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How to successfully navigate the multiple parts of being a parent.

If you are in a relationship and also a parent, did you know that it’s really helpful to think of yourself as having 3 parts? And did you know that each part needs care, consideration, and attention?

What are the 3 parts?

1. Person

2. Partner

3. Parent

If you’re a solo parent, this means you have 2 parts – person and parent – and your 2 parts also need care, consideration, and attention. You may also be navigating relationships with your child’s other parent and their family which adds to your parts, and can add complications.

Often when children come along the transition to a becoming a family brings the focus predominantly to the parenting role, but it’s important to look after yourself as a person, as well as honouring the couple relationship, as well as being a parent.

All your parts matter – not just to you, but to your child. That saying about fitting your own oxygen mask first before helping others applies here. It’s tempting to put children first at the expense of yourself and your couple relationship, especially when baby first arrives and is fully dependent on you. Babies need a loving and very practical investment of time, energy, and resources but you will do your best job looking after your family after ‘fitting your own oxygen mask’ and when your own tank of oxygen is in good shape.

For some of us, it’s easy to forget to keep a balanced focus on our different parts and look after our oxygen tanks. There are a few reasons for this:

Becoming a partner and having children are what’s called family lifecycle transitions,

and these transitions generally don’t get a lot of conscious attention.

Family lifecycle transitions are predictable transitions that happen as we journey through life and time, and each transition requires flexibility for the family to change – to adapt with a new family structure and to adjust aspects of family life like roles, routines, family processes and even family identity.

  • These transitions may be predictable, but the adaptations and changes are often taken for granted or assumed that they will just happen naturally, so it’s easy to miss the importance of lifecycle changes. This means it is easy to lose a conscious focus on being a person, partner, and parent.

Becoming a couple is a transition that involves consideration of how two individuals can be true to themselves as individuals, and also be in partnership with each other.

  • This involves considering everything from practicalities like money and household chores, to what to have for dinner, where to go on holidays, having fun, intimacy, and managing relationships with families of origin and friends.

Becoming a family is a transition that involves a renegotiation of roles, relationships, and couple processes to make space for the new individual in the family….and each new individual if you have more than one child.

  • Each parent will create their own relationship with baby, and parents will still need to keep a focus on their couple relationship while also being parents.

  • And as baby grows into a child, teen, and young adult (and beyond) these relationships will continue to evolve and require adaptation.

  • The family structure will need to be flexible to adapt successfully, but strong and united enough to weather storms.

Challenges often arise at family lifecycle transitions because of the changes, adaptations, and adjustments needed.

Change is hard and for some even scary. If a family is having trouble accommodating to the changes needed for the lifecycle transition these challenges can turn into problems for the family, leaving them stuck or having troubles coping, and these troubles can put stress and strain on family relationships. Sometimes this ends up looking like stress, anxiety or depression as the pressures build up.

Some family lifecycle transitions are more complicated because they don’t follow the ‘predictable’ lifecycle transition pathway. Life does not always go according to plan, and we are all subject to the slings and arrows of fate.

  • For some people becoming a family will have additional challenges, e.g., if a couple have struggled with fertility and pregnancy loss this is an additional consideration in navigating the lifecycle change to becoming parents though having or fostering children, or to being a family that is a couple without children.

  • If the birth of baby didn’t go as planned and hoped, or there were complications this creates additional challenges and considerations.

  • If baby grows into a child with developmental delays, medical problems, or other challenges, or a level of uniqueness that schools can struggle with, this also creates additional challenges to manage in the family.

  • All of these challenges can invite parents to lose their focus on themselves and their couple and friendship relationships as they focus with their best intentions and love on their child’s needs.

Family lifecycle transitions can also be complicated by events outside the family home, and when there are what Family Therapist’s call ‘unscheduled transitions’.

  • Events in a parent’s work life, e.g., becoming unemployed, experiencing workplace bullying, or a promotion can impact the transition by diverting energy and attention away from the lifecycle transition and what it means for the family.

  • Losses that coincide with lifecycle transitions can also make the transition trickier to navigate, e.g., the loss of a family member or friend.

  • Societal events like experiences of bushfire, flood, cyclone, drought, large scale financial crises or a pandemic can also make navigating transitions more complicated.

  • ‘Unscheduled transitions’ include things like separation and divorce, and untimely loss, and these transitions have an impact on the family structure, arrangement, relationships, roles, and processes that often require additional support.

  • As a result of these complications, parents may become over focused on baby/child/teen, or have their focus diverted away towards events, losses, and stressors, at the expense of family relationships and self care.

Family lifecycle transitions occur in the context of culture – family culture and broader cultural considerations. Depending on your cultural context, different ‘parts’ may be privileged, and expectations regarding the privileged parts may be tricky to manage. E.g., are traditional gender roles or particular family structures privileged? E.g., what is the family culture around expressing emotions, communication and problem solving?

With everything involved in navigating lifecycle transitions, especially when there are additional complications, it’s easy to see how keeping a balance between the roles of person, partner and parent can become tricky and feel like walking a tightrope at times.

Finding a balance between the 3 parts helps families thrive, and balance is especially important when the lifecycle transitions are more complicated. It really is important to invest in yourself, because you deserve it, and because your family needs you to.

The balance will look different for different families and may take more time and effort to work out if the family face challenges, e.g., a child with special needs; and as the family goes through life cycle changes, e.g., as children grow and leave home.

Here are some questions to help you start thinking about your roles and your balance to help successfully navigate the multiple parts of being a parent?

  • What can you do to find your balance? Could you start by thinking about how much you are investing in each of your different parts?

  • What is your family structure and composition? And how does this impact how you invest in your different parts?

  • What can you do for fun and enjoyment for yourself? In a way that fits your lifestyle? And how can you manage invitations to guilt from societal expectations, gender role stereotypes, and …. if you have one …. your “not good enough monster”?

  • How can you create opportunities to connect with and enjoy your partner? You might have to be creative about this depending on your family’s size, composition, and unique needs.

  • What do you do as a family that brings fun and enjoyment?

Learning to communicate and problem solve is essential in navigating family lifecycle transitions with the flexibility and connection needed.

How can you communicate with your partner, extended family, and support network about your 3 parts and what you could do to care for each part?

  • Have you considered your values and principles for being a partner and being a parent? And have you thought about sharing these with your partner, extended family, and support network?

  • When are the best times to talk with your partner? In the car, while out walking, after dinner, over coffee….. Or is it better to write your ideas and then make time to share them?

  • How can you talk to your partner about their parts, their hopes, dreams, and intentions for being in a relationship and being a parent?

How do you problem solve?

  • Do you consider timing of when to have conversations about touchy topics?

  • Do you know when to take a break when things get to heated…and how to take a break in ways that don’t make the conflict worse?

  • How do you reconnect after a break in communication?

  • Do you make sure you look after yourself to stay regulated when engaging in tricky conversations?

Managing lifecycle transitions is something we all face, just as we all face the challenge of being human and being human in relationships. At these transitions flexibility and communication are the keys as the family structure, roles, rules, boundaries, routines, relationships, and identity are all shifting and changing.

It’s important to remember that we can navigate lifecycle transitions more smoothly when we pay attention to the transition, what it means for each of us in our own unique family situations, communicate with loved ones, and keep a balanced focus on all our parts.

For ideas and practical strategies for managing changes and challenges in the family lifecycle journey, communicating and problem-solving visit to find out more about Helping Families Thrive Cards.

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.

Please seek help from a professional if you require support.

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