What is parenting shock?
If you spent most of the pregnancy daydreaming of all the fun things you could do on parental leave while your baby slept, you might be feeling the shock of becoming a parent right now. Caring for a newborn is hard, and it’s often more difficult and all-consuming than new parents expect.
Maybe you thought you’d instinctively know what to do and it turns out you don’t. Maybe you’re wondering why people always tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps, when that’s not a possibility for you. Maybe the huge sense of responsibility is setting in with the realities of parenthood or you’re feel the financial pinch. Reach out to your support network or healthcare professional, it’s likely you’re not alone.
Why aren’t new parents prepared for the realities of parenthood?
Parents are having babies all around the world all the time, so why didn’t anyone tell you how hard (as well as how amazing) it would be? Perhaps you’re getting advice from those who embarked on their parenting adventure a long time ago. Things may have changed since then or they may have developed a selective memory and blocked out the challenges of parenthood! But even with honest guidance around what to expect, it’s impossible to plan fully.
Babies are unpredictable. One minute you might be boasting about how your bundle of joy is already sleeping through the night, only to discover the next minute they’ve turned into a full-on sleep thief and the routine you worked so hard on has gone out the window.
Maybe you’re following tried-and-tested parenting strategies but none of them work and you’re having to resort to a trial-and-error approach instead. Or perhaps you spent nine months preparing for the big arrival but hadn’t really contemplated what happens after that—you can have all the baby things you’ll ever need but still feel overwhelmed by your emotions and sheer exhaustion (AKA parenting shock).
Where you live and how traditional your culture is can also make a difference. For example, our research found that in Nigeria, 62% of parents say they found parenting to be harder than they thought it would be, with 79% saying they had to make more compromises than expected. They may feel an additional pressure in trying to honour past practices while trying to balance living as a modern parent, which adds to the challenge.
This is in contrast with the US, where only 29% say it was more difficult than they expected and 36% having to make more compromises. Their pressures may be reduced due to sharing more of the parenting responsibilities as well as being more agile in their approach and not having to stick to strict cultural norms.
What effect can the shock of becoming a mum or dad have?
The physical, emotional and financial shock of becoming a parent can affect all aspects of life – from how you view yourself to your relationship with your partner, friends and family, and work.
In China, for example, over half of new mums surveyed (53%) agree they take on a lot of guilt. A similarly high number (47%) also say they experienced baby blues. In comparison, only 6% of new mums in Poland suffered from baby blues, but they are still affected by guilt, with 41% feeling the burden.
After counting down the days to your maternity leave, you could find you’re desperate to get back to work and may even resent your partner for being able to carry on with their normal life in this way. At times, you may feel a bit deflated—your baby has been fed, changed, and they’ve just had a nap, so why on earth are they still unsettled? This doesn’t make you a bad parent. Read our checklist on reframing negative thoughts, but if these feelings persist speak to your healthcare professional.
Tips for adjusting to parenthood
Adjusting to parenthood doesn’t happen overnight, but you’re doing it! As all-consuming as it is, don’t forget to also carve out some ‘me time’ as it’s just as important that you look after yourself as well as your new baby. Check out our post-baby self-care tips for ideas.
Try to remember that there’s no right way of doing things—we’re all learning on the job—so don’t be hard on yourself if things pan out differently to what you had planned. Read our checklist on how to be a confident parent and remind yourself that you’re doing just fine. While you’ll never fail to be surprised by your amazing little one, the parenting shock will eventually disappear.
Talk to your support network or healthcare professional if the parenting shock isn’t going away, or you feel you just need a little extra help coping until you settle into your new role.
The Parenting Index, First Edition 2021, theparentingindex.com
Last revised: June 2022