Disaster recovery and first time parenting

Why disaster recovery and first time parenting are a little bit similar

August, 2016

In July 2014, my wonderfully thoughtful and smart colleague Jolie Wills wrote a blog post outlining her reflections on the similarities between living and working in recovery in Christchurch and the comparison to being a first time parent.

Two year on, and I am a new parent myself. Eight months in, I’m still a total newb and clueless on most days as to what I’m supposed to be doing in this new role in my life. 

At 3am a week after we’d come home from the hospital and I was again trying to figure out how breastfeeding worked (‘the most natural thing in the world’ huh? Ppfft!), Jolie’s writing sprang to mind, and her words have been rattling around in my sleep-deprived brain since then. I’ve started thinking about other things I could add to her observations. 

To explicitly clarify upfront, I am not trying to belittle or make light of the experiences of people who have been through a disaster, nor am I saying that having a baby for me has been a disaster. The two experiences are obviously very different in thousands upon thousands of ways, none the least that no one would wish for a disaster, while becoming a parent is an anticipated joy for lots of people. The common ground is still there though I think, in that both experiences have profound impacts on your life, your identity, your outlook and your relationships.

I should also be clear that while I have been working in and studying disaster recovery for the better part of a decade, I have not been through a disaster event myself, so the reflections I have of disaster recovery are from the observations of hundreds, if not thousands of others, rather than a personal experience. 

Last disclaimer: I preface anything I write here with the warning that I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year (those people who gleefully warn you when you’re pregnant to ‘sleep now while you can!’ are jerks who haven’t experienced pregnancy night puking, crazy cramping and a ridiculous bladder in the months leading up to the baby being born). 

1. When it comes to preparing, there is a focus on ‘the event’ rather than what comes after. What comes after is a lot more complicated

It’s no secret that the bulk of attention in emergency services is still focused on the disaster hazard event, rather than what comes after. Researchers note it, budget breakdowns demonstrate it and media reporting reflects it. 

When we think of disaster preparedness, most of the stuff that is out there focuses on the ‘event’. ‘Get Thru for 72’, ‘Get Ready, Get Thru’ (i), ‘Leave and Live’. It’s all focused on surviving the event and the next 24-48 hours. With some notable exceptions, there is practically no discussion about what to prepare for in the days, weeks and months after the event, which is complex, messy, stressful and often life changing.

I thought about this a lot in the first week after the birth of my daughter. For nine months, I had been given information, been asked to produce a birth plan (ii), gone to 15 hours of classes, read books, downloaded apps, been sent (and stupidly viewed) scary web links, endured many, many tales of horror birth stories.

And other than the ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge you’ll never sleep / eat a hot meal / have a shower / go out to a restaurant again blah blah’, there was pretty much no information for what happens after we left the hospital. So far in my experience, this has been more complex, messy, stressful and life changing than the (admittedly intense) 24 hours of childbirth. 

The event itself was a big experience. But you know what? Whether I had done the classes, read the books, turned up to the appointments or not, it would have happened anyway, and irrespective of all the preparedness work I had done, I still didn’t have much of a clue what to do when we left the hospital. And I wonder if sometimes disaster experiences are like that? I remember talking to an incredibly experienced CFA member who had stayed and defended his property during Black Saturday. He told me that he was as prepared as anyone could have been, but at the end of the day it made him wonder about spending all those thousands of hours on preparing for a fire when he had no idea what to do on the day after.

2.    Everyone is having their own unique experience. But…

While I absolutely approach every community, family and person that I meet after a disaster as having gone through something that no one else has gone through in the exact same way, after working in recovery for a few years, it became apparent how reliably some patterns emerge for many communities. We also see patterns in health and relationship impacts. 

I have a good friend who is also (by coincidence) my maternal and child health nurse, and she says that the same is true for the new parents that she meets. Everyone is living in a different circumstance and has had a different set of conditions, but there are almost always patterns that she can spot from experience. 

Being able to recognise these patterns isn’t about detracting from the individual experience, they’re helpful in being able to identify things that might assist.

3.    This is a gendered experience

I used to joke that when I had left my notes at the office, I only needed to look at the gendered make up of the meeting that I was at to figure out if I was in a social recovery or infrastructure meeting. If it was infrastructure there sure wasn’t going to be a queue for the ladies loo, and if it were social recovery there would be perhaps one or two men there (and many, many plates of baked goods).

When it comes to the day to day of caring for children, in Australia as with much of the world, it’s still largely considered to be women’s work. I have the good fortune to be in a position where my partner and I decided that we could afford for me to take a year of maternity leave, which is a luxury not afforded to many families, and I note the privileged position we are in. I know families come in all shapes and sizes, and there are some families where there is only one adult, and some where day-to-day care is divided evenly. I know there are full time stay at home dads out there, and I think that my network would be richer if it included them, it’s just that I haven’t met one in real life.

Raising children? You’ll be told that it’s the most important job in the world. That you’re literally keeping another human alive. That there is nothing more important than making sure our little people have the solid foundations to becoming well adjusted adults. That you’ll never have this opportunity again. That you’re raising the next generation of citizens. Important stuff.  

Helping re-stitch the torn social fabric of a community post disaster? Similarly, you’ll be told that it’s the most important role there is. While some people are rebuilding roads, you’re helping to rebuild lives and communities, and that’s what it’s all about. Without the recovery of the people, there is no point in recovering the buildings. You’ll never have this opportunity again. The people and the community are what it’s all about. Important stuff.

None of this is untrue. It warms your heart, doesn’t it?

Want to know what else it warms? Nothing that requires a heating bill to be paid with cash. Because there isn’t much of that associated with either of these tremendously important, but often unpaid roles. 

4.    The importance of proximal social capital… or why it’s important to have people close by

For years I have had massive professional crushes on a number of researchers who have done some amazing work on the role of social capital in disaster recovery. Lori Peek, Daniel Aldrich, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Yuko Nakagawa… Be still my beating, geeky heart.

The thing is, I got it intellectually, and I got it from an observation perspective. I saw with my own eyes that the individuals and communities that had strong local links did indeed seem to do better than the ones who didn’t.


I didn’t really know know it, because I haven’t had it much in my adult life. In my defense, I have lived 19 places in 13 years (across five countries), so the idea of geographically proximal connections was neither here nor there for me. It looked good, but it was something other people did. I only moved to the suburb I now live in the year that I had my baby, and my immediate family live interstate. The strongest connections I had had nothing to do with geography, and in this modern digital age on the whole that wasn’t much of a problem. 

Until you are somewhat confined to the geography of where you live, and under stress, in which case it turns out it’s incredibly helpful to have people who don’t live very far away from you on your team.

I’m definitely not the first to say this, but my mothers group (well, technically new parents group, but see point 3) has been an amazing thing for me. Not only are there nine other women of the same age who are sort of going through the same thing, but the information flow is freaking phenomenal. Want to know the best GP in our area? The creepiest? Who the pharmacist is that will help if you call after hours? Where nappies are on sale this week? Which café will help with the pram and which will make you feel like a leper? Whether the casual day care down the road is ok? 

These women, along with the local parents Facebook group are a force to be reckoned with. They could basically make or break small businesses in our area just through word of mouth on the inside of a week. If a disaster were to hit our town, it would be people like them and networks like these that the information would flow through.

I finally have social capital that’s geographically located where I live. And for the first time since I moved out of my folks place, it is the thing that is binding me to where I live, rather than the location of my house.

5.    If you have a partner, there will be strains on your relationship

The excellent Dr. Rob Gordon talks a lot in his presentations about how if there are 50 people in a room experiencing a disaster at the exact time, there will be 50 different experiences. The literature shows us that the impacts that disasters have on people are a combination of what their life experiences were like before the event, what the experience of the event was like, and their experience after. That means that even if you and your partner go through a disaster event together, there’s a good chance that your experience of it, and the subsequent recovery, will be different. At some point, this difference will probably cause friction.

There are definitely some parallels here with becoming a first time parent. If you have a partner, it doesn’t matter how close and connected you are, the experience will be different for both of you, for about… oh, a thousand different reasons. The physical and physiological experience, the gendered expectations, the social conditioning, your own family history, past experience, your own capacity to deal with change, the day to day role you play, and the fact that you’re just different people are just a few.

Add stressors to this equation, be it financial, sleep deprivation, added responsibility, identity changes, and all the other things that life continues to throw your way, there are inevitably going to be strains on your relationship. That’s not to say that most people won’t get through them. In fact, it may make them a stronger team. But in both recovering from a disaster and becoming new parents, there is documented evidence that break ups, incidences of mental health problems and family violence become more prevalent. If you’re struggling, it’s normal and there is help out there.

6.    Most people will be ok with the support of friends, family and colleagues.

The number one message that I promote in my work in disaster recovery is that most people will recover well if they have good, supportive people around them and can access the help they need when they need it. It’s more important than government grants, than specialised programs, and politician’s promises. This isn’t something I made up, the research backs it up. That doesn’t mean that the road to recovery is a smooth and pleasant experience for most people. It’s a long and bumpy one. A marathon not a sprint, as they say. The difference for people who have supportive people around them, and the people that don’t is phenomenal.

I’m in the privileged position to have the support of a wonderful partner, rock solid family, great friends who ‘get it’ and colleagues of the lovely-checking-to-see-how-its-going-and-not-putting-pressure-on-you variety. I live in a wealthy, well-serviced part of Melbourne, so I have access to just about any service I need. I cannot imagine how bloody hard this would have been any other way, and I tip my hat and applaud in awe to those who have been able to do this in more challenging circumstances. And if you are one of those people who have become a first time parent while going through a disaster… well, I have no suitable words of praise and admiration for you, because my jaw is on the floor as I try to contemplate what you must have had to manage.

And now, back to that marathon…

When Kate Brady isn’t on maternity leave, she is the National Recovery Coordinator for Australian Red Cross, and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne looking at what people who have been through a disaster think is helpful in recovery. You can check out (and participate in!) her research at www.thisiswhathappensafter.com


(i)  As a side note, what’s with the ‘thru’ thing? Is ‘through’ really too unwieldy for those stickers and fridge magnets?

(ii) Bahahahahahaha