Cries ring out in the delivery room. For months and months, two anxious parents have awaited the birth of their child. Married just a couple of years before, they were elated to find out that Karen was due just before Christmas. The grandparents excitedly pace just down the hallway, hoping at any moment to hear the news that their first grandbaby is born. In the delivery room, the two new parents stare in awe as their baby girl, Stella, is placed in her mother’s arms for the first time. Dark, wispy hair clings to her wrinkled scalp, and her hazel eyes stare back at them, reminding them that their life has been forever blessed, and changed. As the news reaches the waiting room, and other family members make their way to the hospital, great joy is found. Their baby girl has arrived.
For months prior to the delivery, Stella’s mother sensed that much was changing from within. As a civil engineer, she had prided herself on her ability to recognize and remember large amounts of information. But during her pregnancy, even basic information such as dates and memory for upcoming events seemed to elude her. She is not alone. As detailed in the article entitled, “Priming for a New Role” (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/09/pregnancy.aspx), increasing research with humans and animals has indicated that the maternal brain undergoes fundamental, and often significant changes during the pregnancy and postpartum periods, seemingly in preparation for the role of a lifetime, that of being a mother. It appears that changes in hormonal suppression and even anatomical features in the brain, likely in interaction with increased stress associated with the impending birth, results in a number of changes that affect working memory and thinking processes. This is not surprising given that hormone levels rise a 1,000 times or more of their normal level during the third trimester, and then plummet around birth. But after a child is born, it appears that cognitive and memory abilities are restored in a way that is beneficial for women for the rest of their lives.
Theories abound regarding the function of these changes. Are they designed to alter emotional functioning to prepare for the demands of motherhood or to increase the protective instinct needed to take care of their helpless infant? Or both, or more? Regardless of what the findings are, it is clear that becoming a mother is a life-altering event of epic proportions just as entering fatherhood changes things forever. From the moment of delivery, there are few things, if anything, more amazing than that of a conscientious mother. The selflessness required to feed and care for a young child, and the instinctiveness through which it often occurs, despite undoubted challenges, is rather awe-inspiring. Caring for babies requires constant attention and is an illustration of self-giving love that spans cultures, continents, and centuries.
As motherhood evolves, though, something else must too, in order for families to thrive, and at times, even survive. The relationship of the parents must remain central. Whereas before the link between the couple superseded all, suddenly the presence of a young child often vies for a similar status. Given the significant role that a new mother possesses, and the responsibility for a child that depends on her as much as anyone could, many women profess that it is often difficult to integrate their life, and their marriage, within this role. They become understandably absorbed in the care of their child, at times to the detriment of their own health, and of the relationship to their spouse. For some, their anxiety increases, and they find that their thoughts are consumed with that of their child’s well-being. Where previously they thought much about work and their spouse and their friends, now they find themselves connected to their child in a manner that can make it difficult to connect to others as they did before. It all seems very reasonable, as the dependency of their child and the love they feel for their baby (unlike any other love they have felt before), blends to shift their focus away from other matters. Along the way, though, and often unknowingly, their role as a connected spouse seems to diminish. This paradoxically occurs even as their commitment to the relationship remains strong, often even more robust given their hope that the child will have a great family life.
Meanwhile, as the shift of motherhood occurs, many fathers may find themselves in a new domain. Shrouded in love for their spouse and child, they begin to sense that their marital relationship has been forever altered. Although fathers may find this difficult to articulate, they perceive changes in their wives. Some men describe increased anxiety with decreased spontaneity. Others note that the obvious demands of motherhood lead to increased fatigue and a tendency to disengage from activities previously enjoyed. Although men may describe these changes in different ways, many note, in moments of complete honesty, that they have taken “second fiddle” to the newly arrived child. Although interspersed with selfish underpinnings and childish comparisons, many men no doubt feel a sense of loss that comes in the subtle, yet significant shift in their marriage. At times, the alliance between spouses seems to transfer to one between mother and child; the man, no matter how it may be interpreted, feels jealously demoted.
For some couples, these relationships changes eventually resolve as the both individuals become more comfortable, and more communicative in their own roles. For some, these issues never really surface in the way described. But for many, the advent of a new child, and more children to come, further imbeds, or even widens an emerging valley between the two parents. When this occurs, men often sense that while much of their pleasure previously was derived from the intimate connection with their mate, this is no longer possible in the same way.
This becomes a critical, critical juncture for so many marriages, as two primary pathways present themselves. At the time, men often sense, and are socialized, that the easier route is to avoid being honest albeit in an understanding, compassionate way. The fear of a confrontation, of potentially (many) uncomfortable conversations, of extended conflict, simply leads to long-term avoidance and a resignation that the intimacy which once existed is now a thing of the past. At this point, the marriage fundamentally changes, sometimes forever. Consequently, men begin to carve out time elsewhere, seeking enjoyment, spontaneity, and even intimacy in other places. Meanwhile, as this shift progresses, women may reflexively respond by becoming even more engrossed in their children. This can collectively lead to a multitude of potentially negative outcomes, some of which render the relationship static, others which lead to dual lives crossing each other daily or less, and even those outcomes which end the relationship itself.
Whatever happens, like most of the moments of our lives, it often occurs without clear consciousness that it is happening at all, until one day it is obvious just how much things have changed. What started as moments of pure love and joy can turn to moments of sorrow and despair without any intention of doing so. But it does not have to be this way, if couples themselves remain keen to the inherent pitfalls, and the values they must share to prosper. Expressed by many researchers of marriage and family, the strongest predictor of positive outcomes in children remains the strength of the relationship between their parents. Easily lost in those moments of early motherhood, and easily dismissed in the new demands of new fatherhood, is the intense need for the spousal relationship to remain central.
It is easily understandable how the communication and intimacy of prior years may be shelved due to the intensity of the current ones with kids. But in foregoing the basic bonds that brought the couple together, and assuming dual roles that undermine a fundamental connection that all future parenting should be built upon, it behooves the man and woman to not allow changes that interfere with their relationship to become patterns, and eventually habitual practices. Strange as it may sound, when the role of parenthood supersedes that of being a spouse for the long-term, then parenthood itself changes form forever into a way that research suggests creates many added risks not just for the couple, but for the child. Could it be that the best gift we can give to our children is that of knowing and showing that the most important date celebrated in the home is the one on which their parents said “I do”, then and again and again?