Supporting couples across the transition to parenthood

AFRC Briefing No. 20 – June 2011

Key factors affecting relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood

Below are key findings from a selection of research studies examining factors that affect couple relationships when partners become parents, and that are particularly relevant to practice.

Gender and gender roles

While women tend to experience the decline in relationship satisfaction during the transition to parenting more significantly than men (for a meta-analysis see Twenge et al., 2003), the findings for men have been inconsistent (see for example, Van Egeren, 2004). Interestingly, compared to the early studies of satisfaction for new parents, recent research tends to find declines in satisfaction to be steeper (Twenge et al., 2003). A suggested explanation for this comes from research into changes in gender roles following the birth of a child. A longitudinal study of first-time and "experienced" (already had one child) parents and their gender-role attitudes (Katz-Wise, Priess, & Hyde, 2010) found that both groups of parents became more traditional in their gender-roles from pregnancy to 12 months post-partum. With increases in workforce participation by women over recent decades (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008), first-time mothers may experience this gender-role discrepancy more intensely now than mothers from previous generations.

Division of labour and perceptions of fairness

Women may be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of new parenthood, as their workload - through primary child care and housework duties - tends to increase significantly in the early post-partum period. For example, one study found that women's total workloads (paid employment, child care and housework) after the birth of their child increased significantly more (by 64%) than men's (37%) (Gjerdingen & Center, 2004). Perceptions of fairness in how domestic tasks are distributed may also affect women's relationship satisfaction (Gjerdingen & Center, 2004). Furthermore, if expectations that child care will be shared between partners are not met, co-parenting experiences (how couples feel they work together as parents) tend to be poor, more so for women as they generally do more child care than they expected (Van Egeren, 2004). These feelings may abate as the child grows and child care and household labour becomes more evenly distributed. However, the impact of domestic workload - alone and in concert with other factors affecting life as a new parent, such as sleep disturbances - should be explored by practitioners seeking to help parents adjust to parenthood.

Socioeconomic status

Findings regarding socioeconomic status (SES) and declines in marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood have yielded some interesting findings. Some studies suggest that younger, less educated individuals tend to struggle more with the transition (e.g., Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009) while other research has found the transition more disruptive for those from high SES backgrounds, particularly women who may have left high-status and well-paid jobs to become mothers (Twenge et al., 2003). These findings suggest that in different types of families, for different reasons, the impact of the transition to parenthood may be greater for families where there is a higher degree of disruption to their pre-parenthood lifestyle.

Parental expectations

Pre-birth expectations of parenthood have been found to be related to psychological wellbeing of mothers. If their parenting experiences were contrary to their expectations before giving birth, their relationship quality tended to decline; however, post-birth experiences that were more positive than expected were related to improved relationship quality (Harwood, McLean, & Durkin, 2007). These particular findings underline the importance of preparing couples for, and supporting them through, the myriad of changes parenthood brings.

Sleep disturbances

Although many parents report disturbed sleep in the post-partum period and it is known to have implications for a range of individual functions, including parental competence (Gay, Lee, & Lee, 2004), there is limited research into how sleep affects new parents' adaptation to their role. Further, Medina, Lederhos, and Lillis (2009) pointed out that although much is known about how sleep disturbance affects mood and cognition, almost no studies have examined the role of those disturbances in changes in relationship satisfaction. Their review led them to suggest a process by which sleep disturbances (e.g., interruption or deprivation) negatively affect the cognitive and emotional resources needed to cope with the multiple demands of new parenthood and exacerbate the stresses new parents face. If conflict then increases and positive feelings begin to decline, relationship satisfaction may also suffer. From a practice point of view therefore, it would seem useful to also explore with clients how a lack of or interrupted sleep might affect the couple relationship.

Relationship factors

In studies of married couples, marital satisfaction and health (i.e., marital friendship, thinking about how the partner feels, fondness and affection, prenatal conflict, and withdrawal) prior to parenthood (Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrere, 2000) and the length of the marriage prior to the birth of the first child (Doss et al., 2009) tend to buffer against the stressors related to the transition. This suggests that exploration of the couple relationship prior to the pregnancy and birth would be a useful part of any program or service supporting couples in the transition to parenthood. Being in a marital or cohabiting relationship has been linked to postnatal supportiveness for low SES couples - compared to non-cohabiting dating couples or couples who were not romantically involved - however satisfaction has been found to decline more sharply for cohabiting than married couples (particularly mothers) (Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009). Declines in satisfaction have also been found to occur more suddenly for first-time fathers who cohabit before marriage, and first-time parents who cohabit before marriage tend to express higher levels of observed negative communication with their partner after the birth of their first child (Doss et al., 2009).

The impacts of prenatal relationship quality on the transition to parenthood may be particularly salient for men. In one study, fathers' prenatal marital withdrawal (i.e., avoiding eye contact, increasing/maintaining physical distance, giving up on the discussion, and being unresponsive) was related to less positive whole family interactions at 24 months post-partum (Paley et al., 2005). Furthermore, another study found fathers' feelings about the relationship before parenthood to be an indicator of their postnatal feelings, and also of their wives' perceptions of their co-parenting (Van Egeren, 2004).

Child factors

Some child factors have been found to impact parental wellbeing in the transition to parenthood. Child temperament, particularly having a fussy or difficult child, has been linked to difficulty or stress by parents, particularly fathers (Baxter & Smart, 2010; Perren, von Wyl, Burgin, Simoni, & von Klitzing, 2005; Spielman & Taubman, 2009; Van Egeren, 2004). Having a low birth weight child was found to impact fathers' reports of declines in the mother's relationship supportiveness in one study (Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009), perhaps a function of the added burden experienced by mothers of caring for a more fragile infant. Lastly, child gender has been found to differentially impact relationship quality in some studies (e.g., Doss et al., 2009: greater drops in satisfaction reported for mothers giving birth to daughters rather than sons) but not others (Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009: child gender was unrelated to either parent's perception of partner's emotional supportiveness).

Since a large number of factors have been shown to impact on how well couples make the transition to parenthood, it can be difficult to decide where to start when helping new or soon-to-be parents prepare for and navigate their new and changed circumstances. In some cases, specific issues may be identified that affect, or have the potential to affect, the safety of the child or a parent, in which case prompt assistance from relevant professionals should be sought. The following section briefly outlines a framework that provides a systematic way for practitioners to identify possible information and intervention needs of new or soon-to-be parents.

Some methodological considerations

Methodological differences contribute to the seemingly contradictory findings from studies of the transition to parenthood (Doss et al., 2009). Research into the transition to parenthood has been criticised for several common methodological issues, including:

  • the use of small samples of generally homogeneous, middle-class, married, educated, heterosexual Caucasian couples in the USA;
  • the use of cross-sectional designs, which have limited capacity to isolate the effect of having children on the transition to parenthood; and
  • the collection of information during pregnancy when relationship satisfaction may be artificially inflated by the heightened togetherness of being pregnant (although these findings are inconsistent, refer Lawrence et al., 2008).

These design issues limit the generalisability of findings to broader populations. However, findings of significant relationships between the transition to parenthood and a wide range of factors highlight the need for practitioners to help couples examine several areas of their relationship that might be affected by the arrival of their child.