Yes, men have a harder time than women adjusting to life as new parents. But that blanket statement covers up important differences between individual men and women—specifically how those differences affect couples making the transition to parenthood, according to a new study.
Maybe this goes without saying, but men and women respond differently when the stork comes calling, reporting different levels of satisfaction with their relationships depending on their individual childcare responsibilities. Beyond the somewhat obvious child-rearing friction, Jennifer Fillo and colleagues write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists are sort of in the dark about how men and women really feel toward one another once the babies come along. In particular, they don’t know much about how individual psychological factors like attachment avoidance—being distrustful of close relationships and avoiding relying on anyone else—interact with gender, childcare, and satisfaction in romantic entanglements.
Over 24 months, the team found that women who made relatively low contributions to childcare started feeling worse about their abilities, while men in the same boat felt slightly better.
To begin sorting that out, Fillo and her team surveyed 192 couples five times over their first two years as parents to probe issues including attachment avoidance, sense of self-efficacy in caring for their children, contributions to childcare relative to their partners, and relationship satisfaction.
Over 24 months, the team found that women who made relatively low contributions to childcare started feeling worse about their abilities, while men in the same boat felt slightly better. Among parents who said they did the bulk of the work, the sense of childcare efficacy stayed about the same, though on average women said they felt slightly better over time. In other words, the average woman felt better about her abilities when she shouldered more work, while for the average man it’s the opposite.
A more surprising and complicated pattern emerged for relationship satisfaction. Generally speaking, men were less satisfied than women, and those prone to avoiding attachment reported the steepest drops in marital bliss over time. But that’s only part of the story. Men who contributed more to childcare—and who weren’t prone to avoiding attachments—reported increased satisfaction with their romantic relationships over time, while the opposite was true for women. Meanwhile, attachment-phobic men reported the steepest declines in satisfaction over two years.
The findings “suggest that researchers need to pay more attention to men,” the researchers write—namely, what influences their adjustment at a particularly challenging moment. Men, especially those who avoid attachment, respond poorly to shouldering the childcare burden, ultimately undermining marital happiness. Interventions aimed at improving this transition should target men as much as women, “placing special focus on the unique motives, needs, and skills of highly avoidant men and the factors that could buffer them and their marriages from deleterious outcomes.”