Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology and the director of the Children and Parents Lab at the Ohio State University. Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, and the National Council on Family Relations, and a member of the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. Her research focuses on coparenting and father-child relationships. Her website can be found here.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan regarding her recent publication The Best and Worst of Times: Predictors of New Fathers’ Parenting Satisfaction and Stress. The data used in this research come from a longitudinal study, the New Parents Project (NPP), which was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Ohio State’s Institute for Population Research. The study included 182 dual-earner different-gender couples who were expecting their first child and followed these fathers (and mothers) across their transition to parenthood.
MP: Much of your research includes fathers. Why it is important to include fathers in parenting research?
SS: Ideals about fathers as parents have changed and fathers’ involvement in parenting has increased. Many more men today want to be more involved in parenting than their fathers or grandfathers were. There is also a greater expectation that fathers will be more actively involved in parenting. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to only focus on mothers in parenting research when we have fathers that are spending more time with children and are more invested in building close relationships with them.
MP: One of the key findings in your study was that new fathers—especially those less confident in their romantic relationships—were more satisfied in parenting when mothers used more gate opening behavior. You define maternal gate opening as encouragement by mothers regarding the partner’s parenting. How might mothers exhibit gate opening behaviors?
SS: Gate opening can include proactive behaviors, such as saying, “hey, why don’t you take the baby for the afternoon”. This actively facilitates the father’s involvement. However, more reactive behaviors can also be encouraging, such as positive reinforcement—telling the father he did a good job after changing the baby’s diaper or giving the baby a bath. Mothers can also say things like “wow, the baby really enjoys being with you”. Praising the father to other important people, like grandparents and neighbors, while the father is within earshot can also boost fathers’ confidence.
MP: Even as men become more involved in parenting, mothers are still devoting more time to parenting and related responsibilities. In asking new mothers to increase their gate opening behaviors, are we placing yet another burden on mothers?
SS: Yes, this comes up a lot. In the consideration of maternal gatekeeping, it is important that we don’t place too much of a burden on new mothers and suggest that it is their responsibility to encourage fathers to be more involved. Mothers should never need to take responsibility for getting a father who is not interested or motivated, or who has attributes that result in less desirable parenting behaviors, to be involved in parenting. On the other hand, for many families it is critical for both parents to positively reinforce each other, especially in those very early weeks and months of parenthood. It is important to recognize when your partner, regardless of whether they’re a mother or a father, is doing a good job. I would place more emphasis on positive reinforcement rather than that mothers need to be nagging or pulling unwilling, uninterested dads to be involved, because that isn’t going to be good for the child or family.
MP: How might new parents work together and recognize each other’s anxieties in order to assist each other in the transition to parenthood?
SS: It is a really good idea for expectant couples and new parents to have frequent conversations and check-ins regarding how they are doing and feeling. Often couples may participate in childbirth education classes or go to a hospital to learn how to properly install a car seat. Those things are very important, but they don’t necessarily take the place of facing the emotional and relationship changes that are also happening. So having those conversations are important both before the child is born and afterwards too. A quick “how are you doing?” or “can I help you in any way?” can be useful and help bridge disconnection that can happen when you are focused on your baby and can hardly find time to take a shower.
MP: Your findings suggest that expectant fathers who are more confident in parenting adjust better to parenthood. Do these findings apply to families welcoming a second or third child?
SS: Fathers who already have experience with infants might have an advantage. It is often true that women have had more experience with infants and young children than men have had before becoming parents themselves. So, men who have actively cared for a first child may adjust better to parenting subsequent children.
MP: The results of this paper are from a study of dual-earner, high socioeconomic status families headed by mothers and fathers. Are your findings applicable to other types of families, such as same-sex parent families, or families from different socioeconomic backgrounds?
SS: Looking at most of the findings, they are not terribly specific to fathers only, or only new fathers who are partnered with new mothers. For example, we found that expectant fathers who were more anxious were at risk of experiencing elevated stress postpartum. I really think that would apply to parents in many different circumstances. The finding that entering into parenthood with greater parenting confidence predicts less parenting stress and greater satisfaction would also likely hold across different populations of expectant and new parents. There is also evidence that gatekeeping occurs in same-sex couples too. Therefore, many of the factors that we examined—anxiety, parenting cofidence, gatekeeping—may be fairly universal influences on adjustment to parenthood.
Madeline is a recent graduate from the Ohio State University and will be beginning her studies in Developmental Psychology at the University of Missouri’s graduate school this fall.