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  • Writer's pictureJulie Lee

What Do First Time Parents Struggle With the Most? Embracing the Realities of Early Parenthood

Updated: Jun 25


perinatal mental health
Many people expect parenthood to be easier than it is because of how it’s portrayed

Did you always picture yourself as the kind of mum who would go for jogs with the baby in the pram? It might sound silly, but often that’s the sort of images that are portrayed on social media and can often be a fantasy image of early motherhood—running with the baby, dog, and partner.


In reality, that doesn’t happen (in the main). Instead you may find yourself trying to get out of the door with a crying baby and a pram stuck in halfway in, and halfway out (this happened to me!), and being up again at 3 a.m. Of course, there are also the cuddles and many other good moments. I just wish the tough stuff was talked about more, so people wouldn’t end up with unrealistic expectations which in turn can encourage guilt and self-criticism to flourish in those initial stages, and throughout all phases of parenthood.


Before exploring why our predictions about parenthood can be so off, here are some classic examples of expectation versus reality:


Expectation:

"I'll be proactive and organised and we’ll still do all the usual things."


Reality:

Post birth, your brain needs time to clear and adjust, and any semblance of organisation will mostly involve baby stuff!  It’s completely normal to still be wandering about in your dressing gown at 4pm in the afternoon.  These little bundles of joy take up a lot of time and energy that you probably don’t realise until they arrive. Feeding, watering and nurturing yourself along with the baby will be the height of organisation for a while.


Expectation:

"Lots of love filled gazing at perfect baby toes, cheeks, and fingers."


Reality:

This does happen, and sometimes gets you through difficult times. But mostly, you're too tired, and honestly, it can get a bit boring because there’s a lot of time for staring.  It’s okay to be longing for your partner to return from work because you’re fed up of the same four walls, or the sometimes-endless crying.


Expectation:

"I’ll use maternity leave to rest, recuperate and get some of my to-do list ticked off."


Reality:

You’ll wonder what you’ve done all day, but, keeping a mini human alive take MOST of your time! Unbelievable, right?


Expectation:

"The bond that I have with my baby will be instant and golden and this will be enough to keep me going when it’s tough."


Reality:

The bond might take a while to form, it isn’t guaranteed and sheer determination will get you through those first days, weeks and months. It’s normal to find things hard; babies don’t come with an instruction manual and no matter what those societal messages tell us, it doesn’t just come naturally to everyone.  You can still care for your baby enough.


So, why the discrepancies between imagined parenthood and reality?


Many people expect parenthood to be easier than it is because of how it’s portrayed in the media, on socials, from what we learn from our family, societal messages and from friends who might keep the juicy truths to themselves. Thankfully, there is now more honesty about parenthood in recent years, and the huge impact pregnancy, labour and birth can have on mental health, but it can still feel outnumbered by all those positive birth stories that you may tune in to.  Research shows that 1:5 women now experience perinatal mental health problems.


I’m not saying all we should do is complain about how hard parenthood is, but there’s immense value in feeling solidarity, of recognising it’s not just you, that you’re not alone, and that your version of coping is valid and good enough, this can be incredibly reassuring and vindicating.


As a society, we’ve minimised the monumental transition into parenthood. We feel we have to act accordingly, despite the lack of support from the healthcare system, family, and friends. We're not meant to do this alone, but society hasn’t caught up to the fact that we don’t live next door to three generations of our family anymore or have aunts and uncles nearby to babysit, and that it’s a huge identity shift from being an independent adult responsible only for yourself, to carrying and growing a mini human and then birthing and being responsible for keeping them alive!


As you embark on your parenthood journey, it’s worth checking in with your expectations for each chapter. What are you hoping the baby/toddler/foundation/primary school age will be like? Which bits seem important to focus on – academia, reading writing or incorporating creativity, play and being outside? Which others could you soften your expectations around?


Taking a bird’s eye view frequently helps see where things may have gone awry, and allows for necessary adjustments. Be kind to yourself, it’s not easy, and no-one is perfect!  Give yourself praise for doing the best you can and talk about what’s difficult to someone who is good at listening.  Just someone bearing witness to your experience without diving in to try and fix it can be hugely helpful.


A heads-up about the realities of parenthood won’t necessarily make the journey easier, but it might create more realistic expectations from the start. This allows for meaningful conversations and preparations before entering parenthood, beyond birth plans, feeding choices, and the newest gadgets.  Focus on the small stuff……you are good enough!


Julie

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