Parenthood And Adult Psychological Developments Research Paper

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Extensive debate since the 1950s on the question of whether and how becoming a parent alters one’s life has led to three different but not mutually exclusive answers: In terms of individual and marital functioning, the transition to parenthood produces (a) primarily negative changes, (b) few significant negative or positive changes, and (c) an impetus toward psychological development. We conclude that there is truth in all three alternatives.

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1. Framing The Questions: 1950–80

Erik Erikson (1959) claimed that people inevitably experience a period of disequilibrium, crisis, and intrapsychic conflict when faced with new and difficult developmental tasks. Crises are necessary for developmental growth. If they are not resolved, fixations, regressions, and other forms of psychological dysfunction may result. Thus, normative life transitions represent both danger and opportunity.

LeMasters (1957) interviewed 57 married couples who had become parents in the previous five years. He came to what was then a startling conclusion: 83 percent of the couples had experienced an extensive or severe marital crisis within the first year after giving birth. In response, Hobbs and his colleagues conducted a series of studies (e.g., Hobbs and Cole 1976: 728) and argued that ‘initiating parenthood may be slightly difficult, but not sufficiently difficult to warrant calling it a crisis.’

There were four main problems with virtually all studies of the transition to parenthood in the 1960s and 1970s: (a) They contained little description of what actually happens as partners became parents; (b) crisis was always described in negative terms and measured in arbitrary and inadequate ways; (c) couples not having babies were not included as a comparison group; (d) all the studies were retrospective and failed to measure change by following couples from before to after they had become parents.

2. Becoming A Family As A Major Life Transition: Research From 1980s To 2000

2.1 What Happens To Men, Women, And Marriage As Partners Become Parents?

Longitudinal prospective studies designed to assess the impact of becoming parents emerged in the 1980s. Studies by Belsky and his colleagues (e.g., Belsky et al. 1989) were guided by multidomain models of the family as a system (see also Heinicke 1984). Consistency over time and change in average level of function were examined in five family domains: each parent’s (a) self-concept and sense of well-being; (b) quality of relationship with their parents; (c) quality of relationship with the baby; (d) marital quality; and (e) balance of life stress and social support. Although some measures of adult functioning and life stress remain stable from late pregnancy through the first year or two of parenthood, various studies find both quantitative and qualitative change in each of these five family domains.

New parents take on new identities and experience shifts in their self-perceptions and their role in the world. Whether or not old intrapsychic conflicts reemerge, new parents find themselves renegotiating relationships with their parents. And now, two new family relationships take center stage—between mother and child and father and child. Friendship networks and work arrangements change for both men and women. There is consistent evidence of significant qualitative and quantitative changes in the marriages of heterosexual couples. (Longitudinal studies of gay and lesbian couples making the transition to parenthood have yet to be published.) The division of family labor becomes more traditional, with women doing more housework than they had before, and far more of the care of the children than either partner expected. Levels of marital conflict increase over time, especially about ‘who does what?’ (Cowan and Cowan 2000). Not surprisingly, then, satisfaction with marriage declines over the early childrearing years.

2.2 Is Becoming A Parent A Major Life Transition?

We describe transitions as longterm processes that result in a qualitative reorganization of both inner life and external behavior. A major life transition involves a qualitative shift from the inside looking out (how individuals understand and feel about themselves and the world) and from the outside looking in (reorganization of the individual’s or family’s personal competence, role arrangements, and relationships with significant others). Because systematic longitudinal studies find both quantitative and qualitative shifts in partners’ sense of self and relationships—within the family and with friends and co-workers—we have no hesitation in concluding that becoming a family constitutes a major life transition.

3. Does The Transition To Parenthood Elevate The Risk For Individual Or Marital Distress?

3.1 Negative Change Over Time

Is the disequilibration experienced by couples becoming parents accompanied by increased levels of individual and marital distress? The evidence supports a qualified affirmative answer. For example, women are at increased risk for depression during the transition to parenthood (e.g., Campbell et al. 1992). Approximately 10 percent of women develop clinical depression serious enough to interfere with their daily functioning in the postpartum period. There are no epidemiological data documenting the incidence of postpartum depression or other psychological distress for new fathers.

Of more than 20 longitudinal studies conducted in various parts of the USA, Germany, the UK, and Israel, only three failed to find a statistically significant decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of a first child. In two of the three studies, the couples having babies had married recently, and none of the three included first-time parents in long-term marriages. While our own study included a control group of couples not having a baby and found smaller amounts of negative change in the no-baby couples over two years, after five years the childless couples had a much higher divorce rate. Thus, in the short run, the childless couples were doing well, but over time their relationships were vulnerable, often to issues concerning whether and when to have children. Although simply adding up studies with findings supporting one side or another has drawbacks, we feel relatively assured in concluding that there is a statistically significant risk that many marriages will suffer increases in conflict and declines in satisfaction in the early years of parenthood.

It is important to note that (a) these studies report group trends, (b) not all couples show a decline in marital satisfaction (about 20 percent do not), and (c) the average decline over the first year or two of parenthood is quite small. Nevertheless, because marital satisfaction tends to decline further over time, even small increases in marital conflict or dissatisfaction during the family-making period may be important markers of potential family distress.

3.2 Consistency Over Time

Despite significant shifts in average level of functioning from before to after the birth of a first child in the five domains of family life assessed in studies cited here, there is remarkable consistency over time in rank order of well-being or distress in new parents. A baby’s arrival is unlikely to destroy well-functioning marriages or generate closer, more satisfying relationships between already troubled partners. The high level of cross-time consistency means that even if the transition to parenthood does not elevate the risk of marital distress, when men, women, and marriage are not doing well before the baby is born, they are likely to be distressed in the early family-making years. In terms of prevention planning, these findings indicate that it is possible to identify individuals and couples who are at heightened risk for later distress and dysfunctional behavior patterns on the basis of assessments made before their babies are born.

3.3 Single Parents

Surprisingly, the transition to parenthood has not been well studied in samples described as high risk by virtue of single parenthood, poverty, or neighborhood violence. Although preventive interventions have been offered to single mothers by home visitors (cf. Olds et al. 1998), the conception of what is needed in these interventions does not take into account that many of the high risk factors operate as additional or amplifying risks, over and above those generally associated with becoming a parent.

4. Can The Transition To Parenthood Promote Adult Development?

Given some of the negative changes and marital distress reported following the birth of a first child, it may seem surprising to ask whether becoming a parent can promote adult development. We suggest, as Erikson (1959) argued, that it is precisely this kind of stress that ultimately can lead to positive developmental change. Development in adulthood has sometimes been defined as passing normative family life milestones (e.g., entrance to adulthood, courtship, marriage, family making) or entering new developmental stages. However, there are neither invariant milestones that precede parenthood nor a convincing body of theory or research to suggest that there are hierarchically integrated stage-like organizations of cognition, personality, and relationships associated with becoming a family.

Elsewhere we have advanced an alternative view (P. Cowan 1988). At the beginning of the 1960s, Allport’s functional theory of personality (1961) provided a description of maturity as a general criterion of personality development in terms of six characteristics: (a) extension of the sense of self; (b) warmth in relating to others; (c) emotional security self-acceptance; (d) realistic perceptions and skills; (e) self-insight and humor; and (f) the establishment of a unifying philosophy of life. Change in the direction of maturity occurs when a person’s level of functioning can be described as having become more differentiated, integrated, and adaptive.

We are not aware of systematic longitudinal studies of parenthood as a developmental phase or stage from any of the theoretical perspectives outlined here. Anecdotal evidence from participants in our studies of several hundred couples suggests that babies do stimulate shifts in their parents in the direction of increased maturity (see P. Cowan 1988). Most new parents describe complex changes in their identities. Others describe their relationships with their baby as having ‘opened them up’ to deep feelings that challenge them to become more effective problem solvers. We do not know yet whether these shifts occur together in the same person, or which factors lead some new parents to become more mature.

5. Implications For Intervention

We have been disappointed to find that few service providers and researchers have created and systematically evaluated interventions for expectant parents designed to (a) reduce or prevent the negative outcomes associated with this major life transition, and (b) increase parents’ ability to maintain strong and productive family relationships. Early on, Shereshefsky and Yarrow (1973) provided individual counseling for some expectant mothers. Clulow (1982) conducted monthly meetings for expectant couples, but not in a controlled study with a no-intervention comparison group. Our own intervention (Cowan and Cowan 1999) based on random assignment to a no-intervention comparison or to groups of couples meeting weekly with mental health professionals for three months prepartum and three months postpartum had initially promising results. It staved off declines in marital satisfaction from 6 to 66 months postpartum, and all intervention couples remained in intact marriages until their children were three, while 15 percent of the no-treatment controls had separated or divorced. Because of increasing evidence that marital function plays an important role in shaping parent–child relationships and affecting children’s early development (Cummings and Davies 1994), we believe that preventive interventions for partners becoming parents have the potential to promote more positive trajectories of adult development and family life quality.

6. Directions For Future Research

More research is needed to understand individual differences in pathways through the transition to parenthood and why some couples show increased satisfaction and adaptation while others decline. The question of whether and how the transition to parenthood produces development in adulthood is wide open for further research. Systematic studies of interventions to facilitate individual and couple functioning as partners become parents could provide important information for strengthening new families, at the same time testing hypotheses about the mechanisms involved in producing positive change during this major life transition.


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