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Core Conversations on Start Finishing: How to Regain a Sense of Self in Parenthood
Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversations on Charlie’s book Start Finishing. In our last conversation, Mike Ambassador Bruny talked about mentors and beneficiaries. In today’s conversation, Barb Suarez talks about honoring yourself in your new normal of parenthood.
There’s this prevailing myth about becoming a parent that those who’ve gone before seem to enjoy sharing with the uninitiated: “Having a baby means you’ll never get to do anything you love — personally or professionally — ever again. Whatever fills you up goes away forever! Good luck, suckers!”
Why anyone thinks this is helpful, I’m not sure.
Maybe statements like this represent a rite of passage. Veteran parents don’t mean to be cruel; they’re just passing the baton to the next generation of expectant parents the same way it was handed off to them — poorly! There’s no question that we do a terrible job in supporting new families.
And I’m trying to change that — one couple and one classroom at a time. I do this by preparing families for their “New Normal.”
The New Normal and the 4th Trimester
With any massive change (landing the dream job, moving across the country, getting married, having a baby) there follows a period of significant stress. There’s a need for everything else in our lives to shift so we can make space in our “Current Normal” for whatever is causing that significant stress.
I believe that the minimum amount of time it takes to shift from “Current Normal” to “New Normal” is about three months, give or take. In the business world that equates to a “quarter.” In MY world, that’s called a “trimester!” And when we’re talking about the postpartum period immediately following the birth of a baby, it’s called “The 4th Trimester.”
It doesn’t take very long for new parents to realize something after their baby is finally on the outside: “Ohh... This particular project is never going to be finished.” I can tell you as a Momma of four “babies” (ages 20, 17, 14, and 10), your role in this parenting project evolves over time, but you’re never really finished with parenthood. It’s kind of a lifetime commitment.
Which is why it’s so important that, following this first of many quarters in this parenting business, you take a breath and celebrate the completion of the most intense on-the-job-training of your life! You’ve learned approximately 300 new skills! All without direction from a supervisor, a manual, sick time, paid vacation, or even a salary! If you’re lucky, you have a co-worker who was hired on the exact same day as you — but you both work 24/7 and suffer from intense sleep deprivation.
If you make it to the end of The 4th Trimester and everyone is still alive, you should throw yourselves a little party!
If you’re like most new families, the end of The 4th Trimester marks the beginning of your “New Normal.” You start to forget what life was like before the baby arrived. One day, you might turn to your partner and ask, in all seriousness, “What in the hell did we do with all of our time before this kid came along? Were we just THAT lazy?”
Because now it feels like you get more done in a day than you used to in a week. Efficiency and necessity are prerequisites to parenting — you do just exactly what you need to do to get everything done. You are WonderMom! or SuperDad! or PowerParent!
But What About YOU? (Minus the Cape)
So many new parents feel (but wonder if it’s okay to express out loud) that their own, personal identity has been lost in everything needed to keep this new little human being alive — let alone happy and thriving.
And for the first three months of your baby’s life, that’s pretty much exactly what has to happen. All of your energy, time, attention, and talents must attend to the needs of this little 8-pound peanut who rules the roost.
Eventually, the baby’s tummy grows, they get better at feeding, and their wake/sleep cycle resembles that of the adults. Babies become more predictable, and you and your partner have worked out many of the kinks in your system and are finding your rhythm of new parenting together.
NOW is the time to begin a new project right alongside this lifelong project called parenthood. Let’s call it “Me 2.0.” The short- and long-term goals of this project are the same: to create the space and time in your calendar, your relationship, and your life for you and your partner to bring some of yourselves back into your “New Normal.”
In my classes we get pretty granular on this subject. We’ve already covered just how much the first three months are going to require, but it’s rough and unfair to leave parents focused only on what they have to give up in the bargain of saying “Yes!” to parenthood.
I want them to realize that as soon as they find their “New Normal,” they need to concentrate on bringing back something — anything — that will help them regain a sense of self.
I ask them to identify the #1 thing they know will have to take a backseat to the demands of new parenthood and that they would most want to bring back as soon as they’re able to do so. The responses I’ve received are as varied as the students in my classes: exercising, gardening, drinking wine with friends, biking, reading, tinkering in the garage, researching, playing music, meditating, writing, making art, etc.
The Reality of Me 2.0
When one of my soon-to-be parents has identified their top priority, I ask them what the minimum amount of time they would need weekly or monthly to make this an active part of their lives again. If they say, “I’d like to work on my golf game. And that would probably take 8 hours every Saturday!” I gently remind them that this is probably asking for too much, too soon. I might redirect them to hitting the driving range for a few hours, or maybe only playing the front 9 holes.
Once they’ve zeroed in on a realistic goal, I ask their partner if they’re on board to take on the solo parenting duties so this goal might be achieved. And then we make a detailed plan for when and how this is going to happen in real life.
All of this gets said out loud in front of the other families, so there’s some accountability, and they create an actual (tentative) plan. They also know that I’ll be touching base periodically and that one of my first questions will be, “How are you doing with your ‘Me 2.0’ project?” I remind them how important it is to re-focus their energy, time, attention, and talents on themselves — even if initially it’s just in this one small area.
“Me 2.0” sometimes gets confused with “self-care.” They’re not the same. While self-care is important — taking breaks from parenting when and where you can, to recharge and refuel for this most important work — the “Me 2.0” project is more about honoring that part of ourselves besides parenting that makes us feel most alive, nourished, in flow, or on fire, and fills more than one aspect — spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical — of what makes us human beings.
Start Finishing the Work that Never Ends
As I read Charlie Gilkey’s new book, Start Finishing, I realized how important this idea of finishing is for new and expecting parents when they come face to face with the reality that being a parent never ends. Especially when they feel stuck in the sometimes hellish first days and weeks of new parenting! Unless someone adequately prepares them with realistic expectations of the first twelve weeks, they might end up feeling intense disappointment and loss.
My work gives them hope that they will eventually discover their “New Normal.” And that they have permission to hit the pause button on their new parenting project, so they can see how starting (but more importantly, finishing) each task within the “Me 2.0” project actually benefits more than just themselves: it greatly benefits their relationship and their child(ren), too!
When you finally get yourself back into the gym three times a week, or at your easel for 2–3 hours on a Sunday, or dig in the dirt to plant what will become the first tomatoes of summer, or lose yourself in a book written by and for adults that you’ll actually be able to discuss over wine and cheese and chocolate with your book club — these tasks start to build up over time. And what you’re telling yourself, your partner and your child(ren) as you bring each activity back into your life is that you are SO. MUCH. MORE. than just WonderMom! or SuperDad! or PowerParent!
Start Finishing is all about bringing our best work into the world. I would argue that there is no other work that matters more than raising the next generation. But that work becomes nearly impossible when we’ve forgotten who we were, when we’ve failed to integrate that version of ourselves into this new iteration of who we are, and when we’ve got no plan for investing in our ever-evolving selves within this larger, never-ending project that is parenting.
It might seem strange to apply to parenting, the strategies for creative work that Charlie so brilliantly writes about in his book, Start Finishing. But here’s the overlap:
Recognize that parenting is a MASSIVE project that never ends — but it can be chunked down into smaller projects that make it less overwhelming and more do-able. (Chapter 5)
Celebrate every new parenting skill you master along the way! (300 new skills with very little support and unbelievable sleep-deprivation? GO, YOU!) (Chapter 9)
Refuse to allow the enormity of “The 4th Trimester” to overshadow your own particular genius (your “secret sauce” — the things that fill you up and encourage you to do your best work in the world) (Chapter 1)
Pick the #1 thing that had to go away while you settled into your “New Normal” and make a plan for how you will bring this and more back into your life now that there’s a more predictable rhythm to your days and nights (examples: rock-climbing, poker with your friends, a daily shower, date night, etc.) (Chapter 3)
Identify any blocks that keep you from bringing back those things that will help you be the best version of yourself (there’s no time; it’s too hard; people will judge me for not focusing ALL of my energy, time, attention and talents on my baby) (Chapter 7)
Build your own success pack of supporters (family, friends, new parent support group members, those who’ve managed to raise kids you actually like) (Chapter 4)
Navigate the tasks of new parenting so that you don’t get swallowed up by this most important work (remembering that the best version of YOU allows you to show up as your best version of partner and parent as well — and this benefits everyone!) (Chapter 6)
You were an individual before you became a parent. And like parenting, becoming the best version of your individual self is a project that never ends. It’s a series of steps you take to combine the best of what you were before parenting with best of who you are becoming.
Some will be quick and easy; others will be long, hard, and seemingly take forever. But here’s the thing: being the best version of yourself means you have a MUCH better chance of being the best version of yourself as a partner and as a parent, too. (Tweet this.)
And that’s why it’s so important to nurture ourselves through the “Me 2.0” project — so we can do our part in finishing strong in the collective project of raising the next generation.
These two projects likely will never truly be “finished.” But being able to roll with changing expectations and new realities as your child(ren) continue growing (and growing right along with them) is the best way I know how to finish your part in raising the next generation — the most meaningful work you’ll ever be honored to do.
Want more information? Start Finishing, the book that kicked off all of these Core Conversations, is your deeper dive into all aspects of how to turn your ideas into projects, and how to start finishing your best work.