Becoming a parent is, in many ways, a radical change to your identity. You and your partner go from being a couple to a family. You go from being primarily responsible for yourself to responsible for another human being. This can be an invigorating and life affirming experience - but it can come with a range of challenges too, both for you as individuals and for your relationship.
It's important to be prepared. Navigating through the more challenging parts of parenting will be much easier if you have made preparations for the coming event.
Talking through how things might change in your relationship and renegotiating these changes will be pivotal to how you deal with these issues when the time comes.
For example, how do you share out the household responsibilities like food shopping, laundry and cleaning? Perhaps one of you did all that before, but with the baby bringing a whole new ‘to do’ list, how can you redistribute those tasks between you more evenly?
And little things can make a huge difference, like how might you manage your schedules so you can take turns to have a sleep in on the weekend while your partner gets up with the baby.
I'ts never too early or too late to have these conversations.
Early changes to your relationship
It can feel like, with all the new responsibilities involved in being a new parent, there’s simply no time to worry about your relationship. For many new parents, this side of things simply falls the bottom of their priorities list. And while this is understandable, it can also make things harder in the long run. Think about the family you are creating as a house that needs care and attention, if you focus all the attention on the roof (children) and don’t look at the foundations (your relationship) it may all fall down.
Ensuring you keep your relationship strong means you will be creating a secure and stable home for your family and modelling the type of relationship you would want for your child.
It’s the love and connection between you that will carry you through the ups and downs of parenting, so make time to maintain your relationship and to communicate your needs to one another.
If you and your partner are able to support each other through what will probably be a fairly challenging time in your lives, you’re much more likely to be able to deal with your new responsibilities as a team. If you can keep your connection strong, you’re more likely to feel this is something you’re facing together - not just as individuals.
Paying attention to your relationship is also important because the challenges of being a parent are going to put pressure on you as a couple. You may find certain things your partner is doing annoying or frustrating, and there may be areas where you wish they would support you more. Being able to bring these things up and talk about them properly will be key in navigating things together.
Doing this will be important first because it will make it easier to keep your relationship strong, but also because your relationship is likely to be a model for your young child. Much of what they learn about how to be in a couple, or even just how to be around other people, is likely to come in part from watching you and your partner together.
If they see you constantly arguing and making no effort to understand one another’s viewpoints, they may end up replicating this as they get older - seeing it as the appropriate way to deal with conflict. If they see you two making an effort to navigate around problems - listening to each other, taking the time to talk, and meeting in the middle if necessary - they’re more likely to be able to do this themselves.
This doesn’t mean getting things perfect every time - the odd less-than-productive row is no disaster. But it does mean making an effort, knowing that it’s going to benefit you as a family, not just as a couple.
And finally, it’s also important you’re able to find the occasional bit of quality time together so you can stay in touch with the fun, affectionate side of your relationship. Remember: fun isn’t just a frivolous thing - it’s a really important part of staying close and feeling connected to your partner.
On a practical level, this can mean trying to put aside a little time to reconnect regularly. It doesn’t have to be lots. It might be 30 minutes before you go to bed, or 20 minutes over breakfast. The point is to find a little bit of time where you can talk, make sure you’re both ok, express anything that’s on your minds - or just to be affectionate and cuddle.
Allowing for each other’s parenting style
Many of our ideas and attitudes on parenting are influenced heavily by what we experienced growing up. We may want to either reproduce our own childhood for our children - or do quite the opposite, and give them the things we never had.
As we all have different upbringings, this often means that different people will have very different parenting styles. Seeing that your partner is far stricter with your kids than you ever would have expected - or hearing surprising opinions on schooling or nutrition - can be odd or even disconcerting.
Up until this point, of becoming parents you will have been seeing each other as partners and suddenly you see each other in this new role, it may be the first time that you discover things about each other's childhood and this can bring surprises.
But instead of butting heads over parenting styles, it’s much better to try to first understand each other. You may find that when you talk to your partner about why they believe certain things or act in certain ways when it comes to children, you’re more willing to work with them or negotiate around differences.
They may be acting for what they believe are the right reasons - instilling values that they found helpful when they were growing up, or trying to avoid negative circumstances that they saw play out in their own families. Once you have you a better understanding of where each other is coming from, it can be much easier to take a sympathetic view of each other’s parenting style, and adapt so you can work together as a team.
As children get older
As children get older, so can the dynamics playing out in your family and between you and your partner change and develop. Again, your and your partner’s parenting styles may continue to differ - and may continue to be influenced by your own experiences at the child’s corresponding age.
For instance, while you may feel willing to forgive certain behaviours in your teenage son or daughter, having gone through something similar your own age, your partner may find them worrying or upsetting. Again, openness and communication will remain key - making sure that you and your partner are able to talk through any disagreements and appreciate each other’s perspective so you can adapt, negotiate and cooperate.
Older children are also likely to begin to assert their own independence. It’s no secret that this can create conflict. It’s common for teenagers to feel smothered or patronised by parents who still speak to them as if they’re four or five years younger. And for those parents, who feel they’re simply acting as they always have, to feel disrespected or rebuffed by their teenager’s angry reactions.
At times, this might call for a re-negotiation of boundaries. While your children getting older can make things harder in some ways, it can also open up new opportunities - such as being able to talk more directly and openly with them. If you feel you and your teenager could do with a chance to talk over what each of you is finding difficult or frustrating, then it’s often a good idea to do just that - and sit down and have a chat.
Dealing with unresolved issues from our own lives
In some cases, we may find that, as our children get older, it brings up unresolved emotions or issues that relate to that age in our own lives.
It’s not uncommon for some parents to feel a little jealous of their children - especially if they feel that they have advantages or access to experiences that they themselves never did. Conversely, many parents may try to live vicariously through their children - encouraging them to take the opportunities they never did, even if these aren’t necessarily the opportunities the child themselves wants to take. And sometimes, seeing how you interact with your own children can bring up memories of similar interactions with your own parents - memories that you may find confusing or upsetting.
It can be difficult to deal with these kinds of ideas, as they often take us by surprise, or speak to feelings that we didn’t even realise we had. It can be useful to talk these things through with someone you trust - your partner, a family member or a close friend. In many cases, just speaking out loud about what we’re feeling can allow us to understand it better and think about ways to address it.
In other cases, we might benefit from professional help - speaking to a counsellor can help us work out some of the difficult thoughts and feelings we may be having.
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If you’re looking for support with your relationships, we can help. We offer a range of ways to speak with a trained relationship expert including ongoing counselling, 30 minute web and phone chats, and one session therapy.
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