Changes and Challenges I: When Two Become Three, Four or More

Elle Sidelle and Damian McCann 330w

By Elle Sidel and Damian McCann

Do you often feel at the end of your tether when it comes to parenting? Do you find yourself searching for advice and support, perhaps turning to parenting experts or therapists, only to be left feeling that, however helpful or sensible such expertise and support may seem, it somehow doesn’t quite resolve your situation? Do you experience more difficulties in your couple relationship after becoming parents? Do you worry about the impact of such difficulties on your children?

If you find parenting a challenge, you are not alone. Becoming a parent is a major change in the life of an individual and of course in the relationship of a couple. For many, it is a time characterised by intense, sometimes overwhelming emotions, not only of love and happiness but also more difficult and confusing feelings and states of mind, including post-natal depression. It can also leave many individuals and couples struggling to manage the challenges of parenting precisely at a time when they may feel most in need of support themselves.

There is, of course, a lot of parenting advice and expertise on offer and most parents will likely seek some kind of support at some point in time, you may have received it from any one of a number of sources in your lives:

  • family
  • friends
  • social and other media,
  • or counselling and therapy itself

However, it isn’t always easy or straightforward making sense of or using such support, leaving many parents perhaps even more frustrated and despondent. For one thing, the sheer amount of information and alternative approaches out there can be daunting to navigate, adding further to anxieties and stress around parenting. This notion that there is ‘too much’ out there may also resonate with and even reinforce the sense of being ‘not enough’ that many parents struggle with, individually and together.

Here at Tavistock Relationships, we work with couples and individuals who struggle with such (all too human) limitations and their anxieties about the impact this may have on the next generation. We often observe how such difficulties around parenting can threaten to send a couple relationship into a tailspin, as if anything short of perfection suddenly feels intolerable precisely when parents may be at their most sleep-deprived, vulnerable, and overwhelmed. Our Parenting Service provides a safe space for couples and individuals to discuss such concerns and conflicts with an experienced professional and with an aim to support ‘good-enough’ parenting, whether parents live together or separately.

How therapy helps couples work together on parenting

The concept of ‘good-enough’ parenting echoes that of the ‘good-enough mother’ introduced by British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott (1953). He thought that children benefit from a mother (or primary carer) who will gradually and regularly let them down, but in a tolerable, age-appropriate way, as this would help prepare them for life in an imperfect world. The way to be a good mother, according to Winnicott, is to be a ‘good-enough’ mother. Perhaps the most important thing to grasp about ‘good-enough’ parenting is that it may mean different things to different people. Crucially, ‘good-enough’ parenting is not about ‘perfect parents’ or ‘perfect children’. There is also the personal cost of trying to rid ourselves, our partner and even our children from perceived ‘imperfections’, perhaps at the expense of more flexible and curious ways of relating to self and other.

The importance of flexible and curious responses to the imperfections of others for managing relationships is something that, in many ways, is also at the heart of our work with couples and parenting issues at Tavistock Relationships. There are several aspects to this work, but, crucially, it involves thinking together with couples and individuals about their hopes and fears concerned with parenting, as well as exploring the kinds of support they may need.

In this vein, work in the parenting service benefits from the wider clinical expertise and research excellence of Tavistock Relationships. For example, couple psychoanalyst Mary Morgan draws attention to an important aspect of the difficulty that parents struggling in their couple relationship may face when trying to seek help elsewhere: To be fully able to utilise these kind of resources one has to have a sense inside oneself of relationships being something from which one can get help, in which it is alright not to know or understand, in which it is possible to acknowledge getting things wrong, and in which it is possible to share one’s uncertainties in reasonable safety’

Tavistock Relationships can offer a variety of services for parents in different situations.

Whether you are gay or lesbian, bisexual or straight parents, and whether you are together or separated, we can offer support through one of our parenting services.

Mary Morgan, ‘How couple therapists work with parenting issues.’ In Andrew Balfour, Mary Morgan and Christopher Vincent (eds), How Couple Relationships Shape Our World: Clinical Practice, Research and Policy Perspectives (London: Karnac, 2012), p. 75.

D.W. Winnicott (1953). ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomena.’ International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 34: 89-97.

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