How a new father feels about his changing relationship with his partner may depend in part on how much support he feels from her when he is caring for their baby, according to a new study published in the journal Family Process.
Researchers from Ohio State University found that a first-time dad tends to feel closer to the mother both as a co-parent and as a romantic partner when he believes he has her confidence when he is taking care of the baby.
“Fathers are more involved than they have ever been in parenting, but moms are still seen in our society as the expert caregivers,” said Anna Olsavsky, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in human sciences at The Ohio State University.
“So how mothers react to their partners’ parenting matters a lot. It affects how new dads feel about their whole family situation, including his relationship with his wife or partner.”
This study, which involved 182 relatively affluent, highly educated dual-earner couples, is one of a few to focus on the transition to parenthood from the perspective of fathers, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, study co-author and professor of psychology at Ohio State. “It’s still rare to examine the father’s view on family processes.”
The researchers used data from the New Parents Project, a long-term study co-led by Schoppe-Sullivan that is investigating how dual-earner couples adjust to becoming parents for the first time. The couples were assessed four times: when the mother was in her third trimester of pregnancy and when the baby was 3, 6 and 9 months old.
When the baby was 3 months old, fathers answered questions about what researchers call “maternal gatekeeping,” or how much the mother inhibits or welcomes the father’s involvement in child care.
Fathers reported how much they felt their partner “opened” or “closed” the gate on them when it came to interacting with the baby.
For example, each dad reported on gate-closing behaviors, such as how often his partner took over baby-related tasks because she thought he wasn’t doing them properly or how often she gave him irritated looks about his caretaking.
Examples of gate opening include encouraging the father to help bathe the baby or mom expressing her appreciation for his parenting help.
When the baby was 6 months old, the new dads were asked about their co-parenting closeness with their partner. For example, they rated how much they felt they were “growing and maturing together through experiences as parents.”
Finally, when the baby was 9 months old, the fathers rated how good they felt about their romantic relationship with their partner.
The findings reveal that whether the mother “opened” or “closed” the gate on the father had a significant impact on how he felt about their relationship as a couple.
“If mothers are critical and less supportive of their partners’ parenting, it could have ramifications for the whole family dynamic,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
“Fathers may not only do less child care, they may have more negative views on their relationship with their wife or partner.”
But the flip side was also true: Gate opening had a positive effect on how the new dad viewed their relationship.
“There has been some work suggesting that gate opening may be viewed by fathers negatively as demands for them to be more involved in child rearing, but that’s not what we found,” Olsavsky said. “Gate opening was perceived positively by fathers. They felt it improved their relationship as a couple.”
The researchers emphasized that it is important for both new parents to support each other, but because of societal norms, fathers may need extra support.
“There is this underlying assumption that mothers are the experts when it comes to parenting. And they have more sources of support in society when it comes to how to be a good parent,” Olsavsky said. “But fathers don’t generally get that support from society. The only support they often get as parents is from their partner. That’s why it is so important.”
Source: Ohio State University