For the third part in our series of articles on the psychological impact of becoming a parent, we asked five RSCPP therapists to explain how adjusting to your new life with a baby can affect your mental wellbeing, and what support is available during this exciting but challenging time. If you missed the previous two articles, catch up on how to look after your mental wellbeing during pregnancy, and dealing with post-natal mental health concerns.
While pregnancy is often a time of mixed excitement, anticipation and anxiety, once your new arrival is here the challenges become much more about adapting to the reality of life as a parent. "There are many feelings, both physical and mental, that can affect both men and women on the arrival of their first child. The anticipation of a child often means you are not prepared for the challenging times ahead, particularly in the first six months to a year," says Registered Psychotherapist Helen Davies.
Sleep deprivation is one of the most widely acknowledged of these, and its impact on your mental wellbeing can be profound. "Sleep is necessary for the mental and physical health of both parent and child. Whilst you focus on feeding, winding, and ensuring the child sleeps, your own lack of sleep can become debilitating," Helen says. "When you are tired, your body, which you need to keep energised to care for the infant, begins to struggle with normal functions."
This can make it an extremely challenging time, physically as well as emotionally. It's vital for your wellbeing and ability to care for your new child that you ensure you have a strong support system, and manage to eat well, sleep well and get enough exercise.
Besides these increased physical pressures, becoming a parent means adapting to a whole new lifestyle. You may struggle to get used to your new way of life, and this may lead to feelings of guilt for not feeling the way you expected or think you should. As Registered Counsellor Kate Palmer says, the fact that having a baby is usually something you have chosen means "it can be doubly hard to admit that some of the changes can leave you feeling lonely, exhausted, overwhelmed, bored and miserable."
She believes that "an important first step towards embracing parenthood is letting go of the notion that it's all going to be good. Letting yourself accept and deal with the difficult feelings it will bring, along with the great pleasures and excitement, will help to minimise or avoid your tendency to beat yourself up."
Likewise, Accredited Counsellor Katrina Taee says the fact that expectant parents are often unprepared for the reality of having a baby is an often-overlooked factor in the 'baby blues', "a period of emotional upset around 4-10 days after the birth." She explains: "This happens when the mother's milk comes into her breasts, and is often put down to hormonal changes, but there's another aspect to this well-known phenomenon. There is so much emphasis on the pregnancy for nine months - ante-natal classes to attend, and preparation for the birth - the bit that seems to get lost is that new parents have to actually look after a baby post-birth!"
Katrina continues: "Often there can be a euphoria post-birth, which carries you through the first few days, but around two weeks, when you are home, tired, emotional, sore, and not looking your best, there comes a moment when you think, 'I'd quite like a day off now', and it dawns on you that this is for life now."
Understandably, this can be extremely overwhelming and scary, and it's no surprise that the tears often start to flow around this point. "The responsibility, the relentlessness of it, and the sheer exhaustion can all feel too much. Try to think of it as a period of transition," Katrina advises. "You will get used to it all, you will get better at coping, and you will get to know what your baby needs and wants."
You probably also feel acutely aware that, in becoming a parent, you've taken on a lifelong responsibility for another human being. While the pressure of being a good parent, and doing the right thing for your child, will stay with you throughout their life, it's understandably a particularly daunting prospect during those early days, weeks and months.
"Becoming a parent can be a confusing time, when joy at having a baby can be linked with fear of not knowing what to do, a fear of not doing things the right way, or of not feeling the right way about the baby," says Registered Counsellor David Hayter. "New parents do not always feel loving towards their babies; they may feel scared about what they are expected to cope with. Tiredness adds to the feelings of not being able to cope, and lots of parents feel that others will be critical of them. This is especially true if their baby cries a lot, and for some this will lead to them staying at home, which can lead to isolation," he explains.
New parents often lament that newborn babies don't arrive with an instruction manual, and advice from friends, relatives, health workers and Internet forums can often seem contradictory and confusing. Remember, says David, "there is no right way of being a parent - being a parent is not about being perfect, but about being you. There are things that will go well, and times which will not feel so good."
During those more difficult times, he adds, it's important to make sure you have someone you can talk to. "Above all, remind yourself that you are not a failure if everything is not wonderful - rather, you a real person. Don't be afraid to admit your fears, but do make sure that you talk to your partner, your parents, your friends, a helpline or a therapist. If you talk to someone who listens, you will realise how well you are doing," David says.
Finally, if you have a partner, it's important to recognise that bringing a new child into your family will inevitably alter your relationship forever. Having a baby can bring you closer together but, if it's always been just the two of you, this is likely to be a frightening change and may cause issues in your relationship - whether that's in terms of spending time together as a couple, or disagreements over parenting.
Registered Psychotherapist Esmee Rotmans says, "Having a baby can change the relationship between the parents, whether they live as a couple or not. If both parents live together, they may struggle with the adjustment and may feel more vulnerable, in need of more support, and may each want recognition for their parenting contribution. Your previous roles change and decisions are made about who is caring for the baby, including if and when to return to work, all of which can lead to feelings of disappointment and stress."
Becoming a parent means devoting more time and attention to the baby than each other, as well as making big decisions on everything from parenting techniques to living and working arrangements. As a couple, it's important to keep the lines of communication open during this time, and seek help from a therapist or relationship counsellor if necessary.
"Having a baby is a major psychological transition, which is why parents need the right kind of support during this important time of their lives and that of the baby," Esmee adds. If you're raising your baby without the help and support of a partner, it's especially important to ensure you have a strong support network of friends, relatives and health professionals around you, and that you make time to care for your own mental wellbeing, as well as looking after your child.