In modern society during this era of airbrushed life on Instagram, we tend to fetishize parenthood. Timelines are full of photos of cute babies in idyllic settings posted by proud parents. These photos and gushing posts can make parenting and family life look like doddle to an outsider. In reality, there is a lot of hard work that goes into being a parent. A friend who had a baby recently described it as a violation of human rights, since parents don’t get to eat when they want or sleep when they want. If feels as though their life is no longer their own and it’s exhausting.
When psychologists look at things like post-natal depression, we know that one of the things that can help women cope is having realistic expectations of how hard parenthood is. It’s not that the mother is useless, it’s that looking after a tiny infant is a genuinely challenging job, especially if you have no idea what it’s like to deal with sleep deprivation or to try and understand what this little baby that you’re supposed to care for and love so much is trying to tell you. Managing expectations is key.
“The notion that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has disappeared in our culture. Going it alone can be a complete shock to the system.”
Secondly, the whole notion that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has disappeared in our culture. For people who don’t live near family or single parents, going it alone can be a complete shock to the system. In the absence of a village, it’s vital to have a support system in place. Preparing for parenthood should entail taking time to think about what that support network looks like, whether it’s a really good local mother and toddler group or a relative or friend who lives nearby. Having friends, family or hired help to provide support is really important.
Another thing expectant parents may not fully anticipate or comprehend is that every baby is going to be different. There’s so much information online and in parenting books on when to expect certain developmental milestones such as when a baby lifts its head up, when it rolls over, smiles etc. It’s easy for parents to feel concerned if their baby isn’t hitting each milestone bang on target. But each baby is an individual with their own needs and their own personality. These are just general rules which aren’t made to be prescriptive and they need to be assimilated and understood as such.
Finally, sleep deprivation is the major thing that parents simply can’t prepare themselves for. Until it happens people really have no idea of the psychological effects it can have. When psychologists assess someone for depression one of the questions they often ask is ‘how is your sleep?’ And if they say they have very poor sleep it’s one of the indicators (amongst many other things) that they suffer from depression.. There’s research to suggest that if you’re not sleeping well it causes low moods. So it’s chicken and egg. It’s actually hard work to be happy and maintain perspective when you’re not getting enough sleep. It’s no surprise that sleep deprivation is used as a means of torture! We need sleep to function but there are several things parents can do to overcome the sudden lack of it.
“Forget about the chores and the housework. A parent is no use to their child if they are not well rested.”
Firstly, accept that sleep deprivation will happen. It’s an inevitable part of parenting, but with the right kind of teamwork it can be manageable. If you’re a single parent, sleep when your baby sleeps to pay back that sleep debt. Forget about the chores and the housework. A parent is no use to their child if they are not well rested. If you’re in a couple taking turns to look after the baby is really important. But don’t turn it into a competitive sleep deprivation exercise. One of the best pieces of advice I had was from my mother who reminded me that although it doesn’t feel like it at the time, it really, truly won’t last forever.
Dr Linda Papadopoulos’s book Unfollow: Living Life On Your Own Terms is out now.