Transition to Parenthood

views updated May 21 2018

Transitionto Parenthood

Within the family life-cycle literature, the addition of a first child to the marital system is considered one of the stages that a family will likely experience during its developmental lifetime. For the couple experiencing the birth of a first child, this change is one of most unsettling, but most common, examples of change within a marital relationship. Indeed, having a baby has been ranked as high as sixth out of 102 stressful life events (Dohrenwend et al. 1978). It is also one of the more common occurrences for a couple, with over 1,000,000 first-born babies born annually to couples in the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States 2000). Nora Ephron, in the novel Heartburn, sums up the potential impact of a baby on the marital relationship: ". . . Now, of course, I realized something else no one tells you; that a child is a grenade. When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage, and when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was. Not better, necessarily; not worse, necessarily; but different" (1983, p. 158).

Parenthood as Crisis versus Transition to Parenthood

In 1949, Reuben Hill formulated the perspective of a "family crisis" in his landmark book Families Under Stress. Hill defined a family crisis as "a situation in which the usual behavior patterns are found to be unrewarding and new ones are called for immediately. Theoretically we know that three variables are present in a situation which determine whether or not a crisis is created: (1) the hardships of the event, (2) the resources of the family to meet the event, and (3) the family's definition of the event" (p. 51).

This notion of crisis created a framework for a pair of studies concluding that the transition to parenthood created a crisis situation for new parents (Dyer 1963; Lemasters 1957); other researchers, however, asserted the opposite—that first time parents had little difficulty in adjusting to parenthood (Hobbs; 1965, 1968). Equally as important, however, to the emerging interest in the effect of a child's birth on the marital relationship was the recommendation to drop the term crisis and "to view the addition of the first child to the marriage as a period of transition which is somewhat stressful" (Hobbs 1968, p. 417). The emphasis on "the transition to parenthood" was reiterated by Alice Rossi (1968) in an article of the same name, and since then the research has highlighted the process whereby couples move from the role of spouse to the role of parent through the pregnancy and immediate postpartum period.

Changes in the Marital Relationship

There is little doubt that the birth of a child changes a couple's marriage; the questions are how much and in what areas. One review of the literature on the transition to parenthood concluded that: (1) the changes that occur in parents' lives during the early postpartum period are more negative than positive; and (2) the transition to parenthood is equally disruptive for men, for women, and for the couple (Cowan and Cowan 1988).

One consistent finding is a decrease in marital satisfaction during the transition to parenthood (Cowan and Cowan 1988; Tomlinson 1996). However, while the "average" couple will have a decline in marital satisfaction in the immediate post-partum period, those same couples may have a rebound over time as they adjust to their new family roles. Three factors in particular may impact satisfaction during the transition to parenthood: pre-baby expectations, changes in communication, and pre-baby marital strain.

First, the expectations of the prospective parents may impact the postpartum experience. Some of the connections between pre-baby expectations and postpartum experience include: (1) a positive relationship exists between prenatal expectations and ease of transition (Wylie 1979); (2) inaccurate expectations lead to adjustment problems (Kach and McGhee 1982); (3) negative expectations of prospective parents result in negative experiences afterwards (Belsky, Lang, and Rovine 1985); (4) parents whose positive expectations were violated had more negative marital change (Belsky 1985); (5) violated expectations regarding the sharing of both childcare and housekeeping responsibilities contribute to women's marital dissatisfactions (Ruble et al. 1988); and (6) increased complexity in thinking about expectations results in better adjustment for women after the birth of a child (Pancer et al. 2000).

Secondly, communication changes in both quantity and quality post baby. Typically, the amount of communication between spouses decreases during the transition to parenthood, with reduced communication associated with decreased marital satisfaction (Cowan and Cowan 1988). Moreover, the quality of communication may change as well. For example, either more arguments or less openness over childcare or relationship issues can occur. For those couples used to spontaneous and frequent interaction with each other, these changes can be problematic.

Third, and perhaps most important, the largest factor determining dissatisfaction after the baby is born is strain in the marriage prior to the birth (Cowan and Cowan 1992). Couples with better pre-birth problem-solving abilities and conflict strategies show less, if any, decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of the child compared to those couples with less developed conflict tactics (Cox et al. 1999). The old adage for couples that "having a baby will bring us together" may actually have the opposite effect, particularly for those couples whose marriage is already strained. Having a baby may not solve, but exacerbate the problems in the marriage.

Two long-term programs of research by Jay Belsky and his colleagues and Carolyn Cowan and Philip Cowan and their colleagues have focused on the effect of parenthood on a couple's relationship. Both research programs have been concerned with documenting the changes within individuals, as well as in the marital relationship, during the transition to parenthood; both concur that the transition to parenthood is multidimensional in nature; and each deserve mention due to the holistic approach the researchers take in understanding the complicated nature of the transition to parenthood.

For Cowan and Cowan (1992, p. 5), there are five central aspects of family life that are affected when partners become parents. These five domains are:

  • "The inner life of both parents and the first child, with special emphasis on each one's sense of self."
  • "The quality of the relationship between the husband and wife, with special emphasis on their family roles and patterns of communication."
  • "The quality of the relationships among the grandparents, parents, and children."
  • "The relationship between the nuclear family members and key individuals or institutions outside the family (work, friends, child care)."
  • "The quality of the relationship between each parent and their first child."

What is important from their perspective is how becoming a parent affects each of these important areas of life, and how change in any one area can affect other areas.

Jay Belsky and John Kelly (1994) have also identified five areas related to the transition to parenthood, though their themes are focused on the areas of potential spousal disagreement. For new parents, these include:

  • Chores and division of labor;
  • Money;
  • Work;
  • Their relationship; and
  • Social life.

Belsky and Kelly assert that these five areas "constitute the raw material of marital change during the transition. Quite simply, couples who manage to resolve these issues in a mutually satisfying way generally become happier with their marriages, whereas those who do not become unhappier" (1994, p. 32).

To cite one example from the list above, Cowan and Cowan (1988) state that the number one issue leading to conflict was the division of labor in the family. Many factors may affect the division of labor issue, with labor inequity affecting wives more than husbands. For example, it is often the wife that aligns her preferences about the division of childcare tasks with her husband's preferences during the transition to parenthood ( Johnson and Huston 1998). In addition, during pregnancy, many women became more interested in goals related to motherhood ("to be a good mother") and less interested in achievement-related goals ("to make career decisions") (Salmela-Aro et al. 2000). Finally, motherhood increases wives' hours spent on at-house duties but reduces other employment hours (Sanchez and Thomson 1997). These findings indicate that wives especially may have decreased satisfaction, particularly if they perceive that there is ongoing inequity between themselves and their husbands in the childcare duties.

Theoretical Assumptions

Four general theories have been utilized to explain the transition to parenthood: systems theory, developmental theory, role theory, and dialectical theory.

Systems theory. The examination of a family as a system is a popular theoretical and therapeutic approach. One of the primary dimensions of a family system is the interdependence among the members and how what happens to one member affects the entire system. The addition of a baby makes a dyad (the spousal couple) a triad and therefore adds complexity to the system. That is, prior to the baby's arrival there are three subsystems: each individual person and the relationship between the couple. After the baby is born, seven subsystems exist: each individual person, three possible dyadic relationships (e.g. mother and child, mother and father, father and child), and the relationship between all three together.

For some systems therapists (e.g., Minuchin 1974) the strain felt after a child is born is due to competition between the spousal subsystem and the parental subsystems: that is, the spousal relationship may be compromised through the additional demand of raising a child.

Cowan and Cowan's five dimensions epitomize a systems perspective, as applied to new parents. An example they use to link various areas is offered: "Think, for example, of a man who feels anxious about becoming a new father (inner life) and wants to be more involved with his child than his father was with him (quality of relationships in family of origin) but feels pressured by the demands of his job (stress outside the family). Once the baby is born, he may have difficulty negotiating new family roles and decisions with his wife (quality of the marriage)" (Cowan and Cowan 1992, p. 6). One can see from this example that the myriad areas of one's life are all connected and that a change (the baby) in one area can affect all other areas.

Developmental theory. A theory held by many researchers is a stage model of family development. Rossi (1968), who helped shift the focus from "crisis" to "transition," did so with the understanding that a transition implies a movement from one stage to another, in this case a movement from pre-parenthood to parenthood. Other researchers have echoed this assumption, including the identification of the transition as a normal developmental event for married adults (Miller and Sollie 1980), the examination of the family life cycle during the transition (Entwisle and Doering 1981), and how pregnancy and parenthood progress from one stage to the next (Feldman and Nash 1984).

The important points to be taken from a developmental approach is that the transition to parenthood may be (1) a normal change involving a move from one stage of life to another and (2) that inhabiting a different life stage may change many aspects of one's life, including relationships and self identity.

Role theory. The third theory used in understanding the transition to parenthood is role theory. The addition of the child is often discussed in terms of the additional, and subsequently strained, role obligations of the marital couple. Cowan and colleagues (1985) have examined role strain during the transition to parenthood using a "pie" analogy. Individual spouses are asked to both list and divide their main roles (on a circle) before and after the birth of their child.

Results from the pie indicate clearly that the roles of partner and lover get smaller while the role of parent gets larger with the advent of parenthood.

The findings from research using a role related approach during the transition to parenthood include:

  1. There is an increase in role segregation, and discrepant perceptions of role performances, by spouses (Cowan et al. 1978);
  2. More traditional roles are enacted during parenthood (McHale and Huston 1985);
  3. Wives who did not see female sex-typed attributes in themselves (relative to those who saw themselves in sex-stereotyped ways) were more apt to evaluate their marriage less favorably after the birth of the child (Belsky, Lang, and Huston 1986);
  4. Role strain is more successfully predicted from both husband and wife measures which "underlines the point that becoming a parent is a couple experience as well as an individual experience" (Feldman 1987, p. 29);
  5. One or both spouses may "feel trapped in the 'foreverness' of the parent role" (Cowan et al. 1985, p. 476); and
  6. Spouses learn to enact and negotiate the role of parent through their ongoing interactions with each other (Stamp 1994).

Dialectical theory. The transition to parenthood can also be examined through dialectical theory, an approach concerned with understanding the inherent contradictions that occur in family life. These contradictions include autonomy versus connectedness, expressive versus instrumental communication, and stability versus change.

The tension between autonomy for self versus connection with other is particularly pronounced after the birth of a child. Nicolina Fedele and her colleagues explain:

Since parenthood involves negotiating commitments to self and to others, the dialectic between autonomy and affiliation becomes highlighted around the transition to parenthood. The search for the balance between self and other affects the marital relationship and the parent-child relationship. Parenting provides a unique and complex interaction of affiliation and autonomy since each individual in the family unit—mother, father, and child—is in some way negotiating the dilemma, but in reference to one another. (1988, p. 96)

One of the most typical experiences that spouses feel after the birth of a baby is "constrained autonomy" or "the overwhelming feeling that one's sense of independence is severely compromised by factors outside one's control" (Stamp and Banski 1992, p. 285–286). The ways in which the autonomy of a new parent is affected include having less time for oneself, having to restructure activities, and the addition of new and difficult tasks related to childcare.

A second dialectic is the dialectic between expressiveness and instrumentality. Rossi (1968) discussed expressive and instrumental functions in her seminal paper on the transition to parenthood. She concluded that "the role of father, husband, wife, or mother, each has these two independent dimensions of authority and support, instrumentality and expressiveness, work and love" (p. 37) and that role conflict is present whenever these polarities are required.

One of the ways a marriage changes after the birth of a baby is from a relationship primarily focused on emotional expression to one focused on instrumental aspects (Belsky et al. 1983). In addition, marital satisfaction is correlated with this change; marital quality goes down as the relationship becomes more instrumental (Belsky et al. 1983; McHale and Huston 1985).

A third dialectic is between stability and change, which involves the struggle between the couple to maintain the predictable patterns within their relationship while attempting to adapt to the changes within their life due to the pregnancy and new baby. During the transition to parenthood pronounced change is occurring within a formerly stable union.

These three dialectics—autonomy/affiliation, expressiveness/instrumentality, stability/change—are clearly experienced during the transition to parenthood and present dilemmas and opportunities for spouses to solve.

Alternative/Multicultural Findings

In many ways, the findings reported here tend to be fairly narrow in scope, as the focus has been primarily white U.S. subjects in more "traditional" relationships. As such, less is known about how other ethnic groups or other types of couples (or individuals) might experience the transition to parenthood.

For example, if couples who adopt children experience the transition similarly to biological parents is relatively unexplored. One research project did compare the transition experience between adoptive and biological couples (Levy-Shiff, Goldshmidt, and Har-Even 1991). Compared to biological parents, adoptive couples had more positive expectations and more satisfying and positive experiences. One explanation offered for this finding may be that the desire to have a child may be stronger with adoptive parents, leading to an over-all more satisfying experience.

Other ethnic groups or non-U.S. couples have also not been studied. Susan Crohan (1996) offers an exception with her comparison of African-American and white couples. Similar experiences were found in both sets of new parents, including decreased satisfaction, more conflict, and more tension after the birth of the child. Across ethnic or cultural groups, there may be more similarity than difference in the transition experience; however, the research has not been extensive enough to draw firm conclusions.

A final group deserving mention are single parents. The overall literature on the transition to parenthood has focused on the impact on the marital couple, or the individual spouses within the marriage. With almost one-third of American births to single mothers (Statistical Abstract of the United States 2000), the experience of these mothers has not been examined. Research needs to be conducted on single parents to see what type of experiences they have, both individually and within their relationships.


The transition to parenthood is one of the most exciting life events a person can experience. Although this entry may paint a rather negative picture, much individual joy and potentially positive marital changes can occur as a result of having a baby. Belsky and Kelly observed that "some marriages decline and others improve during the transition" (1994, p. 17). All individuals and marriages, though, change as a result of a baby.

See also:Adulthood; Childcare; Communication: Couple Relationships; Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Coparenting; Dialectical Theory; Family Development Theory; Family Roles; Family Systems Theory; Fatherhood; Life Course Theory; Marital Quality; Motherhood; Parenting Education; Relationship Maintenance; Role Theory; Self-Esteem; Stress; Symbolic Interactionism; Therapy: Couple Relationships


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Parenthood, Transition To

views updated May 29 2018

Parenthood, Transition To


In many cultures, the transition to parenthood takes place within a traditional marital relationship: When a woman becomes pregnant, she and her husband (or significant other) begin to prepare for the arrival of their new baby. Different cultures and ethnic groups sanction different means and timetables for such preparations, and evolving technologies and changing social norms have diversified the family structure. First-time parents may be single or attached to a same-sex partner; they may be adopting or conceiving using various reproductive technologies or with the help of a surrogate mother. However the child arrives and whatever the parents age, family structure, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, new parents face a complex and vital transition into a novel, challenging, and ultimately rewarding life role.

Defining this new role and identifying the principal factors that contribute to a smooth transition can be elusive. Family-systems models identify multiple influences on the adaptation to parenting, including an individuals biological, psychological, and sociological characteristics and those of family members, as well as the relationship between the new parents, between the parents and their extended families, and between the parents and the child. Levels of anxiety or confidence, for example, might be influenced by the new parents culture, their own parents parenting styles, and their infants temperament.

Social support from partners and friends appears to be one key variable in the successful transition to parenthood, particularly for new mothers. New parents must adjust not only to a set of novel responsibilities pertaining to child care, but also to challenges to many aspects of their personality and intelligence, including self-efficacy and personal control, patience and understanding, and problem solving and decision-making. The type of social support available to new parents frequently reflects the contributions of their own families as much as their community and culture. Social support systems function as critical sources of information about parenting and child development.

Parents generally begin the search for information long before the arrival of a baby; information gathering on labor and child care tends to increase in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. New parents often struggle with anxiety or postpartum depression; education and strong parent partnerships both help to alleviate parental stress. Gathering information about parenting and child development helps new parents gain an understanding of normal development and set realistic expectations for their children. Understanding child development also helps improve parent performance and augments parental satisfaction. Information gathering helps individuals prepare psychologically for the coming responsibilities of child care and define their identity as a parent.

Relationships between partners change with the arrival of a child: While satisfaction with the level of emotional support between parents often improves, general marital satisfaction usually declines following a birth. Couples who adopt children rather than bear biological children suffer less deterioration in marital satisfaction, perhaps due in part to the additional preparation and planning that accompanies adoption. Satisfaction with participation in and effectiveness of child care increases as men become comfortable in the role of father and a healthy co-parent partnership develops.

In some couples, maternal and paternal roles follow traditional patterns. This is less common if both parents are employed, and these couples need to arrive at a stable division of labor in the family. Not all parents make the transition well. Adolescent parents in particular have not fully matured themselves and are less likely to have a realistic grasp of child development, further complicating their already demanding transition to parenthood.

Historically, evaluations of parenting have been biased toward the positives of parenthood, sometimes leaving aside the realities of parental feelings of guilt and failure after (inevitable) negative parenting experiences. Parents must continually adjust their parenting; as a child develops, the parentchild relationship changes continually as well. Acknowledging parenthoods challenges and negative aspects signifies a positive change in social attitudes about parenthood. Only full awareness allows adults to prepare properly for the transition.

SEE ALSO Child Development; Family Functioning; Maturation; Parent-Child Relationships; Parenting Styles


Bornstein, Marc H., ed. 2002. Handbook of Parenting. 2nd ed. 5 vols. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cowan, Carolyn P., and Philip A. Cowan. 1992. When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples. New York: Basic Books.

Demick, Jack. 2002. Stages of Parental Development. In Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 3, Being and Becoming a Parent, ed. Marc H. Bornstein. 2nd ed., 389413. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Heinicke, Christoph M. 2002. The Transition to Parenting. In Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 3, Being and Becoming a Parent, ed. Marc H. Bornstein. 2nd ed., 363388. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Michaels, Gerald Y., and Wendy A. Goldberg. 1988. The Transition to Parenthood: Current Theory and Research. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lea Bornstein

Marc H. Bornstein