family dynamics, both immediate and extended, are extremely common. Where present, new parents often have to navigate through a change in the dynamic in the relationship with their own parents, as the ‘child’ has now become the ‘parent’. You may hold different beliefs about parenting approaches, health beliefs, and priorities in general. You may spend more or less time with family, depending on your circumstances, with each situation posing different challenges. It may take some time to get a good sense of where and how everyone fits into the ‘new’ picture.

While these are common challenges experienced by many mothers and fathers, there is often a reluctance to speak openly about how one might be struggling with their transition to parenthood. This seems to be at least partly due to the fact that the image of a ‘stressed and struggling’ parent is at odds with the popular belief that having a baby ought to be a particularly ‘joy filled’ time . This can further compound the sense of isolation and loneliness often experienced by parents and makes it harder to reach out for help. When practical and/or emotional is not sought early, the impact of these challenges can build up over time, placing the whole family under even more stress. In turn, this may go beyond a ‘typical’ period of adjustment, and instead contribute to the onset of perinatal depression and/or anxiety. As discussed in previous articles, if you suspect that you, your partner or someone you care about may be struggling with perinatal depression or anxiety it is important to seek help from an appropriate health professional or support service as early as possible.

What can I do to get through the challenging times?  

When you find yourself struggling with the demands of parenthood, it can be difficult to know what to do, or what type of help to ask for. Some suggestions on what type of support may be helpful include:

  • Seek practical support. Ideally, there will be some offers of help from family or friends which you ought to accept. If this is not being spontaneously offered, think about who you could ask for some assistance. It is OK for someone to come over and help do the washing or cook a meal. Try to let go of any reluctance you may have about this.
  • Seek gentle emotional support. Try and talk to someone with whom you can express difficult or uncomfortable feelings or thoughts without feeling judged. Sometimes talking with another adult and feeling like you are being truly listened to, is one of the most helpful spaces to be in.
  • Ask other friends or relatives about what type of help/support was most useful for them after having a baby. Sometimes it can be difficult to identify what specific type of assistance would be useful, so hearing how other people managed during similar times might be helpful in eliciting some new ideas.
  • Keep realistic expectations – avoid media representations of parenting which are often ‘filtered’ and not an accurate representation of reality. On a similar note, try not to judge yourself harshly against others and resist making unhelpful comparisons with other parents.
  • Try not to inundate yourself with information. Instead, think about having a couple of trusted sources of information. This may be a supportive friend or family member, or a health professional such as a GP or a child health nurse. Trust that you are learning how to best look after your baby and family and appreciate that this takes time.
  • Looking after your own physical, emotional and mental health is essential, so that you can care for your baby and family. Exercising, a healthy diet, limiting alcohol and resting when possible are all small steps that can make a big difference in your own self-care. If possible, try to arrange some time out for yourself.
  • Consider accessing and joining a local community service in an effort to increase social engagement. This may include a playgroup, new parents group, maternal and child health service, home assistance and nanny service, young parents’ support group, and/or a support service for new parents from diverse cultural backgrounds.
  • If you are struggling to cope with the demands of parenthood, and are noticing yourself feeling sad, flat, teary, anxious, or generally not enjoying parenthood it is probably time to speak to a suitable health professional such as a GP, psychologist, child health nurse or a suitable helpline (e.g., PANDA’s National Helpline). Help is available.

Summary:

Parenthood can be a wonderful and rewarding experience; however it also brings with it a number of challenges. This is part of the transition to parenthood as you try and navigate through a whole new world and your new role as a parent. If you are feeling overwhelmed, unsure, or scared it is important to know that you are not alone and that these experiences are not a sign of failure. The journey of parenthood is complicated and unpredictable and there is no manual, so we all need some extra support at times. Finding ways to increase your support network is important; you need to look after yourself in order to be able to look after your baby.  Enlist and accept help from other family members and friends where available, as well as professional assistance if needed. Most of the challenges faced by new parents can often be alleviated with the right support and information, and by adjusting one’s expectations so that they are more realistic. The idealised image of the ‘perfect’ parent eludes us all for a reason; it does not exist no matter what you may hear or see in the media. Try and remember that there is no one way to be a perfect parent, but many ways to be a great one. Prioritise some time for yourself, your baby and your family. Finally, when it all starts to get too confusing or overwhelming take a moment to stop and listen to your instincts even when you may think they are not there; you’ll probably surprise yourself and realise you are better at this whole ‘parenting’ role than you thought.

Written by Dr Sofia Rallis

References and sources for additional information:

  • Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
  • (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
  • Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
  • PANDA (2015). Adjusting to the Challenges of Parenthood factsheet: https://www.panda.org.au/images/resources/Resources-Factsheets/Adjusting-To-The-Challenges-Of-Parenthood.pdf
  • Milgrom et al., (2009). Towards Parenthood: Preparing for the Changes and Challenges of a New Baby, ACER Press

Disclaimer:

Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.

Crisis and Support Services

National Services:

Lifeline
13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.lifeline.org.au

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)
1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)
www.panda.org.au

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436
https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au

MensLine
1300 78 99 78
www.mensline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Additional State Based Services:
Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052

ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178

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