So the transition from just the two of you into a family is a big one! I know when we were wondering about starting a family it was really challenging to try to think through all the things one should be aware of. Well, we want to take away some of the mystery today and help you make an informed, prepared decision so that you can move into this new phase of marriage with greater confidence and awareness of what lays ahead.
It’s Common Not to Feel Ready
Actually, less than half (44%) of couples expecting their first child feel ready for parenthood. And then once the child is born, the number who feel totally prepared and confident drops to 18%[i]. Meaning that lots of the couples were wrong when they thought they were ready!
To me, this is kind of like me getting on a roller coaster. I feel a lot of uncertainty and then as we go up the hill of pregnancy it gets scarier and scarier and then you have the baby and it’s like, “Woah, this is way scarier than I thought!” But that’s just me — I wasn’t a huge baby or kid person before we got married and so really felt like I was figuring that whole thing out from scratch.
I think it’s good to mention this just so that we normalize the fact that most of us feel unprepared but we still end up doing just fine. Maybe there are others listening today and they feel ready and that’s great too. So we are not here to scare anyone off but just to come alongside you and say that it’s normal to have some butterflies and encourage you through this part of your journey.
There are a number of things to consider and I think it’s important to talk through these with your spouse and just connect at that deeper level as you talk about your fears, uncertainties, and doubts. That will strengthen your bond as you come to this new phase of life.
Common Challenges When Babies Arrive
No doubt about it: having kids is tough. Almost all couples with newborn babies experience challenges such as[ii]:
- Sleep deprivation
- Dealing with the child’s feeding, crying and sleeping difficulties
- Reduced time for yourself and for other responsibilities
- Reduced ability to leave the house and see other people (especially for the mother)
- Financial costs around new clothes, feeding, setting up the baby’s room, etc.
Additionally, a significant minority of parents (20%) have to deal with more severe sleep or feeding difficulties which can put even more strain on them. In some parents, this leads to high levels of stress and reduced mental health. Around 22% of new parents show some symptoms of depression and 15% show symptoms of anxiety[iii]. Again, we’re not trying to worry you here. Just be aware that if you’re finding the transition to parenthood difficult, you definitely aren’t alone.
How Babies Impact Life and Marital Satisfaction
So let’s look at how parenthood impacts your marriage and your life overall. Research typically finds that day to day life satisfaction is reduced in the first years of parenting, due to having more demands, less free time, etc[iv]. Marital satisfaction can also decrease, due to having less time together, higher stress levels, and reduced sex[v]. So there is a real impact on marriage and we unpacked this in more detail back in episode 51.
However, don’t let this discourage you from moving forward with starting a family! Overall life-satisfaction is almost always increased by becoming a parent: the pleasure and meaning you take from raising kids increases your satisfaction, sense of purpose and feeling of unity with your spouse.
So new parents should expect a short-term drop in their day-to-day quality of life/marriage. But the long-term rewards of parenting normally outweigh the difficulties[vi].
Are You Ready for a Role Change?
Part of transitioning into parenthood then becomes about making sure you are mentally prepared for changes in your roles in life. Where in the past you may have been able to pay a lot of attention to being a career man or woman, or really focus on being a great husband or wife, you are now going to be adding another role: parent.
Creating Your Village
We often hear the expression, it takes a village to raise a child. This has become especially import in today’s increasingly disconnected world. So we have a super helpful worksheet accompanying this episode that will help you and your spouse outline your vision and plan for creating this village. It’s just asking those key questions: who do you need around you to make this as successful a transition as possible? And then planning your steps toward that. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
You know, some of the role changes may come as a surprise to new parents, especially fathers. While new mothers may be expecting the child to take over most of their life and time, many new fathers are unprepared for parts of their new role, even if they attend prenatal classes to prepare them for the practical details of parenting. Common issues include[vii] (from May & Fletcher, 2011):
- Changes in relationship with the wife: becoming her primary source of support as she deals with childcare, and not knowing how to support her
- Changes in relationships with family and friends: less contact with friends, or only being able to socialize with the wife and baby present too, which changes the kinds of things you can be involved in.
- The developing relationship with the child: as he/she gets older
Knowing about these challenges allows you to begin to make space in your mind and heart for adapting to these changes and facing this with a more willing and prepared heart.
How Are You Doing With Conflict?
It’s also good to have a quick self-check on conflict as a couple.
If you guys are currently experiencing high levels of conflict you should know that this can have serious negative effects on children unless it is dealt with. Conflict between the parents can create insecure attachments in the child, leading the child to feel emotionally unsafe in their home and with their family.
This can negatively impact the parent-child relationship into adolescence and later life, and is also linked to distress, behavior problems and mental illness in the child[viii]. So we just want to be cautious here, especially around the idea that having kids may help us get our minds off the conflict.
Some level of conflict after having kids is unavoidable and will not impact the child’s development. But serious conflict issues can have a long-lasting impact on the child. Research also shows that it is much harder to deal with marital conflict issues after having children, due to the added stress of parenting and the change in focus away from solely being a couple, towards being a family[ix]. This means that couples wanting children should try to solve any serious marital conflicts beforehand, as well as learning skills to manage conflict more effectively.
What About Your Village?
We unpack this with you in more detail in today’s bonus content. Becoming a new parent will probably reduce the time you have available to see other people. However, trying to maintain a strong social network is important since being connected to friends and family can really help with the transition to parenthood. A study in 2017[x] identified many benefits of social support from family and friends for new parents, including:
- Increased feelings of calm and security about becoming a parent
- Increased practical understanding of childbirth and parenting duties, through sharing of experience
- Practical help such as help with childcare, babysitting or helping with other practical needs
Having a strong social network also leads to a stronger relationship with your spouse: increasing your sense of togetherness and ability to deal with stress together[xi]. So having a strong relationship with friends and family, and a way to stay in touch with them once the baby is born is another thing to think about before having kids. Again, more on this in bonus guide.
Are You Ready For Children?
Here’s a final two points to think about. A research study from 2011[xii] interviewed 104 expectant women and their husbands. They found two factors which were strongly linked to good parenting, higher levels of marital happiness and better mental health in the transition to parenthood. These were:
- Taking joint responsibility for the pregnancy and for parenting
- How good you expect to be at parenting.
The first point means that in order to be good parents, you both need to take responsibility for parenting: whether or not the pregnancy was planned. Further, make that mind shift deliberately: treat parenting as something you are both equally invested in. I think this is important and if I had to do it over again I would change this myself. I feel like at the start I really had the idea that this was Verlynda’s job and I think I missed a lot of opportunities to be involved and experience our babies because I just had that mindset that was off centre from where it should have been.
The second point is also really interesting: how good do you expect to be at parenting? Verlynda and I have learned this too, along with helping other couples and young moms especially. Trust yourself to know what your baby needs: more so than what any book says or even what your mother in law is saying. You have that special bond with your child: follow your gut and trust your intuition.
These researchers discovered that if couples feel like they are ready to be good parents, normally this means that they will be. I think this just comes down to preparing yourself mentally as well: with the attitude that we will figure this out, we will do our best, and we have enough common sense to either know what needs to be done or to figure out what needs doing.
[i] Mandy Mihelic, Alina Morawska, and Ania Filus, “Preparing Parents for Parenthood: Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial of a Preventative Parenting Intervention for Expectant Parents,” BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 18, no. 1 (July 28, 2018): 311, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-018-1939-2.
[ii] Mihelic, Morawska, and Filus.
[iii] Mihelic, Morawska, and Filus.
[iv] DEBRA UMBERSON and WALTER R. GOVE, “Parenthood and Psychological Well-Being: Theory, Measurement, and Stage in the Family Life Course,” Journal of Family Issues 10, no. 4 (December 1, 1989): 440–62, https://doi.org/10.1177/019251389010004002.
[v] Chris May and Richard Fletcher, “Preparing Fathers for the Transition to Parenthood: Recommendations for the Content of Antenatal Education,” Midwifery 29, no. 5 (May 1, 2013): 474–78, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2012.03.005.
[vi] UMBERSON and GOVE, “Parenthood and Psychological Well-Being.”
[vii] May and Fletcher, “Preparing Fathers for the Transition to Parenthood.”
[viii] Patrick T. Davies and E. Mark Cummings, “Marital Conflict and Child Adjustment: An Emotional Security Hypothesis.,” Psychological Bulletin 116, no. 3 (1994): 387.
[ix] Mihelic, Morawska, and Filus, “Preparing Parents for Parenthood.”
[x] Caroline Bäckström et al., “‘It Makes You Feel like You Are Not Alone’: Expectant First-Time Mothers’ Experiences of Social Support within the Social Network, When Preparing for Childbirth and Parenting,” Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare 12 (June 1, 2017): 51–57, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.srhc.2017.02.007.
[xi] Bäckström et al.
[xii] Susanne N. Biehle and Kristin D. Mickelson, “Preparing for Parenthood: How Feelings of Responsibility and Efficacy Impact Expectant Parents,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 28, no. 5 (August 1, 2011): 668–83, https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407510385493.