Maternity Leave During The Pandemic: Nightmare Or Blessing?

photo of a baby's feet surrounded by a blanket

Over a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, sheltering in place has resulted in some universal strains, but there are others that are unique to each individual circumstance.   Perhaps one of the most challenging is finding yourself at home on maternity leave, just the two of you and your newborn. After months of anticipating the transition to parenthood and trying to plan for it to be as smooth as possible, it’s just you and your spouse, new parents at home with your infant. 

Vanishing in the wake of the crisis are the family members who were excited to offer their time helping out with the baby, the doula and the baby nurse you carefully screened and hired, and the new moms’ support group.  The ability to spend time with other new moms, the meals your mother in law promised to cook and deliver so that you wouldn’t have to worry about food, the night nurse who would make it possible to actually get some sleep, and your plans to use your support system to make time to get back in shape, are all gone. Furthermore, your spouse may be working full time from home, and not only do they have little or no time to devote to baby care, there’s the additional pressure of maintaining a productive work environment. And you have been advised not to leave your home unless it’s absolutely necessary. All of a sudden, being a new mom has gone from an incredibly stressful life transition to feeling almost unbearable.

It’s hard to know the difference between how hard new parenthood would be anyway and how things are compounded by the circumstances. Part of what makes having a newborn so intense is being on-call 24/7…never knowing when you will have a moment to yourself. The exhaustion can be overwhelming. Taking a shower is a challenge and finding time to have a conversation with a friend is often out of reach. All of this is to be expected, but under normal circumstances you can organize an escape for a little while, or just have a change of scenery to break it up. But now you may feel trapped in endless days with no respite.

I have heard from couples that the intensity of new parenthood, combined with the restrictions of being home without a support system, is putting a strain on their marriages and causing personal self-doubt. They are grieving the loss of how they envisioned maternity leave and are trying to cope with the reality. The fact that their parents, siblings, and close friends can’t meet their baby and share in the moment feels like a painful loss. 

But new parents should not despair.  There are some significant advantages and opportunities for both the parents and the child if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Research shows that time spent with a baby is what produces confidence and connection.  The feeling that you know what you’re doing and can take care of and soothe your child creates a bond. Usually the mom bonds with the baby early on and the father takes more time to establish that connection.  Sheltering in place is creating that experience for both new moms and new dads simultaneously.  
  • Couples who only have each other to rely on in the day to day reality of parenting a newborn are forced to bond and work together. Even a parent who is working from home will be forced to take some of the burden from the other parent if there are no other options. The resentments that often occur in the first months of a baby’s life because of role inequality are much less prevalent.  
  • Without the distractions of the outside world including grandparents, friends and family visits, and with no feeling that you are missing out on social activities (because they simply don’t exist at the moment), new moms and dads are forced to work together to learn how to parent, and turn towards each other for their emotional needs. I’m anticipating that if managed correctly there will be a ripple effect that leads to better co-parenting and stronger marital relationships as the baby grows and develops.

While it’s a universal truth that being new parents requires relinquishing pre-baby life and leaning in to a new reality, it’s especially true now. There is no escaping the loss of freedom and spontaneity while being restricted to your home with your partner and your baby. The best way to cope is to rely on each other, be present for each other, and tap into your own internal resources. Accept that it’s a temporary situation that comes with a gift, an opportunity to bond with one another and your new family member. 

This blog was first published on Yours, Mine & Ours.

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Surviving Home For The Holidays: Tips for Avoiding Conflict While Visiting Family During the Holiday Season

happy family at christmas

It’s a classic — the flurry of calls to my office in January from couples who feel their relationship is really strained – or even on the brink. The trigger? The visit home for the holidays – it led to a major blow out fight that felt all too familiar. If they can’t celebrate the holidays together with their families are they really meant to be together? Isn’t this a sign?

Not necessarily!  Going back to your childhood home is often a set up for conflict, distance, and strain in your adult relationship. Old ways of relating and managing conflict reemerge. Historical family dynamics are re-enacted without warning. A bit of anticipation and thoughtful planning can go a long way in preventing damage to your adult relationship.

The Holiday Challenges Faced by Two Couples

Sarah and Kate are the classic example.  Both of their families live in other states and when holiday time rolls around the pressure is on, especially for Kate who is an only child. She is everything to her parents, they look forward to her visits all year. And when she is home their attention is all-consuming. They want as much of her as they can get and don’t particularly relish sharing this precious time with her partner.

For Sarah it’s a different issue.  Until recently her parents weren’t embracing of her same sex relationship.  The last time she took Kate home for Christmas the reception was ice-y and strained. All of this adds up to a holiday season with the families that is ripe with potential for stress and conflict.  Both Kate and Sarah put so much energy into managing their own feelings about going home they lose sight of each other.

For Kevin and Jenna, traveling across the country with their young toddler and infant to spend Christmas with Kevin’s family pretty much guarantees tension, turmoil, and a nasty fight. Kevin and his mother (who has been a widow for many years) have a close, yet volatile relationship. His mother relies on her adult children for emotional and practical support. Kevin’s mom doesn’t hold back on expressing emotions. What this means, according to Jenna, is that every time they visit, Kevin and his mom have a screaming argument that includes threats, insults and curses. They don’t resolve anything, they just cool off and move on.

Jenna comes from a different kind of family. Her parents are happily married and were extraordinary care-takers and nurturers to their children. They never relied on their kids for emotional stability.

For Jenna, bearing witness to these arguments is traumatic. Now that they have children she finds the thought of this dynamic even more unbearable. She would prefer to spend Christmas elsewhere. Both Jenna and Kevin agree that they want their children to have a relationship with their grandmother. However, they acknowledge the even greater need to set firm boundaries so that their children will be spared this volatility and tension. They want Christmas to be magical and filled with positive memories. Even though they are on the same page about this, they are unsure and even disagree as to how to accomplish it.  This tension has been the cause of Jenna and Kevin’s worst arguments. Recovery from the visits and the subsequent fall-out is painful and slow, and the damage is lasting.  Needless to say, the thought of the holidays fills them with dread.

What these couples have in common is a feeling of despair as the holiday season approaches. The description sounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Just anticipating the holidays brings back memories of past visits that didn’t go well. They start to re-live past events, together with the stress, anger, and hurt that occurred. Some couples replay the fights, the mere mention of what didn’t go well last time recreates the same tension and before they know it they are having the same argument.

What to do? 

Planning, Preparing and Communicating Can Help You to Get Through the Holiday Visit with Your Relationship Intact.

Plan

  • Don’t leave the time open ended and spontaneous.
  • Plan your days, including time together away from the family, things you want to do with your children, and time for your parents to spend with their grandchildren.
  • If possible do not stay with your parents and definitely don’t sleep in your childhood room.

Prepare

  • Go over the agenda and identify what triggers the fights so that you can prevent the triggers from taking you down a familiar rabbit hole.
  • Commit to time together and periodic check ins, these can be 5 minutes but should be done at least twice a day
  • Keep in mind the type of holiday traditions you are creating for your children, and be intentional – don’t leave it to chance.
  • Spend some time identifying traditions from your past you want your children to have and also those you would like to change. Even if you grew up with the narrative, “there is always a family fight at holiday time,” it doesn’t have to be that way for your children.

Communicate

  • Let each other know if there is something about visiting your families that you just can’t do or prefer not to participate in, and be open and flexible about this.
  • Ask your partner for support where you need it.
  • Make sure you hold your partner in mind during the visit.
  • Set limits and manage expectations with your family.
  • Communicate directly to all involved as much as possible.
  • All families have their idiosyncrasies and unwritten rules which must be taken into consideration. Within that, establishing adult boundaries and letting your family know your relationship and your children are your priority will send a strong message.

For Sarah and Kate there was this sinking feeling that they were lost to each other during family visits – they felt completely disconnected by the end of their stay

The solution was to plan ‘check ins’ so they could re-connect and re-group

A walk, a hug, even five minutes a day to just take a break, close the door, look at each other and ask “how are you doing?” made a huge difference.

They planned their time with the family so it wasn’t open ended – and included a few times to escape. They talked in advance about specifically what was hardest for them during these visits, they identified the triggers and then were able to ask for what they needed from each other.  They let each other know “I’m still your person and I’m here with you,” which created a completely different tone.

For Kevin and Jenna it was a bit more complicated. They had to do the planning, preparing, and communicating, but Kevin also had to accept that for the sake of Jenna and his children, the fighting with his mom had to stop. Even though it was his “normal” he had to find a way to disengage. Ultimately, they ended up staying elsewhere when home for the holidays and explaining it to his mom in the most loving yet firm way possible.

Families and holidays are often less-than-perfect, but you can make the most of your holiday times together.  By planning ahead, prioritizing each other and your children and making a concrete plan to do so – going home for the holidays can be a different experience for all.

Would couples therapy help improve your relationship when you’re home for the holidays? Contact Tracy Ross today to request an appointment.