Often couples expect a new baby to strengthen their union but distress firstborn children. Although many couples expect the transition to parenting to strengthen their marriage, as a gender and family scholar expecting my first child, I was acutely aware of the stresses that a new baby can place on couples and families.
Indeed, the transition to parenthood is associated with a decrease in marital satisfaction (Twenge 2003). Parents report lower marital satisfaction than nonparents, and the more children parents have, the lower their reported marital satisfaction (Twenge 2003). The decline in marital satisfaction in the transition to parenting is larger among women than among men and is especially large for mothers of infants (Twenge 2003).
Perceived inequalities in the division of child care and a mismatch between the actual and anticipated division of labor drives much of the gender difference in marital satisfaction between mothers and fathers (Adamsons 2013). The transition to parenting is associated with an increasingly traditional division of household labor, and mothers’ dissatisfaction with their share of childcare responsibilities reduces their marital satisfaction (Adamsons 2013; Khazan 2008; Katz-Wise 2010).
Although much of the research on the link between children and marital satisfaction focuses on the transition to parenting, the birth of subsequent children may further compound marital challenges. Indeed, mothers’ stress levels, marital dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction with the division of labor increase similarly at the birth of a first and a second child (Krieg 2007). In addition to exacerbating parental distress, the birth of a second child may also pose a challenge to the firstborn.
Accordingly, parents and researchers alike often portray the birth of a sibling as a stressful life event—a crisis, even—for firstborn children (Volling 2012). However, in a review of extant research, Volling (2012) finds that not all children evince substantial changes in behavior or psychological adjustment over the transition to siblinghood, and that of those evincing changes, not all changes were negative. Intuitively, the arrival of a sibling would subject a firstborn child to substantial stress and emotional distress, but the research does not support this perspective. Instead, firstborn children vary immensely in their response to a sibling, and their response may depend on a complex interplay of their own personality, their own age, their parents’ parenting style, their parents’ relationship, and the larger family context (Volling 2012).
Fortunately, my own transition to motherhood has been remarkably easy. (This blog, however, did get neglected—apologies to my regular readers for my prolonged absence!) So how might expecting parents avoid the negative impact on their marital satisfaction? The research suggests that clear communication about the expected division of child care, and adherence to this agreement, may buffer parents’ relationships. Likewise, positive parenting, cooperative coparenting, and strong parental relationships may help existing children weather the addition of a new baby. (Thankfully, my dogs, aka my furbabies, have accepted the addition with aplomb!)
Adamsons. K. 2013. “Predictors of Relationship Quality During the Transition to Parenthood.” Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 31:160–171.
Katz-Wise, S. L., H. A. Priess, and J. S. Hyde. 2010. “Gender-Role Attitudes and Behavior Across the Transition to Parenthood.” Developmental Psychology 46:18–28.
Khazan, I., J. P. McHale, and W. Decourcey. 2008. “Violated Wishes About Division of Childcare Labor Predict Early Co-Parenting Process During Stressful and Nonstressful Family Evaluations.”
Krieg, D. B. 2007. “Does Motherhood Get Easier the Second-Time Around? Examining Parenting Stress and Marital Quality Among Mothers Having Their First or Second Child.” Parenting Science and Practice 7:149–175.
Twenge, J. M., W. K. Campbell, and C. A. Foster. 2003. “Parenthood and Marital Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 65:57–583.
Volling, B. L. 2012. “Family Transitions Following the Birth of a Sibling: An Empirical Review of Changes in the Firstborn’s Adjustment.” Psychological Bulletin 138:497–528.