Depression · Mental Health · Parenting · Pregnancy and Postpartum

Support for the avoidant parent

Sure, you and your partner have talked about having a child. In theory, it seemed fine. But now that your baby has arrived, it feels harder than you ever expected. It is exhausting trying to connect with this unresponsive baby. It feels like everytime you pick up your child, he or she knows to scream at the highest decibel. And while you’re feeling stuck, your partner has somehow become the baby whisperer, whipping out breasts, bottles, and toys and magically making this tiny human succumb into a peaceful and serene state. This post is for parents who are feeling avoidant and helpless. It is for the fathers and mothers who are painfully aware of feeling incompetent, and continue to think “I’m not good at this”. I want you to know, it can get better. I hope the following points leave you comforted and empowered. 

Stop comparing yourself with your partner

I hear a lot of fathers commenting that their partners can do it better. They see their partner staying patient and rocking the baby, doing midnight feeds, and changing multiple diapers. They see how the baby settles shortly after these interactions.  While it’s wonderful to see your partner becoming a successful parent, it can bring up a lot of our own insecurities. It’s really hard not to compare. When your partner picks up the baby, the baby calms down. When you pick up the baby, your adorable little human screams bloody murder. It makes a lot of sense that you feel avoidant.

avoidant parent. new parent. difficulty bonding. perinatal mental health. postpartum depression.

If you have always found security and confidence by doing things well, parenting can bring you outside your safe zone. Rather than work with this struggle, it’s easier to encourage your partner to take the lead since he or she is doing it better. I imagine you already know the consequences to this decision. Sure, the baby is calmer, but your partner is fried. Their arms are aching from constantly holding the baby. They haven’t slept or showered properly in days. And, chances are high, that they are frustrated with you for not taking a more active role. Meanwhile, your own insecurities of being a competent parent continues to worsen. 

Parenting is not always about doing things right. It involves time, patience, and some trial and error to figure out how to best help your little person. Chances are that you have a screaming infant on your hands for the first little while. Please know that this is normal. Your partner has also gone through this trial and error period of being hollered at, and it does get better. If you hand over the baby, your confidence does not improve. It only reinforces to you that your partner is capable and you are not. 

Forget perfection

There is a steep and fast learning curve with parenting. We make mistakes, work through the stress, and try again. We don’t have the option of quitting, and so we keep going back and figuring things out. The stress of doing things perfectly can make us avoidant in getting started. Rather than perfection, please accept that you will screw this up. Accept that you are going to make mistakes, and this will lead to tears (some of it will be yours and some will be from the baby). This is perfectly normal even though it sucks.

avoidant parent. struggles to bond with baby. postpartum depression.

While there are umpteen books and blogs out there about parenting strategies, no one has published a book for your child. Take what you know and try it out. Watch your baby’s cues to see if he or she responds well, or freaks out. It tooks me months of rocking my child to sleep and feeling frustrated before I realized this strategy wasn’t working. We’ve all gone through the nightmare of bathtime and the stress of barely keeping the baby above water. Some of us keep losing the soother- the only thing in the whole world that will make your child stop wailing. It happens. We all make mistakes, and it makes us human.

 We don’t know what will work until we take the time to try it, evaluate its efficacy, and continue or introduce a new habit. This is a normal part of learning new skills. We all start with a keen awareness of our incompetence. We practice and fine tune our skills, and eventually get to a place of being unconsciously competent. Wanting to be a perfect parent right from the start prolongs this very normal learning experience. 

Making mistakes is not the issue. Usually that error in judgment lasts a mere seconds before it’s done. However, our mind can keep us fixated on this mistake, and we get easily sucked into a world of shame, embarrassment or guilt. That small moment plagues us for days. Gently remind your system that you are human and you are learning. Mistakes are inevitable, and you did not do it maliciously or intentionally. You can and will learn from these errors. 

Assess if you have postpartum anxiety or depression

While we often think of postpartum mental health as a mom’s issue, this is just not true. 1 in 10 dads have postpartum depression, although only 3% of dads actually seek treatment. 1 in 7 mothers have postpartum depression. Unfortunately, there is limited research available about sexual minority couples, and the published statistics vary widely. That being said, postpartum mental health does not discriminate based on sex, culture, socioeconomic status, education, or age. It can happen to anyone. 

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When it comes to depression, symptoms can include lack of energy, disinterest, poor sleep or eating habits, or limited social interaction. Postpartum mental health shows up differently. We want to pay attention to signs like irritability, anger, excessive worries, avoidant behaviours, and poor concentration. Because these are painful struggles, many people try to cope by drinking, avoiding parenting, or getting into arguments. Unfortunately, our friends notice that we are drinking a lot and disengaged with the baby, but they don’t recognize that we are struggling with postpartum depression. 

When it comes to mental health or any diagnosis, we need a treatment plan. This can include: help with emotional processing, behavioural changes, professional interventions, medication, or increased social support. Mental health does not go away with sheer will power. It is legitimate and painful, and requires proper attention. The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale is a helpful assessment that can confirm if you are struggling with postpartum mental health. I would encourage anyone who is questioning their postpartum experience to take this self-assessment.

Exposure therapy can help

If you are struggling with your mental health, you do not have the effort or patience to invest into a new relationship. Depression will make you feel irritable and unmotivated, and anxiety will cause you to worry or panic. Your system just wants to shut down. When we shut down from our relationships and our environment, we address the problem briefly. We find temporary relief because we don’t have to spend time with the newborn. This relief is short-lived because, let’s face it, that baby is not going anywhere. Unfortunately, we fall into this repetitive pattern of feeling overwhelmed by our emotions, and avoiding the stress. This works temporarily until we face yet another scenario where we feel overwhelmed.

 I encourage you to take small steps to help your system see that you can become a strong parent. Exposure therapy involves creating a consistent and gradual plan to do things that you are fearful or avoidant of in order to build your confidence and reduce your fears. We want to first create a list of tasks that provoke anxiety and avoidant behaviours. Then we start with fears that are unpleasant, but manageable, and practice this repeatedly. It is only when the distress goes down and the confidence increases, that we move on to a more challenging task. Everyone’s exposure plan will differ based on his or her comfort zone and anxiety level. The following post explains exposure therapy in more detail, and I encourage you to reach out if you’d like to fine tune or problem solve your specific circumstance. 

Finding the balance between Me and We

Parenting can be a serious buzz kill for our social lives. Chances are that your kid is passing out by 7 PM, which means you’re likely starting a bedtime routine by 6:30 PM. It’s hard to nurture our hobbies, interests, or social lives if you need to be home by that early hour. Parenting can also influence our career path. Signing up for that new project or taking a promotion are incredible opportunities that you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. That being said, these activities mean more hours away from home. 

There is not a simple answer that will help you find balance between your interests and ambitions with your new parenting role. However, I’d recommend first sitting down with your partner and working on a plan. Parenting should not be an all-or-nothing experience. You should not give up all your interests, friendships, or goals. However, being a parent does involve some compromise. You may not be able to take on every project at work. Or, if you do, you will face the wrath and frustration of your kids and partner. It’s hard to win at everything, and we need to let go of the expectation to achieve it all. Instead, pay attention to your priorities. Some activities will feel easy to drop, whereas others may cause a lot of resentment. Fight for the priorities that matter.

While routines and schedules are not sexy, they do ensure you have time for yourself. It’s helpful to speak with your partner to ensure you both have time to do your own things. This might involve you taking on morning chores in order for your partner to go to the gym. As a result, he or she is more flexible about you playing hockey and hang out with your friends during the evenings. The predictability in knowing Mondays nights are yours to do as you please will help settle your anxiety.

There will come a time when your child is old enough to be more self-reliant. He or she will not need you to play such a supervisory role. When this happens, sign up for more things. Until then, work with your spouse in understanding what priorities you would like to invest in during the next few months. Talk about this plan regularly so that there are no surprises and there is room to make changes. 

The pressure to do it all

As the sole parent attending work, you may feel a huge financial responsibility on your shoulders. You may also come home to a very drained spouse, and your guilt prevents you from taking time for your own self-care. Perhaps the added stress of taking care of another person can feel overwhelming. 

avoidant parent. stressed new parent. building a better bond with your baby. postpartum mental health.

If you are feeling these types of pressure, pay attention to how you respond. Some parents will work more hours in hopes that they can manage this new financial burden. Some will feel resentful towards their baby or family because these changes feel so hard. Others will become avoidant, and spend all of their time outside of the home. All of these reactions are understandable given how much this postpartum year has left you unsettled.

If possible, take a moment to slow it down and reflect. What is it about this responsibility that is worrying you the most? What makes you doubt your capacity to manage these new tasks? Is your system aware that the financial strain will improve once your partner re-enters the work force? Would it be helpful to look at your budget and make changes so that you don’t spend all day working ? Are you feeling guilty because you are struggling to “fix” your partner’s exhaustion? Does your partner want you to take on this role? By understanding the root cause of our pressure, we are able to make wiser choices. We don’t have to react in impulsive or avoidant ways, and can instead focus on problem solving, communicating, or setting realistic expectations. 

Talk about it 

There are many supports and resources for new mothers, and I recognize that the same level of support is not readily available for dads and partners. A highly effective intervention for postpartum mental health is an increase to our support network. There is significant healing that happens when you are supported by others who truly understand and appreciate the hardships of the postpartum year. This can involve leaning on your parents, friends with older children, neighbours with newborns, or a local support group. It’s helpful to speak up, and receive support and compassion from the other end. It helps to talk with others who can share advice or normalize your experiences. 

Reach out

There are many ways you can build a bond with your baby. While you can remain avoidant, this behaviour tends to bring a lot of consequences. If you or your partner is struggling with this new role of parenthood, reach out. You do not have to struggle in isolation. 

Best wishes, 

Kasi 

Parenting · Pregnancy and Postpartum

Building a bond with your baby: Strategies to help when you struggle with postpartum mental health

When it comes to postpartum mental health, many parents struggle to building a connection with their little ones. There may be feelings of resentment that our lives have changed. You may feel too tired to want to play or sing nurseries. Your anxiety feels too high for you to be comfortable spending time alone with your infant. Whatever the reasons may be, you’ve been coping these months by maintaining an emotional distance from your child and feel desperate to build a bond with your baby.

I want you to know that attachment can be formed irrespective of postpartum mental health. Our relationships can always grow and develop, even when the onset was rocky. The first five years with your child are pivotal, and there are many things that can be done from hereon in to nurture this new relationship safely and without overwhelming your nerves or emotions.

The following strategies will help you feel more secure to meet your baby’s needs. No, they’re not all about singing songs or giving massages. I recognize that singing and massages are great options, but not everyone is at this starting point. So, let’s start slow so that we can get you to a place of feeling more confident to building a better relationship.

1. Introduce your infant to activities that you enjoy doing.

bonding with your baby, attachment, postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, strategies to cope

When the bond with your baby is already feeling tested, it’s incredibly hard to push ourselves to do “baby-focused” activities. Your motivation and desire to encourage tummy time or play peek-a-boo is next to nil. When you feel this way, it’s not helpful to ask you to force it. This may work for a day or two, but a stressful event will likely bring you back to square one. Instead, I want to encourage taking small steps that will feel more manageable for your system.

When you focus on your hobbies and interests, you’re often able to relax. There’s less pressure to perform. You have less anxieties about ensuring you’re “doing it right” and, instead, can just enjoy the task at hand. Whether it’s going for a run, cooking a meal, painting, reading a book, playing dungeons and dragons, there are creative ways to bring your baby into your world. Bust out that jogger to take your little one on a run with you. Introduce your baby to different smells, and speak to her about the different spices that are going into your meal. Show her the different colors you’re using while painting. Read outloud from your book so that your baby learns new words. Have her roll large dice for your various rounds in a board game. There are ways to still be you and foster your own interests while including your baby.

2. Build confidence with a support person

When you’re feeling insecure about being a parent, the pressure of parenting independently can feel like too much. Let your partner, friends, or family members know how you feel. Your sense of overwhelm with the baby does not mean you cannot be a good parent. Attachment struggles are a common sign of postpartum anxiety. Rather than avoid your baby all together (many have been here!), or become flooded with frustration or resentment, try and share the load.

postpartum mental health, attachment, bond with baby. family support.

Speak with your family members about spending more time together so that you can grow into this role. It’s easier to play with the baby or learn to handle colicky moments when you have a safe friend or family member supporting you. Your trusted person may give tips (tell them to cool it if it feels too much), or may provide you encouragement as you try. They may be wonderful at providing a distraction, so that you’re less focused on doing things perfectly. This support should also include your friend providing you a time out when you have met your limit and need to take a breather.

adult affection baby child
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A word of caution that it can feel tempting to step away and allow your family member to take over. But if you are hanging out with your little one and there’s a fellow adult around, the conversation feels easier, and there’s less strain to manage by yourself. When you’ve had enough practice with your infant, speak with your support person about coming over for shorter visits. By slowly reducing the amount of support available, you are practicing gradual exposure. This type of practice helps you work set realistic goals within your window of tolerance, and slowly build confidence as you spend more time independently parenting.

3. Make sure you are getting enough time to sleep.

postpartum mental health. building bond with your baby. sleep.

I know this point sounds strange as far as suggestions to improve the bond with your baby. However, one of the biggest turning points for postpartum mental health is having enough rest. You will never feel at your best if you are working off days or weeks of sleep deprivation. Trust that you will feel calmer, more energetic, more engaged and more like yourself when you’ve had sleep. Once you’ve had a solid week or two of rest, check in on your feelings towards your baby. Are you still feel that intense aversion or fear or has it shifted a bit?

For new parents, I strongly encourage working collaboratively to at least have longer segmented sleep. This might mean that one parent takes an early morning shift so that the other gets to sleep in. Or vice versa, whoever is the night owl takes on the later evening feed so that the other can rest. Understandably, parents will have to consider their comfort levels with pumping or formula feeding. While this is a personal choice, I want to emphasize that your system will feel significantly better after having at least four solid hours of rest.

4. Eye contact and Communication

Eye contact and verbal communication are effective ways to building a bond with your baby. These verbal and non-verbal cues help foster language skills and emotional intelligence in your little one. Your baby starts to recognize faces, understand facial cues, and builds a sense of safety with you. By communicating more, your baby will pick up on various words and gain a stronger understanding of language.

attachment and bond with your baby. Eye contact. postpartum in moms and dads

Maintaining eye contact can be incredibly difficulty, particularly if you struggle with attachment traumas or social anxiety. This strategy may not feel right for everyone, and I encourage you to be kind to yourself and where you are in your healing process. If it feels manageable, try and look directly at your baby while breastfeeding, changing diapers, and when doing any tasks related to your little one. Feel free to look away when the baby loses interest or is over-stimulated. I want to emphasize that doing even a little bit is better than nothing at all. If you are able to maintain eye contact while changing a diaper but feel overwhelmed during breastfeeding, work with that capacity.

Many parents with postpartum depression struggle to spend time with their babies, and it’s a big ask to encourage them to speak to their infants more often. If you are not “feeling it”, you don’t have to coo, speak in baby-talk, or sing nursery rhymes. Keep it simple. Describe what you’re doing in that moment with your baby, even it if it sounds like a tedious play by play. Talk about things that interest you in front of your infant so that they hear the variance in your speech patterns. Have conversations with other adults in front of your babies so they can witness different verbal and non-verbal expressions.

5. When there are no words, use hugs.

Perinatal mental health. Crying, fussy baby. Improving bond. improving attachment

Sometimes the baby cries, and it’s the most aggravating experience. You can’t figure it out. You have tried changing diapers, feeding, rocking, and nothing is working. Rather than stress yourself further, if you have the ability, focus on just holding your baby. There’s no need to walk around or figure out a soothing gait. Spend that effort on giving your baby a gentle hug. Touch is one of the most reassuring options for your infant and it provides them a sense of safety. Having that skin to skin contact, when you don’t know the right words or actions to take, can help both you and the baby feel calmer. Building a bond with your baby can involve a variety of different strategies, but sometimes the simplest action of being held can be enough.

6. When there are no words, walk away.

time outs. improving bonds. frustrated dad.

I know this seems contradictory to the previous point, but this is to give you the option to decide your current capacity. I encourage you to start with hugs when you are capable of this action. When you feel you cannot take it, and you are at your max, it’s essential that you have permission to put the baby in the crib and walk away. Giving ourselves timeouts is a wonderful option to take a break, find ways to regulate, and try again after a few minutes. I encourage using a distress tolerance skill (e.g. dialectical behaviour therapy skills like ACCEPTS or changing temperature) during your timeouts as it is a fast way to calm your system.

7. Plan your day

Boredom can be a significant trigger for many people. When you are bored, your mind starts to wander and, oftentimes, you’re back to that pattern of anxious, racing thoughts. Boredom can lead you to that rabbithole of social media where you fall into the trap of comparing your life to others. Boredom can be a common push factor towards drinking. When we are aware that boredom plays a role in our emotional struggle, we can form a plan. When your mental health improves, your ability to build a bond with your baby also improves.

While parental leave can be wonderful, it can also involve long and tedious days. In many ways, going to work provides us a lot of stability: we have a consistent routine of getting up, tasks to accomplish, opportunities for social interaction and consistent break times. If we know what the day will include, it can ease our anxieties, and we can plan ahead for boredom.

So, what will you do this week? Can you try and wake up and go to bed at the same time each day? Do you have opportunities to socialize each day? Are there playdates that you can schedule, outings that you can plan, activities that you’ve wanted to try out? Are there new play gyms that are available in your city? Will you register for a new online parent and baby class? Are there some new and exciting activities or hobbies that you’ve been wanting to take up (with or without your little one around)?

8. Building a bond with your baby does not require perfect parenting

Parenting has become a dreaded term. It’s a job that involves a lot of effort and patience on your part, and very little on the part of your babies. And as with any job, you may be striving to do it right. While your intentions are commendable, the desire to parent well can sometimes lead to additional stress.

When it comes to providing for your baby, “good enough” is more than enough. We are not able to get it right all the time, and it’s unrealistic to expect this of anyone. There are always going to be factors that pull our attention and that prevent us from being able to attend to our child’s emotional cues. In reality, we only get it right about 30% of the time. Other times, we are completely missing the mark on our babies’ cues or working to repair that misattunement. This is perfectly normal and expected in all parents. Rather than getting our hopes up to parent perfectly, we can focus our attention on repair if we have made a mistake. Repair work may involve: apologizing if you’ve been cross, paying attention if your child is trying to engage you in play, or providing that gentle hug if your baby gets frightened by your exasperated sigh. Our expectations can ease when we know that we will only get it right 30% of the time AND that this 30% attunement is what we can expect even in the most loving and secure of relationships.

Reach out

Everyone’s situation is unique. I don’t want to assume that the points I’ve listed out are going to meet your specific needs. If you are struggling with postpartum mental health and you’re concerned about the bond with your baby, reach out for a free consult. Postpartum mental health is treatable. You can get better, and your relationship with your child can be positive.

Take care,

Kasi