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From Partners to Parents

For any mother or father to-be, becoming a parent brings a tidal wave of unexpected feelings, normal insecurities and new opportunities. Adjusting to this new identity offers the opportunity to deepen your relationship with your partner.
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Discussing and exploring the well-being of one's partnership isn't often on the list of baby preparation to-do's. After all, pregnancy can be a joyful time -- one that elicits feelings of anticipation, newness and excitement. Immersed in the pregnant possibilities of motherhood, energy focuses on what will be gained by starting a family. Baby showers mark this time by gifting the family with the necessary gear to outwardly navigate and welcome this new life.

"Get a lot of sleep," "Go see a lot of movies," "Take a Babymoon." When advice is offered, it often centers around the notion that couples can prematurely fill-up their well-being reservoirs, meeting needs that won't be fulfilled for a while postpartum, as if these can be stored in the "happiness" hump of marital satisfaction. While these are all wonderful suggestions, highlighting the changes couples are about to experience, they ignore the emotional preparation that so often helps pave the way for the passage to parenthood.

During such an expansive time, couples rarely consider the more stressful ways their partnership may be affected once the baby arrives. Transitioning from being partners to becoming parents is an enormous identity change, and this is not always easy.

Surviving and adjusting to the early days of parenting exposes one's relationship foundation at its very core. Once the baby arrives, approximately two-thirds of couples report a change in the quality of their partnership. Between sleep deprivation, diaper changes and feedings, the day-to-day routine of caring for a baby suddenly revolves around negotiating. When this is not discussed in advance, it can quickly turn into "keeping score" of who's doing what and who's doing more. With less time for adult conversation, date nights and self-care, emotional distance can develop.

So, how can partners emotionally prepare for the baby's arrival?

To help couples connect and communicate, I developed the acronym CARE. CARE highlights concrete topics for couples to discuss and explore before the baby arrives. By engaging in a thoughtful discussion, couples can build awareness around relationship self-care and well-being, and in doing so support each other in the new days of parenting.

C: Communication. Once the baby arrives, finding time to talk and connect is challenging. With a range of new emotions, some of which are difficult, setting boundaries around communication is helpful. For example, couples may agree not to address hard of hurtful feelings at midnight, or in-between diaper changes. When discussing difficult topics, using "I" statements is a simple, but effective way to share one's feelings and instill empowerment around communicating them.

A: Acceptance. Myriad transitions are underway during pregnancy and during the postpartum period. Welcoming the baby and adjusting to the "new nest" often means acknowledging what has changed, accepting each moment just as it is and realizing it is temporary. Sometimes, this means grieving what has been lost with regard to individual identity in order to make room for what has emerged.

R: Resources. In preparing for the early days with the baby, it is helpful to think of who will support you. It's often a good idea to create a list or calendar of anticipated daily needs, as well as who might be available to help with those needs. Local hospitals and mother's groups offer a range of new mom/parent support groups, classes, therapy, lactation consultants, child-care and nanny services and community resources.

E: Empathy. While a shared journey, the evolution of parenthood may involve separate paths. Parents are sometimes on different emotional timelines as they navigate, integrate and make meaning of their new identities. Having compassion and making room for any and all feelings that emerge helps couples join hands during this transition, and creates a strong emotional base for which to raise a child.

For any mother or father to-be, becoming a parent brings a tidal wave of unexpected feelings, normal insecurities and new opportunities. Adjusting to this new identity offers the opportunity to deepen your relationship with your partner, internally expand and embrace the teachable moments of raising a child. Intimacy and connection can become richer as a result of this process. Often, it is making and taking time to talk about the hard things even when there is no perfect solution.

(An earlier version of this article appeared on the Conversation, December 2012)