Partners now Parents: Exploring Psychosocial and Epigenetic Change During the Transition to Parenthood

Author: ORCID icon
Savell, Shannon, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Emery, Robert, Psychology, University of Virginia
Connelly, Jessica, Psychology, University of Virginia
Llewellyn, Patricia, AS-Psychology (PSYC), University of Virginia
Pelphrey, Kevin, MD-NEUR Neurology, University of Virginia
Wilson, Melvin, Psychology, University of Virginia

Becoming a parent is a highly anticipated milestone for many couples, yet previous research suggests that nearly 70% of couples experience a sharp decline in romantic satisfaction after the birth of the couple’s first child (Shapiro et al., 2000), potentially as a result of the psychological distress and strain on the couple’s relationship. The trajectory of relationships following birth has important implications for both the long-term health of the parents’ relationship and their children’s physical and psychosocial development (Doss et al., 2009). For example, sustained dissatisfaction is a known predictor of relationship dissolution (i.e., divorce) and sustained stress without support is a known precursor of postpartum depression (Schulz et al., 2006), both of which negatively impact infant and early childhood psychosocial and physical development. However, to our knowledge, there are no existing group-based couples therapy interventions for the transition to parenthood designed to improve romantic relationship functioning as romantic partners and co-parents that are equipped for implementation via telehealth services that address the very unique stressors for couples expecting their first child during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This project provided an examination of a newly developed teletherapy intervention designed to address stressors associated with the transition to parenthood to promote and protect parent and child mental health. By expanding knowledge in the previous literature on the transition to parenthood to underrepresented groups (e.g., low income families, participants of color, unmarried parents) and moving beyond the use of self-report data to include objective, biological indicators of change, this study tested the hypotheses that an evidence-based teletherapy intervention for first-time parents will have direct effects in improving coping with stressors associated with the transition to parenthood, helping partners to sustain romantic satisfaction, and increasing perceptions of readiness for co-parenting, and indirect effects in improving parent-child bonding. Further, this study tested the hypothesis that oxytocin, a neuropeptide hormone associated with social functioning including parent-infant bonding, fluctuates during the sensitive period of the transition to parenthood for gestational and non-gestational partners and can be manipulated by intervention during this sensitive period.

Seventeen couples were assigned to receive five teletherapy sessions over the course of the transition to parenthood, and 16 couples were assigned to an active control group of receiving psychoeducation on the transition to parenthood via email. All 33 couples completed well-validated questionnaires in addition to saliva collection to assay oxytocin receptor gene methylation. Results provided critical information on the potential effectiveness of a teletherapy intervention for first time parents and, for the first time in the present literature, explored psychological correlates of oxytocin receptor gene methylation levels during the sensitive transition period for both gestational and non-gestational partners.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
first-time parenthood, couples, prevention program, epigenetic modification, romantic satisfaction, postpartum depression
Sponsoring Agency:
University of Virginia
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