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Defining what family means to you

Having a child is a time of huge change. For many people this includes considering the type of family they hope to create, as well as reflecting on their own family relationships.

While many people think of family as comprising a mum, dad and kids, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the modern family. Families are increasingly blended due to separation and new relationships. Many families include same-sex couples, sole parents and extended family members like grandparents as primary carers. There are also families created via IVF, surrogacy, adoption and foster care.

“For many, family are the people we choose with 41% considering close friends or people they’ve chosen to be part of their family.”

Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023

Read about Australian's views on what makes a family in the Australian Institute of Family Studies report.

Expecting and new parents in Australia come from all types of family units, and all cultures. Any person from any type of family can experience perinatal mental health challenges.

Expecting parents are especially vulnerable to experiencing perinatal mental health challenges if there are significant changes occurring in their family, including their extended family.

Some of the family-related factors that can impact your emotional and mental health while pregnant and during the postnatal period include:

  • Your parents are absent (emotionally or physically absent, or passed away)
  • Difficult relationship with your own parents
  • A family history of trauma or abuse
  • Lack of support from the extended family
  • Family members attempting to influence parenting or lifestyle choices
  • Differences or conflict within the extended family
  • Traumatic family separation (for example, your parents divorced)
  • Unclear boundaries and expectations with family unit

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Your family’s impact on your wellbeing as a parent

Becoming a parent cancause you to reflect on your own upbringing. For some this can provide insight and clarity about the type of family you want to create, but for others this time of reflection can be painful and unexpected. Reflecting on how you were parented, and what type of family experience you had as a child, can be an opportunity for you to actively decide the type of parent you want to be for your own children.

Some people experienced family conflict and separation, or trauma, neglect and abuse as a child, and these memories can resurface as you start your own transition to parenthood. There may also be events that have happened in your life that you didn’t recognise at the time as being traumatic, but on reflection you feel differently about once you have children.

Some people find the processes of pregnancy and birth triggering if there’s a history of physical or sexual abuse, and some people find the sound of a baby crying confronting if they grew up in a family with verbal abuse and yelling.

These types of challenges are more common than you think, they are just difficult to talk about and mayleave you feeling overwhelmed, and in a lonely space of shame and self-doubt as a parent.

Building the type of life you want for your children and being the parent you wish you had can be difficult, ongoing work. Yet it’s also rewarding, because you’re able to choose to parent in a way that’s aligned with your own values and beliefs about what makes a healthy family unit. With time, self-compassion and good support, you can disrupt the cycle of family trauma for your own children.

If you are finding yourself reflecting on your own childhood trauma and need help processing these experiences,specialist childhood trauma counselling services like Blue Knot are available, and you can also call PANDA at any time if you want to talk through thoughts and feelings that are coming up for you.

Blue Knot Foundation

Building your own family

Family can be whatever you choose. Many people don’t have a mum that will drop everything to help with your kids, or a network of in-laws and extended family to share the emotional and physical help with the emotional and practical duties of parenting.

Or, you might have family members who don’t respect the boundaries you put around yourself by showing up unannounced, criticising your parenting or offering unsolicited advice.

Becoming a parent yourself, and deciding the type of parent you want to be for your kids, is an opportunity to re-define what family means for you. It means creating a physical environment and emotional space that feels safe for you and your children.

Setting boundaries for your family

Boundaries are critical to protect your personal space and emotional health. If you feel like you aren’t being heard, are worried about speaking up or trying to “keep the peace” and not upset anyone, this is a sign that you need to establish clear, healthy boundaries. In the pregnancy and postnatal context, your boundaries might include:

  • Being clear about who you want, and don’t want, at your medical appointments, scans, and at the birth
  • Setting expectations around when your family is able to visit
  • Letting your family know that this is your family and while you respect their experience and opinions, you will do things in the way that feels right for you.

If you need help and support, PANDA is here to help. We can provide information, resources and referrals to assist you.

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Everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and parenting is unique and brings different rewards and challenges. Our mental health checklist can help you to see if what you’re experiencing or observing in a loved one could be a reason to seek help.