When we're looking forward to the birth of our new baby, we often imagine this wonderful time of bonding. Perhaps a few months without sleep but after that a wonderful, growing, young family. But often things don't quite turn out the way we plan. Today I'm really excited to share with you an interview with Elly Taylor - author of Becoming Us and a parenthood researcher.
Corryn: When we're looking forward to the birth of our new baby, we often imagine this wonderful time of bonding. Perhaps a few months without sleep but after that a wonderful, growing, young family. But often things don't quite turn out the way we plan.
Hello and welcome to the Milk and Love Village podcast. I'm Corryn and today I'm really excited to share with you an interview with Elly Taylor. She's the author of Becoming Us and a parenthood researcher. Elly specialises in the peri-natal period which is through pregnancy and the first year after birth, supporting couples to prepare for and adjust to each stage of parenthood.
Corryn: So hi Elly, how are you?
Elly: I'm very well Corryn. Thank you very much for having me.
Corryn: It's lovely to have you here. So when you are pregnant, you do have this expectation of what's going to happen afterwards which I suspect is fed to us through the media and things often aren't quite that fantastic. What's been your experience with this stage?
Elly: Absolutely that! You know as both a mother – gosh twenty years ago now – and as a relationship counsellor, I worked with couples for fifteen years and I really noticed that it was common for couples to expect that having a baby would bring them closer together than ever and that life would be wonderful. And I found both personally and professionally that in some ways that was true but in lots of other ways it was not the case; and that was a big, big, big adjustment for me and for my husband and for my clients. I think you're right. The media tends to paint a really rosy picture of what parenthood is like and that, you know, means that people are coming in with very high expectations and often completely unprepared for the normal stresses and strains that are common to all new families really – and that can be a big, big comedown, a big fall for lots of new families and in fact in some cases it can actually, I think, contribute to post-partum - post-partum depression. There was a study done by Beyond Blue that found that 30% of women actually said that having too high expectations probably, in hindsight, you know, contributed to their post-partum depression. So I think it's. you know. really important to talk about it.
Corryn: Mmm … and I think it's interesting how we bring our histories as parents. So I know, personally, my husband and I had very different upbringings and we brought very different expectations to that post-partum period which caused quite a lot of conflict.
Elly: I can identify with that one too! [laughing] And again it's common – you know, often differences between a couple don't actually surface until they have a baby and we're talking most couples. 92% of couples say that they have increased differences and conflict in their first year after baby. So we're talking about most of us and that's normal and it doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with either partner or with their relationship. I tell couples, “Don't freak out!” “Don't freak out – it's not you it's everybody!” and there's good reasons for that conflict and for those differences and, you know, one is differences in philosophies or in parenting styles.
For my husband and I it was cultural difference. You know, he's of a different ethnic background to me and that was totally a non-issue for the ten years that we were together, until we had a baby and then his mother had, what I thought, were some strange ideas about, you know, how to manage a new-born and ideas that I wasn't comfortable with; and so all of a sudden we had this, kind of, new issue between us that we were completely blindsighted by that made it quite stressful. So, yeah, that's a big one! [laughing]
Corryn: And I think that's also the expectation as well because you kind of imagine that you'll both be 'on the same page' and bonding and doting over your new child and really enjoying that time that it can be a really difficult time especially if you add your sleep deprivation and your own concern about whether you're the one causing the problems.
Elly: Yeah, well it's almost like a kind of – now that we've got this baby in common, we've got everything in common – [both laughing]. You know, we've got this little person who's half your DNA and half my DNA, that really does kind of 'merge' us in a whole new way! And we kind of, I guess, expect to feel – to feel that way as well 'cause it's such an amazing concept; but no, it's really common for so many differences to creep in, in that, you know, that post-natal, that post-partum period that couples are unprepared for and that can then cause conflict and problems between couples that they're often blindsighted by but it's perfectly, perfectly normal and something that we can prepare for.
Corryn: You talk about the 8 steps to grow a family that thrives in your book. Could you walk me through what those eight steps are?
Elly: Yeah absolutely. So the first one is pre-natal preparation: most couples don't do much pre-baby preparation at all. We call it 'expecting', we really should call it 'preparing' because there's so much that we can do to prepare. Now, you know, two of the big ones that I talk about in Becoming Us are 'reducing your stress levels'. You don't need to take on extra stress like so many parents do: like renovating and buying an expensive car and, you know, expensive prams and all this sort of stuff. You know, you're supposed to be downsizing, not upsizing when you have a baby. [laughing] There's a good friend, Darren Mattock, from Becoming Dad (http://becomingdad.com.au/, who uses the same term and I think that's, that's a fantastic thing to aim for. And also I let couples know to 'prepare their support system'. You know, it takes 'a village' and to do that before the baby comes. So that's Step 1.
Step 2 I call building a nest: just create a little cocoon for the family in the first couple of weeks and hopefully months, post-partum, if you can. Limit early visitors. Make sure that they're helpers and not visitors and they don't tax and tire you and reach out to the support system that you've ideally created before the baby's come and adjust your expectations. Be learners and not experts. You know, just play with it – stuff up – experiment. Don't try to be an expert from the beginning because baby's change very quickly and you know, you need to flexible and change along with them and adapt.
And then Step 3 is to manage expectations: just as you said we've got such unrealistic, and such high expectations that that can mean a big adjustment for lots of mums and for lots of couples. So pack what I call 'healthy expectations' . You'll need support in the post-partum period – reach out – there's plenty of it out there and there's professionals for everything now if you haven't got friends that can help you with, you know, settling and breast-feeding and that sort of thing. And don't expect that life will get back to normal after the baby comes. It really is more about couples working together to create the new 'normal' for their family. So that's probably the biggest one.
Then Step 4 I call establishing base-camp: the challenges for couples tend to come a couple of months into parenthood and so base camp is all about, you know, setting up some really good family foundations like good nutrition. You know, once you stop focusing on the baby needs in the first couple of weeks and months, then start looking at your own needs and, you know, set down some really solid foundations with good nutrition, regular family friendly stress relief, you know, some sort of a family friendly exercise routine. Exercise is a natural anti-depressant, anti-anxiety – it's wonderful, I can't recommend it highly enough. You know, work out, you know, what you're going to do about work. Take as long as you can with leave. Just bed down that support system – for a lot of mums at this stage it means establishing new friendships, establishing new links with the community. I know for me, I left paid work in the city to be at home in the suburbs and I didn't even know my neighbours very well. So it's about, you know, kind of, embedding yourself in the community and getting that community local support as well.
Corryn: Mmm … and that in itself is a lot of work isn't it? Like, I mean, emotionally it's exhausting to be going out and making new friends.
Elly: You know what, it can be and in fact, that's Step 5! [laughing] You're spot on with this Corryn! Really Step 5 is about knowing that you're going to be more sensitive emotionally because you are exhausted and because you've got broken sleep so you're likely to be cranky and also too, parents often don't realise that because they're both biologically primed – mum more than dad – but they're both biologically primed to be sensitive to their baby's emotions which means that they're more sensitive to each other. So I tell parents to be prepared for that and to cut each other a lot of slack and to not take things personally and to learn to work with their emotions and with their partner's emotions rather than against that and this step is really pivotal because when parents aren't aware of this stuff and they do take their partner's emotions personally and they do often worry that, you know, their partner's changed or that they're changing, not recognising that this is a normal stage of parenthood to yeah, not freak out about it and just to, you know, ride it through because it does settle down eventually.
Corryn: and I think it's also about respecting each other and I know that sounds really silly but when one of you is the primary caregiver, you're almost the 'expert' about the baby sometimes …
Corryn: … and the secondary caregiver can feel sidelined quite easily …
Corryn: … and I often see, particularly on Facebook, when somebody posts something about a disagreement and their partner is suggesting something different, the disparaging remarks about the partner it's just remarkable. It's really quite sad that they're not given more respect for their viewpoint and I think maintaining that respect for each other's point of view is really important. Really difficult but really important.
Elly: Well, you're now into Step 6! [Both laughing] You're absolutely right; and Step 6 is welcome your parent self and your partner's parent self, because this is about self-esteem and it's about a sense of identity. You know, there are some changes that are going on for both mum and for both dad in terms of how they feel about themselves and that makes us really sensitive to our partner's comments. So those sorts of comments, you know, are likely to be quite damaging at this point in time. But it's almost human nature . It's almost a protective or coping mechanism to find somebody to blame for the stuff that's going on and commonly it's a partner. You know, we're not prepared for these changes. We're not ushered through these changes like we would have been done back in the days of 'the village'.
You know, parenthood is a rite of passage and it used to be village elders and more experienced parents that ushered new parents – both mothers and fathers – through this stuff, but because we've lost that in our now modern day world, it's really common for us, like I said, to look for the closest person to blame for whatever the problems are rather than realising that we're all going through them, we're all - it's an adjustment for all parents. It's normal, it's common and it's purposeful. You know, it's like we've come out of a cocoon and now we're turning into our butterfly self but we're doing it often without any kind of preparation or support or guidance. So there is a temptation to blame – that's human nature but that can then cause a lot of erosion of the foundations of not just the couple's relationship but potentially the family. So Step 6 is really important for not falling into that trap.
Corryn: and I think it also relates back to your Step 4 where you're establishing your base camp and doing things together. Carving out that time to spend together, whether it's going for a walk in the morning together or whatever it is because it's very easy to fall into the ... by this stage your partner might be going back to work and coming home late and you're stuck with the baby all day and then you know it cycles everyday.
Elly: Yeah, I'm sorry to interrupt. You're absolutely right. It's very easy to channel all of those frustrations toward, you know, into resentment towards your partner 'cause he can get to escape, you know, and he's not pulling up his end of the bargain and it's really common, you know, it's human nature for us to focus on something as the problem, whereas the, what's underneath is that there's a whole other bunch of stuff that's going on that's probably not getting addressed or could even be out of awareness. So it's actually: “well OK, what's really going on underneath here?” and “How can we work together to manage these different situations rather than to focus on each other being the problem and causing them?”.
Corryn: and I think this is where professional help can really assist as well because it can feel like you're fighting too many fires, especially, you know, perhaps you're having issues with the baby's sleep or you're woried about something else and then if the relationship's not working as well, it can be really difficult to un-pick all of that and work out exactly what is going on and what the underlying story actually is.
Elly: It can be and you know what, talking to other mothers is really, is gold because that's how you can un-pick a lot of stuff - is identifying that, you know,what, that they're going through all those multiple different issues as well but that there is help out there for each of those issues. You know, there's lots of advice and support out there for everything. You know, google it, or there's a book or there's a professional or there's a friend who will have experienced it and this is why 'it takes a village' because there's a whole bunch of stuff going on and that stuff I've found feeds into Step 7, is often increased conflict between a couple because everything previously that they weren't aware of that they may not have known to address then causes this increased conflict that has been, that is experienced by 92% of parents.
So Step 7 then is to know how to manage conflict in ways that grows couples closer rather than sends them further apart because when conflict is done well it's actually very, very stability-making for a couple. You know, if I know that even if I've got an issue with my partner, but that we can talk it through, that is really trust-building for a couple. It's the sort of stuff that we do in counselling, but couples can do it on their own. I've got the actual steps in the book for them to go through, that you can create a really solid foundation for a family and for the eventual differences that you'll have with your toddlers and your teenagers through knowing how to manage differences with your partner.
Corryn: Yeah, I think learning to fight fair is definitely something that should probably come when you marry somebody or you know, commit to somebody. [laughing]
Elly: They should give you a manual shouldn't they I reckon. It's like here in your bassinet you will find instructions on how to manage the eventual conflict that's likely to come up with your partner….
Corryn: Exactly! Yeah that was actually something that was a big learning for us as well, is learning how to fight fair and resolve conflict in ways that didn't deteriorate the relationship.
Elly: Yeah and once you get good at it you can actually avoid lots of stuff because it's often the anxiety that comes with the 'oh my gosh we're fighting' that actually increases and fuels the conflict. So not 'freaking out' about it is a really good start. It's like 'OK we've got a difference – fair enough – you're not a carbon copy of me. You've got your own and bringing in the respect that you mentioned before - you've got your own ideas on this. I don't like them but I can't change them and you know, you're the dad, you're just as entitled to have a say as I am. Let's work this out and let's see if we can find some common ground instead of freaking out and worrying about these differences because all couples have them'.
Corryn: that's a good one!
Elly: So that brings us to Step 8 which is knowing how to stay connected through all the different changes. You know, knowing how to stay connected through expectations that might be un-met or through not having a good post-partum plan , or not knowing to bed things down in the base camp stage and have, you know, a good routine in terms of stress relief and exercise and eating well and those sorts of things. You know, couples can stay connected through this whole journey but they can also reconnect at any time even if they've got teenagers they can reconnect.
I've literally worked with couples who have got to this point, having teenagers and realised 'Wow we actually went through a whole lot of stuff together that we didn't realise we were going through' and even just that reduces the blame. 'I've actually been blaming you for a lot of stuff that you didn't have any control over and you were just learning and in the thick of it just as I was'. And often recognising that dad's don't have the same access to support that mum's might do and the same supports that mums might do, so they're often, you know, struggling in isolation and just keeping a lot of stuff hidden. So that can reduce a lot of the blame and then once the blame's reduced a lot of healing can come.
So Step 8 is to stay connected or to reconnect when you've become disconnected and doing that by making time for each other, checking in with your partner, seeing how they're going through the journey, reaching out to your partner when you're struggling and sharing yourself and just creating those opportunities to bond and to connect to partners because it's the bond between partners that is the foundation for their family. So the stronger the bond, the stronger the foundation, so that's really, I guess, the most important thing for partners to know.
Corryn: and I think it can require quite a lot of conscious thought to move out of negative thought spirals and start to appreciate all the positives about your partner.
Elly: It does and you know, there's such huge – you know, people describe it as a journey, but for me parenthood really is an adventure into the unknown and an endurance sport all rolled into one! You know, we prepare parents, we send parents off with a bon voyage card but it's more like 'survivor' you know, especially in those first few weeks and months and when parents can realise how much of a big deal it is and how much they can struggle through parts of it, but that their partner is probably struggling as well and that they are both in it together and struggling together creates strength. So recognise that your partner's probably been struggling too and, you know, reach out and share the struggles and that's how you create bonds.
Corryn: and I love that you emphasise that you can reconnect even if you have disconnected …
Corryn: you can re-find love!
Elly: Totally, totally! You know, relationships are all about disconnection and reconnection and there's going to be multiple disconnections and reconnections in every stage and that's normal, and that's to be expected and again it's about expectations. It's not that we're going to get stronger increasingly the longer we're together. It's that we're going to disconnect but we can reconnect. Every time we reconnect we get stronger. That's the expectation that I'd like people to have.
Corryn: That's beautiful and I think we'll leave on that note because we've gone over time .
Elly: I tend to do that!
Corryn: It's so fascinating, such an interesting area. Thanks so much Elly!
Elly: My pleasure Corryn, really enjoyed talking to you.
Corryn: You as well!
Corryn: We've been listening to a fascinating interview with Elly Taylor author of Becoming Us and a parenthood researcher. Make sure you check out Elly's website at www.ellytaylor.com Elly has some great blog posts and articles that are available there.