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.
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