The Silent Stressors of Parenthood in the First Year

Silent Stressor #1

To some degree, all new parents suffer from stress.  In an uneventful pregnancy, the first stress generally occurs at the boundary between the end of the pregnancy and the birth of the child.  It’s hard to imagine that not being pregnant is stressful, but it is.  When you consider that a normal pregnancy is a time of great anticipation that brings the spouses together in preparation, it’s logical to assume that there would be some feelings about the pregnancy coming to an end.  It’s during pregnancy, after all, when you make the announcement, choose a name for your child, buy furniture, fix up the baby’s room, experience the innate sensation of nesting, and carry around within you the seeds of the next generation.  It’s an awesome time of eager expectancy; hence, the term “expecting” is generally reserved for pregnant couples.  Not only is there tremendous anticipation while you await the birth of your child, there’s also a tremendous sense of purpose in being pregnant.  The mundane daily tasks we all have to do take a backseat to the significance of bringing a new life into the world.  As a result, there is a great sense of well-being and focus during the months of pregnancy, yet when it ends there’s no ceremony marking its completion.  Since the pregnancy heralds the birth of the child, there’s no reason to think that not being pregnant is significant.  Its significance, however, lies in the attachment the mother feels towards her child in utero.  I believe that the lack of recognition of the mother/child bond before birth is one of the major variables associated with postpartum depression.  So, although you may not think so, the end of pregnancy is the first silent stressor for the “expecting” couple.

Silent Stressor #2

“I resent my child” is not a phrase you hear new parents say about their newborn, but many do feel it.  Resentment, in this regard, is not to be confused with not loving or wanting the child.  We love our children beyond all measure, and sometimes confuse resenting them with not wanting them.  Nothing can be farther from the truth.  The fact is that we want them so much, and adore them so completely, that we can’t imagine resenting them, especially when they’re young.  The thought that we may resent our children causes us to repress normal negative feelings we may have towards them, and consequently, unconscious resentment becomes a silent stressor.  Once we are able to make the distinction between loving our children, and resenting them, those strong emotions dissipate.

It’s easy to see why resentment is a silent stressor.  Children are a blessing that add immeasurably to the life of every parent, but they are also an irreversible life changing event.  Some of the changes that occur when the first child is born are immediately felt in the marriage.  The exclusivity of the relationship between husband and wife is disrupted by the additional roles of mother and father.  Furthermore, normal habits such as, waking up, going to bed, going out, and even arguing is modified for the sake of the child.  And most importantly, we are unskilled at raising children.  Childrearing is a major life task, yet there is no training for it, so we draw on the only available repertoire of information we have, our own upbringing.  Needless to say, both spouses were brought up differently, so instead of having a unified approach to parenting there are usually two emerging versions of childrearing, and they are never the same.  This difference in style introduces disagreement early into to the life of the child, and presents the parents with an unexpected challenge to their relationship.  Taken together, you can see why being a new parent can evoke the silent stressor of resentment.

Silent Stressor #3

Perhaps the most stressful thing to deal with during the first year of parenthood is regulating your child’s sleep pattern, and your own.  Children do not come equipped with a built-in sleep regulator, something they never explained to us at the hospital.  In the beginning, newborns sleep most of the time.  As children get older, however, they learn to associate their sleep patterns with the cues that their parents unconsciously give them.  Some common associations for sleep occur close to bedtime.  The ritual of having a nice warm bath, and then a bottle, followed by being read to, and finally tucked in, all associate children to a bedtime routine as they wind down from their day.  Often this routine is cut short by parents who allow their children to fall asleep in their arms rather than in their own crib.  As a result, children begin to associate sleeping with the warmth of being held and snuggled while listening to the reassuring beat of a loving parent’s heart.  As parent and child meld together in bedtime bliss the child falls asleep.  It does not get any better than this, does it?  The mother then places her child in the crib and goes to bed herself.  The problem occurs when the child wakes up in the middle of the night and the mother’s reassuring warmth is no longer there.  The child has no association to falling asleep in the crib and so cries out for mommy to reproduce the same environment that holds all of the familiar associations for sleep.  The mother, unaware that she has created a false sense of sleep security in her child, first assumes that her child is hungry and gives a mid-night feeding.  If the child is hungry, or simply needs to be soothed, he or she will nurse and then fall asleep satisfied in the mother’s lap.  Now, the association has been increased to include suckling as well as being held and rocked.  Once these associations are established they are very difficult to break.  Often a child will not be interested in nursing and just drift in and out of sleep while being held, a lovely moment for sure, but not so lovely after hours of attempting to put the child down only to have the child immediately awaken when the mother’s warmth disappears.  This routine can get old very quickly, and since we create these sleep associations quite unconsciously, sleep patterns is the third silent stressor of parenthood.

Taking into consideration the preceding three stressful events of the first year of life – the end of pregnancy, unconscious resentments, and the child’s developing sleep patterns – the lesson of the first year of parenthood is that the blessings are plentiful, but in order to be able to count them parents must first be able to hear the three silent stressors of the first year.

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