Becoming a parent – impact on identity and close relationships

Most people talked about how becoming a parent brought about profound changes in their personal lives and relationships. They spoke about the challenging transition from being a couple, to being pregnant and then having a child. Becoming a parent also prompted people to reflect on how they saw themselves compared with before parenthood, and brought changes to relationships with other family members and friends.

Few parents expected the intense pressures that their relationships came under following a new baby. Nellie, a mother of two, said: ‘ …lots of women I know say their partners are really hopeless in that first three or four months and there’s a point around three months where I know about six people who have said, “I just want to leave him”‘. Several parents echoed Melanie who said having a baby ‘highlighted weaknesses’ in her relationship with her partner. Parents in this situation found early parenthood a difficult and tension-filled period.

The transition to parenthood was a difficult experience for Beth and her partner. She had heard about courses for expecting parents, but was not convinced these would be helpful.

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Most couples described renegotiating their relationships and, after some initial adjustments, found that things improved. Time needed for these adjustments varied for different couples, from a few months to close to a year, or longer.

Tina, a migrant mother from Iran, said it took her and her husband a year and a half to work out their relationship after having her daughter in Australia.

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A number of parents experienced their relationship breaking down in this period, which was very distressing.

Loretta whose relationship broke down after having children said parenthood ‘held a mirror to what was there before, just I couldn’t see it’.

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Most couples spent a lot of energy trying to adapt to life with a new baby who had ‘changed everything’. Finding time for themselves, as individuals and as a couple, and trying to pursue lifestyle activities they had enjoyed before they became parents was not easy.

Parenting pushed some people further apart in certain ways, but brought some couples closer in lots of other ways. Lara, who was in a same-sex relationship, said co-parenting her child with her partner put a significant strain on their relationship: ‘it’s very difficult for the non-biological parent – the non-birthing parent – to understand just how taxing pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding is on the body and on the energy levels’.

Although life had become ‘stressful’ since having his son, Luke said it had strengthened his relationship with his partner Alice.

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Most people were committed to working through the challenges parenthood had brought. For a few, becoming a parent was a life and relationship-altering experience. Some felt they did not know their partners anymore. Others felt that they didn’t ‘seem to exist much anymore without the children’ because of a lack of time together without the children.

Kate felt parenthood had changed her and her husband a lot and they didn’t ‘know each other as well any more’.

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Some participants, both fathers and mothers, felt excluded in the early days of parenthood. Andrew said he felt in an ‘awkward relationship’ with his former wife after they became parents as he was not ‘allowed to voice an opinion on how to be a parent… I was overridden on everything’. Beth and Tina did not welcome their partners’ close involvement with or interest in their newborn babies, Beth because she felt excluded from her relationship with her baby, and Tina because she felt ‘neglected’ by her husband.

Many new mothers talked about a sense of loss of closeness, intimacy and spontaneity with their partners brought about by new parenthood. Michelle said that with her son becoming the focus she and her husband would often ‘forget about each other’ and struggled with feeling they were ‘not husband and wife anymore, just parents…’.

Most parents talked about new relationships evolving over time following new parenthood. Most believed it was essential to talk, stay connected, and work on a new, changed relationship. Jane, a mother of twins, said: ‘You just have to deal with it one day at a time and keep trying – just being nice to each other seems to be a romantic case at the moment. It’s really hard. We were together a long time before they were born. And I can’t see that changing but we’re being really tested’.

Alice was determined to maintain her relationship and advocated for young parents in particular the need to talk though their problems to avoid separation.

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New parenthood also affected people’s sense of self. Nellie felt that while both parents experienced changes in their identity after having a baby, this change came sooner to mothers because of an early sense of attachment to the baby during pregnancy. Her observation that early parenting ‘totally challenges your ideas around autonomy and independence’ was made by many parents.

Josie talked about how her ‘identity’ had changed since becoming a mother, and the challenges and joys associated with this.

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Fred reflected on the parts of his character he felt parenthood had brought into the open – both good and bad.

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Becoming parents for most people meant accepting that children are a lifelong commitment. Most shifted their focus from themselves to their child, their newly formed family, and other family relationships. Many felt this made them a ‘better person’, although said the adjustment could take time and was sometimes ‘jolting’. Michelle’s comment resonated with the views expressed by many other new parents when she said: ‘…that’s just about being a parent …it’s a lifetime commitment, so it takes a while to get used to it, I think, and to be comfortable with it.’

Although becoming a parent had made Simon less ‘selfish’, he said the change had been ‘felt more greatly’ because he was a little older. He advised other men not to wait too long.

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Becoming a parent for Cecilia meant the breakdown of her relationship, but she also gained a new sense of ‘gravity and reality’ and desire for more closeness with her family.

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Parents also talked about the impact of parenthood on their wider relationships, including with other family members and friends. Several women felt it brought them closer to their own mothers or parents.

Kirsty said becoming a parent strengthened her relationship with her mother and partner, and ‘brought out the best’ in her parents.

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Since becoming a parent Sila had become more aware of the ties connecting him to his parents and his own children.

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A few parents also commented on how becoming a parent impacted on pre-existing friendships or how they were prompted to seek out new kinds of friends. Some people felt once they became parents, relating to friends without children became more difficult, while others found these friendships remained important. After her relationship broke down, Loretta said: ‘the people who are able to support which I still find are the people without children. So the friends who will come around and be the most interactive with me and with the kids are the ones who don’t have kids to look after themselves’.

A few who had difficult experiences such as miscarriage or perinatal depression often felt that they became better friends, including Chelsea who said after experiencing postnatal depression: ‘I know now that I’m much more open and I think I’m even maybe a better listener. I’m more mindful of what my other mother girlfriends could be feeling and thinking. I’m definitely more of a support, because I know now what help is needed, and that people don’t necessarily ask. And sometimes you just have to say, “Right, I’m coming over. I’m going to bath your child while you look after the other one”‘.

Anna said that motherhood had led her to develop a ‘richer’ and ‘more authentic’ network of friends.

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See also:

* Social support in early parenthood
* Approaches to parenting