(Family Magazine May 2012 4th Issue)
Agnes Ip & Phillip Lowe
Case 1 – The Busy Working Professional Couple
When John and Eva (pseudonyms) were married, they both agreed they wanted children. However, when the doctor confirmed that Eva was pregnant, they responded with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they were excited about the arrival of their first child, but as working professionals in their mid-thirties, they began to worry about their job security and how they would handle the added responsibilities as job lay-offs were increasing in an unstable economy.
Another source of stress as new parents is the new phase of their relationship they will experience. From courtship to marriage, John and Eva have been the best of friends; they can talk about anything and everything. Now suddenly a third person intrudes into their private world. Everything is now focused and centered on the baby. Their conversations, their energies, and their activities are all changed from being that of an intimate couple to more like those of business partners in taking care of the household. They both feel an incredible sense of loss in their life as a couple; in essence, neither were psychologically prepared to be a parent.
As first time parents, John and Eva had to pave a new road in learning parenting skills. Both of them grew up in less than ideal homes, so their parents did not serve as positive role models. Although their parents are willing to help with the care of their child while they both work full-time, the couple believes that their role in parenting their own child is irreplaceable. They stretched themselves to the limit by insisting on doing everything themselves. It took two years before they finally felt comfortably equipped with proper parenting skills.
In time, John and Eva began to adjust to their new family structure. Fortunately, John found a job that allowed him to work from home, allowing him to share the load of housework while Eva often comes home late from a long commute. They make it a point to occasionally go on dates without the baby in order to maintain their relationship as a couple. Their lives remain busy, but it’s all worth their efforts as they experience the joy and blessings of being parents.
In contrast, some of their peers still live their lives like swinging singles after becoming parents. Those peers were unable to make a healthy transition to parenthood as they continued to rely on their parents to take care of them as well as their children, resulting in a lack of personal growth and commitment to family.
Agnes Ip: According to Ericson’s social developmental stages, the goal of the first year of life is to build trust. The newborn child is totally dependent on the caretakers to provide consistent nurture. Ideally the caretakers are the baby’s parents, and most of the time the mother is the primary nurturer. If the mother has to be the breadwinner, someone else has to fill that role. Traditionally it is the grandparents, and most of time it falls on the grandma. However, in today’s society, sometimes it is a babysitter, nursery worker, or a stay-at-home father. The parents must exercise care in finding someone who can consistently provide a safe and positive environment to nurture the newborn.
Phillip Lowe: More parents-to-be find that raising children while both are working is a daunting challenge —no experience, no help, along with the anxiety of job insecurity while facing great responsibilities. This is increasingly a pressing issue as the demands of a job and the raising of children end up at as competing priorities adding to the stress of family life. In addition, the prolonged economic recession in the U.S. has exacerbated the difficulties of parenthood. Many studies have found that marital relationships will deteriorate with the arrival of children, and many parents to- be are not prepared for this additional surprise.
My advice here for new parents is to be aware of the possible erosion of marital satisfaction and not to be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of a new child. New parents do need to take deliberate efforts to meet each other’s emotional needs as well as engaging in self-care activities such as exercise and enjoyable activities for fun.
In John and Eva’s case, they seem busy and worried, but to avoid becoming overly dependent on their parents for help, they find it necessary to garner their support. I believe that one of the strengths of Asian families is that they can lean on their own parents or in-laws to lend a helping hand. Many grandparents are often the source of physical, financial, and emotional support. Older Asian parents tend to selflessly invest many years of their retirement into the building of their son’s and daughter’s family as a way to show their love and care. This is a blessed resource a young parent cannot afford to ignore or underestimate.
To avoid conflicts between grandparents and new parents, I advise new parents to consider finding ways to establish boundaries with their own parents as to what help is needed. This can often be a difficult and delicate issue for many new parents as their own parents play multiple roles of nanny, caregiver as well as parental figures. Grandparents sometimes can become enmeshed as emotional burdens and contribute to their son and daughter’s marital discord. Family studies have found that in-laws’ intrusion into their children’s family is one of the five stresses that distress new families. The other four stressful factors include money, housework, sex, and children’s upbringing.
Case 2 – The Adjustment to Home Life
When Norman and Maggie brought their daughter to the Presence office, everyone was overjoyed to see the bright big smile on the toddler. No one would imagine the struggles these parents went through when she was born one year ago.
Norman and Maggie had a mutual understanding when they got married that Maggie would quit her job and stay home when children come. But when she got pregnant, she still had to reconcile to leaving the job she loves. Before she had the chance to fully accept the situation, she went into premature labor and their daughter was born at thirty weeks of pregnancy. The baby’s two-month hospital stay was a blessing in disguise as it gave the couple additional time to prepare themselves to be parents and spend more time together as a couple.
However, after the baby came home, Maggie’s adjustment to staying at home was not easy. Dealing with loneliness and lacking the stimulation she had at work, the phone became her lifeline to the outside world. But her choice to stay home is reassured every time she experienced the joy of being there to witness her daughter growing step by step.
Norman also had a big adjustment to make. From the day that Norman found out Maggie was pregnant, Norman knew the role he would take on as a father. But it was not until the day he witnessed the birth of his daughter and held her in his own arms did he truly realized how little he knew about raising a child. As a novice, Norman took it upon himself to listen and observe how other parents interact with their children. Those parenting skills were put to practice when he spends precious time with his daughter after work each day.
Social life takes on a new look when one becomes a parent. With the focus on caring for the needs of the baby, it becomes a major task to merely eat out at a restaurant. Thus Norman and Maggie found that inviting friends to their home for dinner was a much more enjoyable alternative. This adjustment brought its own blessings as they discover many pleasant surprises and friendships through these gatherings.
To the dismay of every parent, there are no specific formulas for parenting children. Parenting is often learned through trial and error. Norman and Maggie continue to face challenges daily in raising their daughter.
Agnes Ip: In Norman and Maggie’s case, Maggie planned to be a stay home mom even before her child was born. Actually, the decision to stay home or not is a challenging one that every new mother has to make. Some mothers are willing to sacrifice their careers to become a full-time or part-time mother. However, others may feel staying home conflict with their personality and they do not function well as stay-at-home mothers. While the choice may depend on the family’s financial capability and the mother’s personality, a couple’s family value belief system is a greater influencing factor.
Although I agree that grandparents are important additional resources to new parents, it is more important for the young family to form a healthy attachment within the nucleus family and parents need to learn to be parents to their own child. Investing their time with their baby will build the parent-child emotional bonding. Most of the time, a father shows his love through playing with his child, as Norman does with his daughter after work each day. The ability of the parents to influence their child’s belief system later on depends on the strength of this relationship. The bonding is also important for the child to feel assurance of their love and learn from their modeling.
Even working parents need to find time to build the parent-child bonding and to establish their parental role. If for any reason the parents are not the main caretakers of their baby, the child will attach and build relationship with other caretakers. It is a common challenge for new parents to resolve the conflict between them and the grandparent’s different parenting styles. This is why some new parents are hesitant to depend on their parents or other people to take care of their own child. The child can be confused by different family rituals and rules. Many children are afflicted by these adult conflicts.
Phillip Lowe: A renowned author and professor, Forma Walsh, rightfully suggested that “no family is problem free” (2006, p. ix) as all families face serious challenges over the life course. Recognizing that challenges and adversity lie ahead, Walsh suggested that a family can thrive by building resilience into their family values. Parents can grow into resilience by adopting a “flexible” and “adaptive” stance toward challenges. Walsh suggests parents to actively take on more flexibility than the previous generation – instead of the “traditional” role of men as the breadwinner and women being the homemaker. When a couple has agreed on their role, they both contribute to the resilience and the success of their new family. No two families are exactly the same; thus this “flexible” and “adaptive” stance can vary according to each couple’s personality and resources.
While flexibility and adaptivity are important, rituals are also an important aspect of building family life and meeting challenges. Many parents have found that their lives are no longer the same, yet they can thrive by building meaning and fun traditions, such as regular family vacations, regular attendance of church, regular visits to their respective parents, or simple routine visits to the local libraries. Intentionally building family regular rituals that work in their busy parental lives go a long way toward building stable, resilient and thriving families.
Agnes Ip: I applaud these two couples for their ability to adapt their new roles and establish new family traditions. Both couples are taking their parental roles seriously as well as maintaining their couple relationship. For John and Eva, they learn to nurture their couple bonding by setting aside a time to date. John is willing to change his work environment to work at home and share more housework. It shows his flexibility to be different from the traditional male role. For Norman and Maggie, the couple has amazing coping skill to handle the crisis of the premature child. They perceived their daughter’s hospital stay as extra time to build the bond as a couple and prepare themselves as parents. They were able to adapt to new family routines by inviting friends to have dinner at home. Recently Maggie is also able to care for her own emotional needs by joining Presence’s self-growth support group for mothers.
It is vital for parents to find support to help them through. Having people who can come alongside to give emotional encouragement, hints and tips, and even to babysit can give balance and sanity to the new parents. Family, friends, and the church are important networks that can help inexperienced parents make that transition from a couple to a couple with kids.