The Myth of Joyful Parenthood
Raising children is hard, and any parent who says differently is lying. Parenting is emotionally and intellectually draining, and it often requires professional sacrifice and serious financial hardship. Kids are needy and demanding from the moment of their birth to… well, forever.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my children dearly, and can’t imagine my life without them. But let’s face the facts: Study after study has shown that parents, compared to adults without kids, experience lower emotional well-being — fewer positive feelings and more negative ones — and have unhappier marriages and suffer more from depression. Yet many of these same parents continue to insist that their children are an essential source of happiness — indeed that a life without children is a life unfulfilled.
How do we square this jarring contradiction? Two psychological scientists at the University of Waterloo think they have the answer. They suspect that the belief in parental happiness is a psychological defense — a fiction we imagine to make all the hard stuff acceptable. In other words, we parents have collectively created the myth of parental joy because otherwise we would have a hard time justifying the huge investment that kids require.
In the jargon of the field, this is called “cognitive dissonance” — the psychological mechanism we all use to justify our choices and beliefs and preserve our self-esteem. Richard Eibach and Steven Mock decided to explore the role that such self-justification plays in parental beliefs about their irreversible choice to have and raise children. They focused on economic hardship, and here’s how they studied the costs of parenthood in the lab:
They recruited 80 fathers and mothers, each parent with at least one child under age 18. The parents were about 37 years old on average, and the kids were about eight. Half the parents were primed to focus on the financial costs of parenting. They read a government document estimating that the costs of raising a child to age 18 exceed $190,000. The other parents got this information as well, but they also read about the financial benefits of parenting — that is, the fact that adult children often provide financial and practical support to aging parents. The idea was that some of the parents would be mentally calculating the out-of-pocket costs of having kids, while others would be left thinking of children as a mixed blessing, at least financially.
Then the scientists gave the parents a psychological test designed to measure how much they idealized parenting: Did they agree strongly (or not) that there is nothing more rewarding than raising a child? Do adults without kids experience emptiness in their lives? And so forth.
Finally, they measured the parents’ feelings of mental and emotional dissonance: Do you feel uncomfortable, uneasy, bothered?
Eibach and Mock were testing a couple ideas. First, they suspected that parents who were focused on the costs of parenthood would be more likely to experience feelings of conflict and discomfort — because they would be torn between the reality they have chosen and the costs of that choice. But second, they also expected that these negative feelings would motivate them to idealize parenthood in order to trump the negative feelings.
And that’s what they found, with a slight twist. If they measured the parents’ feelings of emotional discomfort immediately after priming their thoughts about cost, they felt much worse than did the parents with a more mixed view of parenting. They were conflicted. But if the scientists first gave them the opportunity to idealize parenting and family life, and then measured their conflicted feelings, those negative feelings were gone. In short, thinking about the high costs of children created significant emotional discomfort, which motivated the parents to focus on the joys of parenting, which in turn dissipated the uneasiness over choosing such a difficult path.
As a parent, I find this remarkable and discomfiting. How else might I be fooling myself in order to justify the high costs of my decision to be a parent? The scientists were curious about this, too, and designed a different version of the experiment to find out. In this study, parents were again primed to think about their pricey life choice or both costs and benefits of parenting. But this time, the researchers asked the parents about their intrinsic enjoyment of various life activities: One was spending time with their children, and others were spending time with a romantic partner, or engaging in their favorite personal activity. They also asked them how much leisure time they hoped to spend doing something with their child on their next day off from work.
The results were clear. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the parents who had the high costs of children in mind were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids. In other words, being aware of parenthood’s price tag made them idealize the time they spent with their kids, and this idealized image of family life led them to foresee more shared time in the future.
All this makes sense from a historical perspective, the scientists point out: In an earlier time, kids actually had economic value; they worked on farms or brought home paychecks, and they didn’t cost that much. Not coincidentally, emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate back then — and childhood was much less sentimentalized. Paradoxically, as the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon.
This doesn’t strike me as a bad thing entirely. We may be uneasy thinking of our families as all dollars and cents, but bank accounts don’t lie. If knowing the bottom line makes us want to spend more time on kids instead of, say, TV or golf or work, that sounds like a healthy bargain for all involved.
I was way more depressed before I had my baby. I had no direction or purpose in my life. I spent all of my free time wasting time on the internet. I’m way happier with a child and wish I had one sooner! I must be a bizarre outlier.
Having Children Is a CHOICE NOT A REQUIREMENT. I myself, choose to be ChildFree and at 38 years old and single; that suits me fine.
A lot of thought and consideration went into the choice to not be a parent. Ultimately, the ‘cons’ outweighed the ‘pros’ list and from there, the decision seemed obvious. I’ve also realized that I don’t owe anyone in my life anything just because I exist. Being a people-pleaser and a ‘yes man’, being passive and letting others walk all over you is not a way to live.
The way to be happy in life is to live life and do what makes YOU happy. Not having a baby for someone else or just because a group of people or organization tell you that you should do so. These people need to mind their own business and their own uteri.
I completely agree that a person should have a child only if they are ready for it. A baby is a parasite from the moment its conceived. They drain time, money, emotions, health, and mental peace unknowingly (so they cannot be blamed!!)
Nature has designed this process in such a way that a human offspring is the weakest and the most dependent of all creatures in this world.
Our parents may never tell us how hard it was to take care of us…how many sleepless nights they have had. Why most of the parents do not acknowledge that having a child made their life difficult….because they are so deeply in love with their children that they cannot hold them responsible for any discomfort or pain in their lives. They love them unconditionally and never doubt their decision of having a child
For all those who are contemplating this decision of parenthood…remember its an irreversible decision …and it’s your life so live it on your terms…there are enough people already on this planet who are competing for fresh air, healthy food, education, and decent living.
Those who consider their children as financial support for old age…reality check darlings….you can save all the money which you are planning to spend on parenting and live an easy life without being dependent on your children !!
please don’t force your thoughts and beliefs on anyone…I don’t intend to and I don’t want you to the same either
There is no right or wrong in deciding to have or not have children. You should do what is best for you. I had a daughter when I was 22yo. I love her more than anything. However it is hard work to raise your child in a good environment, and with the love and attention they need and deserve. I don’t expect her to support me in my old age, I put myself through college and have a good income, and retirement. I wouldn’t have missed out on my daughter for the world. She is a well educated 36 to women with a baby of her own. I get to love my granddaughter too! They are my family, I love them with all my heart.
My kids are my world. I absolutely adore them. That being said, I could have done a better job. Raising kids us physically, emotionally and financially exhausting. If your child has special needs, even more so. If you don’t have a good support system, get a pet. Nothing will cause more regret than feeling as though you could have done a better job. Feeling like you let your kids down is devastating. All moms need help, good, trustworthy, safe, responsible help. All moms need emotional support and good advice. Few actually have either. Kids need so much more than love.
APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.
Please login with your APS account to comment.