Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Arrival Of First Child Brings Challenges

May 1, 2000

What is your image of first time parents - a glowing and fulfilled mother, a proud father, a contented baby and the closeness of a newly formed family? That’s the ideal. However, like any major change, parenthood brings its own set of unique challenges.

Facing the grown-up world. Younger parents who are 19 to 24 years old have to give up their adolescence, their freedom and autonomy, their romantic notions of early marriage and adjust to the demands to parenting. With the birth, couples are transformed into parents. Marriage becomes a family. This brings a new level of commitment to their marital union. The marital partners must adapt and grow to make room for the new member of a family system.

Hopefully, new parents are mature in their personality development, clear about their values and goals. They need to be selfless enough to meet the needs of a child as well as to continue to meet the needs of their spouse. Ideally they have already been through an orderly transition from independent, dynamic individuals into being interdependent, loving marriage partners. Time needs to be set aside for the couple to nourish their relationship apart from the new compelling parenting role.

The new baby brings with him or her new stress, round-the-clock caregiving, loss of sleep, disruption of former routine or work, and less time for marital interactions. Not all babies are happy and contented. Temperaments vary. Difficult or fussy babies with less predictable biological rhythms push new parents to the limit in terms of patience, energy levels and sacrifice.

The new mother. How does a new mother feel about diminished opportunities for career, education and life experiences? Does she welcome and embrace motherhood or is she resentful of what she is giving up and missing? Does she have enough emotional energy and focus to continue to meet her spouse’s needs, nourish the marriage as well as devote herself to her newborn?

The new father. How does the new father feel about pitching in and assuming new childcare and household responsibilities? How understanding is he? How supportive is he in giving emotional and physical help to his wife or to understand her need for time alone? Does his rigidity about traditional roles get in the way of his genuine help?

How needy is he? Will he feel abandoned by his wife as she turns her attention to their new child? Can he give up being dependent and child-like and shift roles to meet the needs of the new mother? Or will he increase her burden by his demands, sense of abandonment and perceived deprivation?

A husband’s emotional responsiveness during pregnancy and infancy is crucial at a time when his wife is needy, vulnerable and dependent. If there is a time when she is looking for nurturing, this is it. A father’s bond with his baby develops through opportunities when he is fully in charge and has an opportunity to give of himself.

Communication. For "later" mothers - ages 28 to 34 with established lifestyles - the readiness for the baby isn’t the challenge. More than likely, these mothers have looked forward with great anticipation and high expectations to their new baby. Despite all the planning, a new baby requires major roles changes into already established lifestyles for both parents. The challenge is to integrate motherhood and fatherhood into adult lives.

The demands of the new baby test their ability to communicate and resolve differences. The chief problem in this case is the amount of marital disagreements that crop up about the new responsibilities. Marital conflict takes a heavy toll on their satisfaction.

A husband’s understanding and response to household and childcare demands are important factors. The new father also has to incorporate the new demands into his life. Despite previous attempts to take on non-traditional roles in marriage, the addition of a new baby brings out true attitudes about traditional and non-traditional roles.

Dealing with parents. The birth of a baby represents the coming together of two families. Not only do marriage partners become parents, but their parents become grandparents. The birth brings parents and adult children back into same orbit. New boundaries have to be worked out.

The challenge new parents face is how to facilitate the grandparent role and intergenerational support but not disturb the integrity of the family unit. How do they access comforting support but maintain primary control? The new couple assumes "real" adulthood as they step into their parents shoes. They have to assume a grown-up role with own parents.

How well have they resolved the separation from their parents in the first place? Are they still hooked into emotional entanglements with their own parents? Have they successfully transferred their loyalties to their spouse outside of the family orbit? Do they have an accepting attitude about each other’s parents?

If these boundaries haven’t been clearly established prior to the birth of the new baby, it will even be more complicated now with the increased needs for family support and involvement. If the new grandparents are needy themselves or are intrusive or controlling, the new couple is burdened with trying to meet their needs along with the needs of the baby and each other.

The delight. When all these challenges have been met, the marital bond becomes even stronger and better. When both parents have a love affair with the new baby, their own bond deepens as they share their delight and support. Attachment develops through love and service to the baby - and to each other.