Imagining Parenthood - How to have a conversation about how having a kid is going to change your partnership and what to expect.
One of the small moments that stood out for me as a new father was our first flight together as a family. My oldest daughter was just 6 months old and my wife and I were not looking forward to flying with a baby for six hours. Most of us have flown so frequently that we ignore the in-flight safety instructions. I was well on my way to tuning it out when they got to the part about putting on your oxygen mask first, before you help your child. It jumped out at me: “That’s me now. I have to do that.”. I’m thinking about it now because it really summarizes a paradox of parenthood. We think of parenthood as a relationship in which we’re prepared to give a lot, especially when they’re young and helpless. But in order to give, you have to take care of yourself first. Sometimes part of taking care of yourself also involves being able to receive care from others. It seems obvious but we forget: you have to have something before you can give it. Ifwe want to be parents that extend love and care to our children, we would do well to make sure that we can access it before we start giving it. For most new parents today, the person we look to for love and care is our partner. A strong, nurturing and supportive relationship is incredibly important to building the family life that many of us want.
I work with parents who have lost sight of this everyday in my psychotherapy practice. It happens naturally and for many understandable and valid reasons, but ultimately many people in relationships end up turning against the one person they really need to rely on. It follows that the less support we get, the more depleted we feel, the less we can give to our kids. A snowball effect starts to happen and each negative thing reinforces the next. The more depleted we are from caring for our kids, the less we have to offer our relationships (which only leads to more arguing, less support, etc.) until hostility pervades your relationship. All of which is the last thing any of us needs, since starting a family is always hard. Letting your relationship crumble is like deciding to have a mutiny while your ship is getting tossed in a storm. If you don’t pull together now, how do you know you’ll survive this? And even if you do survive, how do you get back to a place where everyone in your family can thrive and flourish?
Fortunately, there are many ways to fix this. Up until now, I have devoted my time to helping individuals and couples who have already found themselves in unfulfilling relationships and that’s still the majority of the work I do. More and more, though, I see the merit in frontloading some of that work, in helping couples anticipate what they will struggle with so that they are better able to turn toward each other rather than against each other. The more you can anticipate what might go wrong, the easier it will be to adjust things on the fly and reconnect. Even better than that, in my opinion, is that drawing this map is a wonderful way to develop deeper intimacy with your partner at a time when you’re really going to need them. The better you understand who they are, what their hopes and fears are, the closer you’ll feel to them. And, if you can summon the courage to let them in on what your hopes and fears are and trust that they’re going to be there for you? Having that kind of support and security can be life changing.
With that in mind, I’ve developed a simple exercise to help expectant or new parents begin to develop the skills they need to protect their relationship during early parenthood. This is obvious, but let’s start with the basics: before you go on any journey, you need a destination, right? Your destination isn’t just have a baby and figure out the rest as it comes. We all have expectations, hopes and fears about what early parenthood is going to look like. This is an opportunity to make those thoughts explicit and learn about what’s on your partner’s mind as well. It’s also okay if you don’t completely share the same vision. You may find that there are some things that need to be worked out or altered and you may find that some aspects complement each other. This exercise is about learning some of the terrain. Future posts will help you figure out what to do with what you’ve learned.
Step 1 - Getting started
- Discuss this with your partner ahead of time and set aside time to do this. I’d strongly recommend doing it at the same time since the conversation that can come out of this will be very valuable.
- Once you’re ready to do it, answer these questions on your own first and give yourself a moment to connect to what feels good and what makes you anxious without worrying about what your partner might be thinking.
- If you find that you’re feeling nervous or having a strong physical response when you answer certain questions (chest tight, heart races, finding yourself distracted), just notice that. Your reaction is telling you that this issue is especially important. Make a little note next to that question to remind yourself. When you feel ready, you’ll definitely want to talk about that with your partner or give yourself more time to think about why you had such a strong reaction.
- If you find yourself dreading the moment when this shifts from working on your own to becoming a conversation, that’s important to notice too. Do these kinds of talks inevitably lead to arguing or one of you feels misunderstood, criticized or dismissed? The best place to start is right there: talk about why it feels so hard to talk about this stuff! Something like, “Can we talk about something? I want to talk to you about some things, but I’m nervous that it won’t go well” is a good place to start.
Step 2 - The Questions
Below are 16 questions that can help you to focus your vision of life as a family. Take your time with them. I’ve broken them up into four sections based on shared themes, but you can approach them any way you want. You could take an hour and answer all of them and then make time later for a conversation or you could move through them section by section, answering a few and then discussing your answers. After each conversation, take a moment to reflect together: What was it like to do this? How were you feeling at the beginning? How do you feel now? Are there areas of agreement? Areas of disagreement? Remember, the two of you will continue to work on this together. This is just the beginning.
- What are you most looking forward to as you become a parent? List everything that comes to mind.
- What are you least looking forward to? Again, list everything that comes to mind.
- How do you like to take care of yourself now? How will having a baby impact your ability to do this? Think about this as expansively as possible - physically, mentally, spiritually and any other way that occurs to you.
- How does your partner like to take care of themselves? How will having a baby make it harder for them to take care of themselves?
- You may find yourself in a position of needing to ask for help - is that something that comes easily to you or is difficult? Are there certain people that you feel more or less comfortable asking? What about your partner?
- You might be asked to help even when your tank feels empty or low - do you imagine that will feel easy or hard to do? How does it feel to set limits when you can’t give any more? If you can, try and imagine what those limits would be?
- How do you imagine sharing household responsibilities going forward? What’s your vision of partnership around this?
- Think about your extended family - how do you imagine they’ll be involved in your life once your baby is born. What kinds of feelings come up for you when you think about it? How do you imagine your partner will feel about their involvement?
- Repeat the same exercise, this time thinking about your partner’s family.
- What kind of changes do you envision for your social life? For your partner’s?
- How might your career be impacted by having a baby? How might your partner’s career be impacted?
- What financial changes do you anticipate with having a baby? How do you feel about that?
- What do you appreciate about the way you were raised? Are there qualities or values that you want to have in your family?
- What did you disagree with about the way you were raised? Are there things you want to do differently?
- Many couples have much less time to spend together in the years after having a child. What aspects of your connection are most important to you? What will it be not to have time to cultivate them in the same way?
- Many couples experience different kinds of disruption to their sex lives, sometimes in ways that can’t anticipate. How do you imagine feeling if the quality or quantity (or both) of your sex declines? How comfortable are you talking about this with your partner?
Avi Klein is a psychotherapist, father of two and native New Yorker practicing in Union Square. Avi has been working with individuals and couples since 2009. He is trained in AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) and EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), two forms of therapy that emphasize the power of emotion, healing & transformation in relationships. He has a special interest in supporting new families and is currently working on a workshop to support new and expectant parents. Inquiries can be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website https://www.aviklein.com