Becoming a New Parent

How can new parents learn to handle the pressures that come with infant care?

Posted Feb 09, 2015

Couples making the transition to parenthood often describe it being one of the most joyous, exhausting, life-changing experiences of their lives. 

Still, becoming a first-time parent can have a dramatic impact on many people, both in terms of the stress they experience and the impact that it has on marital satisfaction and emotional well-being.  New parents can report considerable stress for different reasons. Along with the added financial burden of a new child, new mothers and fathers often experience significant conflict between work and family life along with realizing that becoming a parent means taking on a lifelong responsibility.  

One of the most exhausting new challenges that goes with becoming a parent deals with agreeing on  childcare duties.  This includes daytime and nighttime feedings, diaper changing, and all the other tasks that go along with a new infant. Though new parents may have some previous exposure to these chores, whether through prenatal courses or experience with infants in their families, men and women often vary in terms of how willing they are to divide these childcare responsibilities evenly. 

According to attachment theory, infants need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver who is usually (but not always) the mother. This early attachment can shape how infants form social relationships later in life.  While most research has focused on new mothers and how well they make the transition to becoming a parent, they have largely ignoring how fathers are being affected.  More recent studies have begun looking at both mother and fathers and how their adjustment to becoming a parent affects their relationship with their children and each other.  

While caring for newborn children has traditionally been left up to mothers and other female relatives, fathers are now taking up a greater share of these childcare tasks.  That also means that the emotional burden of handling this kind of life transition is being shared more equally these days.  But how important are individual difference factors such as personality and attitudes relating to childcare in shaping how well mothers and fathers handle this new responsibility?   

A new research study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines first-time parents in terms of individual differences and how well they react to becoming parents.  A team of researchers led by Jennifer Fillo, now at the University of Houston, followed 192 couples over a two-year period.  These couples were recruited through prenatal classes and fliers distributed at hospitals in a southwestern U.S. cities.  The participating couples were then asked to complete self-report questionnaires on five different occasions beginning six months before the baby was born and continuing to a final session two years later . The questionnaires focused on:

  1. Division of childcare responsibilities -  each partner was asked to report the percentage of time they spent, relative to their partners, on thirteen different childcare tasks including diaper changing, playing with the baby, feeding the baby, etc.  For the first session before the baby was born, they were asked to imagine how active they would be in childcare.
  2. Attachment avoidance -  According to researcher John Bowlby, people who are high in attachment avoidance are "are deeply distrustful of close relationships and terrified of allowing themselves to rely on anyone else, in some cases in order to avoid the pain of being rejected and in others to avoid being subjected to pressure to become someone else’s caretaker."   For new parents who problems with forming attachments, the stress involved in making the transition to being a parent is especially high.  They usually have a history of poor relationships and are often loners who have difficulty asking others for help.  Since they are uncomfortable acting as caregivers, taking care of an infant is particularly difficult for them.  They also get less satisfaction from their children than most new parents and are more likely to focus on their work while leaving most of the childcare duties to their partners.  Since gender differences play a strong role in how attachments are formed, men are more likely to avoid attachments than women. 
  3. Childcare self-efficacySelf-efficacy is defined as the strength of a person's belief in his or her ability to accomplish tasks.  Many parents dealing with caring for an infant for the first time in their lives may have strong doubts about their ability to handle these new responsibilities. Their perceived childcare self-efficacy was measured using a 12-item self-report scale asking questions about how much confidence the new parent had in doing different tasks. 
  4. Work-family conflict -  Some test items dealt with the kind of interference that new parents often encountered between work and family responsibilities.  Though traditionally more of an issue for women than men, the trend towards greater sharing of childcare responsibilities between men and women has meant that men are encountering childcare pressures at work as well.
  5. Relationship satisfaction-  People participating in the study also completed questionnaires measuring how satisfied they were with their relationships since becoming a new parent.  Some of the survey items included "How often do you and your partner quarrel?" and "In general, how often do you think that things between you and your partner/spouse are going well?

The results showed that, in general, women report contributing twice as much to the division of childcare than their male partners and that women seemed to handle to transition to becoming a parent much better than most men.  For men, there appears to be a strong link between childcare responsibilities and declining relationship satisfaction over the two years that they were followed in the study.   Women were also more likely to experience guilt if they saw themselves as making fewer contributions to childcare than their male partners, while men appeared to have few problems with doing less than their female partners.  

As expected, people who were high in attachment avoidance were also more likely to report problems with relationship satisfaction, childcare self-efficacy and having conflicts with work.  They were also more likely to see their new childcare duties as causing them to become less independent and less happy overall.  There were  strong gender differences since women high in attachment avoidance were better able to handle problems linked to childcare responsibilities than avoidant men. 

According to Jennifer Fillo and her fellow authors, the results of this study may identify those new parents who are most vulnerable to developing problems linked to childcare responsibilities.  Though most previous research studies have only focused on women or looked at men and women in general, this study is one of the first to look at new parents during the entire two-year period following the birth of their child.  It also looked at individual differences between men and women to understand those factors that can undermine a new parent's ability to cope.   

So what kind of lessons can be learned from this study?  Even though childcare duties are still unevenly divided between men and women, fathers are taking a stronger role in caring for their infants than ever before.  For that reason, it is more important than ever to understand the pressures that men face that can make them less able to handle their new role as parents and avoid the kind of emotional and relationship problems that might develop.   

Through prenatal training focusing on the kind of problems that can develop, both men and women can become better able to handle these new pressures and prevent what should be  joyous time from undermining their emotional well-being, not to mention the emotional well-being of their partners and their children.  Learning to become a better parent is something that needs to begin as soon as possible.  For everybody's sake.

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