Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Psychology Of Parenthood

As a new parent, I can tell you that there seems to be a surprising lack of guidance from science about how to have (and raise) a child. Since Catherine and I first learned we were expecting, the biggest piece of advice we have received from friends has been, “don’t listen to advice,” referencing the fact that every child is different and opinions vary wildly about what does (or doesn’t) help a tiny infant grow into a flourishing and successful adult.

From a scientific perspective the problems are threefold. First, there is the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. It is difficult to know how much of whom we become is due to our upbringing versus how much is due to our genetic makeup. Traditionally, we like to take credit for all of our good qualities, and blame our parents for all the ways we are screwed up. In reality, the credit and the blame are not so easy to distribute. Second, once we accept that the environment plays an important role in human development, the number of environmental factors that bring us from infancy to adulthood is so great that it is difficult to determine the impact of any one of them in isolation. And finally, for ethical reasons, it is difficult to do a placebo controlled experiment since we don’t want to deny children anything that could help them with their positive growth.

So like millions of parents before us, my wife and I had to muddle our way through the miracle of childbirth on our own. Most of the books that are out there on pregnancy and childbirth (and I read many preparing for the birth of our son) seem to concern themselves with two things: either reassuring you that everything is going to be OK and that everything you are experiencing is normal; or providing you a list of all of the things that could possibly go wrong and what needs to be done to insure that they don’t. What is missing from the literature is the positive side of the equation: What should we do when everything is going OK to make it even better? There are books on preventing marital discord, coping with complications, and care and feeding of infants. But how do you grow closer as a couple when you’re already close, have a great birthing experience when the complications are few, and set your newborn on the pathway to a lifetime of flourishing?

Having just had my first child, I am far from an expert on the subject, but since no one has written the book on “positive psychology for new parents” (yet), I’ll simply share with you the things from my own experience and my own studies of positive psychology that we found useful as we went through our pregnancy:

1. Future Time Perspective: Nothing can jolt you into a future time perspective like learning that you are about to have a child. The good news is research suggests that a future time perspective can be healthy, since thinking of the future is what motivates us to do what we need to do today to create the future we most desire. When you are about to embark on the voyage of parenthood, it’s a good time to think about how you see yourself as a parent, and what kind of children you want to raise. We spent many nights, up late (the “up late” part is not recommended since sleep becomes vital, but hey, it happens,) imagining our life as a family and discussing everything from how we would get our son to eat his vegetables to where we thought he might go to college.

2. Mindfulness: Future time perspective can become unhealthy when you become so obsessed with planning for the future that you are not enjoying the present. When a new child comes there is much to prepare, plan, and work for. A parent naturally wants to spend their time and energy helping their child to grow into a better future. But sometimes that can be best achieved by just enjoying these amazing moments as they happen. Going through a pregnancy and then a birth are some of the most incredible experiences of life. It is important to savor them as they come. Mindfulness training can help to relieve the anxieties of pregnancy and birth and can help parents to remain calm when sleep is limited once the baby arrives. Mindfulness helped us to bring our awareness back to the present, after too much daydreaming about our son’s illustrious future.

3. Gratitude: There are lots of things to worry about during a pregnancy. But there are lots of things to appreciate too. This is a good time to practice expressing gratitude to your partner every day for the things you appreciate most. Practicing gratitude will help you to savor these special moments, but also will keep you close as a couple during times when fluctuations in sex drive, mood, and body image can allow insecurities to creep in. During the pregnancy, we got into the habit of expressing gratitude to each other each night before we went to bed, and sending short gratitude notes to each other during the day. This definitely brought us together, not only as a couple, but as a family.

4. Other people matter: It takes a village to raise a child. Now is the time to reach out to family and connect with other friends who are having children. We found that having our son opened our eyes to a whole new community of parents that we loved becoming a part of. This is also a good time to renew your romantic commitment to your partner. When, decades from now, your child grows up and moves out on his or her own, will the two of you still be together? What will that relationship look like? Catherine and I have vowed to hold our own relationship as sacred, even as we form new bonds of love with our son.

5. Realistic optimism: Labor and childbirth can be painful—a fact of life that I discussed in great detail in my Psychology of Wellbeing article, “Why is Childbirth so Freakin’ Painful?” If someone is pessimistic, it is easy to learn about all of the things that can go wrong and begin to dwell on them. Labor is stressful enough without letting our ruminations make it even worse. But optimism has its downside too. An optimist who expects labor to be easy or “according to plan” is setting themselves up for a lot of frustration and disappointment. As a labor coach, I felt my job was to define reality and give hope. “This is going to be hard, and anything could happen, but you are going to get through it, and it is going to be worth it in the end.”

By writing this article, I turn this list over to the positive psychology community and my community of readers. What else would you add? What applications from the research have you yourself applied? What would you suggest to new parents? If positive psychology is to concern itself with human flourishing, then it seems only natural that it would need to follow that quest all the way to the origins of life itself. Where does flourishing begin if not in the womb?

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