Our focus on enhancing coparenting during the transition to parenthood is based on a view of coparenting as a potentially malleable causal mechanism. Research has indicated that the coparenting relationship is more strongly related to parenting and child outcomes than is the general couple or marital relationship (Abidin & Brunner, 1995
; Bearss & Eyberg, 1998
; Frosch, Mangelsdorf, & McHale, 2000
). This research supports Margolin’s view that coparenting represents a risk mechanism, whereas general marital conflict or marital quality may represent a risk indicator (Margolin, Gordis, & John, 2001
). This view is also supported by evidence of coparenting as a mediator of the relationship between the couple relationship and parenting, both cross sectionally and longitudinally (e.g., Gonzales, Pitts, Hill, & Roosa, 2000
). When developing prevention programs, it is obviously more effective to target the risk mechanism rather than a factor that may be a marker of risk but is not a causal influence on outcomes.
There are several important dimensions of coparenting, including division of labor and joint management of family dynamics (Feinberg, 2003
). We have focused on the dimensions of coparental support and undermining, because research has indicated that these dynamics are linked to parenting and child outcomes (Abidin & Brunner, 1995
; Belsky, Putnam, & Crnic, 1996
; Feinberg, Neiderhiser, Reiss, & Hetherington, 2005
; Floyd & Zmich, 1991
). Conceptually, coparental support includes affirming the other parent’s competence as a parent, acknowledging and respecting the other parent’s contributions, and upholding his or her parenting decisions and authority (Belsky, Wood-worth, & Crnic, 1996
; McHale, 1995
; Weissman & Cohen, 1985
). The negative counterpart of coparental support is expressed through undermining the other parent through criticism, disparagement, and blame.
Qualitative interviews with new parents (Feinberg, 2002
) drew our attention to an additional, potentially significant aspect of coparenting: sharing the joys of parenthood. This dimension of coparenting, which we term parenting-based closeness
, is related to but distinct from coparental support. Whereas coparental support relates to respecting and upholding the other parent’s decisions, parenting-based closeness derives from shared celebration of the child’s development, working together as a team, and witnessing one’s partner develop as a parent.
Despite the potential for increased closeness, the transition to parenthood is fraught with risk for a large number of couples (Belsky & Pensky, 1988
). Relationship shifts during the postpartum period include dramatically increased conflict, changes in the division of labor and extrafamilial roles, and reduced couple companionship and sex (Cowan & Cowan, 1995
). These changes undermine the adjustment and well-being of new parents, with subsequent effects on parenting quality and child adjustment. Derived from our theoretical model of coparenting (Feinberg, 2003
) during the transition period (Feinberg, 2002
), one goal of FF is to buffer parental adjustment from these strains by enhancing positive support and coordination in the coparenting relationship.
As an indicator of parental adjustment, postpartum depression is relevant for all parents but particularly for mothers (Walther, 1997
) and has negative repercussions for parent–child interaction and child development (Field, 2000
). Evidence suggests that coparental support—or, as measured in some prior work, general emotional support from the father—is linked to lower maternal depression (Crnic & Greenberg, 1987
; O’Hara & Swain, 1996
). Less well researched but also problematic is elevated parental anxiety (e.g., Ross & McLean, 2006
). Maternal anxiety during pregnancy seems to have negative effects on fetal development and has been linked to children’s later cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems (O’Connor et al., 2005
). Maternal anxiety after birth has been linked to disrupted parenting, parent–child relations, and child behavior (e.g., Kaitz & Maytal, 2005
). Although there is limited research on risk factors for maternal anxiety, there is evidence that lack of social support is linked to maternal anxiety as well (Glazier, Elgar, Goel, & Holzapfel, 2004
). Thus, we hypothesized that the FF program would reduce parental depression and anxiety.
Our conceptual model (Feinberg, 2003
) also led us to expect that enhanced coparental support and, subsequently, enhanced parental adjustment would facilitate more positive parent–child interaction. Coparental support regarding one’s competence as a parent (Tice, 1992
) was hypothesized to affect parenting and the parent–child relationship through parental self-efficacy (or confidence), which has been proposed as the final common pathway to addressing disruptions in caregiver sensitivity (Teti, O’Connell, & Reiner, 1996
). On the basis of this reasoning, we hypothesized that FF would have a beneficial impact on parent interactions with the child.
Finally, we hypothesized that FF—through its effects on positive coparenting and subsequent improvements in parental adjustment and parent–child relations—would affect indices of infant well-being. For example, increased coparental support may translate into a less stressful family environment for the infant, with potentially positive effects on stress-related physiological systems. Given the rapid development in emotional and physiological regulation during infancy, we examined three indicators of infant regulation that might be disrupted by stress in family relationships: regular sleep patterns, calming when distressed, and sustained attention. We selected these three indicators for several reasons, among them, evidence that these domains may be important in feed-forward loops with later child development and family relations. For example, infant sleep dysregulation may have negative effects on both children’s and parents’ well-being (Sepa, Frodi, & Ludvigsson, 2004
). Parents who feel unable to soothe their child may develop a low sense of parental self-efficacy, with negative implications for parent–infant relations (Papousek & von Hofacker, 1998
; Stifter & Bono, 1998
). Additionally, the infant’s deployment of attention (e.g., through distraction) may represent an early emotional regulatory mechanism that is a foundation of more complex regulatory strategies (Rothbart, Posner, & Kieras, 2006