Now, I am well aware of those who scoff at the "foolish" parents who hold out a glimmer of hope that some of the impending baby chaos can possibly be managed proactively. But think of the baby journey as a roller coaster, with ups and downs and jerky uncomfortable turns that leaves you queasy and unable to think straight. Now think of lifestyle preparation as the brake pedal. The brakes allow you to slow down and enjoy the ride. And the good news for parents is that such a brake pedal exists.
While studies abound showing a correlation between having children and lowered levels of happiness and marital satisfaction (see Nattavudh Powdthavee’s summary of related research published in the April 2009 edition of the Journal of the British Psychological Association), recent studies are shedding light on those special parents who manage to come through the child-rearing experience with flying colors (See the University of Virginia study at http://www.stateofourunions.org/2011/SOOU2011.pdf_) The characteristics that set them apart include shared housework, sexual satisfaction and regular time spent with the partner, among others.
Here are seven steps you can take to become that parent.
1) First, cast aside the rose colored glasses so that you can make wise, informed choices. First and foremost, we must get realistic. The tough and real battle of sleep deprivation creates crankiness, irritability and moodiness that affects relationships in the entire household. Understand that it's going to happen, for a temporary but potentially agonizing period. Being totally realistic about this will help you to be proactive in managing your lifestyles in order to soften the blow.
2) Next, get your confidence up. Know and believe that no matter what the challenge, as long as you can manage the sleep deprivation aspect, then you absolutely, 100% can do this thing called motherhood and fatherhood. It doesn't matter what role models you had or didn't have in the past. The choice to be a great parent is within your individual control. You can do it!
3) Thirdly, mentally prepare for the role. Studies have shown that those with a strong sense of identity in their roles in life are more satisfied in general. So find ways to identify more and more as a mother or father and nurturer of the next generation. Read books, reflect, observe great parents, watch videos - whatever connects you with the future. Consider that perhaps you'll be training up the world's next Nobel Peace Prize winner, or a future life-saving surgeon or a compassionate public servant that will one day help countless others in need. Set expectations with yourself. Come to terms with the temporary changes in your social calendar and mobility. (And if that's an area that concerns you, strategize coverage - see next section).Consider also the unique benefits to be reaped from the baby experience - especially the character-building aspects (coming out with enhanced patience, enhanced capacity to love, etc) and the tangible skills to be gained (an enhanced ability to run an efficient household, the enhanced ability to get more done in shorter amounts of time, rock solid guns due to carrying the little one, etc). Think also about what aspects you will particularly enjoy. Perhaps you love the idea of taking walks with the stroller in the neighborhood or the mall. Or perhaps you like the idea of getting involved with and coaching or cheering on your little one at their extracurricular activities. Or perhaps the idea of getting involved with the local moms club and making new friends excites you.A key part of mentally preparing for the role also involves getting absolutely 100% clear about what it is YOU need to stay happy through this period. For me, it's adequate rest and maintaining some one on one time with dear hubby. For another, it might be maintaining adult interaction and time with friends, having time to pamper, or advance a career and hobbies. Whatever it is, know what it is you need so you can then strategize on ways to facilitate those needs.
4) Now, strategize, strategize, strategize about how to manage the practical day-to-day "stuff" - starting with your partner. With the mental preparation done, move on to discussing frankly and openly with your partner what the initial environment will look like (sleep deprivation, stress, less personal time, etc.) and express your heartfelt desire to maintain peace and continued relational closeness. With these shared goals agreed upon, move the discussion forward into how, therefore, to help "enable this" kind of environment...specifically by divvying up household tasks differently so that balance can be achieved under the new circumstances. Don’t try to be a hero and do it all. Balance your workload and agree to a schedule that allows both you and your partner time to rest and recharge.
Strategize with your friends. If you need additional support, start while you are still pregnant to recruit as many friends and loved ones to help out where possible, especially during the sleepless months. Join a mom's group to meet new people that can provide a life line. Perhaps you know someone who's willing to help with household chores once a month and perhaps another friend will trade date night baby-sitting once a month, if you do the same for her. Get those relationships in place now while you're pregnant...or at least as soon as possible thereafter. If you are someone that plans to maintain a career after baby, start vetting day cares as soon as possible.
5) Set expectations, with everyone. With your renewed realism firmly in place, begin to set expectations with everyone from the boss to the older kids. Let them know your new schedule and to expect some temporary changes. Cut back on work if necessary and make child care arrangements.If you have older children, it’s important to set expectations with them as well. Let them know that nothing about your love or commitment to them changes with the addition of a new family member. But be honest with them about the new schedule - that realistically until baby is a bit older, you won't be quite as available as before but you are willing to find ways to compromise so that both your new schedule and their needs can still be accommodated with upfront planning. While you are pregnant, show them you mean it by proactively planning one on one time with the children prior to baby being born. After baby arrives, make it a priority to set up time for one parent to have some non-baby time with the older children on occasion (trips to the mall or zoo without baby, etc).
6) Last but not least, keep a sense of humor. Things are going to be hectic and confusing at times and there will be ups and downs. Remember that this is a temporary season of life and in fact, one day you'll look back and wish you could experience it all over again. With this in mind, enjoy every day as if right now you were on that desired time travel trip, back in the "good ole days" when little junior was still in diapers and didn't constantly need judgment calls as to which extracurricular activities should or should not be approved, etc. In the end everyone's going to make it out alive - and stronger - as a result of the experience. Laugh, be amused, find joy. It's all going to be ok.
So aside from all the checklists that abound as to all the nursery preparation and the bottles and diapers and bins and blankets to procure, some of the most essential baby preparation tasks involve mental preparation, expectation-setting, and strategizing practical, tangible ways to manage the life-altering realities of caring for infants.
Remember that the goal of all this lifestyle preparation is to stay in balance despite the new demands. A new parent can make this happen through advance planning and foresight.