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Parenthood is often very different from the idealised, soft-focus version. Very different experiences in the early days can lead to rifts and loneliness that tear relationships apart.
The PR version of parenthood is all about soft focus and togetherness, but the reality is often very different. The reality for women is often months stuck on their own with a small person whose needs are endless and sometimes difficult to understand, with little sleep and falling self confidence; for dads it may feel like they are being excluded from the complex mother baby dynamic. The need to earn enough to make up for the maternity pay and perhaps the sense that work is a known world compared to a home that has changed overnight may mean they are more likely to do longer hours. Both parents are often stuck in their own different experiences of coming to terms with what is a huge transformation and there is little time to talk it all through without the interruption of a small person. The latter problem increases the more children you have.
Parenthood is like some sort of ultra survival challenge. It strips away all the layers of politeness and conscious thought processes. You are left with raw emotion and often unprocessed stuff from your own childhood. Even you don’t understand it so how can your partner? Especially when you don’t have the time – or the energy – to talk?
So it is not a surprise that many couples’ relationships are put under enormous strain in the early days. That can often set the pattern for the later years. The difference in experiences, the lack of time or will for communication, coupled with a feeling of underlying resentment, can lead to a growing drift between parents. I know of several people who are ‘staying together until the kids grow up’. They have basically written off a significant section of their lives, thinking that this will be better for their kids. But is it? Don’t kids pick up on that kind of misery?
I was speaking to someone the other day about a mutual acquaintance who admitted openly he was staying together for the kids. He became an alcoholic, which he put down to chemical addiction. But what made him increase his drinking in the first place? It spiralled out of control, threatening all the stable pillars of his life – his work, his relationship with his kids and ultimately his health.
This is perhaps an extreme case, but it is by no means isolated. Loneliness is a huge social problem. Reports are rife about the loneliness of old age, the loneliness of teenagers striving to find out who they are and attaching to individuals or groups with whom they have very little in common, the loneliness of children being bullied…
For parents, surely an underlying problem is the difference in the traditional mum and dad experience. Sharing leave, sharing work/life balance issues and sharing childcare must surely address some of that difference. If parents have a more similar experience after a baby is born and face similar challenges there is common ground for discussion. The resentment – and loneliness – that builds up under the surface from a lack of understanding of each perspective is lessened. The impact of that loneliness – and the contrast with the happy togetherness image of parenting – is destabilising for any relationship, and long lasting.