Babies arriving home, don’t have to erase relationships. Episode 63. Thanks so much for listening. We all love babies, they are so great and they’re so wonderful and they’re also tiny bloodsuckers that demand enormous time and energy from parents. My guest today is Joni Parthemer who is going to share her ideas of how to prevent the parents’ relationship from disappearing. 

Joni is is both a Master Trainer and Education Director for the Bringing Baby Home Program. She is also a Childbirth Educator and International Childbirth Association Approved Trainer. Joni is a faculty member at the Simkin Center for Allied Birth Professions at Bastyr University as well as a Birth and Family Educator at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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Rhoda: I found it really interesting and also not surprising that 67% of new parents, experience conflict, disappointment and of course hurt feelings. Could you share more with my audience about that research?

Joni: I sure can. It’s truly a metamorphosis, when we become parents, however we arrive at that, whether it’s biological parenting, adopting, etc. and it’s a balancing act. We have to recalibrate our relationship and I’ve always been a me. And then I commit to somebody and decide to grow our family and now we become a family. So how do we pioneer that transition? It creates a reshuffling of priorities and finances and a relationship and it can be a real challenge. Through our research at the Gottman Institute, we found that about two thirds of folks within the first three years of the child’s life had a dramatic drop in relationship satisfaction. 

And we took a look at that, but then we decided to flip the script a little bit and look at the one-third that navigated the joys and challenges that come along with growing our family and look out what their skillset was, that helped them become what we call the masters of relationship. What helped them kind of work through this season of challenge and yet joy, because life is a period of seasons and for good, bad or indifferent, they all will end. So our research culminated in a workshop called the bringing baby home workshop, which we have for expectant and new parents focusing on what that one third of couples who navigated this transition did to kind of recalibrate the new calculations in their relationships.

Rhoda: That is great. I mean, certainly my experience matches that, that it is such a struggle and challenge and wonderful. I always think it’s kind of like times square in NYC. It’s got that wonderful, awful kind of thing going. What do you see as the top two or three problems that new parents struggle with and could you offer some solutions to those problems?

Joni: So one of the things we know is, as I was alluding to is the philosophical shift. It’s like, who am I now? I’ve always been a daughter. Now I’m a mother. I’ve always been a son. Now I’m a father. Children become siblings. Parents become grandparents. So there’s this kind of identity recalibration and it’s like turning to this partner who you’ve committed to and saying, who are you now and what does it mean to be a family? And sometimes there are challenges again in how do we balance this out and what is our new normal. Because no matter how similar or familiar, we both came from two different families of origin and we have to decide what we want to take from each of our chapter ones and put into our chapter two.

And so there’s that relationship change and just sleep deprivation, that’s just part of the package that comes with having a new baby because they are needy little mammals and we are having to attend to their needs and balance attending to the needs of our partners as well. So we have relationship and identity changes, sleep deprivation and I don’t know about you all, but when I’m sleep deprived, I’m not the happiest person to be around on. And I kind of get the hassles, intensity kind of thing going where most hills become mountains and things don’t roll off my back as much and communication decreases and conflict increases and that’s a challenge. 

We looked at those masters and said, you know, they’re going through this stuff too. Their babies are waking up a few times a night and they’re having to cope,what are they doing or how are they handling these Springs along with the joys that most of us aren’t. And so that’s basically how the workshop evolved. We kind of look at three key things. Those masters, that one-third we’re consistently doing that most of us weren’t.

Rhoda: Yeah. And what were they doing?

Joni: So basically, I call it the secret sauce of maintaining a committed, happy, long-term relationship. And the first ingredient in the secret sauce is that they were maintaining and strengthening their friendship. And the second was that they were regulating note, I’m not necessarily saying resolving, but they were regulating an inevitable conflict that is going to happen anytime we are consistently around another human being, no matter how much we liked them or loved them. And then the third thing they did, and I think this is really key to the transition to Parenthood, is they really looked at what is this shared meaning, they created a family legacy. What does it mean to be a family? And they were intentional about rituals of connection.

Rhoda: That’s lovely. It really is. It really gives you a little bit more of a map. I love that secret sauce. One of my favorite things that I share from my own Gottman training a number of years ago, is how important it is to turn towards each other. Especially with a new baby. I can see where that turning away from each other would be so easy because you are kind of wrapped up in coping and dealing with things as best as you can. 

Joni: Absolutely.

Rhoda: Could you share more about why turning towards each other is so important?

Joni: All right, so this gets to this concept we talk about, how couples have an emotional bank account. Just like we have a fiscal bank account where we’re either in the black or the red with our finances. We have an emotional reserve about how we feel about our partner and when we turned towards our partner, it’s when we recognize and respond to moments of connection, moments of opportunities, small acts of giving our attention to our partner, kind of micro acts that are happening thousands of times a day, that help us connect emotionally and increase our intimacy and kind of provide as a buffer or a bank account. 

This kind of positive sentiment override when we have stress and difficult seasons because we’ve got this buffer of commitment there. So when we’re turning towards, we’re recognizing our partners, what we call bids or how they express their needs. And it could be anything from a bid for conversation or an invitation for intimacy or helpless housework. And we are turning towards insane. I see you, I hear you. I recognize you. You’re important to me. And we’re a team.

Rhoda: Yes. I think after that training was when I went home and would automatically start pausing the television or turn it off as soon as my husband was in the same space with me. And I think it was a little thing, but I think it was really important, the idea behind the training you offer is to keep the friendship going. What can couples do to help that happen?

Joni: So we use a kind of theory we’ve called the found relationship house and it has different levels to it. And one of the first levels we talk about is this important of building and maintaining the friendship, if you will. It’s the foundation of the house. The ground floor or the analogy I used earlier is the first ingredient to the secret sauce of successful long-term relationships. And if you think about it, when you were first dating or courting your partner, you were asking questions of each other all the time and finding out their favorite color. 

You know, that funny thing that happened to them in grade school, what they did or didn’t like about how their parents parented them and you’re on the phone all the time and you’re asking question after question. And oftentimes with all the tasks that come with new parenting, it’s estimated that upwards of an additional 33 hours a week happened within the same 40… excuse me, 24 hours a day that we all have a task to do once there’s a new baby, we tend to become kind of roommates and you know, we’re on kind of coasting in neutral and we don’t ask as much. And we’re just trying to deal with sleep deprivation and eating and maybe getting a shower once a week. 

And so we really emphasize in the workshop about staying in tune with our partner’s lives and creating what we call love maps or cognitive space for what’s going on in their lives, just like we did when we were dating. And we now know that maintaining and strengthening the friendships between the parents, it’s a real cradle that creates a real nice ecology for the children because we’re modeling healthy relationships for our children. Children learn what they live. And so it’s really a matter of still staying emotionally connected.

Rhoda: Yes. And maintaining that connection is really what you’re saying, it’s the most important thing you can do, even though the baby connection is so profound and there’s so much going on with it?

Joni: Absolutely. And even you’re still… again, we’re recalibrating. I mean, what does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be a co-parent or an Allo parent? Whatever the family constellation is, and just saying, hey, you know, the way you played with the baby last night was beautiful, you know, expressing fondness and admiration. That’s really big. Just saying we’re doing it great. 

You know, amateur parents, amateur baby. We’re a team. We’re going to get through this and it just adds those deposits to the emotional bank account. And we just get to discover more about our partner and understand the unique, amazing, annoying, complex, frustrating, fascinating person he or she are becoming. 

Rhoda: It’s keeping that curiosity going instead of believing that you already know and not taking things for granted. What are four warning signs that our relationship is beginning to melt down?

Joni: All right, so there are four things we talk about and then we talked about the four poisons, if you will, of relationship. And most of us do some of these some of the time, but what’s that one third of the masters of relationship do is they minimize the following four things in particular. One is that they express their needs, but they don’t criticize, they don’t make it personnel, they don’t complain with blame. Complaining with blame is criticism and often, they’re generalizations and often it’s accompanied by words like you never, you always. 

Rhoda: That’s true.

Joni: Yeah. You never, you know, pick up when I’m out of town or you always leave the dishwasher. You know, those types of things. Just those micro moments of moving through time together. And so the antidote to that poison is to complain without blame. You know, I really like us to come to some agreement on who’s emptying the dishwasher or etc.

So there seems to be an increase in criticism and when we get criticized, the natural reaction is to be defensive. Kind of like that. A colleague of mine talks about it as a child’s game of hot potato, where you throw an object at somebody, like at the hot potato, you lob it at them. And what’s the natural thing to do is lob it back. Oh yeah. I may not empty the dishwasher, but you bounced the check last week. Totally irrelevant. Not going to solve the issue, but you can see it gets in this kind of spiral downward. 

So criticism, defensiveness, contempt, contempt is making oneself superior. It could be hostile humor. It could be sneering, it could be eye-rolling you know, just making oneself superior at the cost of the other person, repeating what they said in a mocking tone or you’re going to tell that old joke again type of thing. And Dr. Gottman says contempt as sulfuric acid for the soul. So there’s criticism, there’s defensiveness, there’s contempt, and then there’s this concept of stonewalling and that’s where partners aren’t turning towards each other anymore. People are feeling overwhelmed and it’s just like, I can’t handle this right now. I can’t verbalize what I need to do. But it’s kind of like somebody… if you don’t get a response, if someone keeps inviting you over and over again to dinner or to an invitation and you never respond, that has an effect on the relationship. So that’s kind of stonewalling. It takes a while for it to really have the negative impact. But it does because I’m going to stop asking if you never RSVP.

So those are what Dr. Gottman referred to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse or the four poisons and that’s just one of four big warning signs. The other three are that things get more negatives than positives in the relationship. And then the four poisons or horsemen and then that people get overwhelmed what we refer to as flooded. They just physiologically flooded and just like overwhelmed with the intensity of this conversation or my stress or our argument. And then the fourth is that when our partners try to make repair attempts, like when they recognize, oops, I shouldn’t have said that, or oh, this isn’t going right, let’s try over. 

Those repair attempts don’t get accepted. So things become more negative than positive. There are four horsemen or four poisons: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. People get flooded or if we want to sound really smart, we say diffuse physiological arousal which defeatsrepair. Like when you try to make nice, & your partner doesn’t accept it. I kind of think of repair, like the first thing we learned in driver’s ed is how to put the brakes on when things were going right. That’s kind of what a repair attempt is.

Rhoda: That’s right. What are the signs of postpartum depression and what can dads do, if they suspect the mom is suffering?

Joni: Okay. So this was actually an unexpected outcome of the bringing baby home study. We did look at postpartum meaning after birth mood and adjustment disorders, particularly postpartum depression. But I do feel the need to say that it’s a much bigger range of mood, anxiety and adjustment disorders. Pre pregnancy, labor birth and first year plus after the baby born are all postpartum time frames. There is an uncharacteristic difference of behavior. 

Normal self-care is missing. Normal self-care that normally would get me out of a funk isn’t doing it and it’s been weeks and, you know, I’m having more bad days than good days and this happens to fathers and co-parents and Allo parents as well.

So the thing that’s challenging about mood disorders is they often mimic just what new parents go through. You know, feeling a little sad, maybe can’t even sleep when the baby sleeps or sleep too much irritable and able to relax, anxious, feeling disconnected, feeling isolated, feeling overwhelmed or guilty, struggling with our partner to partner relationship. Some of those are challenges that just come with being a new parent. 

So what I always tell folks in my Bringing baby home workshop and then my childbirth classes, I use the acronym NURSE, N stands for nutrition. U stands for understanding. R stands for rest. S stands for spirituality or soulfulness, something that feeds your soul. And E stands for exercise. Just getting out in green nature is something, if you can nurse yourself and come up with a proactive plan ahead of time to make sure you have nourishment.

Make sure you create a support network. Try to get some semblance of rest in your lives. It’s not going to be what you knew. Sleep now. Do something that feeds your soul and help your partner do that. Respect their individuality around that and some type of getting out of the apartment, the house, you know so that you realize life is bigger than just going through the motions type of thing. If normal self-care, normal nursing isn’t helping and things are uncharacteristic, particularly after the first few weeks, then it’s time to speak up when you’re down and reach out.

Hopefully we’re doing it better now as healthcare providers, providing family units with local resources and national resources. Perinatal support international is fantastic. They’re at I believe. Wonderful. And there are others, so hopefully, and we’re screening people for mood disorders during pregnancy and after and having well parent, well baby visits after this happens for co-parents as well. You know, they can have mood disorders as well. There’s a lot of things that go into that.

Rhoda: Wow. I loved your clarity because I think it is such a hard thing to make a distinction and really know about, and I love the NURSE. That’s a great thing. And so my last question, Are there any tips for helping parents connect with their children?

Joni: Oh boy, that’s a whole podcast.  Let me go with another acronym then. CPR, Consistent, Predictable, Responsive. So by consistent, I mean working with your partner about how do we do this gig together, to be consistent with your child. That’s part of being predictable and responsive. Babies cannot manipulate. 

But if they are crying, they’re not crying to manipulate us, they’re crying to express their need. And part of it is learning about infant states, and infant cues and we do that in the workshop and then having parents have intentional conversations about how they feel about being responsive and then we give them the research about why it’s so important to respond to our baby’s cues because that’s how they learn to trust the world.

And the more secure they are, then they know those are my people. Then the more they actually do end up exploring, you know, and knowing they’ve got a home base to come back to as they get older as children. So it’s really about getting to know your baby. Just like you’ve got to know your partner, be responsive to your child, know what that cry or gurgle means. Know what that little smirk means. Know your baby’s cycle and rhythm. Oh, I know that this kid doesn’t have that now by this time we’re going to be in a whole lot of hurt. You’re going to get know that, just like you’ve got to know your partner. And so we guide people along with a few tips about that.

Rhoda: So before we end, now is the time to tell my audience about your program, the bringing up baby home workshops that you offer and what makes your workshops unique?

Joni: Okay, fantastic. So one of the things having worked in the birth field for 30 years is what excites me so much about this workshop, it’s proactive, psychoeducational. And nobody goes into parenting, wanting to be the worst parent possible. Right? 

Rhoda: Right.

Joni: And so what we give people is… to my knowledge, the only evidence based and research tested, the transition to Parenthood program in the world. I may be wrong, but to my knowledge, so that makes it unique and all the research that we present, we talk about how this research applies to partner relationships as well as how it relates from the parent to the child relationship in child development. 

And it’s just such a great way for parents to connect. Our families and people come back years later and say, I am so glad I took this step. One tip you gave me made all the difference. So it’s not about what we think parents need to know. It’s what they take away and we give them opportunities, they have exercises & a chance to really sit down and say, how does this apply to us and what plan are we going to make around this?

Rhoda: And people can find out about the workshops by going to new parents [email protected]

Joni: As well as I offer a weekend retreat in the Pacific Northwest. The Gottman Institute or

Rhoda: Thanks for bringing valuable insights to my listeners today. I appreciate it.

Joni: Fantastic. Thank you all.

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