Everything you might read or hear about becoming a parent pales in comparison to the storm of emotion and the life-altering moment your child gasps for their first breath, making their presence and frustrations known. The love hurricane will rip through every aspect of your life. You can either lean into the transformation or you can push against it.
Two Approaches to Parenthood
There seem to be two distinct approaches to becoming parents. Either you allow the experience and responsibility to completely transform your life and priorities into the phrase “kids first.” Or you push back against the transformation and embody a more “and now we have kids” tone. In terms of parenting philosophy, the first “transformative” approach would be aligned with attachment parenting. The second approach tends to compartmentalized the parenting experience so that it doesn’t alter the pre-parenting lifestyle too much.
From the moment we started trying to have kids, our approach was “all in.” Even a part of our courtship and fairly rapid marriage was a result of both of our commitments to becoming parents, together. We knew it was one of our highest purposes in life. And when we met and fell in love, the parent path was part of the passion and plan that heightened our relationship.
We joined a Bradley Method class and began to join in the dreaming and planning for the actual birth experience. I remember the Thursday evenings driving out to the class with my pregnant wife, talking and holding hands on the 30-minute trip. We were beginning the visioning for the coming of our child. I also began a dialogue with our unborn child as I patted and encouraged the little soul arriving in my pregnant wife’s belly. It was a sublimely spiritual experience, this prepping for the love hurricane. Rather than battening down the hatches we were cracking open our previous lives and making way for something amazing to happen. We had no idea.
This is no What to Expect When You Are Expecting process. The books help very little. The advice from friends and your parents are also well-meaning, but more about the storyteller than what your experience is going to be. If you are tuned into the experience, and tuning into each other as a couple, you know this already. And the overwhelming feelings or joy and fear and togetherness mix into a new bond between you and this third being. Already, we were beginning to change, to get closer, to become dependent on this new interconnectedness. We were never going to be the same. We let the feelings heighten the process. The three of us grew some sort of spiritual connection beyond any church or prayer experience we’d ever been through. We were prepping the way for the hurricane.
Then it happens, the rush of arrival began with my wife’s water breaking in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon in October. We had a magical moment between us as we cried and laughed and called our doctor and our doula. We had set our birthing plan ahead of time, and we knew our doctor was committed to letting us take the process as naturally as possible. He gave us the day and most of the night together alone with our experience and asked us to come into the hospital around 4 in the morning on Wednesday if the contractions didn’t start.
We went for a last walk around our neighborhood as parents-to-be. We held each other in bed and rested, too excited to sleep, but tired enough to cuddle together as we waited.
Our son arrived around 10 am on Wednesday morning.
I never let my son out of my sight. I traveled with him to the warming room with my hand on his back, to his heel prick he wailed for the first time, and back to his mom where he learned what breasts were all about. And that first night I curled up at the foot of the bed in the hospital and kept a hand on both my wife and my child. “Here we are,” I kept saying, in prayer. “Thank you, God.” It was a mystical experience, this arrival, that transcended any religious experience or knowledge in my life. It was one huge prayer of thanks, for 36 hours.
At the moment you arrive back home the hurricane actually takes control of your life and all the things you used to do. The house becomes a laboratory. The bedroom becomes a classroom, a study in breasts, poop, kisses, sleep, and crying.
We found a healthy routine fairly early on and against the advice of our parents we attached a little sleeping bed to the side of our bed, in a co-sleeping approach to parenting. I’m sure both of our parents would’ve preferred some sort of crib and detachment process. My wife and I had studied the theories and fallen in love with the idea of attachment parenting and co-sleeping. Controversial at the time, but in-line with our love and our ideas of what we wanted for our kids.
And maybe this is where the distinction between the two kinds of parents starts. In attachment parenting and co-sleeping you make a commitment to remain close to the child, giving them the controls about when and how they migrate out of the family bed. Sure, it’s less conducive to returning to the previous routine, but it was easy for the two of us to invite the love into all corners of our lives. We couldn’t imagine anything more loving than being a family.
Alone time and private space could be found later or in different ways. We lept into the “big bed” as our room became known, and have never looked back. Our pre-parenting lives and bedroom no longer existed. Our bedroom became a place for family, sleeping, cuddling, wrestling, tickling, and joy. The love hurricane had blown through and given us the happiest moments we could ever imagine.
Other Parent Couples
In these early weeks, we befriended several other couples with new babies. Our little community of new parents became our new tribe. We had one other couple who were easily identified as attachment parents and a handful of others who were more traditional. And it was an interesting process getting to be with them and watch the differences in parenting styles that we were each making up. Parenting styles must come partially from our family of origin and partially from what we read and learn about “how to parent.”
One couple, in particular, was obvious “we’re going to fit this child into our lifestyle” parents. Occasionally when we were together the differences between the way we related to our kids was striking. It seemed perhaps that our son was running amok over our lives, while our friends seemed to have a more organized and disciplined routine.
One of the early examples was the fenced/gated play area they had set up for their child. It was convenient to keep all the balls and toys and messiness in a small corner of the dining room. However, something about it felt too controlled. There was an aspect of the messiness of our connected relationship with our son that seemed quite different from this more controlled or regulated approach. And we learned pretty early on that you don’t talk “attachment” to parents who are taking the other road. Co-sleeping might appear almost abusive to people who don’t lean that direction. With one couple we celebrated our interconnected chaos and closeness, with most of the other couples, we observed a more restrained expression of love and caring.
I’m not here to argue for attachment parenting, but I do believe that an overly controlled experience of becoming a parent short-circuits the transformational process a bit. I can see the benefits to keeping your pre-parenting life on course a bit more than we did, perhaps, but I think the 100% emotionally connected approach is what ultimately gave both our children their warm and loving personalities. They are joiners. Of course, they are still young, so we’ve yet to see much of their lives as teenagers, but they appear to be extremely resilient and emotionally centered.
And when their attached parents became divorced, I believe it was this closeness, this “two big beds now instead of one” approach that carried us all through the process with little or no visible scarring. We all suffered. We’ve all spent time alone that we might have preferred to be different. But the attachments we established early on, as touchy-feely, messy, inclusive, parents are also the glue that keeps us connected now that we’ve been a fractured family for over four years.
When your children arrive you either allow your life to be torn apart and reassembled by the love hurricane, or you fight to maintain aspects of your pre-parent lives as you push back against the transformation. It seems to me that our “closeness” approach allowed us to survive the divorce in a loving and connected way. Perhaps it is even some form of “attachment divorce” that is what keeps me on the loving and positive path as a divorced dad.
Allow the hurricane to arrive and blow away the old aspects of your lives. Reset your expectations and parenting lives around the love and support of your children. Then, even if things don’t work out with the marriage, the closeness and love that you’ve established with your kids, becomes the strength and bond that guides your relationship even after divorce. That experience of closeness also becomes the approach your children will use as they begin to establish relationships for the rest of their lives. That’s what I understand and appreciate even now about my ex-wife. I can celebrate our approach to becoming parents, and how we welcomed in the messiness and transformation of staying closely connected.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image: father and son reading stories, creative commons usage