Dr. Emma Svanberg, a clinical psychologist at Muswell Health has written this article for Village Raw.
When I first started working with parents, my job was pretty simple. People may have read one of two parenting “manuals”, like Gina Ford or The Baby Whisperer, but generally information came from family members, midwives, health visitors and fellow parents. The phrase I talked about with nearly everyone I saw was “This what not what I expected”. People were shocked at how different the reality of parenting was from their expectation that it would come naturally. Those most frequently caring for their children – usually mums – came to see me feeling surprised at the level of need their babies had, the transformations of every part of their lives, the loss of their identities. Partners were lost too, not knowing how to be the parent they thought they would be, and wondering what had happened to their relationship. Both parents were coming into my room with the baggage of their own childhood histories, wondering how to come together again as a unit.
Fast forward ten years, and we’re drowning in information about parenting. There are too many books to read in one lifetime, every newspaper has a parenting section and there are endless blogs, influencers and coaches on the subject. Instamums and celebrities like Chrissie Teigen and Rachel McAdams have revealed the side of parenting that usually stays behind closed doors. There are not only documentaries about parenting, but TV shows like The Letdown and Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife which depicts its realities (while leaving you crying with laughter).
So now, surely, we know what to expect? In that ten years, are parents any less shocked? Have we smashed the myth that parenting is easy? Are we united in a new belief that parenting, like the rest of life, is full of ambivalence- both joyous and despairing, often at the same time?
Well… no. Somehow the pressure has ramped up even more. While we have revealed the truth that parenting isn’t easy, we’ve simultaneously made it even harder. It’s not surprising- many psychologists have identified that we are living in a pandemic of perfectionism. This generation of parents, brought up in the 80s with its emphasis on competitiveness and individualism, have brought that same level of self-scrutiny to parenting. It becomes something which we can “get right”, rather than a lifelong transition which we will never quite finish.
And alongside parenting, there is a new pressure too. Even before the six-week check, parents talk about setting up businesses while on maternity leave, getting back into a fitness regime, or renovating a home. We have become so driven by the need to be productive that it becomes increasingly hard to focus in on the new person we have just produced.
Somehow we have managed to talk (and talk) about parenting without actually talking about parents. We talk about parenting behaviours and assess them as choices – when any parent will tell you that many of the actions they take are often driven by necessity, not choice.
Perhaps, then, we need to start talking about parents. What is it that happens to individuals when they become parents? How does it feel to be responsible for a new person in these highly turbulent times? How can we support people in their parenting journey, either alone or as a partnership? What needs to happen to reduce the endless pressure on parents so that their only immediate concern is getting to know their babies?
When we answer some of these questions, we move away from viewing parenting as an activity. Not just a series of tasks, but a shift in every part of our outer lives and inner worlds. Then, as we create and nurture a new life, we can start to see it for what it is – a transformation.