Newsletter, Issue 16
I believe our early years of parenting are some of the most challenging and full on both for us as individuals and in our relationships. I can vouch that this has been true for me and my husband, as well as for many friends as we have all gone through phases of survival and levels of exhaustion that the EU would certainly not countenance within any health and safety guidelines!
The Reality of Parenthood
Everyone says becoming a parent changes your life, and of course they are right – there is no returns policy after all. If you listen, parents will tell you about their struggle with the responsibility, the disrupted nights and lack of sleep, the nappies, mounds of washing and exhaustion. Alongside this they talk about how hard it is to have time for themselves and their relationship, how things have changed with their partner, and where they dare the loss or lack of making love with them.
I want to focus here on the fact that becoming a parent fundamentally changes your relationship with your partner, as the two of you become a family of 3 (or more!). In my experience it helps to know this is normal and to understand a little of what is happening.
So What are these Relationship Changes?
Let’s start with a central one..
Change 1) Time to Grow Up
We all act childishly at times and usually even more so in our relationship with our partner; seeking reassurance, demanding comfort, competing for attention, acting helpless to get what we want, taking out our anger on our partner, blaming them etc. Without children there is space and time for this to be a major part of our relationship dynamic, even though it usually doesn’t feel great and ends up leaving us feeling stuck and dissatisfied.
Our ‘Inner Child’
You’ve probably heard the term ‘inner child’ and it is commonly accepted we all have one – the little us that is part of our overall self – the part that feels and acts like a child even though we might be 30, 40 or even 70, 80 years old. It is the part that experienced childhood and any hurts that happened along the way, it is the part that gives us access to enormous creativity, play and spontaneity, it is the part of us that experiences things physically rather than verbally, for example feeling tight in the chest with fear rather than being able to articulate and rationalise that fear as our adult part might, and it is the part that sometimes has no voice but lots of strong emotions that can spill out at inappropriate times. For some the very existence of a child inside them seems absurd, and if you’re thinking that as you read then great, let me hold the part that thinks it absurd, as well as the possibility that another part of you might be curious.
In our relationships we almost inevitably expect our partner to take care of our ‘inner child’ at some level, however unconsciously. Naturally the last thing any of us really wants to do is mother or father the partner with whom we are choosing to have a sexual relationship. Yet, we find ourselves doing just that and getting stuck and dissatisfied, and losing the sexual connection. Remember this is unconscious, so try to be more gentle and forgiving if you beat yourself or your partner up about it.
So, back to parenthood… What happens when a baby is born and there is a real child with immediate needs? It literally means we are under pressure to ‘grow up’ as it is our job as parents to be in our adult part as much as we can so we can meet our real child’s needs. The hard truth is that unconsciously our ‘inner child’ competes with our real child to have their needs met, for our partner’s attention and their available mothering or fathering. In our relationship as there is less space, energy and time for our own needs, we are often no longer able or willing to tolerate our partner’s childish behaviour, typically experiencing increasing anger and resentment. No wonder it is often an emotional, messy and overwhelming time, especially on top of the sleep deprivation and learning SO much as a new parent. The good news is that our answers are in this mess and in learning from mistakes rather than avoiding making them – there is no easy, perfect, unemotional and neat way through.
Tip 1) How to Grow Up
Given our ‘inner child’ is part of us, what does healthy ‘growing up’ look like? It means becoming aware, having compassion for, embracing, looking after, listening to and taking responsibility for our own needs and ‘inner child’, rather than trying to get rid of or ignore ‘it’.
To do this we need to start by asking ourselves “What does my ‘inner child’ sound and look like?” It is rarely one way, so however angry you might feel with your partner and want to point to their behaviour, remember to start by focusing on yourself. Start noticing when you have been childish or acted up in your relationship with your partner – a clue to this can be when you feel defensive, a bit embarrassed or awkward about something you’ve done or said. Even if it is a day or two afterwards, the next step is to own up to your behaviour and its impact by apologising for taking it out on them or acting up. This will probably feel much harder to do, but is worth practising as if you mean it, it can enable you to recover connection in your relationship with your partner. This also gives you a chance to share how you were feeling at the time, not by way of an excuse but to express the feelings that caused you to act from your child so that you might be able to talk about it the next time you feel that way.
The good news, though it may not feel like it at the time (believe me I know how painful this is), is that ‘growing up’ when we have children and learning to look after our ‘inner child’ enables a greater depth of intimacy and relationship with our partner and brings a new sustainability and sexual energy to the relationship.