Becoming a Father: Marital Perceptions and Behaviors of Fathers during Pregnancy
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Expectant and new fathers' perceptions, shaped by both past life experiences and personality development, influence their marital relationships and coping behaviors during pregnancy and following the birth of a baby. Trends in the transition to fatherhood literature are reviewed in this article, and a study of 87 primiparous and multiparous expectant fathers is reported. Measures of mens' psychosocial levels, perspective-taking abilities, empathy, and perceived marital quality were significant predictors of fathers' problem behaviors. First-time fathers differed significantly from fathers with other children, irrespective of the timing of pregnancy, on measures of perspective taking, empathy, and marital quality. New fathers' perceptions of their transition to parenthood are presented as qualitative data, and the usefulness of a social-cognitive framework is discussed. Implications for family life educators, family therapists, and family researchers are suggested.
Key Words: transition to parenthood, fathers, pregnancy, perspective taking, empathy, marital quality
Libby Balter Blume, Ph. D., is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, Michigan, 48219-0900. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fatherhood in the U.S. is undergoing a period of rapid change (Gerson, 1997; LaRossa, 1997). As fatherhood increasingly becomes a focus for the behavioral sciences (e.g., Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997; Marsiglio, 1993), attention has turned not only to men's parenting involvement but also to the experience of becoming a father. Research on new fathers has addressed such diverse themes as men's intrapsychic dynamics (Gurwitt, 1989); paternal roles (Lamb, 1997; Parke, 1996); marital relationships (Belsky & Rovine, 1990; Cowan & Cowan, 1992; LaRossa & LaRossa, 1981); perceptions of the family of origin (Lane & Wilcoxon, 1989); individual personality characteristics (Hawkins & Belsky, 1989); and gender differences (Cowan, Cowan, & Kerig, 1993). The transition to fatherhood has been viewed either as a time of more or less effective coping, as an opportunity for personal growth, or as a significant period in the marital relationship.
Fatherhood as Crisis
A primary research theme concerning men's experiences during pregnancy has emphasized fathers' positive and negative coping behavior. The research literature includes reports of pathological symptomatology, psychiatric records, and clinical case studies (Freeman, 1951; Wainwright, 1966). Wives' pregnancies have been linked to men's psychosomatic symptoms (Clinton, 1987; Cox, Connor, & Kendell, 1982), homosexual activity (Bieber & Bieber, 1978) and sexually deviant behavior (Hartman & Nicolay, 1966). Pregnancy has also been associated with fathers' increases in outside activities, extramarital affairs, and job changes (Colman & Colman, 1971; Gurwitt, 1989; Zalk, 1980). Expectant fathers reportedly suffer increased incidence of alcohol and drug use (Bittman & Zalk, 1978) and are increasingly likely to physically assault the pregnant partner (Gelles, 1975).
This literature reflects a controversial view of the transition to parenthood as a crisis. LeMasters (1957) suggested that parenthood is so romanticized in our culture that adjusting to "reality," as well as learning new roles, catches most individuals unprepared and creates a crisis. Comparing the transition to parenthood with other role transitions, Rossi (1968) concluded that the transition to becoming a parent is more difficult for a number of reasons: a) It is not always a voluntary decision—particularly for males; b) The termination of a pregnancy is not socially accepted—particularly for married couples; c) The status of parenthood is irrevocable: One can have ex-spouses and ex-jobs, but not ex-children); d) Men have little or no preparation for becoming a father; and e) There is no gradual taking on of responsibility but rather there is immediate 24-hour duty with no guidelines.
Contemporary fathers are faced with a confusing set of expectations. Earlier generations viewed the infant and young child as mother's responsibility and expected the father to provide economically, and many people continue to view roles in such a traditional manner. Other people—possibly including the expectant mother—expect the new father to be an egalitarian participant in all aspects of child rearing.
Fatherhood as Growth
A second research tradition has emphasized the extent to which parenthood contributes to emotional growth and maturity. For example, Volling and Belsky (1991) theorized about the contribution of parenthood in increasing concern for the feelings of others. Similarly, several authors (e.g. Hawkins & Dollahite, 1996; Pruett, 1989) have credited fatherhood with furthering the development of nurturance and caring in men.
The notion of an individual's responsiveness to the experiences of another—or empathy—has been discussed by social scientists for many years (Davis, 1983). In an investigation of expectant couples, Scott-Heyes (1982) found that men's attitudes toward pregnancy and childbirth were associated with their reactions to the perinatal period; attitudes not only affected their emotional well-being during the pregnancy but were also communicated to their wives through their responsiveness. A man's extreme lack of empathy for his pregnant spouse, her dependency and helplessness, as well as his own unmet dependency, also may reflect his potential of becoming an abusive or absent father to his infant (Steele, 1982).
Perspective taking—as opposed to the broader concept of empathy—is the ability to put oneself in another person's place. Individuals who are able to take into account the viewpoint of another may be viewed more positively and be perceived as showing a greater concern for the needs, interests, and desires of others. Gender differences in the experience of pregnancy and parenthood may place heavy demands on perspective taking abilities if a couple are to effectively support each other's experiences. The anticipated arrival of a child often challenges a couple's existing agreements on values, priorities, loyalties, and activities. Researchers (e.g., Grossman, 1987) have documented the father's tendency to seek emotional distance and independent activities at a time when mothers are becoming less autonomous and more involved in intimate relationships.
An individual's psychosocial development further influences his adaptation to becoming a father. Erikson's (1950) model of lifespan development identified central concerns that arise during different stages of adolescence and adulthood. Some authors (e.g., Garrison, Blalock, Zarski, & Merritt, 1997) have suggested that the experience of parenthood might be different, depending on the parent's stage in the lifespan. The timing of a pregnancy, then, may evoke changes in the new father's sense of identity, intimacy in relationships, and generativity. For example, Snarey (1993) found that generativity contributed to effectiveness in both parenting and marital interactions in a multigenerational study of fathers.
Benedek (1970) also adopted a multigenerational perspective, suggesting that the unfolding of interpersonal relationships from generation to generation—parent to child— influences individual personality development as well as shapes the types of relationships that one will establish with children. Achieving autonomy through differentiation within the family of origin is considered important in achieving true intimacy (Bowen, 1978). Researchers have found that the quality of family of origin experiences—as well as current relationships with parents and in-laws—are reflected in the transition to parenthood for both men and women (Feldman, 1987; Lane, Wilcoxon, & Cecil, 1988). Shaped by his parents' attitudes and other life experiences, a man's attitudes toward pregnancy and fatherhood has an impact on how he reacts emotionally, on his views of himself as an adult and a father, and on his relationship with his pregnant partner (Scott-Heyes, 1982).
Fatherhood and Marital Quality
A third body of literature has focused on changes in marital satisfaction prior to and following birth (e.g., Cowan & Cowan, 1993; Wallace & Gotlib, 1990). Nearly all research has shown negative, although modest, changes in the marital relationship across the transition to parenthood (Belsky & Rovine, 1990). Measurement of these changes has involved a variety of indicators that show a decline in positive, and an increase in negative, thoughts and feelings regarding the marital relationship with the birth of the first child and to a lesser extent with later births (Feldman, 1987; McHale & Huston, 1985). Belsky and Rovine (1990), however, challenged these research findings and suggested a need to understand the admixture of couples' positive and negative changes in satisfaction.
Because prospective parents have different expectations and perceptions of pregnancy, the transition to parenthood holds the potential for drawing couples apart. A couple's handling of the transition to parenthood is greatly affected by the quality of their pre-conception relationship, satisfaction with their roles, ability to communicate expectations, and their willingness to share tasks (Cowan & Cowan, 1987; Cowan, Cowan, & Kerig, 1993; Grossman, 1987; Wright, Henggeler, & Craig, 1986). The wider the disparity between partners' expectations, the more conflict and the rougher the transition (Cowan et al., 1985; Feldman & Nash, 1984). When spouses are perceived to be understanding (i.e., taking their partner's perspectives into account), marital adjustment is increased for both husbands and wives (Long & Andrews, 1990).
Finally, the "plannedness" of the pregnancy has an impact on the couple's adjustment during the transition to parenthood. Feldman (1987) noted that an unplanned pregnancy was the largest single contributor to strain at parenthood—particularly for men. The input of both partners in the decision whether or not to become parents—and when—is important to the adjustment of both men and women in making the transition to parenthood.
A Study of Expectant Fathers
A variety of individual and relationship factors have been shown to influence the new father's adjustment to parenthood (Antonucci & Mikus, 1988). The period immediately following the birth of a first child marks a new phase in adulthood and is a time of role transition and life change for most men; however, the prenatal period is an often-overlooked phase of fatherhood—perhaps since the father's experience of pregnancy is less obvious than the mother's (Jordan, 1990). His visible role in the pregnancy may consist primarily of providing emotional and physical support for the mother as he attempts to redefine himself and to anticipate the further changes that will follow birth. The experience of pregnancy is likely to be especially salient for the first-time father, who may have no previous parenting involvement and few realistic expectations for the future.
We gathered information about expectant fathers as part of a larger study that assessed the perceptions and experiences of primiparous and multiparous expectant couples. The study sample was recruited from private obstetric/gynecological practices and community- or hospital-sponsored childbirth preparation classes. Subjects were 87 expectant couples in the eighth month of a healthy pregnancy: 49 primiparous and 38 multiparous couples, ranging in age from 20 to 45 years (mean age of men = 31.5; mean age of women = 30.1). The majority of the couples were married, Caucasian, and had diverse income and education levels.
Subjects were asked to complete individual-level self-report instruments including the Self and Other Dyadic Perspective-Taking Scales (Long, 1990); two scales of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index measuring emotional empathy (Davis, 1980); the Modified Psychosocial Stage Inventory (Darling-Fisher & Kline Leidy, 1988); and a Problem Behavior Index developed by the first author. Family-level self-report measures included the Family of Origin Scale (Hovestadt, Anderson, Piercy, Cochran, & Fine, 1985) and the Four-Factor Scale of Intimate Relations (Braiker & Kelley, 1979). Respondents were also asked to describe their pregnancy and new parenthood experiences in their own words. Results for fathers are reported below; data on expectant mothers are reported elsewhere (Curtis, 1995).
As predicted, the perceptions of primiparous and multiparous expectant fathers were significantly different, irrespective of the timing of pregnancy (operationalized as father's age) Wilks F(7, 78) = 3.51, p < .01. The first-time fathers in this study rated their wives' level of perspective taking significantly higher than did expectant fathers with older children, F(1, 84) = 5.56, p < .05. Primiparous fathers also rated their marital relationships more favorably than did their multiparous counterparts, with significantly higher ratings of the positive aspects, F(1, 84) = 9.24, p < .01, and lower ratings of perceived negative aspects of marital quality, F(1, 84) = 3.98, p < .05.
Expectant fathers who rated themselves lower on measures of psychosocial level, perspective-taking ability, and empathy were expected to demonstrate less effective coping; as anticipated, these men were viewed by their wives as exhibiting more problem behaviors, F(1, 78) = 8.45, p < .01. Similarly, as anticipated, these men rated their marital relationships more negatively than higher-scoring men, Wilks F(3, 76) = 4.01, p < .01. These differences based on personal characteristics were found in both the first-time fathers and those with older children. There was no evidence of a hypothesized connection between fathers' coping and either family of origin characteristics or marital satisfaction.
FOLLOW-UP OF NEW FATHERS
A follow-up study of the first-time parents was designed to explore changes occurring after the birth of the baby. Thirty percent of the primiparous couples (N = 14) responded to a follow-up questionnaire mailed one month postpartum. The mean age of the men (30.6 years) and women (28.6 years) in this subsample was consistent with the overall sample of first-time parents. With the exception of the Family of Origin Scale, all measures from Time 1 were used at Time 2.
Despite the hypothesized impact of the birth of their first child, individual scores on all father measures showed no significant differences from Time 1. However, when data from Time 1 and Time 2 were examined together, husbands' negative perceptions of the quality of the marital relationship at Time 1 and their perceptions of their partner's perspective-taking ability at Time 2 combined to significantly predict husbands' problem behaviors following the birth of the baby, R2 = .79, p < .001.
The findings from our study conformed in many ways with the transition to parenthood literature. When rating their partner's perspective-taking ability and their own positive perceptions of the quality of the marital relationship, primiparous fathers rated their partners and their relationships higher than multiparous fathers—as expected. However, despite the possible growth-promoting effects of parenthood, the multiparous fathers in this sample did not perceive themselves as any more empathic; nor did they perceive themselves any better at seeking or understanding their partner's position.
The findings of this study suggest an important link between cognitions and behavior and support earlier investigations in which the attitudes of expectant fathers were associated with behavior, treatment of their partner, and their experience of the pregnancy as well as their partners' experience (e.g., Scott-Heyes, 1982). In the follow-up study there were two significant predictors of fathers' perceived problem behaviors following the birth of a child: the father's prenatal perception of the negative quality of the marital relationship and his postbirth perception of his partner's ability to put herself in his place. The importance of his perception of his spouse's perspective taking following the birth may reflect his reaction to a shift in her attention from her husband (prenatally) to the baby.
In both studies, fathers' negative perceptions of the quality of their marital relationships were strong predictors of husbands' problem behaviors. Further, it was the father's negative perceptions of the quality of the marital relationship during pregnancy that was predictive of the father's problem behavior at one month post-partum. The degree to which he perceived anger, resentment, and ambivalence and expressed negative affect about the relationship before the baby's birth strongly predicted the rating of his problem behaviors following the birth. In the follow-up, the husband's perception of how well his partner perceived and understood his point of view was also predictive of his problem behaviors. Given that previous research has established a relationship between perceived perspective taking of one's partner and positive perceptions of the marital relationship (Long & Andrews, 1990), it is not surprising that these variables together would predict the level of husbands' problem behaviors.
Perceptions of Fatherhood
A social-cognitive theoretical framework is useful in interpreting the powerful impact of couples' perceptions of themselves, their partners, and their relationship on husbands' problem behavior during pregnancy. Although perceptions are susceptible to distortion, it is one's beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that directly influence behavior. How individuals subjectively perceive and interpret their experience and interactions with others, for example, is an essential element in understanding behavior. When provided an opportunity to share in their own words their experience of their wives' pregnancies, the birth of their infant, as well as those months following the birth, the fathers in this study were very willing to share their reactions:
While some new fathers were surprised at the intensity of their feelings for their infant, "We're in love," "I really enjoy, and so ask to do, the diapering," others felt less sure: "I feel an overwhelming responsibility," "She's taken over preparing the bottles." These new fathers also described their reactions to changes in their marriages: "I feel left out;" "She's more demanding and harder to please," "She's less nurturant of me and more of the baby." In putting their experience into words, some of the fathers denied any changes within themselves while others felt they were the one most changed by the experience: "The biggest change had been in me because I feel more anxious and aggravated all the time," "I'm more caring," "More willing to share my feelings," "My priorities are different." Although their comments and experiences varied, a common theme rising from their words was their general feeling that no one had truly prepared them for the adjustment to fatherhood. For example, one father wrote, "No one ever told us...it's a lot harder than I ever imagined." Another wrote, "I felt and feel helpless...the overall experience is the most challenging event I have gone through...the developmental advances are welcomed because it means the child is growing and that less total dependence on the parent becomes relief."
Implications for Practitioners
The results of this study have important clinical implications for marital and family therapists, family life educators, and health professionals who work with expectant couples. Reported differences in perceived marital quality between primiparous and multiparous fathers are important in understanding the experience of pregnancy and the transition to parenthood. A decline in positive perceptions of the quality of the marital relationship is a critical piece of information for clinicians and educators working with men who are expecting or have recently had children. Although this finding has been noted for decades, many professionals working with expectant couples still devote their time and energy to the sole purpose of informing the expectant parents about childbirth. Childbirth educators often focus single-mindedly on preparing the expectant couple for the labor and delivery of the infant. With the exception of a list of items to have at home when the baby arrives and instructions to the mother to sleep when the baby sleeps, there is little preparation for the new mother and father on what to expect after the baby arrives home.
Parent education and support programs designed specifically for fathers have recently been suggested (McBride & Darragh, 1995). Given that the experience of becoming a parent is idealized and romanticized, professionals working with expectant fathers need to guide them in forming more realistic expectations (Palm & Palkowitz, 1988). Beyond the physical changes, couples are not given ample information regarding the changes that may occur in their relationship or within themselves (Meyer, 1993). The singular most common response to open-ended questions in our follow-up study—for new fathers and mothers alike—was their feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for the changes that parenthood brings.
Furthermore, the profound impact of the wives' and husbands' negative perceptions of the quality of their marital relationship on the level of problem behaviors reported by both the men themselves and their wives is notable. The degree to which couples expressed negative affect, feelings of ambivalence, anger, resentment, confusion, and disagreement directly impacted the problem behaviors both observed in men by their wives and reported by the men themselves. Although clinicians long have been aware of "subjective realities," the direct relationship between negative perceptions of the marital relationship and problem behaviors in these expectant and new fathers has immediate implications for clinical work with couples.
One may surmise that just as expectant fathers' attitudes and feelings about the pregnancy are communicated to mothers through their behaviors and treatment of their wives, so too are expectant mothers' cognitions and emotions transmitted to husbands. Future investigations that combine individual, dyadic, and family levels of analysis will enable theorists, researchers, and clinicians alike to gain a deeper understanding of the impact on men's experiences of pregnancy and the transition to fatherhood.
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