Transition To Parenthood Essay


Outcome variables. Our outcome measures focus on the timing of and residence at first birth. The 2006 Young Adult fertility and relationship data were used to obtain young adults’ ages at the birth of their first child. Annual files were checked to establish whether young adults resided with their children at the time of birth and whether they were married or cohabiting then. Because births occurred between survey waves, residence was determined at the first wave following childbirth. Residential fathers are all young men living with their biological children around the time of birth, whether or not the mother of those children was there. Only a few mothers did not live with their children, and they were not included in this analysis. Eighty-two percent of young men had not fathered a child by the last wave, 9% were not living with their first child at birth (nonresidential), 6% were living with a cohabiting partner and their first child, 2% were living with their wife and first child, and about 1% were single residential fathers without a partner. Among young women, 71% had not yet had a child, 19% were single at the time of their first birth, 7% were living with a cohabiting partner, and 3% were married.

Family structure. The number of parental transitions tests the instability hypothesis and, for those with no transitions, the presence or absence of the biological father tests the social learning hypothesis. Because of the importance of family changes between ages 10 and 14 for whether young people become parents, and to test the social learning hypothesis, we included two additional family structure variables: whether the number of siblings in the household (most of whom are babies) increased and whether the number of siblings in the household declined. The omitted category is no observed change in the number of siblings.

Using household records in each wave, we distinguished cases in which the biological father was in the household for all years when the young adult was aged 0–14 (father always there) from those in which neither the biological father nor a stepfather was ever in the household over the 0–14 period (father never there). Those who had some transitions were distinguished based on whether they experienced one to three transitions or four or more transitions. We created family structure indicators only if the individual reported a minimum of three consecutive waves of data. Twenty young men had missing data due to this criterion. Young women’s data were complete.

Childhood background. In order to determine whether family structure effects were independent of background factors in childhood, we computed average values for family income, the education of the residential father, the mother’s work hours, the proportion of years in the South, and the proportion of years in urban areas over child observations between birth and age 14, providing a summary of early experiences. We also included indicators for Hispanic and non-Hispanic black race/ethnicity (versus non-Hispanic white and other).

The education of the spouse or partner of the mother was averaged over the years the young adult was aged 0–14. If no spouse or partner was present, the mother’s education was substituted. Similarly, the average income of the spouse or partner was obtained across all years the child was aged 0–14. These are rough summary measures of average resource levels during childhood; early exploratory work, however, found no evidence that distinguishing resources during separate periods would substantially improve the models. For the 5% of fathers who were never present, an average across all fathers’ incomes was substituted.

Employment hours, together with education, provide a reasonable control for mothers’ labor supply and potential earnings. We used average weekly work hours of the mother to indicate her contribution to the family’s economic well-being across all ages 0–14. We divided average annual maternal work hours for all years in which the young adult was aged 0–14 by 50 in order to estimate average weekly hours. Given a high correlation between mothers’ and fathers’ educational levels, it was redundant to include the mother’s education. The age of the young adult’s mother when she had her first child was directly reported by that mother and recorded in the NLSY data.

Family process variables. Data on family processes were used to test the social control hypothesis. Information was collected from children aged 10–14 in a self-administered questionnaire. If information was available for more than one year from these biannual surveys, we took the most recent data. We examined whether the family had rules, whether the child had a say in the rules, whether parents coparented, and how close the child was to his/her parents.

The NLSY asked children whether parents had rules about doing homework, telling parents where they are, watching television, and attending mixed-sex parties. Because few children had rules for attending parties (they were too young) or about television watching, we included only those about homework and informing parents about their whereabouts (2 = both, 1 = either, 0 = none). If parents had rules, the child was asked how much say he or she had in making the rule (1 = no say to 4 = a lot of say). Summing over these two rules gives a range of 2 to 8 on the scale of amount of say. Those children who had rules about both these behaviors and who had more than the median amount of say in the rules (5 or more) were said to have shared rules (the reference category). If children had rules about homework and their whereabouts but had little or no say in them (less than 5), they were in imposed rule families. No rules children were in families with no rules or only one rule.

Closeness to parents between ages 10 and 14 was measured by three items for each parent (separately for mother/biological father/stepfather): (1) How close do you feel to your parent? (1 = not very to 4 = extremely); (2) How well do you share ideas and talk about important things with that parent? (1 = not very well to 4 = extremely well); and (3) How often does your parent miss important events and activities? (1 = a lot to 3 = almost never). Reports about the residential father were used if the respondent reported on multiple fathers. The score for father involvement was calculated as the difference between the mother’s and the father’s score. Those with missing data for father closeness were assigned the lowest score (across all respondents), indicating that there was not enough of a relationship for the youth to have answered the questions; “father never present” was strongly associated with missing information related to the father.

The literature defines parenting style using the three dimensions of monitoring, autonomy, and closeness. In initial analyses, we found interactions that would not be evident if they had been included separately. Therefore, we created dummy variables that describe parenting in terms of the three dimensions. We split maternal closeness at the median into two categories, high and low. We then cross classified closeness by the rules categories (1 = no rules, 2 = imposed rules, and 3 = shared rules) into six categories of parenting style: (1) high closeness, shared rules, (2) low closeness, shared rules, (3) high closeness, imposed rules, (4) low closeness, imposed rules, (5) high closeness, no rules, and (6) low closeness, no rules. Types 1 and 2 both have rules and autonomy, but Type 1 parents are warm and Type 2 parents are not. Both 3 and 4 have rules but no say in them, differing only in the extent of warmth. Categories 5 and 6 have no rules, but one is neglectful (low warmth), and the other is permissive (high warmth).

Coparenting was assessed with responses to two questions: (1) How well do your mother and (biological/step-) father agree on rules for you? (1 = never, 2 = once in a while, 3 = fairly often, 4 = very often), and (2) Do your mother and (biological/step-) father get along well together? (1 = never, 2 = once in a while, 3 = fairly often to 4 = very often). We used the mother and resident father reports if there was a father present; if not, we used the mother and nonresidential biological father reports. The two items were summed to obtain the coparenting scale.

Adolescent and young adult behaviors. In order to determine some of the pathways through which childhood family structure might operate, we examined a set of behaviors in adolescence and young adulthood. For adolescent behaviors, we examined sexual experience, school attitudes, and delinquent behavior. Data come both from the self-administered questionnaires completed when they were aged 10–14 and from their interviews as young adults. Young adults were asked the age at which they first had sex. If the response indicated that they first had sex under age 15, a fixed time dummy variable (1, 0) was included in this set of variables; if they were age 15 or older at first sex, we included a time-varying measure in later adolescence and young adulthood. The delinquent acts scale is based on the sum of nine items asked of 10- to 14-year-olds in the self-administered questionnaire, including such items as “stayed out later than parents said,” “hurt someone bad enough to need a doctor,” “lied to parents about something important,” and “took something without paying.” Item responses ranged from 0 = never to 3 = more than twice. Children aged 10–14 also answered eight items asking about their attitudes toward school, such as “it’s easy to make friends,” “teachers help with personal problems,” and “my school work requires me to think.” Answers were coded 0–3, with 0 indicating a positive attitude and 3 indicating a negative one, for a possible range of 0 to 24. For both scales, because the child was aged 10–14, we selected the latest year in which the youth participated.

For young adult behaviors, we also created a set of variables for whether they were enrolled in school or employed each year. Young adults often combine school and work, so we created four mutually exclusive categories: working full-time (35 or more hours per week), not working full-time but enrolled in school, not enrolled but working 20–34 hours per week, and not enrolled and working less than 20 hours per week (omitted).


The analysis uses both life-table methods and multivariate discrete-time event-history analysis. The life-table analysis is based on the fertility experience of individual young men and women and used the actuarial approach. This life table was calculated for each gender and then stratified by childhood family structure within gender.

Our event-history analysis file consisted of a separate observation for each year a young person was present in the NLSY Young Adult study and had not yet fathered/borne a first child, beginning at age 14. The few cases that had a child before age 14 were omitted. Once the young adult reported fathering/bearing a child, the dependent variable became one and all subsequent years of data were deleted. Thus, young men/women have as many observations as the number of years in the survey during which they did not have a child at the beginning of the year: 14,716 person-years for men, and 14,104 person-years for women. To adjust for clustering within families and across years, we obtained robust standard errors using the software package Stata.

Analysis plan. After examining the life-table pattern of transition to fatherhood by family structure and number of transitions, we moved to a multivariate analysis of the determinants of this transition. We first analyzed the entry into parenthood for men and for women; then, using multinomial logistic regression, we examined whether the young man was living with that child at the time of birth. A third competing-risk analysis focused on whether residential mothers and residential fathers were single parents, married parents, or cohabiting parents.

The analyses were conducted with five models. Model 1 includes only the family structure variables, Model 2 adds family background controls and socioeconomic status, Model 3 adds the family process measures, Model 4 adds adolescent behavior, and Model 5 adds young adult behavior in the prior year. In our analyses, we tested for gender interactions, and in the discussion of the results, we report significant differences where appropriate.

Kelly's husband Sahil is open about the new feelings he's having as a dad. "Winnie [short for Winter] is a curious, cheerful little person, and watching him develop and experience the world for the first time brings me endless amusement and joy. With Winnie, I've found new depths of love--it feels like a very biologically driven emotion."

While he is drinking in the sweet elixir of his baby, Sahil is also running his feelings through the thought circuitries. "Besides being afraid of the regular things--injury, illness, and such--I am also sad that his innocence will inevitably be eroded over time, and that he will inevitably experience all the various pains involved in growing into an adult."

Kelly admires her husband's changes and says that one of her greatest joys is "watching my husband develop into an incredibly loving, nurturing, and giving father."

Parents, naturally, continue to develop as individuals, and the arrival of a baby stimulates self-reflection. Observing Winnie moved Kelly to reflect on what must also have been the miracle of her own beginnings. "I'm fascinated by the fact that I, too, floated in a sack of amniotic fluid; that I, too, saw my hand for the first time and probably stared at it for 30 minutes straight, waving it in the air. Or that I, too, might have been startled by my own sneeze, or gas, or yawn."

Sahil says, "Having a child has given my life more meaning. For example, rather than working to earn money just for myself, to purchase various objects and experiences, I now have a great reason to do so. I'm more careful now, too. I have a child who depends on me, so I feel like I need to take better care of myself, so that I can be my best possible self to take care of Winnie."


The joys of parenting are often felt more deeply than almost any other feeling humans are capable of having. But the challenges are great, too. "Every mom I knew was surprised by the impact of becoming a parent and wished she knew more about coping with it," writes Jan Hanson in Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Hanson is a nutritionist who co-authored the book with her husband, the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, as well as OB/GYN Ricki Pollycove.

There are challenges to parents' physical health: recovery from pregnancy and delivery, the adjustment to breastfeeding, disturbed nutrition, fatigue, and insufficient sleep. As you would expect, Kelly reports that trying to stay rational, keep conflicts down, and drive safely are difficult on three hours' sleep and/or when she's been up, exhausted, since 4 A.M. She is experiencing what researchers know: That proper sleep is critical to health and well-being, including mood, decision-making, performance, and safety.

There are psychological adjustments to the new parenting role, too. Some parents need time to recover from a difficult or complicated birth process. For some, parenting demands can trigger strong unresolved feelings from childhood, especially if it was traumatic or troubled. Hormonal changes, along with sleeplessness and the constant demands of a new baby, can create surprising new feelings, too: anger, sadness, feeling trapped or isolated--even guilt, fear, and inadequacy. Some parents have to wrestle with having lost a previous child, or perhaps they are parenting a difficult or differently abled child. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes about these psychological challenges, and more, in The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Stress, Depression, and Burnout.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *