Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Challenges and Joys of First-Time Parenthood

Damien W. Riggs, Clare Bartholomaeus

Why do people have children? How do their hopes about first-time parenthood match up with or differ from the reality of parenthood? And what does it mean to be part of a group of people for whom having children is treated as axiomatic? These are the questions we sought to answer in our new book First-Time Parenting Journeys: Expectations and Realities.

In speaking with the members of nine Australian heterosexual couples over the span of five years, we were fortunate to learn a lot about their lives. From a total of 72 interviews across four time points we learned about people’s experiences of growing up in a world where so many people expected (or insisted) that one day they would become parents. We learned how the couples navigated the decision to try to conceive, and the significant challenges that some of the couples faced in conceiving. And when we spoke to some of their own parents, we learned about their journeys through new parenthood, and how this shaped their expectations about becoming grandparents.

To frame our work we utilised Sara Ahmed’s work on feelings, in which she suggests that feelings provide a way by which institutional forces ‘get under our skin’. We were particularly interested in exploring how pronatalism (the expectation that people reproduce), norms about motherhood and fatherhood (and in particular gendered expectations), and morals around being a good parent are internalised by people who were often otherwise critical about social norms.

What we were told by the people we spoke to was that parenthood for heterosexual couples is often so normalised that people struggle to know why they are having children, other than as a cultural mandate. Certainly, some people spoke of a deeply felt desire to have children, and others spoke more of children as a familial duty. But whatever the reasons that people elaborated for wanting to have children, their desires, reasonings, and decision were often largely out of step with the reality of new parenthood they later experienced.

People shared with us deeply personal accounts of challenges in conceiving, experiences of pregnancy loss, distressing stories about childbirth, and challenging experiences of new parenthood. These were key stories that we heard in the interviews we undertook during pregnancy and six-months after the birth.

By the time of the fourth and final interview, however, undertaken 18-months after the birth, for many of the people we spoke to things had turned a corner. Many were now enjoying being parents, and indeed actually felt like parents (which wasn’t the case for many at first). Many felt they had entered into a new phase of their couple relationship, having worked through the relational challenges that new parenthood presented. Some had decided not to have any more children, some had already had a second child or were pregnant a second time, and some were still yet undecided.

What we learned was that pronatalism and the naturalisation of parenthood for heterosexual couples leaves many such couples unprepared for the often harsh reality of new parenthood. The types of honest conversations that many people wish they had had before deciding to have a child were typically absent. In addition, the types of conversations we had with them about their conception, birth, and early parenting experiences were ones they had often not had the opportunity to reflect on with other people, sometimes not even their partner.

First-Time Parenting Journeys: Expectations and Realities thus tells the story of what it means to be part of a norm (i.e., heterosexual coupledom), and how membership of that norm can obscure one’s choices, where parenthood becomes less of a choice and more of a mandate. In a world where parenthood is increasingly surrounded by a proliferation of choices (e.g., where to birth, how to birth, what to feed, how to manage crying), it would seem that what needs our attention is the very choice of parenthood itself. To treat parenthood as a mandate for heterosexual couples is to ignore the many factors that shape the reality of new parenthood.

Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

First-Time Parenting Journeys by Damien W. Riggs and Clare Bartholomaeus

Title: First-Time Parenting Journeys

ISBN: 9781316513989

Author: Damien W. Riggs and Clare Bartholomaeus

About The Authors

Damien W. Riggs

Damien W. Riggs is a Professor of Psychology at Flinders University, Australia. He is also a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and a psychotherapist who specialises in...

View profile >

Clare Bartholomaeus

Clare Bartholomaeus is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Flinders University, Australia. Her previous books include Home and Away: Mothers and Babies in Institutional Spaces (with Kath...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!