In a study that strips the sentimentality off new parenthood in the United States, a prominent Seattle researcher reports that 50 to 80 percent of new mothers and 30 percent of new fathers suffer depression, setting them up to be unresponsive to their new baby and to each other.
"We used to think the rate of postpartum depression was 9 percent," psychologist John Gottman told the Smart Marriages conference in Dallas. "We now know it is much higher than that."
Such high rates of postpartum depression result directly from the dramatic drop in intimacy couples experience after the birth of a baby, Gottman found. His studies of newlyweds—some he followed for as long as 13 years—show that for 67 percent, childbirth brings conflict, hostility and alienation, which starts many couples down the road to divorce.
Mothers are first to experience a drop in relationship satisfaction. Eventually, fathers do too. As satisfaction diminishes, hostility moves in, creating a profoundly negative environment.
Twenty-five percent of married couples in the United States divorce in the five years following a baby's birth. For unmarried couples, the dissolution rate is nearly three times as high.
"The real cradle that holds the baby is the emotional climate between new parents," says Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and founder-director of Seattle's Relationship Research Institute. "Many significant social problems [like violence] in our society can be traced back to this negative emotional climate in families."
The growing hostility and alienation between partners seriously compromises their parenting. Their actions are uncoordinated and they are unable to read the baby's emotional cues. And this, Gottman stresses, is more typical than not. "Most parents who go through the transition to parenthood will be unresponsive to the new baby. Their interactions will become increasingly negative, and many babies will withdraw and become depressed as a result."
Fathers suffer in unique ways. "We know that when parents fight in front of kids, kids are at greater risk of mental health problems, behavioral problems, and physical problems," the Seattle psychologist reported. "Perhaps the saddest finding is that kids withdraw from their fathers."
Yet, fully a third of couples manage to weather the transition to parenthood just fine. What distinguishes the "masters" from the "disasters," it turns out, has a lot to do with the dads. They express more fondness and admiration for their partners—even well before their babies are born. "They are less negative to their women," says Gottman. "Guys are really critical to this equation."
From observing couples in their own homes, Gottman and colleagues have found that how partners talk to each other during pregnancy influences infant behavior in ways that impact on a child's trajectory through life. Parental patterns of conflict resolution at six months of pregnancy predict an infant's behavior at 3 months.
Childbirth doesn't have to be the beginning of downward drift for families. Gottman has found that maintaining emotional connection and knowing how to manage conflict can avert later problems for both parents and children. And the best time to teach couples the necessary skills is when they are expecting. That's a time, Gottman finds, when "fathers-to-be become emotionally open."
Along with his wife, Julie, also a psychologist, Gottman has developed a weekend workshop, called Bringing Baby Home, for expectant parents. It starts by delivering what they have found to be a primary tool for maintaining intimacy, the love map—their term for the knowledge partners have and constantly update of each other's
internal world. (Do you know what your partner likes to read? What's your partner's most embarrassing moment from childhood?)
As crucial as staying connected with each other, couples learn to be attuned to their baby—reading the baby's signals, slowing way down to a baby's time frame. After all, say the Gottmans, "Parents are the most interesting toys for babies." And the most important.