Families experience change constantly. The creation of a family involves change. When a baby comes into a household, the introduction of a new person forces everyone involved into new ways of functioning. As any parent will tell you, change in the first few years of a child’s life is constant. Some of the best advice we heard when we asked our friends with a child two years older than our oldest was that if we waited a few weeks, whatever we were worried about wouldn’t be a problem any more. Either we would have adjusted, or our baby would have already moved past the phase.
Growth spurts, sleep disruptions, feeding and care changes, and illnesses cause brief disruptions in a family’s life. As a child grows, changes become more lasting. A new school, a new job, or new siblings introduce additional change. Everyone shifts, and everyone adjusts. Like any change, it can be painful at first, but eventually change becomes accepted by the family.
Unlike in business, failure when experiencing change is not an option for families. While starting a new business may not always succeed, a family introducing a new child has no other option but to move forward and find a way to adjust. In business, change failure is commonplace – some estimates place it at around 70%! In families, babies are born, households are moved, and jobs change every day. Families find a way to move forward, no matter what.
Unfreezing – Preparing for Change
There are a few different models for organizational change, but the one I think helps us understand why families are successful with change is Lewin’s model for change. The model is simple. The first step is unfreezing, when leaders decide on a change and analyze the forces for and against it. You and your partner may have done such an analysis informally when deciding to change jobs, move, or undergo some other major change for your family.
The second stage is simply change. People transition from one way of being to another. Learning and reflecting is difficult during this stage; people are simply undertaking the new way of acting and trying to implement. Think about when a new baby first comes home and joins the family. There’s little time for analysis or reflection; it’s all reaction to the baby and new mother’s immediate needs. This is the most painful part of change, and when families need the most support. Often, this is when “the grandma hour” becomes important. Grandma or another trusted family member comes into town and takes care of the baby during the usual fussy time for newborns in the early evening.
If families don’t have extended family members who are willing or able to help, friends and hired help can fill the gap. There’s a perception that hiring a baby nurse or postpartum doula is only for wealthy people. New services, such as Baby Caravan in New York City, are making these types of services accessible to many more mothers. Care.com and Urban Sitter are two services offering sitters around the country to mothers. A growing number of families live far from their loved ones, making these services necessary for new families. Extra care may cost money, but it can prevent unnecessary marital discord and postpartum depression.
Putting this care and support team into place is essential for families with new children, and continues to be important during other times of change. Hiring a fun babysitter to entertain children while you’re packing for a move, scheduling in extra time for yourself while getting up to speed at a new job, or seeking out online communities when you or your child is diagnosed with a learning disability or illness are all ways parents seek support during times of transition. For many families, if money is an issue, groups of families in a neighborhood will sometimes establish a babysitting co-op where parents sit for each other. Friends can also be a huge help; I had a whole group come over to help organize my house before my baby came and it was a wonderful help.
Refreezing – Solidifying the Change
The final stage of change is refreezing. The change is solidified, and members reestablish new routines and “lock in” the change. People in organization often scoff at this stage in the model, because change happens so quickly that there’s no time to “freeze” before moving on to the next change. Families with newborns can sympathize with this assessment, since change happens so rapidly. As children grow up and routines become established, a refreezing period is absolutely essential for learning and growth. This is where tools like a family meeting are useful for looking back at a week and thinking about what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to be tweaked. Putting meetings on calendars and writing down schedules can be essential for communicating with all families members and caregivers. My cousin and her husband, both of whom work full-time, swear by a huge paper calendar in their home to keep their family of three children on track.
There’s No Looking Back!
Unlike with organizations, often families don’t have the option of returning to “the way things were.” As much as older siblings may ask, there’s no returning that new baby to the hospital. Organizations can learn from this by adopting both the extensive support families have (or at least, need) during the period of transition and by taking the “there’s no going back” mentality. Transitioning out old systems and recording explicitly in written processes and events the new way of doing things is how families manage change; think about the schedule a new mom creates for her care provider the first time she drops off her baby. Writing down the processes makes the “new” way of doing things explicit, and forces you to think about how you’re doing something. Later on, this document provides a way of reflecting on the changes you’ve implemented and seeing what’s working and what’s not.
Every change has a beginning, a middle, and an end. While the end may just be a brief pause before the next change begins, it’s important to prepare for change by analyzing the current situation, provide support along the way, and document the new processes. Whether it’s at home or at work, managing at change is challenging and stressful. Using a process can help a family – or an organization – break it down step-by-step to make it seem more manageable.
 Todnem By, R. (2005). Organisational change management: A critical review. Journal of Change Management, 5(4), 369-380.