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It's 3 am and the baby is fussing, again. Sally is exhausted, having slept only a few hours a night for weeks. She feels isolated and overwhelmed and resents her husband, Tom, for "having a life" outside the house. Tom feels that he has been replaced for his wife's affections and wonders if life will ever return to "normal." Both of them thought having a baby would make their marriage stronger. What went wrong?
Just ask nurse scientist Pamela Jordan, who has spent almost 20 years helping couples like Sally and Tom make a successful transition to parenthood.
"Being a parent is the most difficult job you will ever have," says Jordan, associate professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington and developer of the Becoming Parents Program. "The most common parenting classes in the U.S. are childbirth education classes which prepare people for labor and birth, approximately 24 hours of their lives. There are no classes to prepare couples for their subsequent lifetime as parents."
The Becoming Parents Program consists of 27 hours of class-21 hours over six weeks during pregnancy and 3 hour 'booster classes' when the baby is 6 to 8 weeks old and 6 months old. The classes focus on the couple rather than just the mother and teach people skills to strengthen their couple relationship and make it all they want it to be-especially with the challenges of parenthood. "The program builds 'teamwork' and helps couples avoid the 'me versus you' mentality that can so easily develop with the arrival of a child," Jordan explains. She is currently recruiting 500 couples for the program. Couples have an equal chance of being assigned to the classes group or the questionnaires only group. Classes are offered on weekends and are held at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue. The program is free and open to any married couples expecting their first child.
"I have had couples come to the first booster session who have said they would not be together if it hadn't been for the classes," says Jordan. "Some people tell me they don't have time to take these classes, but couples who have taken the classes say, 'You don't have time not to.'"
Couples learn how to deal with conflicts constructively by learning how to talk so their partner will listen, how to listen so their partner will talk, and how to problem solve effectively as a team. They are also couples who have learned how to maintain the "friendship, fun, and intimacy" in their relationship, says Jordan-the things that bring people together in the first place.
"With a baby in the house, you can no longer rely on spontaneity to maintain your relationship," she explains. "Everything yells for your attention, including a crying baby. It's all too easy for the relationship to get lost."
Such conflict and tension cannot only damage the couple relationship, says Jordan, they can also affect the health of the child. "Chronic, intense conflict can affect children's sleep and eating patterns and can make infants more irritable. Over the long term, it can also result in a myriad of behavior problems," she explains. "But if children see conflicts dealt with constructively and resolved," she continues, "such long-term effects are not seen."
In addition to preparing couples for the many ways becoming parents will impact their lives, the Becoming Parents Program teaches participants how to take care of themselves and how to understand and deal with their baby. "It teaches couples such things as how to manage fatigue and stress, how to create a support network, and how to negotiate who does what in the family," says Jordan. "It also provides parents with an 'Owner's Manual' for their baby, so they understand their baby's capabilities and messages and feel more confident and competent as parents."
Jordan first became interested in this area of research when a study of first-time fathers 20 years ago revealed the importance of the couple relationship to fathers' involvement in and commitment to their families. "Men really like the Becoming Parents Program," she explains, "because it acknowledges their important role and teaches them skills that are relevant and immediately applicable."
She also notes that the Becoming Parents Program is the only program of its kind in the world, and has attracted international attention. "Most people don't learn good couple skills from their own parents," says Jordan. "And there are virtually no programs that focus on preventive skill building. Typically we wait until problems have escalated to the breaking point before we offer services to families."
For additional information about the Becoming Parents Program, contact Dr. Pamela Jordan at 206/543-8219, or by mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Washington School of Nursing is consistently the nation’s No. 1-ranked nursing school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ranked No. 3 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the UW School of Nursing is a national and international leader in improving the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. The school addresses society’s most pressing challenges in health care through innovative teaching, award winning research and community service.