Family Development: Couple Adjustment to a New Child

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Tasks:

1. Emotional shifts are necessary in the couple dyad and with other children due to having feelings for a new entity that may overwhelm or compete with existing emotional ties.

2. Relational shifts are necessary in that the new child disrupts status quo ways of maintaining the couple dyad and other children in the family.

3. Couples must also face the reality of a growing family instead of fantasies and expectations.

4. With first children in particular, family of origin relational patterns will come to the forefront and must be acknowledged and/or resolved.

5. Couples must also manage the family-work dilemma.

Issues:

1. Husband/partners are generally days, weeks, or months behind the mom in developing emotional bonds with a new baby and do not have the same hormonal advantages for bonding with the child (e.g., Oxytocin) as the mom does. Moms may not recognize this disparity and may not facilitate connection with the baby, expecting partners just to be on the same page.

2. Babies are very dependent during the first 6 months of life. Moms often spend so much time caring for the baby initially that they may have depleted internal resources for the rest of the family. Date night goes by the wayside and parents often divide and conquer other kids’ events or needs. What is more, previously egalitarian relationships can slip into more traditional gender roles when babies arrive, with moms doing the bulk of the childcare.

3. Parents often spend a great deal of time fantasizing about becoming parents or extending the family and these expectations are often not the reality they must face. Sometimes kids are born with some difficulty, or moms have post partum depression, or the family does not easily adjust to the change. The disappointment is often not processed openly and this can create fatigue, distrust, resentment, and/or other emotional burdens, especially if the expectations are subversively continued.

4. On top of all these issues, parents must come to terms with the models they each have, referred to as families of origin models, which are gotten from childhood experiences and passed down from one generation to the next. Most people have models that include aspects they strongly do and do not like, particularly regarding gender roles and discipline. Partners can butt heads over these values as they struggle to make a model of their own with which to raise their children. Even if couples have discussed these things prior to birthing, it can be surprising what turns out to be important to someone regarding childrearing.

5. Then there is the work-family dilemma. This refers to the fact that childrearing demands are often not compatible with work demands and compromises must be made. Unfortunately, even in the most egalitarian families, moms are the ones who make these sacrifices the majority of the time. There are 3 main contributing factors to this reality: 1) unequal house/childcare distribution in the home, 2) inflexibility in the workplace, 3) increased demand on worker in number of hours regardless of gender.

When not dealt with, the tasks and issues common to this phase of the family life cycle can lead to divorce. In fact, this is the stage of family development with the highest divorce rate. Issues lead to feelings of isolation, sexual dissatisfaction, conflict, identity loss, and unfairness among one or both partners. In addition, extended family interference and finances can add to the problem of staying together in the face of such adversity and change. 

Keys to managing the stage effectively:

1. Partners of moms need to start the bonding process as early as possible, and remind moms that that they need help to manage this process. Moms need to encourage bonding for the whole family, particularly new fathers, and involvement is KEY. Moms can engage family members by giving everyone specific tasks for the new baby that are especially for them. For example, a three year old may pat the baby to sleep and help the partner take out the trash. An added benefit is that with less to do regularly  moms may be able to encourage their libidos and renew a sense of self outside of being a caregiver. Moms with post partum depression need to seek help to manage symptoms.

2. Special care needs to be given to maintaining equality and demonstrating an interest in each person’s internal experience of the changes in the family. Moms may need to gently remind partners that caregiving is not just for moms and demonstrate what would help maintain a good balance. Recruiting help according to resources can be a great rebalancing tool, this can help keep date night going (although frequency will still be diminished in all likelihood) and help with presenting a dual front at other kids’ events. The most important thing is to keep an open dialogue (this means non-judgmental and not all about problem solving) about gender, parenting, and personal needs of all members of the family. To do this, partners may need to learn new communication and negotiation skills–a family therapist can help!

3. Make expectations clear, exposed, and realistic. This means each partner needs to spend time in introspection to understand what expectation were built and not met. It is also good to try and understand influences on expectations and fantasies, such as family of origin, religion, movies, etc., then have a discussion with your partner. Doing this can enhance the marital bond and make parenting more of a pleasant than an unpleasant surprise.

4. Partners need to explore values regularly. Not only do family values evolve with new experiences, what evolves may not match between partners. Here it is important to negotiate; partners can find this difficult because there is a sense of self involved in values talk. However, revealing the self is what can keep couples strong in spite of all the changes they may experience over time. It may increase feelings of safety to picture a partner as a port in a storm instead of as the storm.  If partners cannot turn toward each other and conflict continues to escalate, couples therapy may be in order. Importantly, DO NOT WAIT until the relationship is jeopardy to get help. A good rule of thumb is if an issue continues for 6 weeks, get some counseling.

5. The work-family dilemma is a harsh reality and couples need to explore hopes and dreams to understand what is at stake. Even childless couples make sacrifices for each other in career pursuits but this is heightened dramatically with young children in the home. Time and money are squeezed, and good, affordable childcare is one of the biggest problems families face.  Some couples have found it helpful to rotate career growth (e.g., wife goes to grad school, then husband) and/or work hours (husband works part time, wife works full time, then switch). However, the focus here needs to be on fairness and equality. If too many sacrifices are made by one partner, resentment may strangle the marriage.

An aside: sex changes after babies come! Some couples report better sex, some worse, but almost all couples will have less sex with babies around. This is mostly due to biological (e.g., women’s brains are wired differently then men’s) and social differences (e.g., disproportionate childcare chores for women) between genders.  What helps get things back on track is noncritical, loving attention to the sexual relationship, the physical changes in the mom, changes in the partner, emotional and relational changes in the dynamic between partners, and how time crunches disrupt coupling activities. Be creative and resourceful!

Sources

Guise, R. W. (2009). Study guide for the Marriage & Family Therapy national licensing examination. Boston: The Family Solutions   Institute.

Together Texas Curriculum for marital partners.

Carter, B., & McGoldrick, M. (Eds.). (2004). The Expanded Family Life Cycle : Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives (3rd ed.). Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

 

For Therapy Services: The Key Counseling of SA

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