Expectations of parenthood

Most of the parents described what early parenthood was like for them compared with their expectations before they had children. Both men and women talked about their expectations and experience of the changes to their lives following parenthood; their expectations about and experience of babies and of themselves as parents; and of the impact of early parenthood on their relationships with their partners.

The expectation that life with a new baby would not be very different from life before children was mentioned by many parents. Several talked about having become parents with ‘no idea’ about what it would be like. Others did not realise early parenthood was going to involve such ‘massive’ change or be so ‘all-consuming’, several describing their experience as a ‘shock’. Chelsea, a mother of one, recalled expecting her son would ‘slot into’ their lives, only to discover that ‘no, we would slot into his’.

Elly thought becoming a parent would restrict social life only ‘a little bit’, but this was very different from her experience.

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A number of parents attributed their feelings of having been unprepared for parenthood to lack of experience with children, especially babies. Some were among the first of their friends to become parents, or came from small families.

Fred had less experience with children than his wife had before they became parents.

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Others anticipated major change but were still surprised by the impact or nature of the change. Deb, a mother of two, echoed several parents when she said that being told that parenthood would be ‘the hardest but the best thing you’ll ever do’ was true, yet still didn’t convey how difficult it was.

Lara expected ‘drastic’ change and was unprepared for several aspects of her experience as a new parent, particularly around lack of family support.

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When parenthood was more difficult than anticipated, parents struggled to come to terms with this. A few parents talked about feeling self-doubt, a sense of failure, as though they had ‘lost’ parts of themselves, or that they were not suited to parenthood. Andrew, a full-time homemaker, said he was a ‘black and white kind of person’ before having children and had to learn to ‘let go a bit’.

Susanne struggled to reconcile her expectations of parenthood with the reality and how she felt about it.

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Some parents did feel well prepared, as a result of past experience or growing up in big families. Kahli thought that having an older child helped her to prepare for parenting twins, and it was what she expected ‘plus more’. Rose, a mother of two, described parenthood as not presenting any ‘surprises’.

Matthew came from a large family and had experience working with babies so felt prepared for parenthood, but found it more ‘relentless’ than he had imagined.

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Parents also talked about what they imagined their babies would be like, and how they managed when the reality was different. Sara L anticipated that her son would mostly sleep but in reality, he had silent reflux and was very difficult to settle which she found hard: ‘There was a bit of anger, like I couldn’t have a cup of tea when I wanted, because the minute I had a cup of tea the baby would cry, baby would want something’. A number of women described feeling pressure to have placid, quiet babies or were reluctant to take their babies out when they were unsettled.

Kirsty reflected on social expectations of ‘normal’ baby behaviour and the impact these could have on new parents.

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Several mothers and fathers described having set ‘high expectations’ of themselves as parents, and felt not being able to meet these made their adjustment to early parenthood more difficult. Expectations that men and women had before becoming parents included maintaining a clean and tidy house, being a ‘perfect mum’, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or focussing their lives on their children. Elly was one of several women who found breastfeeding challenging but persisted because she was worried she would be judged as a ‘terrible mother’ if she fed her baby formula. Melanie, a mother of one, regretted having tried to do ‘everything perfectly’.

Kate was surprised to find parenthood ‘boring’ and said setting herself high expectations of motherhood made her experience more difficult .

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Sarah M realised her expectations of herself as a parent had been shaped by her mother, and she needed to find her own way.

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While a few women and men found that becoming a parent positively influenced their relationship with their partner, many said it put their relationship under strain, at least temporarily. A few parents talked about having not expected a baby to put pressure on their relationship or said they had expected quite the opposite effect. Tina, an immigrant mother from Iran, thought that having a baby would bring her closer to her partner but found that instead it created greater distance between them within the first year.

Josie did not expect the conflict that emerged between her and her husband after he returned to work after parental leave.

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Joanne’s relationship with her partner was very equal when their son was a baby, but she was surprised to find it become more unequal when she started studying.

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For most mothers and fathers, the intense strain of early parenthood was temporary. A few had reservations if parenthood had been the right decision, but over time, many parents adapted to their new lives and identities, and their relationships recovered. Kirsty, a mother of one, summed this up: ‘This fog of not sleeping, arguing, crying, wondering what had happened to my life and why I’d ever had a baby … it gradually got better. She started sleeping better, and I guess we just sort of found our way’.

See also the topic summaries under ‘Relationships’.