Becoming a Family:
Placing Love in Equal Relationships to
the Primacy of Work in Modern Day Society

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Did you know that raising young children, under the age of 5 and raising adolescents are considered the two most stressful stages on the family life cycle? For now, let's save the topic of adolescents for a bit later, since what really makes teenagers lovable is the fact that you already know and love them.

But seriously, the birth of a baby is the beginning of a new definition of family and with it comes predictable stress. The normal stress of becoming parents can become distress when parents are unaware of the key adjustments inherent in this phenomenal transition. The addition of a new member who is entirely dependent on its parents to orchestrate its needs presents us with profound change and adjustments in family roles, expectations and resources.

The first year of life is a significant one in family adjustment and deserves special attention. Maturation is necessary as parents learn and develop a new balance in their relationship. Like riding a bicycle, some of what needs to be learned will involve falling down, however if communication predominates over "acting out" behaviors, a new sense of self will be restored. How the couple or single parent adjusts to the stresses of new parenthood can determine the family's foundation for the years ahead. A new balance in meeting one's own and our partner's needs has to be achieved.

Identity as a Mother

With the birth of a new baby comes the birth of a new identity of motherhood. It is the psychological task of pregnancy to begin formulating a sense of what it means to be a mother. It is necessary for the new mother to sort through her childhood experience of her own mother, incorporating the things she finds to be positive and changing in herself the ways she disagrees with her mother's parenting. It does not mean you do not love and cherish your mother. But it is your job to discriminate your own parenting values and raise your child accordingly.

Identity as a Father

Recently, fathers are incorporating the need for developing and sustaining a nurturing relationship with their children, rather than taking an emotionally peripheral or merely disciplinarian role. Men and women contribute economically in over 80% of American families, shaping us towards more interchangeable roles. Men have to move into the role of nurturance or women will continue to experience an overload of responsibility in the family for both economic and emotional caretaking.

However, sorting through the fathering relationship can be particularly painful for many contemporary fathers, as they often feel the lack of a nurturing bond with their own father. Having little emotional closeness with his own a father (part of the cultural legacy of the 1950's) a new father embracing the role of nurturer must develop his identity as a father from scratch. It may feel odd or "weak" to him in the beginning, but an awareness of the rewards of intimacy in the family generally helps. Forging an identity based on participation and everyday care earns him closeness in place of the emotional distance he may have witnessed his father experiencing.


Marriage is not the joining of two individuals, but two different family cultures. Two family systems are always different and have conflicting patterns and expectations. The couple must sort through these two systems to form their own new family identity. Realignment of relationships to include new parenting and grandparenting roles, as well as adjusting the marital dyad to make place for a child creates imbalance that cries out for new order at the time of the birth of a child.

In addition to the development of parental identities, the couple bond is also stressed by the necessary forging of new family boundaries. Each partner must sort through alliances with their childhood families, making sure that these alliances are secondary to and supportive of the decisions they make together as a couple. New families need both appropriate boundaries and ideally, appropriate support from the extended family network. Pitfalls can arise when husbands or wives have difficulty setting limits with intrusive or judgmental in-laws, due to feelings of disloyalty. Everything from differentiating their own parenting style, the values by which they raise their child to what holiday traditions they will build into their own family structure can cause stress. This stress is healthy fuel for alignment of the new family identity which must emerge.

A new family culture and identity must be forged between husband and wife. The couple's task is to develop their own sense of "good parenting" and their own child rearing values. This can be difficult if in-laws are critical instead of supportive when the couples' actions reflect a difference in values or parenting styles from that of the extended family. It is important during this period of adjustment that the couples' bond is strengthened and not divided by the extended family network. Maturation involves differentiating yourself from your family -of-origin, and taking your place in alignment to your spouse in working through these family concerns.


Two currently powerful cultural forces that inhibit a healthy balance in family relationships are the devaluation of caretaking/nurturance in our society and the primacy of work over priorities of nurturing. The pressure to put the needs of a work schedule over the needs for caretaking drive many couples towards a detrimental imbalance in the first year of their child's life.

For example, mothers can experience their needs and their children's needs as repetitiously secondary to the father's work schedule. Unconsciously, the expectation that the wife defer to her husband's needs which place work above nurturance can leave a couple feeling estranged from one another. The following diagram illustrates the potential cultural force towards this imbalance and the ensuing shift contributing towards a weakened couples' bond and an increasingly remote paternal-child relationship.


 BABY---------MOTHER -------              -------FATHER

In the above diagram, primacy of work is favored over the primary task of establishing nurturance/bonding in the first year. Over specialization of roles can result in economic provider (often father) becoming peripheral to the emotional life of the family. Intimacy suffers in the couples' relationship and generational boundaries blur.

In another example of potential imbalance, both parents may be working and despite the need for focus on the developmental task of bonding and establishing emotional connections and knowledge of the baby, both parents focus on the primacy of work/career during the first year of a child's life. This can result in parents who uphold their own bond, especially through the activities of shared work schedules, however the baby suffers a weakened bond with both parents.

In a balanced system parents devote their attention to bonding and getting to know their baby together. In the first year of life, an effort is made to share nurturing/bonding activities which help a parent get to know their child. Even when one partner specializes in economically providing, both are involved in responsibilities and equal decision-making about caretaking and about their shared economic future. There is however an awareness of this first year as a very special year which establishes the foundations of trust in relationship. And there is concerted effort to protect the emotional/caretaking as a primary value despite the pressures of society to do otherwise.





If emotional caretaking/bonding is emphasized in the first year, the developmental task of becoming parents happens together. Decision making is shared. Both partners feel their needs are considered. Power is in balance and parental teamwork strengthens the couples' relationship. Knowledge of the child through firsthand nurturing experience develops simultaneously for each parent. Generational boundaries are intact.

The primary task of early family development is one of nurturance. As women become mothers and men become fathers, it is necessary to take time and energy to focus on emotional bonding and caretaking. Too often in our society the anxieties caused by this transition make us vulnerable to solving this anxiety by putting energy into work and accomplishments, instead of the emotional work of bonding. It is a cultural stress which can start many young families off on the wrong track, leading to imbalance and estrangement that culminates by the end of the child's second birthday.

Foundational patterns of emotional involvement and noninvolvement have been established and are hard to recalibrate. The child learns to rely emotionally on one parent and does not gravitate towards the other, creating an ever diminishing opportunity for building intimacy. Or a child imprints on a persistent pattern of coming second to both parents' work schedules, leaving little sense of emotional connection or importance in the family.

It is important to understand that what is important is a healthy balance of the needs of the family in concert with the tasks of family development at any given point on the family life cycle. Of course economics are important. It is not the case that one must go hungry in order to be available for emotional needs! What is meant by balance in a system is a spirit of compromise in putting the needs of caretaking first when it is possible to do so, even though it might be more inefficient from a purely economical or career stance. Even when one person primarily specializes in the nurturer role and the other in the role of economic provider, couples' equality can be maintained through conscious awareness and consideration.

The following example represents a situation in which economics is not a significant stressor. I have used this example even though it is not an average couple, in order to make the point that even when money is not a primary issue, new parents are vulnerable to societal pressure to make decisions based on the value of work over relationships.

FOR EXAMPLE: Bill and Ada have an 8 month old daughter. Their daughter is at the age where she is teething and very clingy, as she has become more cognizant of the meaning of "stranger". Ada is taking a year's sabbatical from her job as a financial consultant at Bank of America. She is unsure of whether she will return full time or not. She is committed to staying home to care for their child in the first year of life.

Bill is a venture capitalist who is currently closing a deal, working late and some weekends. He is currently the sole financial provider for the family, although he has and will most likely share this role in some degree in the future with Ada. In the midst of an already busy work schedule he gets a call regarding an incredible business opportunity that would take him to Europe for two weeks to explore. Should he go?

In the interest of maintaining balance in the family with respect to the primary task of nurturing in the first year of a child's life, it might be prudent for him not to secure this next deal, if finances would allow it. To put the task of nurturing on equal footing with the primacy of work, it is understood that there are consequences for a loss of emotional involvement and participation in the family. To repeatedly put emotional needs second to the importance of the most recent business deal, will create a legacy of estrangement, loss of intimacy in family relationships and undervalued, under nurtured children to some degree. The results of this choice will vary according to specific situations and personalities, but there will be a cost.

It is often too easy to imagine that there is no cost to such a choice when we live in a society that worships material goods and career achievement over the feminine value of nurturance and love. We forget that relationships matter, and that without them we lose much of the human value of life itself.

However, for our couple Ada and Bill, most important may be not necessarily what happens but the manner in which needs are considered, agreements made and upheld, and that the decision for him to go or not be one that both parents decide together. Teamwork in decision-making and compromise will make whatever is decided a family event in which relationships matter. The following is a list of suggestions for engaging in teamwork as a couple and ensuring that both parents feel equal power and consideration in the decision-making process:

  1. What are the ways that the primary nurturer is recognized? appreciated? valued? (phone calls when away, special time off from nurturing when he returns, returning favors involving caretaking responsibility, verbal expressions of appreciation, including making time for family to come first unequivocally when scheduled)
  2. What are the ways economic providers are recognized? appreciated? valued? (verbal expressions, consideration and responsibility for financial planning, accommodating work schedules when deemed necessary by both spouses)
  3. What are the ways that the economic provider is connected to emotional family life? (activities scheduled around family needs on weekends and evenings, conversations and involvement in household duties and joint decision-making around childrearing, child development and household concerns)
  4. What are the ways the nurturer influences decisions, including economic ones in the family? (joint decision making about career goals balanced with family's emotional needs and development)

In the first year of a child's life, it is essential to slow down. This is an adjustment, not unlike getting caught in a traffic jam. If you change your pace, put yourself on "baby time," you will enjoy the music on your radio or tape player, rather than fume at the driver in the car in front of you. These are special months with your baby and they will never return. And they are formative in the development of a healthy sense of self-esteem for your child. This year will impact him or her profoundly for the rest of their life.

The true resolution to the dilemma of balancing emotional needs and economic/career needs is to place love and caretaking in equal relationship to work. In the first year this could mean:

  1. Consider a loan for staying home with your child in the first year, or spending more time at home than the office. Calculate what you would need to do so. Remember, we take out loans for new cars, furniture, why not a parental-child development loan? The time your child is young is time limited. They will be older, less in need of you and you will feel freer to pursue other things. There is a time for every purpose, and we sometimes forget we are only talking about 12 months, not the rest of our lives.
  2. Keep in mind the family life cycle and where you are on it when considering choices involving how much time to be away from your family. Some periods of time, such as the first 3 years and adolescence may be time limited periods in which your child's needs for your involvement are greater than others. There will other times for other pursuits as well. Find a healthy balance.
  3. Remember that appreciation for the role your partner is playing in the family will go a long way in helping you feel connected, even when life is stressful.
  4. Remember that men and women are different. Women experience both biological and cultural loading to nurture, while men feel pressured to provide security by performing well economically.
  5. Specializing in emotional caretaking or economic providership weakens a system. Interchangeability of roles, at least to some degree, is desirable and strengthens a system not only in times of crisis or disaster, but also in stable situations.

It is important that we protect our family relationships in the first year of life. The intention to make decisions in favor of the essential task of nurturing and bonding will pay off in the long term love and quality of family life in your future. Tremendous changes in personal identity and couples' relating bring conflicts to the surface at this time. Family adjustment and alignment is the first order of business!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD
is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for,, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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