People often say to me “but you can’t prepare for becoming a parent” I think what they mean when they – you can’t feel what it feels like to be a parent before becoming one. This I would agree with. But can you prepare for being a parent? For sure!
Transitions and ancient rites
In many cultures rites of passage have been enacted to mark the transition from one phase of life to another. They usually take the form of a symbolic death, entry into a liminal period where we are betwixt and between one state and another followed by a rebirth of some kind. Joseph Campbell in his book “Pathways to Bliss” gives the example of the Aranda people of Australia. He describes initiation rites where teenage boys are “kidnapped” from their mother’s by older tribesmen and made to suffer extreme physical hardship for several days before being allowed to return to the village, this time as men. In this case the liminal part of the ritual forces them to face their own mortality and build resilience so that they can go from being in their mother’s care to being adults, in charge of their own choices.
During the heart of the ritual the initiates have the opportunity to mourn for the passing of their childhood and be with the discomfort of what is to come. In his book “Transitions” William Bridges talks about the fact that life changes happen to us whether we invite them in or not. He maps on to them three stages, parallel with Campbell’s – an ending followed by a period of confusion and distress before a new beginning is possible. Bridges suggests that it is necessary to go through the middle stage or “neutral zone” in order to grow and extend our capacities beyond what we thought we were capable of. “the neutral zone is a time when the real business of transition takes place. It is a time when an inner reorientation and realignment are occurring”, Bridges.
My suggestion is that if we can consciously let go while expecting a child then we can process some if not all of the distress and confusion before the birth. It is helpful do things this way round because it leaves us more emotionally available to bond with the baby and become accustomed to the practical tasks involved in parenthood.
Change can be uncomfortable, for survival reasons our habitual ways of being become self perpetuating “habits are encoded in the structures of the brain and save us a lot of effort because we don’t have to relearn everything we do”, Charles Duhigg.
William Bridges talks about the necessity of “dismantling” old ways of being which may have become unconscious and habitual. When we become parents we are cut adrift from some of our old ways of being whether we like it or not. If you consciously enter in to the dismantling process before the birth you can mitigate some of the shock and resistance which could otherwise arise. You can do this by turning towards the fears you might have about the huge life change you are about to go through, facing the reality that our lives, even ourselves will not be as they were before.
A Dark Descent
In his book “Environmental Art Therapy and the Tree of Life”, Ian Siddons Heginworth refers to “dark descent”, that we must enter in to our own personal underworld in order to find riches within. By turning towards our fears about how life will be after we have the opportunity to let go of old ways of being in order to make space for new ones.
This may sound counter intuitive, it is not usual in our culture to welcome discomfort however it has an important role to play. When I first began training to be an aerial acrobat I had to go through pain in order to build the muscles to be able to perform tricks high in the air. It is the same with learning almost any new skill, first we must endure a period of awkwardness and unfamiliarity before it becomes fluid and natural.
On Being and Having
Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke talks about how there is a confusion in our culture between “being needs and having needs”. Advertising perpetuates this by suggesting that buying certain products will cause us to feel a certain way. I was in a well known Swedish furniture shop recently and noticed a bedroom set up cosily with a tray of breakfast, it gave me a feeling of home and love. I could imagine buying the furniture and expecting those warm feelings to come with it. They don’t. Because advertising is so manipulative and pervasive it is easy to focus on material aspects when preparing for a major life event such as marriage or childbirth. Worrying about details such as what colour to paint the nursery or which pram to buy.
Many people who focus only these external aspects are shocked by the realities of having a child, expecting that life will carry on as before. To cope with the realities of parenting it is necessary for us to develop new capacities, greater emotional resilience and the ability to put another person’s needs before your own. You also need to be able to your child’s changing needs and to be willing to ask for help.