John Gottman, a Seattle-based psychologist, likes to compare parenting—especially the first few months of it—to piloting a jet plane. Both require sensitivity to subtle cues. Both improve with experience and training.
But unlike pilots, Gottman notes, parents are mostly on their own in the critical first months of their endeavor and work with something infinitely more complex than an airplane. “There is no skills training for new parents when a baby is born,” he explains, “and yet the emotions of the parents”—the ways parents cope with stress—“are the cradle that holds the baby.”
Making them go it alone wastes great opportunities to keep families together and raise children well, by Gottman’s reckoning. Some intriguing new workshops and clinical research he and his colleagues are undertaking back him up.
Consider Bringing Baby Home, Gottman’s test program being held at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center in conjunction with the Relationship Research Institute that Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz-Gottman, created. It shows that even modest postnatal counseling can help couples strengthen their marriages, avert postpartum depression, and even make infants brighter and more active. Along with Alyson Shapiro, the research scientist for Bringing Baby Home, Gottman has ambitious plans for revolutionizing the way we deal with the critical months and years after birth. “Our hope,” Shapiro tells Philanthropy, “is that families will come to have healthier dynamics, that infants will be emotionally and cognitively healthier, and that infants will have the best life chances possible.”
For the Talaris Research Institute, a Seattle nonprofit whose twofold mission is to fund research in early brain development and then help parents and professionals apply that knowledge in practical situations, the project is an ideal match for its goals. “We’re interested in what parents need to know that has a basis in solid knowledge and clinical research,” says Terrence Meersman, Talaris’s executive director and a veteran of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Talaris Research Institute gets its direction from Bruce and Jolene McCaw, who provide the institute’s funding through their Apex Foundation. The couple became interested in early brain development following the birth of their own children. The McCaws saw a lot of “marketeers who wanted to tell you how to raise your children,” says Apex president Craig Stewart, “but weren’t necessarily providing information that had been validated through research.” The two also decided to fund this research because of their interest in education. “Politicians love to kiss babies,” says Stewart, “but when you look at where the money flows,” very little goes “to prenatal education and helping parents raising children aged newborn to five.”
Asked if the McCaws were surprised that there was little hard science available on raising children, Stewart replied, “Not really. Most of this science has not found its way out of the halls of academia.” The two, he tells Philanthropy, are using their philanthropy to bring the important recent research about early learning to parents and caregivers. Talaris sees Bringing Baby Home as part research, part outreach, and part practical application. “The real meat of the study is to change the emotional development of the baby,” Gottman says. That goal is also seen in other Talaris partnerships, such as partnering with the local PBS television station to produce 60-second parenting spots. “The idea is to get the word out about the latest research,” Meersman says, but to do it in a fashion that’s right “for the real users”—parents and caregivers.
Care Beyond Delivery
Mental health professionals have long known that parenting puts strains on marriages. But this knowledge has yet to translate into effective, sustained approaches to helping couples make the transition into parenthood. Hospitals generally offer a range of options in prenatal care for expecting couples. But after delivery, most hospital care ends. It’s not for lack of interest, Gottman and Shapiro contend; grassroots support for continued care seems to be quite high.
Bringing Baby Home is testing one such program in the hopes of creating an effective model for care that begins during pregnancy and continues until the child is three. The group is running a pilot workshop of 175 couples on promoting better handling of domestic conflicts, maintaining intimacy, keeping fathers involved with the baby, and improving knowledge of the baby’s development. Researchers observe the participating families to measure their responsiveness to the workshop and gauge family members’ interactions with one another. They also survey participants extensively on perceived levels of conflict, marital satisfaction, and feelings of depression, if any, and analyze videotapes to glean further observations. With simultaneous tests of couples not participating in the workshops, Bringing Baby Home is able to see what difference, if any, the workshops are making.
The initial results are encouraging. Mothers report their marriages and intimacy have not suffered as a result of parenthood—some even say they improved slightly—but their equivalents in the control group say their marriages have gone downhill. Videotapes of interaction between husbands and wives reveal demonstrably fewer instances of hostility, whereas tapes of the outside group show higher levels.
The effects on their infants are even more interesting. Researchers observing infant interaction with parents note that babies in the participant group respond more to external stimuli, seem better attuned to interactions with their fathers, and cry less. Even their faces show it: The babies appear less “spacey” than their equivalents in the control group, according to Gottman. If Gottman and his colleagues can show that even infants benefit measurably from simple postnatal programs such as the one Bringing Baby Home offers, something interesting is in the works.
How the Workshops Work
Outside of the original research study, the parenting workshops are now being offered once a month at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. The cutting-edge work is done by three trained birth educators, working under Gottman’s and Shapiro’s guidance, who each lead a small group of participating parents. As Gottman and Shapiro describe it, the workshops are deceptively simple. They’re built around four pillars: keeping spousal relations open; imparting practical knowledge about parenting such as child sleeping patterns or the realities of postpartum depression; building what the psychologists call “love maps” that help parents understand each others’ emotions; and keeping fathers actively involved in the raising of the child.
For the first of these, “We try to keep couples from becoming so child-centered that they neglect one another,” Gottman explains. “Couples need to continue to talk, stay intimate, and remain friends.” As regards the second, the workshops make sure that participants “know about postpartum depression.” The workshops also give them ways of coping with babies’ crying. Massage comes into play, too: “Giving a 15-minute massage a day is as effective as antidepressant medication,” Gottman says, and recommends couples take time from their day for it. For the third, “love maps,” participants draw out ideas, feelings, and emotions from their “inner worlds,” as Gottman terms it. And the fourth, keeping dads involved, entails as much play (role-reversal) as counseling and reflection. “It’s typical for guys to get pushed out,” Gottman explains. “We get people to make a plan to keep dad included.”
In the longer term, Bringing Baby Home, with the involvement of its funding partners, hopes to train and certify as many as 20,000 workshop professionals to lead similar programs around the country.
Bringing Baby Home is in many respects a logical culmination of common-sense thinking about parenting supported by a few decades of clinical research in psychology. As far back as 1957 the psychologist E.E. LeMasters quantified what everyone knows about building a new family: it can be stressful, and not without serious complications. LeMasters showed that as many as 83 percent of new parents experience moderate or severe family crises during this period.
Since LeMasters, researchers have tried to show precisely how much strain childrearing places upon couples and their infants, when it is likely to occur, and what, if anything, can be done about it. Among their results: (1) even mild depression among new parents seems to have serious emotional consequences for infants; (2) couples’ opinions of their marital satisfaction appear to peak in the last trimester of pregnancy and to decline thereafter; and (3) the presence of fathers is the best predictor of a child’s happiness and productivity later in life, even into adulthood.
Despite this information, few, if any, clinical trials have addressed the issues. In the 1990s the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies held workshops for couples in the first and last trimesters of pregnancy. Participation rates fell after the babies were born, however, and the group did no quantitative assessment of the project’s success.
The Business Plan
If Gottman and Shapiro have their way, Bringing Baby Home will be more than a garden-variety nonprofit. It will be a self-sustaining, revenue-generating organization that uses donor funds as seed money only, not as operational revenue. The program will market its workshop materials and certifications to hospitals and medical centers around the country—all while retaining nonprofit status—and amass the proceeds into an endowment to fund future research and clinical trials, and to certify more workshop leaders. “Donors often sour on funding research because it seems that nothing comes of it,” Gottman says.
Gottman is working to secure the remaining seed money necessary to complete his research. He’s also working to make Bringing Baby Home materials available to the greatest number of parents possible. Currently, for example, he’s revising the material for use by low-literacy families. The more people the materials reach, the greater the chance Bringing Baby Home’s business plan will succeed when it goes nationwide.
After the research and materials are completed, the future would seem to offer many possibilities: a certification program for birth educators nationwide, the sale of videotapes on parenting in the first months and years of life, and the sale of workshop preparation materials around the country.
The initial idea of transforming the way Americans prepare for birth—and how they handle it afterward—remains the key goal. “We’re trying to change the concept of birth education around the country to include parenting and relationship skills that will last a lifetime,” Gottman tells Philanthropy.
Parenthood By the Numbers
4,200,000 : The number of babies born, approximately, each year.
25 : The percentage of married parents who will divorce within five years of their child’s birth.
67 : The percentage of unwed parents whose relationships will dissolve within five years of their child’s birth.
67 : The percentage of all parents who report a significant drop in relationship satisfaction.
Source: Gottman Institute
—Brendan Conway is managing editor of The Public Interest.