Why do many parents insist that having children is indispensable to human fulfillment, when the number of fulfilled childfree adults proves that it clearly isn’t? I considered this question in my first post on my blog, “The Preachers of Parenthood.” I made some speculations about the explanation, but now there is an actual scientific study that offers a new and intriguing explanation: cognitive dissonance.
The study, conducted by two scientists at the University of Waterloo, published in Psychological Science, and reported by Wray Herbert at the Huffington Post, concluded that parents convince themselves that parenthood is a joyous, “don’t miss” experience to avoid their true feelings about it, which may be mixed or even negative. This should give pause to anyone who is on the fence about whether to have kids.
Herbert, a parent himself, makes a fascinating point about the emotional and intellectual gymnastics some parents do to be (or seem) as happy as they are “supposed” to be about parenthood. In the not-so-long-ago past, he notes, “emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate…and childhood was much less sentimentalized.” The notion that parenthood should be joyous arose only when children no longer added value to the family economy—implying that parents’ personal fulfillment emerged as a substitute reason for people to keep breeding once the financial incentive disappeared.
Of course this study doesn’t show that all parents are deluding themselves or that they would all be unhappy if they were honest with themselves, though it is worth noting (as the study’s authors do) that “raising children has largely negative effects on parents’ emotional well-being.” For instance, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness that “careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” Jennifer Senior reports in New York Magazine that “a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines.” This begs the question whether these studies found a way to cut through the cognitive dissonance that was documented in Psychological Science to reveal deeply-buried dissatisfaction, or whether the parents experiencing cognitive dissonance showed up as happy in the other studies, or whether cognitive dissonance is even the right explanation for the Waterloo findings.
One thing is certain: more studies on parental happiness are to come, and my bet is that they will offer even more affirmation to people who suspect they would prefer a life without kids. Making “non-parenting” more socially acceptable can only increase the choices young adults have in shaping their lives, and that makes me honestly, non-dissonantly happy.