Family-Building + Attachment with Ariel Shumaker-Hammond, MPH/LCSW

In my practice, I work with lots of folks who are interested in growing their families or are already experiencing the adventures of parenting and caregiving. What we know is this: the family-building time of life is lovely and magical AND extremely stressful for many people.

Because this topic is so complex, I wanted to interview someone who not only has personal experience with the ups and downs of family-building but professional experience, too, and I couldn’t think of anyone more appropriate or skilled than my friend and colleague Ariel Shumaker-Hammond (if you know her personally, you know how incredible she is). Ariel and I first crossed paths as doulas for a volunteer organization here in Asheville, NC and later went on to collaborate between two perinatal mental health programs. We opened a group therapy practice together and now have our own individual practices where we support growing families. I’m so excited to share this interview with you!

Please tell us about yourself! What do you do? How did you start working with growing families?

I am a clinical therapist and photographer. The majority of my work is spent as the Program Director of Behavioral Medicine at MAHEC in the Ob/GYN dept. I see mostly low-income pregnant and postpartum folks through that role, treating people with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, as well as those who have experienced perinatal loss, reproductive trauma, and/or are experiencing infertility. I also maintain a small private practice where I see a variety of folks but primarily people with reproductive and perinatal related issues, couples, as well as women going through major life transitions.

And, in my free time (ha!), I keep a small but thriving photography business. I love to photograph a range of people, but primarily other business owners/therapists for their professional photos, as well as family and newborn photography. Very occasionally I’ll photograph weddings or other events if the fit feels right. It was only over the last few years that I started putting my work “out there.” It’s become a fantastic and very fulfilling “side gig”. Right now I’m beginning to think of the ways to move it to the next level, in which it’s a little more integrated in the work I do in the mental health world.

Can you talk some about the various ways folks build families? I think it's important to note that there are lots of ways people do that--which is part of why this topic is so important.

People build families in so many different ways! I think the general view we are given of “building” families is not accurate for many folks. Of course for some people, that “traditional” understanding of building a family is accurate—i.e., find a partner, make a commitment, try to get pregnant and then BAM, you have a baby. But my experience, both personally and working in this field for so long, is that building a family is often much messier, sometimes more beautiful, and often times more challenging. One of the things I talk about a lot with clients I’m seeing is what their reproductive narrative was before starting a family and if their story continues to fit into that narrative. And, if it doesn’t, if that feels ok, or if that feels difficult, or if there’s some grieving that needs to happen. I see this especially with loss or with any reproductive trauma such as a difficult delivery or fertility challenges.

How a family is built really depends on so many factors—if there are any fertility challenges or losses, if someone needs assistance with getting pregnant (whether related to fertility challenges or not at all, such as in a same-gender partnership), if someone decides to have a baby on their own, etc. And, there are so many external stressors that can happen and can affect family building, such as structural/institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Photo by Ariel Shumaker-Hammond

Photo by Ariel Shumaker-Hammond

What are some of the common challenges you witness when people are building families, specifically in their partnerships? Why do you think these challenges happen?

The answer to this question really depends on how the family building is going. I want to acknowledge that for a lot of the families I see, there is no partnership available and the new parent is trying to navigate the tricky waters of co-parenting or single parenting.

Assuming there is a partner, starting a family (in whatever form that takes) can be stressful for couples even when everything is going according to plan. Research shows that the most stressful/least positive time in relationships is in the two years following the addition of a child. Some of the most common challenges I find are in the early months after the birth or adoption of a baby, or what we call the “4th Trimester”. Often (though not always) there is one partner who is doing the majority of the work, getting the least amount of sleep, and is often the partner who may also be needing to heal from the birth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an exhausted postpartum person in front of me who is telling me that, because their partner “works” and they’re staying at home with the new baby, their partner is doing less (or nothing) at home with the baby—when in reality, the person caring for the baby is working 24 hours per day and on very little sleep.

As a society, we’re also conditioned to try to do things alone or as an immediate family and not allow outside support. I see that over and over again—couples trying to adjust to a new baby all by themselves, without any additional help. This independence can be super stressful for relationships. When people let in supportive outside help, it can lessen some of the most difficult aspects of the postpartum adjustment. Sometimes that help looks like family, but often it can look like friends, neighbors, or doulas.

On a deeper level, there’s nothing like bringing a new child into the world to really bring out some of the most challenging aspects of our attachment styles. I see couples all the time who have been doing pretty well but suddenly those “raw” spots that were just below the surface rear their ugly heads. Couples start to argue more, have a shorter fuse, and feel less intimate and connected. Insecurities, anxiety, and feelings of low self-worth can be exacerbated in those first years postpartum. Our reserves are lower when we have a new baby (less sleep, not taking care of ourselves as well, less time to “recharge”, less time spent with our partners). Add into the mix less physical intimacy (at least for the first few months) and it’s a recipe for conflict and tension. I find that the couples that communicate about these changes on a daily basis, who have regular “check-ins” and aren’t afraid to talk about even the most difficult parts, such as less physical intimacy, are the ones who do the best. But this period can also be such a valuable time to address some of those attachment challenges that were always there if a couple is open to that work.

Personally, my husband and my transition to parenting came after a few years of infertility and a loss. We were so ready for our son. We didn’t plan for all the “normal” challenges that were going to occur because we had waited so long for him to arrive. I remember specifically trying to talk a friend out of doing a meal train (thankfully she wouldn’t listen to me), because I thought we wouldn’t need it. I also remember vividly how, when my son and I initially had difficulty with breastfeeding, I was absolutely devastated. I was so anxious, crying all the time, and feeling like a failure. In many ways that was linked to the infertility experience and not feeling in control of my body. I felt like my body was failing again. I see this so often with clients. That definitely put a strain on my husband who just didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just switch to formula (which, by the way, would have been absolutely fine if that’s what I had decided to do). He was so supportive but it was challenging few months for us. We got through it by communicating all the time about how we were feeling, what was going right, and what was challenging.

We’ve also had to face some of those attachment challenges, those “raw” spots because they were exacerbated as we transitioned into the beautiful but challenging world of parenting. But we were not afraid of seeking help, of getting into our own counseling, and of MANY late night conversations and check-ins. And I think now after two kiddos, we’ve come out as an even stronger partnership. I’m super proud of how hard he and I have worked in the last 4 years.

In your experience, are there specific strategies couples can use to support their relationship and stay connected? 

Yes! There are so many strategies. Of course, it depends on what works for that couple. Some of the things I talk to clients about are:

  • Making room for intimacy even when that doesn’t mean “physical” intimacy. Sometimes I will actually tell couples to take sex off the table because there is often one partner who is afraid to even kiss or be touched because they think it will lead to sex, which they are just not ready for yet. I tell them to be more creative about what intimacy means, whether it’s just holding hands or snuggling while watching a movie, playing a game together, or making out like teenagers. That connection is still so important in the postpartum period, if not more so.

  • Going on dates!!!! So often couples think that once a baby is here, there’s no more need for time with just the partners. But the exact opposite is true! If couples can get a family member to babysit, or hire a babysitter, awesome. If not, there are lots of options, like the Parents Night Out at the YMCA or community center, or trading nights with a neighbor or friend.

  • Regular check-ins. I have one couple that calls it “state of the union” and they do that regularly once a week after the kids are in bed.

  • Counseling! I’m biased, of course, but I think everyone deserves a therapist and there’s no better time to do it than with the expansion of a family.

Anything you would want to share with people as they are in this time of their lives? Is there anything you wish you knew going into this stage of your life, especially related to your partnership?

No matter what your experience is, you’re not alone! If you’re feeling tension and frustration in a way you’ve never experienced before with your partner, that is totally normal for many couples. If you don’t want to have sex and you feel “touched out” (not to mention conditions like lactation vaginal atrophy, which is a thing I didn’t know about and is not talked about enough AT ALL—google it) and you don’t know how to communicate that to your partner, that’s a totally normal experience. If you feel overwhelmed and like this new baby stage is never going to end and just isn’t as fun as you thought it would be, THAT’s totally normal. It’s also totally normal to glide into the 4th trimester pretty seamlessly, though I find that to be a less common experience.

Although you can’t prep for everything, make sure that you have lots of support on hand, even if you have to get really creative about who that support is (a friend organizing a meal train, setting healthy boundaries with family and friends who want to visit, checking in regularly with your partner if you have one). And please, seek additional help, such as a perinatal therapist, a lactation consultant, or a doula, if needed (I mean, honestly, I think everyone should just be assigned one of each ☺).

Personally, I had absolutely no idea what parenting would be like or how it would change my relationship to myself and to my husband. I thought I had an idea—I mean, I work in this field! But I didn’t know how messy, beautiful, chaotic, vulnerable, and absolutely life-altering it would be. There’s really no way to completely prepare for that transition, but there are so many (free!) supports to have in place. Don’t be afraid to access them!

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Thank you so much, Ariel! I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us and providing some concrete strategies to support families as they grow!

What do y’all think? How did this land for you? How was your experience in your relationship as you were building your family, or how are you preparing for that when the time comes? Let us know in the comments!

Warmly,

Elizabeth

Elizabeth GilletteComment