Being a new parent comes in many shapes and sizes. You may have been present since baby’s first breath, or you might be welcoming an older child into your life. No matter when or how you became a parent, one thing is true: becoming a parent changes your life — and it will keep on changing it.
There are so many changes that come with parenting. Some changes might be expected, such as feeling overjoyed to experience life through a whole new perspective. Other changes might catch you off guard. Maybe you feel unsettled if you are joining an existing family unit. Perhaps you are questioning your own changing identity, just as you are helping your baby or child build theirs.
Even experienced parents know that change is always a part of parenting. From diapers to driving, from play-dates to puberty, your child will go through a million changes right in front of your eyes. While you will be hyper-focused on how their changing worlds affect them, there’s another important person to keep in mind — you.
Adjusting to parenthood
There are so many wonderful things that can come with the role of parent, but it probably won’t be easy, and will definitely take some adjusting to. That’s OK – it’s all part of the job. But there are things you can do to stay energized and ready to handle the ever-changing demands of parenthood: starting with coping skills, self-compassion, and building your emotional strength.
Find your support system. A new parent can be overwhelmed by emotions. There is so much change happening so quickly. It’s easy to get overloaded. Having someone to talk to, lean on, or spend time with can help you let emotions out, gain perspective, and de-stress.
Find time for yourself. Self-care is vital to your health and well-being. Self-care doesn’t have to be a spa day or a whole afternoon on the golf course. It might mean carving out 30 minutes (or even less to start) while the baby is asleep to do some simple meditation exercises, or to just sit in the quiet and take a few deep breaths. Even carving out a few moments for yourself with nothing to do but breathe can help reduce stress and boost your energy for the rest of the day.
Give yourself a little love. Being a parent is a very gratifying job, but not an easy one. Sometimes it will feel perfect, other times it will feel far from it. When things aren’t perfect or don’t go as planned, go easy on yourself. Self-compassion, or treating yourself with kindness, can help you handle the less-than-perfect moments with resilience and optimism.
Imagine this: you wanted a picture-perfect first birthday party for your baby, but nothing turned out as planned. The baby was fussy, you dropped the cake, and you cried or lost your temper in front of family and friends. Instead of thinking you ruined the day, practice self-compassion. Remind yourself that it’s OK. No one is perfect, and no one expects you to be either. A baby can be fussy, and a cake can be dropped. It’s not a reflection of your parenting. The celebration was never about the cake anyway — it was about celebrating your first year with this new family member, which is an accomplishment a dropped cake can’t hold a candle to.
When you let yourself off the hook from feelings of guilt, inadequacy, or shame, you open up space to feel better about yourself, and to focus on the good. It’s important that as a parent, you give yourself the space to make mistakes and fall a little short without beating yourself up. Rather than getting stuck on the mistakes of the best, think “What did I learn from that?” … and then move forward. With practice, you may find you’re able to adapt to changes more easily, and stay more optimistic in the face of future challenges.
Tame the chaos. Chaos seems to accompany family life. Suddenly, your routine includes taking care of someone else’s needs — and those needs can be demanding. You’re giving your child a home, but you're also giving them space in your thoughts and emotions.
You might not be able to change demands on your time or personal space. But you can create some space in your mind that is just for you. Mindfulness is a mind-body practice where you try to be fully present and aware in the moment. You pay careful attention to your thoughts, feelings, your body and your environment. You accept feelings and sensations as they come to you without judging them. You focus on the present without pulling in worries about your past or future. Mindfulness can be a valuable practice that can help you build emotional strength.
Mindfulness can help handle the stress of parenting in unique ways.
- Recognize your emotions. You can learn to embrace your emotions without always acting on them. For example, your toddler might be pushing all the right buttons to get under your skin. While you may be ready to shout “No means no!”, mindfulness might help you gain some control. When you can recognize and name how you’re feeling, it gives you some control back over that emotion — rather than reacting to the frustration that’s bubbling up inside you, you can see it, name it, and set it aside. Not only will this help keep already challenging situations calm, it also helps model positive self-control for their emotions.
- Learn to listen. Listening is another important component of mindfulness. Especially as a new parent, listening is vitally important to establishing open and authentic communication with your baby or child. With mindful listening, you turn off your inner dialogue, tune out external distractions like TV or the smartphone, and focus with intention on your child in the present moment.
If you feel that you are still carrying frustration or another feeling with you from earlier, recognize it, name it, and re-focus on the present. If you find yourself worrying about what to get for dinner or whether you need to buy more dog food, recognize it, name it, and re-focus on the present. When you begin to mindfully listen, you can really foster deep, strong bonds by increasing empathy for your child and awareness of their needs.
- Practice gratitude. Becoming a new parent introduces you to emotions you may not have known previously. It’s easy to feel gratitude for the joyful, happy times you experience. But what about the mind-numbing, dull moments you experience as a parent? The 3 am infant feeding. Tossing a toy back and forth with your child again and again and again and again. Feeling exhausted and emotionally spent. How do you feel gratitude when these moments aren’t exactly joyful? Mindfulness can help you shift your outlook in small but meaningful ways.
When you feel calm and present, you can find ways to be grateful. Take that 3 am feeding time for your baby — you might realize it’s an amazing time to focus on your baby without distraction, perhaps the only time you get all day to do so. What about when your toddler wants your undivided attention? It can be a space to appreciate the joy and learning your child is experiencing through repetition. Feeling exhausted? That’s normal. But if you can find ways to feel gratitude, you might say, “I know it’s hard to get up at 3 am, but I love that special time with my baby.” It can give you strength to get through the rest of your day, and all of the days yet to come.
Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente Clinical Ambassadors, including Mark Dreskin, MD, Sharon Smith, LPC, and/or David Kane, LCSW. September 2018.
Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage, Summary Plan Description or other coverage documents. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.