Hiking in the Dark: Becoming an Awesome Parent
By Dr. Kimberley Nash
Close your eyes and imagine that you are about to take a hike into unchartered territory…..In the dark.
While this sounds fear provoking enough, imagine you also have a heavy backpack on your back and a baby in tow.
No, this is not some survival challenge game show I am describing; this is the unchartered territory of becoming a parent.
Let me explain.
Becoming a parent is new. Similar to hiking in unchartered territory. We may have heard about the potholes, steep climbs and dangerous cliffs (e.g., sleep deprivation, strain on relationships, isolation); and maybe some of the highlights (e.g., squishy baby, fierce love, dressing the baby in cute outfits) of being a parent. But….we haven’t yet walked in these shoes and navigated this territory.
Standing at the beginning of this journey with no experience and having an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for a new life can be both exciting AND deeply fear provoking. When we humans are challenged with something that is unknown (just like walking into the dark), our minds often replace those question marks with scary stuff… Because that’s what minds do (it’s a human thing).
When we get into our heads and our emotions are triggered, it is similar to carrying a large backpack around with us. It is tiring. As though having a new baby isn’t tiring enough, this extra weight can feel debilitating, maybe even reducing the enjoyment potential of this special time.
It is very common for new parents to find themselves getting very in their heads.
Asking questions to try to predict what it might be like: Will I be a good parent? How will I cope without sleep? Will my baby be ok? Will I manage the birth? How will our relationship go?
Being bombarded by negative head talk: I won’t be a good mum/dad; this is going to be terrible; I will lose my life, my time, my body; I will stuff it up; I am not a paternal/maternal person; My relationship may not survive.
Memories can also be invoked. Memories of perceived successes/failures; memories of own childhood experiences (either good – I won’t live up to the childhood I had; or not so good – I am scarred by my experiences).
This head talk coupled with difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness and confusion can leave new parents feeling very heavy going into such a challenging and exciting time.
So, how might we prepare to navigate this new territory?
- Fostering an understanding of the normality and human-ness of carrying a backpack (holding your thoughts and emotions).
Having thoughts and emotions are normal human internal experiences. They are not something to be pushed away or be ashamed of. Thoughts and emotions are as human as having a heart that pumps blood around the body. When we view our internal experiences from this standpoint, we often drop the fight with them. This makes a big difference when managing your backpack. Helpful or unhelpful, strong thoughts and strong emotions are normal.
- Practice becoming aware of when you have been caught into your thoughts and emotions, and try something different.
With practice you can learn to notice when you get hooked by unhelpful thoughts or feelings. Take the time to get real with the head talk that is murmuring (or blasting!) in the background, and observe it, be curious of it. Rather than telling it to go away or engaging in a battle with your thoughts, pursue those thoughts and feelings – ask questions about the thoughts, notice the words or phrases your mind tends to repeat, can you turn towards the thoughts and feelings with kindness and compassion?
It can also be helpful to check in with: What kind of thoughts hook me in? When am I most vulnerable to falling into my thoughts (tired, sick, low support, low connection with partner?).
Once you are aware that you have been caught into unhelpful head talk, make an active choice to focus your attention on something that DOES matter to you (more on that in points 3 & 4!).
Observing your bodily sensations and emotions is also helpful for managing difficult thoughts and feelings. When a wave of emotion runs through your body, practice closing your eyes, taking a big breath in, and inviting that feeling to be there. Just for a moment. After all, all emotions (yes, even anxiety) are normal internal experiences. This encourages you to drop this fight with your emotions, which in turn can allow this human feeling to pass in its own time (although getting rid of the emotion is never the aim of this approach).
- Having a one to one with yourself about what REALLY, truly, on a heart-level (not on a chatter level, e.g., I just don’t want to stuff it up), matters to you about the kind of parent you want to be
Questions such as: What do I love about how others parent, or my own experiences that I have had as a child? Or, what do the difficult experiences I had as a child tell me about what matters to me as a parent? What do I want to to stand for in this exact moment (when faced with a challenge: i.e., baby crying, no sleep). What matters to me about how I treat myself during this time? The answers to these questions will differ for everyone; maybe it is honesty, connection, love and/or patience…this requires some exploration. Try to get clear with yourself about what your values are around being a parent. Imagine how you would want to be described as a parent. Make a list of those values to focus on what really matters to you.
4. Once you have some idea of what you THINK matters to you, ask yourself what small actions will take you closer to that, what are the actionable ways you can express those values as a parent?
Make a commitment to taking a small step towards what matters. Whether it be that you value your connection with your partner, so you commit to asking them how they are feeling about approaching this journey; you value your mental health and thus book an initial session with a psychologist to learn how to manage these thoughts and feelings.
These are just examples, and how you express your values will be unique. Spend some time considering what your values would look like if you expressed them in the world.
Being a parent for the first time is new and unknown territory. What is new and unknown can provoke much head chatter and difficult emotions. Rather than avoiding that difficult stuff, you can increase your awareness of it, remind yourself of the normality of it, and take active steps closer to what truly matters to you along the journey of parenthood.
Yes, the above is easier said than done. But it is possible. If you need some help navigating this journey, please get in touch. I would love to help you on your journey.
~Dr. Kimberley Nash
Dr. Kimberley Nash
A personal value of Kimberley’s is to promote the well being of others. In living by this value, Kimberley tailors evidence-based treatment approaches to your needs and creates a warm, collaborative and non-judgmental space where you can heal and grow.
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