By Carolyn Pape Cowan, Philip A. Cowan, published on July 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Why the passage to parenthood rocks even thebest of couples today: A cautionary tale.
Babies are getting a lot of bad press these days. Newspapers and magazine articles warn that the cost of raising a child from birth to adulthood is now hundreds of thousands of dollars. Television news recounts tragic stories of mothers who have harmed their babies while suffering from severe postpartum deppression. Health professionals caution that child abuse has become a problem throughout our nation. Several books on how to "survive" parenthood suggest that parents must struggle to keep their marriage alive once they become parents. In fact, according to recent demographic studies, more than 40 percent of children born to two parents can expect to live in a single-parent family by the time they are 18. The once-happy endings to family beginnings are clouded with strain, violence, disenchantment, and divorce.
What is so difficult about becoming a family today? What does it mean that some couples are choosing to remain "child-free" because they fear that a child might threaten their well-established careers or disturb the intimacy of their marriage? Is keeping a family together harder than it used to be?
Over the last three decades, sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have begun to search for the answers. Results of the most recent studies, including our own, show that partners who become parents describe:
o an ideology of more equal work and family roles than their mothers and fathers had;
o actual role arrangements in which husbands and wives are sharing family work and care of the baby less than either of them expected;
o more conflict and disagreement after the baby is born than they had reported before;
o and increasing disenchantment with their overall relationship as a couple.
To add to these disquieting trends, studies of emotional distress in new parents suggest that women and possibly men are more vulnerable to depression in the early months after having a child. Finally, in the United States close to 50 percent of couples who marry will ultimately divorce.
We believe that children are getting an unfair share of the blame for their parents' distress. Based on 15 years of research that includes a three-year pilot study, a 10-year study following 72 expectant couples and 24 couples without children, and ongoing work with couples in distress, we are convinced that the seeds of new parents' individual and marital problems are sown long before baby arrives. Becoming parents does not so much raise new problems as bring old unresolved issues to the surface.
Our concern about the high incidence of marital distress and divorce among the parents of young children led us to study systematically what happens to partners when they become parents. Rather than simply add to the mounting documentation of family problems, we created and evaluated a new preventive program, the Becoming a Family Project, in which mental-health professionals worked with couples during their transition to parenthood, trying to help them get off to a healthy start. Then we followed the families as the first children progressed from infancy through the first year of elementary school.
What we have learned is more troubling than surprising. The majority of husbands and wives become more disenchanted with their couple relationship as they make the transition to parenthood. Most new mothers struggle with the question whether and when to return to work. For those who do go back, the impact on their families depends both on what mothers do at work and what fathers do at home. The more unhappy parents feel about their marriage, the more anger and competitiveness and the less warmth and responsiveness we observe in the family during the preschool period--between the parents as a couple and between each parent and the child. The children of parents with more tension during the preschool years have a harder time adjusting to the challenges of kindergarten.
On the positive side, becoming a family provides a challenge that for some men and women leads to growth--as individuals, as couples, as parents. For couples who work to maintain or improve the quality of their marriage, having a baby can lead to a revitalized relationship. Couples with more satisfying marriages work together more effectively with their children in the preschool period, and their children tend to have an easier time adapting to the academic and social demands of elementary school. What is news is that the relationship between the parents seems to act as a crucible in which their relationships with their children take place.
The transition to parenthood is stressful even for well-functioning couples. In addition to distinctive inner changes, men's and women's roles change in very different ways when partners become parents. It seems to come as a great surprise to most of them that changes in some of their major roles affect their feelings about their overall relationship. Both partners have to make major adjustments of time and energy as individuals at a time when they are getting less sleep and fewer opportunities to be together. They have less patience with things that didn't seem annoying before. Their frustration often focuses on each other. For couples who thought that having a baby was going to bring them closer together, this is especially confusing and disappointing. Why does becoming a parent have such a powerful impact on a marriage? We have learned that one of the most difficult aspects of becoming a family is that so much of what happens is unexpected. Helping couples anticipate how they might handle the potentially stressful aspects of becoming a family can leave them feeling less vulnerable, less likely to blame each other for the hard parts, and more likely to decide that they can work it out before their distress permeates all of the relationships in the family.
But when things start to feel shaky, few husbands and wives know how to tell anyone, especially each other, that they feel disappointed or frightened. "This is supposed to be the best time of our lives; what's the matter with me?" a wife might say through her tears. They can't see that some of their tension may be attributable to the conflicting demands of the verY complex stage of life, not simply to a suddenly stubborn, selfish, or unresponsive spouse.
Becoming a family today is more difficult than it used to be. Small nuclear families live more isolated lives in crowded cities, often feeling cut off from extended family and friends. Mothers of young children are entering the work force earlier; they are caught between traditional and modern conceptions of how they should be living their lives. Men and women are having a difficult time regaining their balance after having babies, in part because radical shifts in the circumstances surrounding family life in America demand new arrangements to accommodate the increasing demands on parents of young children. But new social arrangements and roles have simply not kept pace with the changes, leaving couples on their own to manage the demands of work and family.
News media accounts imply that as mothers have taken on more of a role in the world of paid work, fathers have taken on a comparable load of family work. But this has just not happened. It is not simply that men's and women's roles are unequal that seems to be causing distress for couples, but rather that they are so clearly discrepant from what both spouses expected them to be. Women's work roles have changed, but their family roles have not. Well-intentioned and confused husbands feel guilty while their overburdened wives feel angry. It does not take much imagination to see how these emotions can fuel the fires of marital conflict.
Separate (Time) Tables
As they bring their first baby home from the hospital, new mothers and fathers find themselves crossing the great divide. After months of anticipation, their transition from couple to family becomes a reality. Entering this unfamiliar territory, men and women find themselves on different timetables and different trails of a journey they envisioned completing together.
Let's focus on the view from the inside, as men and women experience the shifting sense of self that comes with first-time parenthood. In order to understand how parents integrate Mother or Father as central components of their identity, we give couples a simple pie chart and ask them to think about the various aspects of their lives (worker, friend, daughter, father, so on) and mark off how large each portion feels, not how much time they spend "being it." The size of each piece of the pie reflects their psychologic involvement or investment in that aspect of themselves.
Almost all show pieces that represent parent, worker or student, and partner or lover. The most vivid identity changes during the transition to parenthood take place between pregnancy and six months postpartum. The part of the self that women call Mother takes up 1O percent of their pictures of themselves in late pregnancy. It then leaps to 34 percent six months after birth, and stays there through the second year of parenthood. For some women, the psychological investment in motherhood is much greater than the average.
Most of the husbands we interviewed took on the identity of parent more slowly than their wives did. During pregnancy, Father takes half as much of men's pie as their wives' Mother sections do, and when their children are 18 months old, husbands identity as parent is still less than one third as large as their wives'. We find that the larger the difference between husbands and wives in the size of their parent piece of the pie when their babies are six months old, the less satisfied both spouses are with the marriage, and the more their satisfaction declines over the next year.
The Big Squeeze
Men's and women's sense of themselves as parents is certainly expected to increase once they have had a baby. What comes as a surprise is that other central aspects of the self are getting short shrift as their parent piece of the pie expands. The greatest surprise--for us and for the couples--is what gets squeezed as new parents' identities shift. Women apportion 34 percent to the Partner or Lover aspect of themselves in pregnancy, 22 percent at six months after the birth, and 21 percent when their children are 18 months. Men's sense of themselves as Partner or Lover also shows a decline--from 35 percent to 30 percent to 25 percent over the two-year transition period.
The size of the Partner piece of the pie is connected to how new parents feel about themselves: A larger psychological investment in their relationship seems to be good for both of them. Six months after the birth of their first child, both men and women with larger Partner/Lover pieces have higher self-esteem and less parenting stress. This could mean that when parents resist the tendency to ignore their relationship as a couple, they feel better about themselves and less stressed as parents. Or that when they feel better about themselves they are more likely to stay moderately involved in their relationship.
At our 18-month follow-up, Stephanie and Art talk about the consequences for their marriage of trying to balance--within them and between them--the pulls among the Parent, Worker, and Partner aspects.
Stephanie: We're managing Linda really well. But with Art's promotion from teacher to principal and my going back to work and feeling guilty about being away from Linda, we don't get much time for us. I try to make time for the two of us at home, but there's no point in making time to be with somebody if he doesn't want to be with you. Sometimes when we finally get everything done and Linda is asleep, I want to sit down and talk, but Art says this is a perfect opportunity to get some preparation done for one of his teachers' meetings. Or he starts to fix one of Linda's toys--things that apparently are more important to him than spending time with me.
Art: That does happen. But Stephanie's wrong when she says that those things are more important to me than she is. The end of the day is just not my best time to start a deep conversation. I keep asking her to get a sitter so we can go out for a quiet dinner, but she always finds a reason not to. It's like being turned down for a date week after week.
Stephanie: Art, you know I'd love to go out with you. I just don't think we can leave Linda so often.
Stephanie and Art are looking at the problem from their separate vantage points. Art is very devoted to fatherhood, but is more psychologically invested in his relationship with Stephanie than with Linda. In his struggle to hold onto himself as Partner, he makes the reasonable request that he and Stephanie spend some time alone so they can nurture their relationship as a couple. Stephanie struggles with other parts of her shifting sense of self. Although Art knows that Stephanie spends a great deal of time with Linda when she gets home from work, he does not understand that juggling her increasing involvement as Mother while trying to maintain her investment as Worker is creating a great deal of internal pressure for her. The Partner/Lover part of Stephanie is getting squeezed not only by time demands but also by the psychological reshuffling that is taking place inside her. Art knows only that Stephanie is not responding to his needs, and to him her behavior seems unreasonable, insensitive, and rejecting.
Stephanie knows that Art's view of himself has changed as he has become a parent, but she is unaware of the fact that it has not changed in the same way or to the same degree as hers. In fact, typical of the men in our study, Art's psychological investment in their relationship as couple has declined slightly since Linda was born, but his Worker identity has not changed much. He is proud and pleased to be a father, but these feelings are not crowding out his sense of himself as a Partner/Lover. All Stephanie knows is that Art is repeatedly asking her to go out to dinner and ignoring her inner turmoil. To her, his behavior seems unreasonable, insensitive, and rejecting.
It might have been tempting to conclude that it is natural for psychological involvement in one's identity as Partner or Lover to wane over time--but the patterns of the childless couples refute that. The internal changes in each of the new parents begin to have an impact on their relationship as a couple. When women add Mother to their identity, both Worker and Partner/Lover get squeezed. As some parts of identity grow larger, there is less "room" for others. The challenge, then, is how to allow Parent a central place in one's identity without abandoning or neglecting Partner. We find that couples who manage to do this feel better about themselves as individuals and as couples.
Who Does What?
How do new parents' internal shifts in identity, and their separate timetables, play out in their marriage? We find that "who does what?" issues are central not only in how husbands and wives feel about themselves, but in how they feel about their marriage. Second, there are alternations in the emotional fabric of the couple's relationship; how caring and intimacy get expressed and how couples manage their conflict and disagreement have a direct effect on their marital satisfaction.
Husbands and wives, different to begin with, become even more separate and distinct in their years after their first child is born. An increasing specialization of family roles and emotional distance between partners-become-parents combine to affect their satisfaction with the relationship.
Behind today's ideology of the egalitarian couple lies a much more traditional reality. Although more than half of mothers with children under five have entered the labor force and contemporary fathers have been taking a small but significantly greater role in cooking, cleaning, and looking after their children than fathers used to do, women continue to carry the overwhelming responsibility for managing the household and caring for the children. Women have the primary responsibility for family work even when both partners are employed full time.
Couples whose division of household and family tasks was not equitable when they began our study tended to predict that it would be after the baby was born. They never expected to split baby care 50-50 but to work as a team in rearing their children. Once the babies are born, however, the women do more of the housework than before they became mothers, and the men do much less of the care of the baby than they or their wives predicted they would. After children appear, a couple's role arrangements--and how both husband and wife feel about them--become entwined with their intimacy.
Ideology vs Reality
In both expectant and childless couples, spouses divide up the overall burden of family tasks fairly equitably. But new parents begin to divide up these tasks in more gender-stereotyped ways. Instead of both partners performing some of each task, he tends to take on a few specific household responsibilities and she tends to do most of the others. His and her overall responsibility for maintaining the household may not shift significantly after having a baby, but it feels more traditional because each has become more specialized.
In the last trimester of pregnancy, men and women predict that the mothers will be responsible for more of the baby care tasks than the father. Nine months later, when the babies are six months old, a majority describe their arrangements as even more Mother's and less Father's responsibility than either had predicted. Among parents of six-month-old babies, mothers are shouldering more of the baby care than either parent predicted on eight of 12 items on our questionnaire: deciding about meals, managing mealtime, diapering, bathing, taking the baby out, playing with the baby, arranging for baby sitters, and dealing with the pediatrician. On four items, women and men predicted that mothers would do more and their expectations proved to be on the mark: responding to baby's cries, getting up in the middle of the night, doing the child's laundry, and choosing the baby's toys.
From this we contend that the ideology of the new egalitarian couple is way ahead of the reality. The fallout from their unmet expectations seems to convert both spouses' surprise and disappointment into tension between them.
Jackson and Tanya talked a lot about their commitment to raising Kevin together. Three months later, when the baby was six months old, Tanya explained that Jackson had begun to do more housework than ever before but that he wasn't available for Kevin nearly as much as she would have liked.
Tanya: He wasn't being a chauvinist or anything, expecting me to do everything and him nothing. He just didn't volunteer to do things that obviously needed doing, so I had to put down some ground rules. Like if I'm in a bad mood, I may just yell: "I work eight hours just like you. This is half your house and half your child, too. You've got to do your share!" Jackson never changed the kitty litter box once in four years, but he changes it now, so we've made great progress. I just didn't expect it to take so much work. We planned this child together and we went through Lamaze together, and Jackson stayed home for the first two weeks. But then--wham--the partnership was over.
Tanya underscores a theme we hear over and over: The tension between new parents about the father's involvement in the family threatens the intimacy between them.
The fact that mothers are doing most of the primary child care in the first months of parenthood is hardly news. What we are demonstrating is that the couples' arrangements for taking care of their infants are less equitable than they expected them to be. They are amazed they became so traditional so fast.
It's not just that couples are startled by how the division of labor falls along gender lines, but they describe the change as if it were a mysterious virus they picked up while in the hospital having their baby. They don't seem to view their arrangements as choices they have made.
Husbands' and wives' descriptions of their division of labor are quite similar but they do shade things differently: Each claims to be doing more than the other gives him or her credit for. The feeling of not being appreciated for the endless amount of work each partner actually does undoubtedly increases the tension between them. Compared with the childless couples, new parents' overall satisfaction with their role arrangements (household tasks plus decision making plus child care) declined significantly--most dramatically between pregnancy and six months after baby's birth.
Parents who had been in one of our couples groups maintained their satisfaction with the division of household and family tasks. This trend is particularly true for women. Since the actual role arrangement in the group and nongroup participants were very similar, we can see that men's and women's satisfactions with who does what is, at least in part, a matter of perspective.
Some men and women are happy with traditional arrangements. Most of the men in our study, however, wanted desperately to have a central role in their child's life.
Is There Sex after Parenthood?
Most new parents feel some disenchantment in their marriage. It is tempting to blame this on two related facts reported by every couple. First, after having a baby, time becomes their most precious commodity. Second, even if a couple can eke out a little time together, the effort seems to require a major mobilization of forces. They feel none of the spontaneity that kept their relationship alive when they were a twosome.
We asked husbands and wives what they do to show their partners that they care. It soon became clear that different things feel caring to different people: bringing flowers or special surprises, being a good listener, touching in certain ways, picking up the cleaning without being asked.
New parents describe fewer examples of caring after having a baby compared to before, but as we keep finding in each domain of family life, men's and women's changes occur at different times. Between the babies' six- and 18-month birthdays, wives and husbands report that the women are doing fewer caring things for their husbands than the year before. In the parents' natural preoccupation with caring for baby, they seem less able to care for each other.
Both husbands and wives also report a negative change in their sexual relationship after having a baby. The frequency of lovemaking declines for almost all couples in the early months of parenthood.
There are both physical and psychological deterrents to pleasurable sex for new parents.
Probably the greatest interference with what happens in the bedroom comes from what happens between the partners outside the bedroom. Martin and Sandi, for example, tell us that making love has become problematic since Ellen's birth. To give an example of a recent disappointment, Martin explains that he had had an extremely stressful day at work. Sandi greeted him with a "tirade" about Ellen's fussy day, the plumber failing to come, and the baby-sitter's latest illness. Dinnertime was tense, and they spent the test of the evening in different rooms. When they got into bed they watched TV for a few minutes, and then Martin reached out to touch Sandi. She pulled away, feeling guilty that she was not ready to make love.
Like so many couples, they were disregarding the tensions that had been building up over the previous hours. They had never had a chance to talk in anything like a collaborative or intimate way. This is the first step of the common scenario for one or both partners to feel "not in the mood."
Ninety-two percent of the men and women in our study who became parents described more conflict after having their baby than before they became parents. The division of workload in the family wins hands down as the issue most likely to cause conflict in the first two years. Women feel the impact of the transition more strongly during the first six months after birth, and their husbands feel it more strongly in the following year.
Why does satisfaction with marriage go down? It begins, we think, with the issue of men's and women's roles. The new ideology of egalitarian relationships between men and women has made some inroads on the work front. Most couples, however, are not prepared for the strain of creating more egalitarian relationships at home, and it is this strain that leads men and women to feel more negatively about their partners and the state of their marriage.
Men's increasing involvement in the preparation for the day of the baby's birth leads both spouses to expect that he will be involved in what follows--the ongoing daily care and rearing of the children. How ironic that the recent widespread participation of fathers in the births of their babies has become a source of new parents' disappointment when the men do not stay involved in their babies' early care.
The transition to parenthood heightens the differences between men and women, which leads to more conflict between them. This, in turn, threaten the equilibrium of their marriage.
Needed: Couples Groups
Family making is a joint endeavor, not just during pregnancy, but in the years to come. Men simply have little access to settings in which they can share their experiences about intimate family matters. Given how stressful family life is for so many couples, we feel it is important to help them understand how their increasing differences during this transition may be generating more distance between them. Most couples must rebalance of the relationship.
Our results show that when sensitive group leaders help men and women focus on what is happening to them as individuals and as a couple during their transition to parenthood, it buffers them from turning their strain into dissatisfaction with each other. Why intervene with couples in groups? We find that a group setting provides the kind of support that contemporary couples often lack.
Groups of people going through similar life experiences help participants "normalize" some of their strain and adjustment difficulties; they discover that the strain they are experiencing is expectable at this stage of life. This can strengthen the bond between husbands and wives and undercut their tendency to blame each other for their distress.
Group discussions, by encouraging partners to keep a focus on their couple relationship, help the women maintain their identity as Partner/Lover while they are taking on Motherhood and returning to their jobs and careers. Fathers become painfully aware of what it takes to manage a demanding job and the day-to-day care of a household with baby.
The modern journey to parenthood, exciting and fulfilling as it is, is beset with many roadblocks. Most couples experience stress in the early years of family life. Most men and women need to muster all the strength and skills they have to make this journey. Almost all of the parents in our studies say that the joyful parts outweigh the difficult ones. They also say that the lessons they learn along the way are powerful and well worth the effort.
BY CAROLYN PAPE COWAN, PH.D., AND PHILIP A. COWAN, PH.D.