Danish first-time mothers, asked between 6 and 18 months after birth, experienced stronger ties to their partner, which led to both thoughts and conversations about how life together changed. At the same time, a minority (43%) experienced more conflicts than before giving birth. There were no differences in distribution of answers between mothers having given birth full term and preterm. Thus, according to these findings experiencing conflicts in a parental relationship does not necessarily contrast forging stronger ties, which may be an important message to new parents. In general, our results echo other findings pointing to parenthood as both challenge and joy in a relationship [1, 12, 13]. Nelson et al. points to the increase of sleeplessness and more economic worries among parents than non-parents. At the same time parenthood also leads to an increase in wellbeing, probably because of the feeling of meaningfulness and the fulfilment of basic emotional needs .
The two items pointing to something subconscious or transcending oneself appeared more difficult to grasp, as more respondents did not know what to answer. These two items were concerned with the feeling of being connected to ‘something bigger than ourselves’ or to have ‘had dreams leading to reflections on self and family’. However, having a child made 59% of the mothers link their relationship to ‘something bigger’ than themselves. As discussed in a previous study, exploring existential meaning-making among first-time mothers, ‘something bigger’ can be interpreted in several ways . It may refer to the feeling of being part of a bigger relational unit including a child or it could be the feeling that the existential fundamentals of life with their partner changed. For some mothers it may refer to the feeling of the relationship being connected to a transcendent dimension . The individually interpreted meaning of the item cannot be explored through this survey. However, the findings suggest that first time mothers find making meaning of life with regards to their partner altered, also when living in a secular society where concerns related to existential meaning-making of both secular, religious, and spiritual are individualised and rarely explicated [15, 16].
More than 62% of the mothers had dreams ‘leading to reflections on self and family’. The heightened level of dreams among pregnant and new mothers are often linked to normal emotional concerns or mood, interpreted as normal but sleep disturbing . However, the use of dream-themes in clinical practice to address basic existential concerns in this period of life seem scientifically unexplored, although matters of life, death and responsibility seem brought to the forefront [5, 18].
Previously factors such as couple communications skills, child temperament, and sleep patterns have been found to change in relation to the specific event of couples’ transition to parenthood [3, 19]. However, findings from this study indicate, that changes in existential meaning-making for example in feeling connected to ‘something bigger than ourselves’ might also be important since more than half of the respondents agreed to it. The bare awareness and acknowledgement of existential dimensions of relationship-changes might be of value although we do not know the deeper meaning of each mother’s response to this item . Dimensions of existential meaning-making may also impact mental health, including anxiety and depressive symptoms, which have been found to be predictive in relationship decline .
Two underlying basic assumptions grounded the study: firstly, that pregnancy, birthing and the postpartum period both individually and as a complete experience can facilitate considerations of existential meaning, and therefore change partner relationship. Connected to this, we also assumed answers were different between FT and PT mothers, since research among mothers having given birth preterm underline this as a very stressful period [20, 21]. In the analyses of mothers giving birth preterm or full term and agreeing to the statements, we found only minor differences in answers from FT and PT mothers respectively in their perception of change in partner relationship after adjustment for perinatal loss and mode of delivery. The lack of difference in answers indicates motherhood transition itself, independent from time of birth, to facilitate changes in existential meaning-making, which again facilitates changes in partner relationship. This is also in concordance with our earlier research . However, being the most profound experience in many women’s lives, it remains scientifically unexplored, how motherhood changes existential meaning in life – and thereby partnership relations, although focusing on familial and relational aspects is considered important for health in WHOs recommendations .
In other arenas of health care services, for example in the field of palliation, care of existential or spiritual concerns in life is sought embedded, in line with recommendations from WHO and national authorities [23, 24]. Our results suggest that it may also be vital to further explore dimensions of existential concerns in life including the change of partnership relation after having the first child, especially since research and interventions in maternity care points to the challenges in preserving healthy relationships after childbirth [3, 25].
Strengths and limitations
Among the strengths in this study is the use of a transparent theoretical framework guiding the development of the survey, thereby enabling cultural sensitive exploration of existential meaning-making in relation to motherhood transition [8, 26]. No prior survey has previously phrased questions on postpartum relationship addressing existential meaning-making. Despite the comprehensive questionnaire, the response rate was higher than in comparable surveys addressing items related to values and existential life views [27, 28].
We are well aware, that our findings rely on 5 items exploring partnership relation on a five point Likert scale, which lacks nuances and complexity. However it indicates directions of how partnership relations may evolve when becoming a mother. Furthermore findings relates to the period between 6 and 18 months postpartum. The wide timespan may affect responses leading to different perceptions of partner relationship between mothers who gave birth 6 months previously and those who gave birth 18 months previously. Research suggests relationship satisfaction to decline over a 3-year period from second trimester to 30 months postpartum  and our results may have been different if the survey had been performed in another time frame.