Five Tips for Easing the Stress of New Parenthood

We've all seen the inspirational t-shirt: "Stressed is just desserts spelled backwards." If parenthood is your main course, then "stressed" is the delightful dessert that arrived just after your child did...and it has been your constant companion ever since. And despite the attempt to sugar coat it, there is nothing sweet about stress.

A child is truly a gift. But who would have expected that such a tiny gift could help generate so much stress, beginning with the question, Who is this new person?

Whether you are a mother or father, whether you gave birth or adopted, you probably did lots of dreaming about your child before his/her arrival. You may have imagined what he would look like and what his laugh would sound like. You may have thought about the sports he would play and what it would feel like the first time he picked dandelions for you. Now this new person is here, and - surprise! - your baby really is already a person. He came equipped with looks and personality. He has likes and dislikes, and he isn't afraid to let you know about them. He doesn't like to be swaddled, and he is NOT a morning person. He likes to be burped by daddy and sung to by mommy. Stress #1 begins as soon as you realize that, while you may have learned everything there is to know about babies in general, you know nothing about this baby in particular...except that you love him.

Suddenly you are aware that you are making major decisions on behalf of this person you have just met. Circumcision, breast or bottle, cloth or disposables, vaccinations, family bed or crib, this pediatrician or that...

And the stresses don't stop there. You'll reconsider your decision to return to work or your decision to stay home. You'll worry about your parents' opinion of your parenting. You'll fret about comments made by total strangers, about comments made by your best friends, about choosing a preschool, about playdates. Some stresses will pass, only to be replaced by new ones: homework battles, computer usage, dating, driving. The stress of parenthood settles right in among the joys, and stays with you, in ever evolving ways, as long as you are a parent.

Fortunately, we don't have to deal with our stress without support. Generations of parents before us have honed tips that have passed the test of time, and we can benefit in their shared knowledge.

We may have spent years dreaming about our future sons and daughters, but each child arrives in this world with his/her own unique blueprint.

And while pink and blue are the colors that traditionally welcome our children, it isn't long before we are eager to offer all the colors of the world to them.  We delight as they explore, overcome frustrations, achieve, and go on to explore some more - each creating his/her own palette in his/her own way.  While we instinctively love our children, we come to know them through time and experiences.  We help each child unfold, and cherish each child's irreplaceable individuality.

Parenting is not "one size fits all," whether we're discussing newborn sleeping habits, toddler time-outs, preschool separation anxiety, or grade-school homework habits.  What works for some parents may not work for all parents.  What works for one child may not work for all children within the same family.

We may have spent years dreaming about ourselves as parents, but those dreams cannot compete with glorious, frightening, unpredictable, precious reality.

Becoming a dad or mom means different things to different people. Some hope to recreate their own happy childhoods for their children, while others hope to parent in better ways than they were parented. Some worry that they won't be as good as their own parents were, and some worry that they will repeat unhealthy parenting patterns. Some come to parenthood with high expectations of themselves, and are hurt when they suddenly feel incompetent. Others are surprised to find that parenting empowers them in new ways.

Whatever parenting hopes and/or fears we carried "before child," we have to be prepared to experience a whole new set of feelings. Just as we get to know our unique children, we should get to know our new, evolving selves. Just as our children will grow and change, so will we grow and change. We may discover that our parenting strengths and weaknesses are affected by our children's personalities and life stages. We'll probably do a lot of adjusting. Along the way, we can celebrate the happy quirks and competencies that are the hallmarks of our parenting, and we can learn from our missteps.

Ultimately, we DO know what's best for our child and our family. So when we're feeling overwhelmed and defeated by unsolicited (or even solicited) advice, we should remember that we are the unique parent of this unique child. Much of the advice we receive will not be appropriate for our situation. We can consider ideas that come from trusted sources, try out those that might be helpful, and ignore the rest.

Believing in oneself does NOT mean going it alone. Nobody has all the answers and nobody can do it all. In order to be the best parent we can be, at the very least we need real rest, friendship, support, fresh air, and some "me" time. All we have to do is ask for help. There are many possible sources of assistance, including our spouse/partner, our own parents, a best friend, ob/gyn or pediatrician, lactation consultant, doula, babysitter/caregiver, co-worker, neighbor, counselor, sibling, visiting nurse, or new parents group, to name just a few.

The internet provides lots of terrific ways to connect with other parents and find parenting information. It is not a resource to discount. But nothing beats sitting with a group of people who are sharing your life experience. When new moms and/or dads meet together on a regular, committed basis, hold each other's babies, share their honest stories, laugh together, and sometimes cry together, real trust is established and life-long bonds are formed. Often these groups are facilitated by a professional leader, who helps the group run smoothly and answers questions.

As parents of older children, we can benefit from support as well. Moms and dads of toddlers and preschoolers might find friends by participating in parent/child music, art, or sports classes. A health care insurer, child's pediatrician, local hospital, place of worship, community center, or school district, etc., may offer general or topic-specific parenting groups.

Parents, like children, of do a lot of changing. While most of the changes are wonderful, others may leave us feeling bewildered and disappointed. It may be hard for us to remember that the negative changes may be quite normal, and are likely to be temporary. We can control the damage if we are are not afraid to acknowledge our unfamiliar feelings or situations, and to seek help when necessary. Some examples:

As people become parents, partnerships may change. Our feelings for our spouse/partner may be tested as we both deal with our own changing selves, our changing relationship with each other, and our enormous love for our new child.

As new parents, we may be surprised to find that, although we love our new life, we sometimes miss our former, "carefree" life. We may feel ashamed and ungrateful if we admit it.

Fear, exhaustion, stress, and hormones may overwhelm us. We may be unable to control our tears, anger, depression, doubt, or feelings of withdrawal.

We may find that we felt more competent and patient as the parent of an infant than we do as the parent of an active two-year old.

We may find that can't stop being angry at our teenager, even though we thought we understood adolescence.

Changes or situations like these can be unsettling or even frightening. The most important thing we need to remember is this: We are NOT the first person to experience these feelings. We can talk with our spouse/partner and/or other trusted persons such as our ob/gyn, pediatrician, or friend. Together, we can create an action plan based on what we learn about time lines and options; knowing how long we can "be patient" in our particular situation, and when we should seek out additional support.

If we remember and utilize these five tips, we won't totally remove stress from our lives. But maybe we can turn it around, and more fully enjoy the special desserts that parenthood has to offer.

Carolyn Curtis-Mahoney, The Freedman Center at William James College staff writer and author of the children's book I Took the Moon for a Walk.