“I sound just like my mum/dad”
With the arrival of a baby comes the arrival of a ‘mummy’ and a ‘daddy’. OK, pretty obvious! However perhaps not so obvious is that these new roles instantly bring new baggage with them. They bring the couples own experience of being parented, or not, by their ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, however that looked and with it a kind of blueprint. How often have you heard someone say “I sound just like my own mum/dad when I say ‘x’ to my son/daughter” or that they are scared that they are turning into their mum or dad? We cannot help but be shaped by our experience in childhood where we make up many of our rules, views and scripts about how life and relationship is, and how to behave.
Of course we have a choice and can consciously decide to parent differently and break family patterns, though this tends to come as a reaction to our own experience or in a sustainable way through new and increasing self-awareness. Yet, whatever our intentions, it is also inevitable that some patterns will be repeated and re-experienced before we become aware of them and able to change them.
How can this be a positive relational step for a couple?
In an earlier Parenthood post I spoke of Change 1) Growing Up. Here we come to Change 2) Patterns from the Past Emerge
When we first become parents, parental patterns learned in our childhoods affect our relationship with our partner. Over time these patterns appear in any relationship, however they escalate with the arrival of children. Despite months of waiting and preparing, the reality is that we become parents overnight so, usually unconsciously, we act from our first blueprint – our own mum or dad. It’s worth stopping to ask ourselves:
* What did I learn from my mum or dad about their parental role?
* What expectations do I have of myself as a parent as a result?
* When do I particularly sound or behave like my mum or dad?
As our parenting approach comes from or in reaction to our own childhood experiences we naturally connect with that time in our lives and in some way we relive our own childhood as our children grow up. In most cases the arrival of children means an increased involvement with our actual parents, as they step into the role of grandparents, and this too sheds new light on our own childhoods. I guess you just have to look at how many of us struggle with our relationship with our parents and ‘family’ occasions after we ‘leave home’ to see that there is stuff we have yet to resolve.
The Positive Side
The positive side of this is that it is a time of discovery that can bring us new awareness, choices and individual growth, the chance to heal old wounds and hurts, and a new level of depth in our relationships. Yet, that does not mean it is easy when old and unresolved emotion hits us. Naturally a couple will have different experience of and therefore behaviours in parenting, and gender differences only add to this. So at a time we want to feel happy and close there is a deep undercurrent that brings change in our relationship with our partner, whether we want it or not. We are likely to experience new behaviour in our partner that does not fit with the woman or man we know, that comes hand in hand with them being a mum or dad. In response, we are likely to have stronger reactions and feel more emotional, or perhaps the complete opposite, feeling less emotional and shut down.
Tips to try
To explore these differences, you could chat with your partner about your answers to the following questions:
* What emotions do I feel when I remember being parented as a child?
* What parenting do I want to repeat?
* And what parenting do I want to do differently?
Just becoming aware that old patterns and reactions will be triggered makes a difference. It helps to notice them and own them when they happen, particularly with your partner. For example, if as a mum you find yourself judging everything your partner does with your baby, acknowledge that you are doing this by saying something like “I notice that I keep commenting on and being critical about what you are doing for our baby.” Depending on what you are feeling and why this is, you might add something like “I don’t quite understand what is happening yet, but I notice I am feeling angry/scared, and I want to include / trust you more but I notice it feels easier doing everything myself, my way.” Whilst your partner might not want to hear this, it is honest and vulnerable and will invite an adult response and hopefully exploration together. You might go a step further and guess at a link, for example “I think my mum did most of the looking after me on her own, so I am not sure I learned how to do this together.” The more you can notice your own behaviour (rather than your partner’s!) the more likely you are to be able to express how you are feeling and to find ways forward together. It may also help you to see the links between your current behaviour and your past experience, so you can make sense of it and be able to have the choice to change it.
Many dads feel on the edge, excluded and lost when their baby arrives and unsure of their role. Fathers inevitably have a different relationship with their baby from that of the mother as the mother has physically ‘known’ her baby for months before he / she arrives. This can very easily leave dads feeling angry, resentful or jealous, some of which may be old feelings that have been triggered. Again, expressing how you feel to your partner, however hard, will help. I want to stress that dads are vitally important in the early days, months and years and that their job is to support and protect the mother and baby. As a child grows and starts to seek independence, a dad makes all the difference by being available to his son or daughter so they can learn more from him and feel supported and safe as they separate from their mother.
Relationship breakdown highest in year after birth
NCT’s research shows that “relationship breakdown for couples is highest in the year after birth”. A statistic that emphasises that becoming parents, whether for the first, second or additional times brings greater pressure in our relationships, and that this is a stage in life where compassion and relational support can be invaluable. Remember it’s a positive step to ask for relationship help, not a failure.
I hope that this helps you understand how stepping into family life and all it brings up can lead to greater choice and richer relationships. Above all I hope it gives you greater compassion for yourself and your partner, for both family and friends in their relationships and particularly for those who are new parents as they navigate the early years together.