A New Parent's Guide to Nimble Thinking at 2 a.m.

First-time parents start off with reams of research and good intentions. But what happens when the “messiness of doing” undermines their new habits?
mother multitasking

The essentials

  • First-time parents must often confront the “messiness of doing”: when they actually start caring for their infant, the reality is often quite different from what they anticipated. These can be highly stressful and charged experiences.
  • Parents who are able to pivot to new childrearing practices have the ability to identify potential obstacles early on and to consider how they will recover from challenges that arise.
  • Marketers can take a long-term view and identify ways to help new parents plan on an ongoing basis and recover when they have to reconsider their childrearing practices.

Becoming a parent for the first time is a significant life change that ushers in a host of new challenges: sleepless nights, new routines, overwhelming number of choices to make. And there’s little preparation for how to navigate these challenges.

“There’s just so many new things you have to do when becoming a new parent that it’s impossible to be adequately prepared for each and every single thing that you need to do,” says Tandy Thomas, Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Marketing at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University.

Having gone through the whirlwind experience of being a new parent herself, Thomas can relate. But when she tried to understand the parent decision-making process through a consumer behaviour lens, she found there was little research to work with.

“I know a lot about how people make decisions in the marketplace,” she says. “And nothing about what we know in the academic literature really fit. That made me think that we don't know how parents are dealing with challenges. We don't know how to make it easier for them.”

When Reality Hits

In an effort to fill that gap, she and colleague Amber Epp (University of Wisconsin-Madison) have been studying how new parents successfully habituate some new practices but not others. What they found is that the real challenge for new parents actually lies beyond decision making. Their findings have implications for marketers operating in this space.

One of their first observations, both from personal experience and the parents they studied, is that expectations of parenthood rarely align with reality. While there are established social practices for processes such breastfeeding or diapering, for example, parents hit roadblocks when it comes to following through when things don’t go according to plan.

Similarly, there isn’t always a “script” or accepted way for integrating a combination of social practices. A parent may be very aware of what’s expected in her work world and be confident about the mechanics of breastfeeding, but she may be at a loss as to how to manage breastfeeding in the workplace.

Surprises Can Be Painful

These parental curve balls amount to what Thomas and Epp refer to as the “messiness of doing”: when new parents actually perform a practice, their experience is often quite different from what they anticipated, especially when it comes to different practice elements working together. The negative effects can be significant.

“It becomes a very stressful and emotional experience for parents,” Thomas says. “And then doing it at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, tired, have no idea what they're doing, and have had their whole world turned upside down? It's not an easy time to deal with challenges.”

For their study, the researchers followed 24 new families in Canada and the U.S., from before the birth of their first child through the first eight months postpartum.

Going into the study, Thomas and Epp expected their findings to centre around choice overload: the abundance of information and choices facing new parents and the struggle to make decisions. Their findings, however, told a different story and went deeper into the new parent experience.

“There’s a whole lot of choice overload and the experience is overwhelming. But what really struck us as interesting was looking at what happens next”

“There’s a whole lot of choice overload and the experience is overwhelming,” Thomas says. “But what really struck us as interesting was looking at what happens next. Parents make their initial decisions. They set up this plan, they build their nursery, and they know what they're going to do. But then some things don’t work. What do they do then?”

The answer, they found, is that what best predicts whether new parents arrive at a successful outcome is how they plan. Specifically, they identified two elements of the planning process that contribute to a successful recovery.

The first is the ability to identify potential obstacles early on. This exposes parents to multiple scenarios so that they are not surprised when things go wrong.

The second is the ability to consider how they will recover from so-called “misalignments” or challenges that arise. In other words, they have a Plan B or other potential solutions in their back pockets.

These capabilities help parents be more flexible when having to navigate obstacles. “They help them pivot and change and adjust and adapt when things go wrong,” says Thomas, “and they become really important in that recovery process.”

Marketing Lessons

So what does this mean for marketers? How can they use this knowledge to better aid new parents on their journey?

For one thing, marketers can help new parents plan on an ongoing basis. This acknowledges the reality that parents often have to re-examine their consumer choices over time. Too often, brands seem to be focused on being a parent’s first choice at the expense of taking a long-term view.

“What becomes important is recognizing that engagement with your products and engagement with your stores is something that has to be viewed in the long-term,” says Thomas.

As well, marketers can identify potential misalignments that new parents can face and come up with ways to help them recover. This may involve retail strategies or new product launches that help parents navigate the messiness of doing. By helping make life easier for parents, Thomas says, marketers have the power to deliver a noteworthy customer experience.

— Kate Irwin

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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