University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus



The mother-father-baby-triangle: New book explores family dynamics during pregnancy and early infancy

Parents with their baby

For more than 25 years, University of South Florida Psychology Professor and Family Study Center Director James McHale has been supporting researchers and clinicians around the world in seeking to better understand the three-person, or triangular, relationship system created by two parents and babies in diverse families.

Work by the Family Study Center and a growing global family research network has shown that an understanding of relationships within this triangle can help explain why babies and very young children start off on different life paths.

Now, a new book edited by McHale and former doctoral student Regina Kuersten-Hogan, an associate professor of Psychology at Assumption College, has gathered family researchers from six different nations to pose a new question – when does this triangle first begin exerting its influence? Called “Prenatal Family Dynamics,” the book examines family interactions and relationships during pregnancies and into parenthood across a varied range of family circumstances.

“The book’s focus is on mother-father-baby triangles during the pregnancy - what we know about them, whether they are something we can study, whether they have any significance in forecasting what the nature of the early family environment will be like once the baby arrives?” said McHale. The book starts asking numerous questions we’ve never even thought to ask, to better understand the nature of that triangle.”

The book advances thinking about a unit that has been referred to as “the primary triangle” ( mother, father and baby). From the moment a mother learns she is pregnant and a father discovers he is going to be a parent, a new prenatal environment is formed. The book is a compilation of studies conducted by leading family researchers in North America and Europe that explores this prenatal atmosphere in diverse families, including adolescent couples, same-sex couples, couples experiencing infertility and couples expecting their second child.

McHale said the book is not a “how-to” guide for new parents, or even for practitioners. Rather, it presents information of interest to those in the field of early childhood development, suggesting new research models and methods, and advocating for expanded study of prenatal family dynamics with an emphasis on family diversity.

“Its significance in the field is that it introduces a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about the kinds of questions we could ask about families,” McHale added. “Hopefully, it sets the stage for another generation of work that will be far more inclusive and ask similar questions about all kinds of families everywhere.”

The book extends the body of groundbreaking work emanating from USF’s Family Study Center, a unique institution at the forefront of coparenting research and community programs for early childhood and family mental health.

Coparenting is a child development model that has magnified the once-narrow perception of family units as biological mothers, fathers and children to account for all caregivers who develop close bonds and are responsible for the care and upbringing of young children. In countless cultures and communities, grandparents, other family members and even childcare providers are the ones who function as babies’ most meaningful day-to-day coparents.

“Hundreds of centers serve mothers and infants or study parents and families,” said McHale. “But no others hold this conceptual model at the core of all their work. Coparenting views the family through the eyes of the baby or young child. And for that reason, it is central to the future of the field.”

The Family Study Center is a recent recipient of a $3.7-million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to research and strengthen relationships between family members to create safe and supportive households.

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