The Rocky Transition to Parenthood
Becoming new parents can be devastating to your marriage
Posted Jun 23, 2015
The hardest thing about becoming a new parent might be the precipitous distance between our expectations (bliss, rapture, joy!) and the reality of the experience (an insanely difficult period of transition).
Carl Jung described the birth of our first child as among “the severest shocks” of adulthood, which beg us to critically survey ourselves and our fate (Jung, 1925). He described it as marking the transition from youth to adulthood, as the move from passion to duty, and from “I want” to “I must.” The successful navigation of this change requires strength, inner resolve, motivation, and a quest for unity. The danger that lurks for couples who “linger too long in a youthful attitude,” or who adjust to their new roles at different rates are numerous (Jung, 1925). Even for couples whose early marriage is relatively satisfying and unencumbered, the transition to parenthood is likely to launch them into precarious territory. These warnings stand in stark contrast to cultural expectations (and the thousands of movies that reinvorce them) that birth and new parenthood be an utterly blissful period of happily ever after.
The birth of a couple’s first child places various forms of strain on a marriage. It serves as a dramatic transition, from a youthful orientation to a fully adult orientation, and requires that individuals who may have managed to sustain a certain extent of self-focus (even in early marriage) now privilege their responsibility to their child over their responsibility to each other or themselves. It also throws into conflict previously defined roles, routines, and self-definitions.
Numerous studies reveal the stress that the birth of one’s first child brings to a marriage. Maternal postpartum depression has been found to be prevalent, occurring in approximately 13% of mothers (O’Hara & Swain, 1996), and extremely corrosive to family and marital outcomes (Campbell, Cohn, Flanagan, Popper, & Meyers, 1992). Lesser known is that paternal postpartum depression is also common, with estimates around 10%, and highly correlated with maternal depression (Paulson & Bazemore, 2010).
Even in situations in which neither partner experiences postpartum depression, the transition to parenthood is incredibly stressful. Parenthood often leads to marital decline, even in couples who were relatively satisfied before parenthood (Lawrence, Rothman, Cobb, Rothman, & Bradbury, 2008). Normal stresses during the transition to parenthood include an upheaval of roles, heightened feelings of anxiety, and a general decrease in a sense of well-being (Miller & Sollie, 1980). The birth of the first child often causes couples to become more traditional in their gender role attitudes and behavior, which may be shocking for couples who had a pretty balanced division of responsibilities prior to children. (Katz-Wise, Priess, and Hyde, 2010).
One study found that older parents with more realistic expectations tended to have an easier transition to parenthood (Wylie, 1979). This finding suggests that we have a cultural obligation to be honest with our friends, co-workers, and children about the things we struggle or struggled with. It also supports the idea of a heightened need for community support (and not just in bringing meals for the first couple of weeks). And maybe, just maybe, it would be ok to post a picture or two on facebook in which we look simply exhausted, or in which our beautiful baby is red-faced from screaming.
Campbell, S. B., Cohn, J. F., Flanagan, C., Popper, S., & Meyers, T. (1992). Courseand correlates of postpartum depression during the transition to parenthood. Development and Psychopathology, 4(1), 29-47.
Jung. C. G (1925). Marriage as a psychological relationship. Anima and Animus. Retrieved from http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/j_anima.html#anima.
Katz-Wise, S. L., Priess, H. A., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). Gender-role attitudes andbehavior across the transition to parenthood. Developmental Psychology, 46(1), 18-28.
Lawrence, E., Rothman, A. D., Cobb, R. J., Rothman, M. T., Bradbury, T. N. (2008). Marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(1), February, 41-50.
O’Hara, M. W. & Swain, A. M. (1996). Rates and risk of postpartum depression-a meta-analysis. International Review of Psychiatry, 8(1), 37-54.
Paulson, J. F. & Bazemore, S. D. (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Association, 303(19), 1961-1969.
Wylie, M. L. (1979). The effect of expectations on the transition to parenthood.Sociological Focus, 12(4), 323-329.