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Becoming Parents


It's been said that you can't really understand the change in your life that having children will mean until after you've actually become parents-that the magnitude of the change cannot be adequately conveyed through description. Even good changes can be very challenging. For most people, this is the biggest transition of their adult life. There are rewards commensurate with the challenges.


Most people, though, are blindsided by the magnitude of the challenge. Naturally, they think mainly of the many positive aspects of being a parent. They plan some approaches to parenting, but they quickly find that their preparations are overwhelmed by the new realities of their lives. They don't understand the toll that exhaustion and sleep deprivation can take on their resiliency, emotional state and relationship. The most important preparation you can make is to have realistic expectations. But to survive and thrive, your preparations will have to go far beyond this.


The transition to becoming parents is one of the greatest risks your marriage will encounter. For women especially, marital satisfaction plummets when children enter the picture. Current social norms tend to put women in a barely tenable or untenable position. Research shows that regardless of what advance plans and promises couples make or what their past task-sharing arrangements have been, the burdens of childcare and housework fall primarily on mothers once children are born. And women find that the many social supports for these roles that may have existed in previous generations have disappeared. Couples find themselves backsliding toward 'traditional' marriage roles, whether they desire such roles or not.


Ironically, many men who have become excited by childbirth and parenting classes and want to be active fathers, feel excluded from the mother-baby dyad. Many women, especially during the period when children are babies, have a tendency to push their partner to a more peripheral role. They embrace the maternal role with all its rewards. This tendency can set the pattern for more highly differentiated parenting roles than might be desired.


So what can you do about this somewhat discouraging picture? Here's what has worked for other parents, according to research on children and marriage:


The number one factor in a successful transition to parenting (as with so much else about marriage) is that everything to do with your kids must be a team effort. Regardless of how you decide to divide tasks, team decision-making and commitment to your joint efforts is the key. No off-loading responsibility for this project--even if you've decided that a particular area or task will be handled by one partner.


The initial period of your marriage - after your wedding and before you begin actively trying to become pregnant - is a special time to enhance and fortify your relationship for the challenges of parenthood. This is the time to build up the couple bond and emotional reserves that you will draw upon for years to come. Be sure to allow adequate time (at least a year) for this bonding phase of your marriage. Consider taking some extra time before trying to begin having children unless there are critical age-related or other considerations.


After this bonding period, advance careful planning of detailed strategic and tactical approaches to the tasks, roles, issues and problems of parenting is critical. Not that most things will go according to plan-regardless of how comprehensive and careful your plan, it will soon be obsolete. But you'll have a foundation. (Attempting to merge the bonding and planning periods can disrupt bonding.) An ideal plan will have the following characteristics and include:


The plan must be deep and detailed, not superficial and global.


Don't leave anything until the last minute. There will always be unanticipated distractions, problems, sleep deprivation, etc., to interfere with late plans and preparations.


Be clear and detailed about role responsibilities. Not just who will earn what portion of income and who will do what portion of childcare and chores. Who specifically will do the dishes, change the diapers, take kids to the doctor, deal with the childcare person, buy groceries, etc., in as much detail as you can stomach.


Build support networks for parenting. Use relatives, friends, professionals, hired help. Seek out ways to connect with people you don't know yet through childbirth and parenting classes, support groups, etc. The female partner needs special, extra supports.


Mobilize your creativity. Think outside the box. Go beyond your previous expectations and modes of operation.


Seek out both inspiration and practical ideas. Do research. Read about parenting strategies and tactics, but also talk to friends and acquaintances that are parents of young children.


Discuss how you plan to approach the impact of pregnancy and childbearing on your sex life. Talk about how you will accommodate times when intercourse becomes difficult or uncomfortable. This is a problem issue for many couples.


Unless you select a traditional parenting style, plan to become and stay a joint parenting team. This doesn't mean doing everything together, but it means resisting the pressures to divide responsibilities to an extent that one of you no longer feels very involved in some of the areas for which your partner has become responsible. Don't blame your partner when disruptions occur in 'their' area of responsibility. Even if you choose traditional, differentiated roles, it's very important to maintain a strong sense of mutuality with respect to your overall relationship, including having children. Maintain ultimate shared responsibility. Stay together on planning and decision-making.


Finally, but most importantly, plan to protect your marital relationship as a couple. Plan time without the children, without parenting responsibilities, and without discussing these, to have fun and romance together.


A couple of additional points:


The most significant trap for couples is the danger of allowing their parent role to supercede the primacy of their spouse role. Although you will always have children, you should get your emotional support from and live out your life beyond your child rearing years with your partner.


So, plan to plan carefully. You can't do it all at once. You'll need to have repeated planning sessions to make even partially adequate preparations for parenthood.


Your first task is to choose a basic approach to your parenting roles. There are three basic models for sharing parenting roles:


Egalitarian - Both parents share equally (50-50) in childcare and domestic tasks. Both parents may or may not reduce work schedules to accommodate their parent roles.


Traditional or reverse traditional (Mr. Mom) - One partner is the primary stay-at-home parent (either mother or father). The secondary parent helps the primary parent in agreed upon ways with childcare and domestic tasks.


Modified traditional - One partner has primary responsibility for childcare and domestic tasks and reduces work schedule to accommodate their parent role. The secondary parent helps the primary parent in agreed upon ways with childcare and domestic tasks to a greater degree than in the traditional model.


Finally, sometimes for a variety of reasons it can be difficult or impossible for couples to have biological children. This problem can be very stressful for marriages. Consider what strategies you expect to employ in these circumstances.



References and Further Reading


Bradley G. Richardson, Daddy Smarts: A Guide for Rookie Fathers.

Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.


Nina Barrett, I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Comfort, Support and Advice for New Moms from More than 60 Real-Life Mothers.

Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.


Daniel Stern, MD, and Nadia Brushweiler-Stern, MD, The Birth of a Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever.

Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.


Anne Seamans and Cathy Winks, The Mother's Guide to Sex: Enjoying Your Sexuality Through All Stages of Motherhood.

Sorry, out of print - Try your library.


Betty Carter, M.S.W. and Joan Peters, Love, Honor & Negotiate: Building Partnerships that Last a Lifetime (Carter, a family therapist who founded the Family Institute of Westchester, NY, exposes issues of power and equality in marital relationships and the detrimental effect of imbalance. Her solutions may be more radical than many couples will choose, but her description of unhappy couples who start out with egalitarian ideals and "backslide" into traditional marriage roles after children is particularly noteworthy.)

Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.


Arlie Russell Hochschild, Ph.D. The Second Shift (A landmark book about the dynamics of dual career households based on research by a sociologist. She concludes that, despite great societal changes in the United States allowing women more choices in life, women are still responsible for the majority of household chores and child care and that this has profound implications for marital happiness for both men & women.)

Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.


Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D. and Philip Cowan, Ph.D., When Parents Become Partners: The Big Life Change for Couples (Results of a landmark ten year study by researchers at the University of California - Berkeley. It describes the gap between expectations and reality about parenthood in illuminating detail and a call for couples to prepare realistically for the challenges.)

Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.



MST pre-marriage preparation seminars are designed to help couples build the skills and understanding that they will need to succeed in marriage, including help to overcome all of the issues that challenge couples in modern marriage. MST is religion-neutral and based on the latest marriage research.


Don't wait for problems to emerge, take preventive action to promote the happiness and success of your marriage.


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Copyright 2003, Patricia S. & Gregory A. Kuhlman. You may copy this article for non-commercial use provided that no changes are made and this copyright notice, author credit and source citation are included.




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