The Art of Staying Connected
Balancing Parenthood with Yourself as an Individual
By Bob Taibbi, LCSW
When my family and I moved to Charlottesville some 20 years ago, I had just left behind a full-time job and had trouble finding a replacement. Finally, with a mortgage loan application breathing down on us, my wife flew up to Charlottesville from South Carolina and landed a good full-time position with a one-year commitment at UVa. We decided that she would be the breadwinner and I would be the stay-at-home dad for the year.
At the time we had a 3 and a 15 year-old. While my teenager was off to school, my days were spent one-on-one with my wonderful 3 year-old daughter. Decelerating from ten years of work, having the time to really spend with her felt luxurious, and I comfortably settled into my full-time daddy role -- for about three months. Then the seemingly endless hours spent pushing my daughter on swings, playing innumerable games of memory, hanging out at the wading pool at McIntire Park (the only guy there), playing house (while I simultaneously tried to lift weights) in the basement, started to get to me. I had low energy, felt uncreative, and bored at times. Though my wife came home from work exhausted, I envied her because she had spent the day out and about, had chatted with colleagues over lunch, was using her talents and skills, while I seemed to have little to say beyond how cleverly Oscar the Grouch talked about manners, or the great deal on dog food at the grocery store. Most of all I felt lonely.
Over the years I've met lots of moms who look back on those early years with their babies, toddlers, and young children and voice the same feelings that I had: appreciative of the opportunity to be there for their children and help them get their lives off to a good start, and clear in their belief that they were doing something important. But, these good feelings were countered by the occasional gnawing sense that their partners and friends didn't really understand what their everyday life as a stay-at-home mom was like or how this great undertow of isolation dragged at them.
To think of our lives is to think of a story moving forward in chapters -- childhood, the tumultuous teenage years, college and young adulthood, early couple years, new parents, and beyond. Beginning and end markers bracket each stage, graduations, first apartment, first big job, first serious relationship, marriage, the birth of a child, and each is each sustained by its own dreams. Transitions from one chapter to the next can be difficult as we leave one dream and known role behind and tentatively, awkwardly move towards the new one. As the initial excitement wanes, we feel a natural letdown: our new beginnings are a bit more difficult than we might have expected, and the reality of the day-to-day didn't quite match all that we imagined.
All these feelings are particularly true with the start of parenthood. The joyous birth quickly turns into a months-long blur of non-stop diapering, midnight feedings, exhaustion, and times when you wonder whether you'll ever turn a corner. Normal physiological changes can exacerbate those all-too common "Is this all there is?" moments, and the transition from the work world, with all its social supports, to the dead-stop isolation of parenthood can be jolting. Even the long-imagined personal satisfactions -- those spontaneous and unexpected moments of joy, wonder and connection with your children -- can seem all too fleeting and too individual as you realize how difficult it can be to capture their power when trying to describe them later to your partner or family.
You're forced to develop new aspects of yourself as a parent as you simultaneously are leaving old parts of yourself behind. All these changes can take their toll on your everyday self-esteem and moods. In order to stay grounded it's important to stay connected to your family and to yourself. Here are some suggestions to help you stay balanced:
Get enough sleep. You've heard this before, but it's worth saying again. Lack of sleep is a stress that quickly spins off many others including tunnel vision and coloring your world gray. Resist that temptation to use the time to clean up the family room and instead take a nap when the kids do.
Get physical. Get yourself a mat and an instructional video and practice yoga in your living room; take advantage of the child care at the gym and work out; put the kids in the stroller and take a walk around the block or around the mall. Exercise burns off not only fat (good for self image), but more importantly, stress, and it generates those endorphins that reduce depression and help you feel good. What's not to like?
Write it down. Some form of journaling, whether it is jotting down snippets of random thoughts throughout the day in a spiral-bound notebook on the kitchen table, or sitting at your desk and typing out a few pages on the computer in the morning, can help you get things off your chest, as well as help you remember, record, and appreciate those special moments.
Couple Up. While an evening night out with a dinner and movie is a great mood adjuster, it's often the daily touchdowns and intimate conversations on the couch or in bed that, over the long haul, make the biggest difference. It's easy with the arrival and responsibilities of children for both of you to go spinning off into your own self-contained, parallel worlds that leave you feeling separate and isolated from each other. By making time for daily intimate conversation, your partner is able to bring some of his outside world into your own, and you have the opportunity to help him understand yours (i.e., what it is really like, up-close, personal, day-to-day, for you to be a parent). These are the conversations where what you actually say is less important than the effort you put into saying it, where your awkward but genuine honesty is more important than the weaving of a good story. These are the conversations that help keep you both connected.
Be creative. While parenting presents its own challenges and carves its own new brain pathways, you may also feel that other creative parts of yourself are withering a bit. Staying connected to yourself means keeping these parts alive. While journaling may help you tap into these parts of yourself, so may cooking, or spirited discussions at a weekly book club, volunteering, playing music with friends, or attending a one-day conference in your professional field just to keep up on the latest research or technology. It's a variation of the old "use it or lose it" rule. Don't allow yourself to fall into everyday routines that may leave you feeling undernourished and under-stimulated.
These steps can help you connect to the inner you, but it's just as important to connect to your outer world as well. Keeping up with your former work friendships can be a start, but can often be difficult over time. As you move forward into this new chapter of your life, conversations about the career-track world can seem less relevant to your own, just as your talk about crawling or walking or moving to solid foods can threaten to put friends without children to sleep. In order to escape the undertow of isolation you may need to develop new friendships with those who share your current experiences, feelings, and priorities.
So, take the leap and invite that neighbor you see pushing the stroller down your street over for a cup of coffee. Start conversations at the playground. Organize a weekly supper club with other parents you know at your church, or stick around and have lunch after your exercise class with someone you've met. And if you are feeling down and feel that reaching out requires energy that you don't seem to have, give yourself a push to move against your inclinations. Having supportive friends is often exactly what you need to feel better. By expanding your social world, by accepting invitations that come your way, you'll feel better in the long run.
I was able to get out of my daddy slump after a few months. I started writing a book, a long-held dream, by first carving out pre-dawn time in the mornings, later using two-hour blocks when my daughter entered a preschool program a couple of mornings a week. I found and joined a men's group, a group of guys who were willing to talk and listen not just about their jobs, but about their relationships, their kids, their struggles as parents and men. I joined the board of a local organization and became more involved with my church, both of which helped me put some of my former skills to work. These activities helped me to feel connected to others and more balanced within myself. And when the year was over, I re-upped and stayed home another year, and when that was over, I decided that I didn't miss full-time work after all. For the next nine years, until my son went to college and until my daughter entered high school, I continued working part-time and staying at home with my kids. Looking back on it now, I realize that by getting through that initial rough patch and stretching myself in new ways helped me reset not only my priorities but my view of myself and my life.
It's said that being a parent may be the most important job you'll ever have, and I think it's absolutely true. But like any other job, you do your best when all the best parts of you can come into play, and it's clearly tough to do as a solo act. So keep your balance, stay involved, and make sure you have the support of family and friends that you need to sustain you. You'll find that the rewards are great.
Bob Taibbi, LCSW is the author of two books and over 125 magazine and journal articles. He is in private practice with Dr. Lewis Weber & Associates and conducts workshops nationally.