"Having a baby changes everything." Most of you are probably familiar with this old Johnson & Johnson ad campaign, so appropriately devised to entice us into buying their baby powder, no tears baby shampoo, and other products. What you may not be familiar with are the research findings that 25%-45% of women who are battered are battered during pregnancy, that 67% of new mothers experience a drop in relationship satisfaction with their partners starting at about six months after the baby is born, that fathers experience the same drop in relationship satisfaction, but not until the first year, and that half of all breakups occur in the first seven years of a relationship. Whew! That was a mouthful, and I only wanted to grab your attention with that list, not to scare you. There's plenty a couple can do to be sure that they're among the 33% of new parents for whom beginning their family is a truly joyful, deeply enriching experience. For starters, be realistic. Men and women who become parents with fewer romantic and exaggerated expectations are more likely to emerge happier about their marriages and their spouses.
Before I go on, you should know that this blog is a direct result of a reader's comment on my last blog, It's Time to Change the Realities Child Abuse in this Country, which contained lots of information related to overcoming child abuse. But guess what...I left out the most essential one, the importance of good parenting. What was I thinking? How did I forget to mention that the greatest risk for child abuse is among toddlers under the age of three, or that witnessing violence between one's parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violence from one generation to the next, or that boys who witness domestic violence, when they become adults, are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children? Enough! Whether you witnessed abuse as a child or were abused yourself; whether you grew up in a safe and loving home, your parents were married, separated or divorced, you can create a culture of respect, understanding, support, and affection in your family. It will require that you understand the physical and emotional needs of children, and that you and your spouse work as a team, because your marital relationship will fuel the parenting days ahead and set the tone for your baby's development.
"The greatest gift you can give your child is a strong relationship between the two of you," says John Gottman, Ph.D., one of the most highly regarded specialists in the world of marital and family dynamics. The best marriages are those in which couples most frequently display caring behaviors toward each other. How's your marriage? Though adjusting to a new baby is indeed stressful, if you're respectful and sensitive to each other before the baby you will in all likelihood be sensitive to each other afterwards. Have you been around children much? Do you understand them? What about babies? Do your friends or relatives have babies? How do you feel when you're around them? Do you have a sense for what they're like and for what their needs are? These are important factors to think about and to discuss with your spouse even before pregnancy, and chances are that both of you have some learning to do, particularly about child development. In Part II of their book High Risk: Children Without a Conscience, Ken Magid & Carole McKelvey do a great job of describing, in a clear, uncomplicated way, the early bonding/attachment process between parent and infant/child. In my opinion this is essential reading for anyone intending to bring a child into the world, to adopt a child, or to become a foster parent. I have a little Mary Engelbright puzzle on a table in my office that reads: "Home is where we start from." Give your child a healthy start. The bonding/early attachment process forms the bedrock of an infant's evolving personality characteristics.
Once a woman gets pregnant she and her spouse tend to become focused on the biology of it, which is good. They need to understand it, they need to develop a birth plan with their doctor, they also need to learn about breast feeding, car seat safety, infant CPR. Hospitals generally offer classes for these aspects of becoming a new parent, which is also good. But it's a rare hospital that offers classes about how having a baby will affect your marriage, how your marriage will affect your baby, and what your baby's psychological needs are. Seek out classes like this in your community. Sometimes local counseling centers, churches, synagogues, or other places of worship offer them, or have ongoing parenting classes and support groups.
I urge you to educate yourself through reading, and I'll suggest some books at end of this blog. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, authors of And Baby Makes Three believe that the real cradle that holds your baby is the emotional world between the two of you. Their research has shown that to make a relationship last, a couple has to accomplish two things: strengthen the friendship quality of their relationship, and learn how to handle conflict well. That's a tough one for most couples, and a common reason to seek out marital therapy. Don't resist therapy if you need it.Dr. Gottman's decades of research have found that only 31% of couples' problems are resolvable. Did you take that one in? It means that 69% are unsolvable, therefore they will recycle throughout the years of a couple's marriage. The task at hand is to develop the ability to regulate conflict well and to negotiate. Have you ever witnessed couples able to do that? It's a beautiful sight.
Sometimes couples workshops can greatly enrich a couple's relationship as well. My husband and I have taken part in a few over the course of our 42- year marriage, and one aspect of them that we particularly appreciated was the experience of being in a room surrounded by other couples who are also working on their relationships. It created a unique energy in the room, which seemed to nourish our commitment to each other. For expectant parents and parents of young children, Bringing Baby Home (www.bbhonline.org) is the finest workshop program that I'm aware of. You can find out if one is being offered near you by logging on to the website above. Why do I recommend this program so highly? First of all, I believe it's one of the best child abuse prevention programs available, and secondly, over the many years that I've been practicing I've seen too many couples on the verge of divorce who've told me that their problems started after their first child was born. It became clear to me that there's a critical need to support and educate couples at this stage of the family lifecycle. Bringing Baby Home has not only been developed as a result of years of research, but its effectiveness has also been studied, and proven effective as well.
Good marriages don't just happen, nor do good parents. Both require love and work, education and dedication. The quality of your baby's life is in your hands.
Books I recommend:
Brot, Armin & Ash, Jennifer. The expectant father. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.
Carter, B. & Peters, J. Love, Honor and negotiate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Gottman, John, & Gottman, J., And Baby Makes Three. New York: 3 RiversPress, 2007.
Gottman, John, Ph.D. Raising an emotionally intelligent child: the heart of parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Hog, Tracy, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon & Myla, Everyday blessings: the inner work of mindful parenting. New York: Hyperion. 1997.
Kaplan, L., Oneness and separateness: from infant to individual. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Karp, Harvy, M.D. The happiest baby on the block. New York: Bantam Books, 2003.
Magid, K. & McKelvey, C., High Risk: children without a conscience. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
Siegel, Daniel, MD & Hartzell, Mary, M.Ed. Parenting from the inside out: how a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2003
Belsky,J & Kelly, J. The transition to parenthood. New York; Dell, 1994.