For most people, having a baby is an exciting and life-changing event. So, what predicts a smooth transition? The couple’s adjustment to parenthood is dependent on multiple factors including the individual parents, the couple, and the temperament of their new infant. Parents can generally be as prepared as possible and still feel overwhelmed with the experiences of parenthood in the first few months. This is partly because contemporary parents are not adequately prepared for their new role, and the expectations for the parental role continue to rise in a society that places little priority on families. New parents are expected to embrace their new role. Yet we do not acknowledge the sleeplessness and pure exhaustion that become the couple’s reality for the first several months of parenthood. It is for this reason that couples find themselves turning to each other for most of their support. This can be difficult for some partners who are less prepared for the adjustment. However, every couple is different and there is no single formula for an optimal transition to parenthood. Researchers do know that some couples maintain a high level of relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood. In this article, I highlight some patterns that are beneficial for couples as they shift into one of life’s most rewarding yet challenging stages.
It’s no surprise that initially, the transition to parenthood impacts the life of a woman more than a man. From the moment a woman is pregnant, her body is transforming and working to support the new cells growing within her. Her body is changing both on a hormonal and physical level. But sex differences are not solely tied to biology; they also result from gendered expectations for men and women. As a professor at California State University, Long Beach, I ask my students to participate in an activity that helps illustrate this point. I ask them to close their eyes and imagine a male in his late 20s to early 30s pushing a stroller while walking solo. I then ask them to share the first thoughts that came to their minds and without fail they always say things like “he is a great dad,” “he is such an involved father,” “he must be giving his wife a break” and most recently “his partner must be at work.” Moments later, I ask them to do the same exercise with a female in mind and their responses are not very surprising. They often state that they really don’t think much about it; in fact they wouldn’t even notice such a thing because it’s so expected and “normal.” My students’ observations highlight societal expectations for men and women’s with respect to parenthood. Although more men are involved in the rearing and nurturing of their infants and toddlers compared previous generations, women still do the bulk of the work. For example, how common is it for baby changing tables to be located in men’s public restrooms?
I want new parents to know that although they may strive for egalitarian relationships during the transition to parenthood, equal divisions of labor do not often result. I also want them to be aware that perceptions of shared labor impact women’s relationship satisfaction more than men’s. In other words, if a woman feels that her partner is not doing his equal share of house-work, she is less satisfied than a man who believes his wife is not doing her fair share. Among new parents, researchers find that when a mother’s relationship satisfaction begins to decline, the father’s will often decline shortly thereafter. Thus the old phase, “Happy wife, happy life” is perhaps more true than some would like to believe. At the same time, I want to be clear that there are many new fathers who take an active role in caring for and raising their infants. Thus, both new mothers and fathers should be praised for what they do. The best type of validation however, comes from the partners themselves. Here, I list a few important ways partners can support each other and help maintain their relationship across their transition to parenthood.
Communication is the key to any healthy relationship but it becomes paramount for new parents who often find themselves exhausted and irritable. Not only does the mere lack of sleep impact new parents, but also the unknowns that come with a new baby can be stress provoking. As a result, many couples become impatient with their partners, and spend more time arguing instead of communicating. Three factors that are important when commutating with your partner include:
1) Pause before you speak your mind. Parents often experience a roller coaster of emotions during the first year of parenthood. There are days where they report being happier than they ever imagined, but there are also days in which they question important things such as their choice of a life partner. These bad days are normal and they pass but words will be remembered so choose them carefully. Before speaking negative words make sure you pause and consider the effect your words can have on your partner.
2) Be aware of the affect or emotions behind your words. For example, if your partner asks you to do something like empty the diaper bin or heat up a bottle, don’t sigh or roll your eyes as you say “okay” or “fine.” You are going to follow through on their request but when you add the negative affect, the actions become less valuable. At the same time, adding positive emotions can make a world of difference. At times, it may seem like you are doing a lot more than your partner, and you probably are; if you need assistance, use a warm tone and be careful not to ridicule the manner in which your partner provides assistance.
3) Make sure to have regular check-ins with your partner that go beyond just asking them to help. Remember to ask how your partner’s day has gone or if there is anything they would like to discuss. New parents become so consumed with their daily tasks, they often forget to talk to one another the way they used to. Regular check-ins will help partners stay in tune with each other’s needs and provide validation. Being aware of your partner is an important part of maintaining a strong relationship during the transition to parenthood. When you notice that your partner is stressed, offer assistance. It is important to remember that parenting is new for the both of you and it will take some adjusting so be patient and importantly, be there for one another.
Being a new parent is exhausting (notice a pattern here?!) and people sometimes forget that the couple relationship is the foundation of a family. The happiest partners during the transition to parenthood are those who support and demonstrate affection towards each other. This is particularly true for women with affectionate male partners. If you do not already know your love language or the love language of your partner, I suggest you learn (See: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman). Parents are always told to create a routine for their children but caring for their relationship should be incorporated in this routine.
Although I have provided several recommendations, the most important is to ensure the couple makes time for one another. You can’t accomplish any of my recommendations without doing so. If you forget all else, just remember to set time aside for your partner, even if it is only 10 minutes talking in bed at the start or end of your day. As partners become parents, their greatest asset is each other.
About the Author
Roudi Roy, Ph.D., CFLE – is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach. Her academic area of study is Child Development and Family Studies. She has many research interests including: transitioning to parenthood, family life education, relationship satisfaction, and societal and cultural influences on parental roles.