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04 April 2012

Meaning > Joy

I recently assigned the Contexts article The Joys of Parenthood, Reconsidered (Simon 2008) to my frosh Social Problems course as part of our unit on gender inequalities. As I've thought more about it, I wanted to take a second to point out an issue with the author's claim. Here is the major finding:
Sociologists find that as a group, parents in the United States experience depression and emotional distress more often than their childless adult counterparts. Parents of young children report far more depression, emotional distress, and other negative emotions than non-parents, and parents of grown children have no better well-being than adults who never had children.
Later, Simon adds,
...[P]arents derive more purpose and meaning in life than adults who never had children.
In the very next sentence, however, Simon dismisses this, writing,
At the same time, the emotional benefits of having children are often overshadowed by the onerous demands and stressors associated with the role.
This emotional arithmetic seems problematic for a couple reasons to me. First, it's not clear whether this is based on the data or is a theoretical evaluation that the author offers. My guess is that Simon is saying that even though parents derive more meaning, their emotional measures are still low. Second, perhaps meaning and purpose are mutually exclusive to emotions as they are measured here, and perhaps meaning and purpose offer psychic rewards that trump emotional considerations. Religion, after all, is full of such examples. Being a religious conservative comes with great costs for adherents but offers (at least) equally great rewards. Think about young Evangelical adults who are taught to abstain from sex until marriage. There is a huge emotional burden to this kind of sacrifice given the social and biological pressures to be sexually active, but the social rewards in the form of group cohesion are enormous for those who are able to live up to these standards.

Chris Smith uses subcultural identity theory to explain such phenomenon, and I think it plays a part in possibly explaining why people keep having children. As we've learned from Eric Klinenberg's new research, solo living is exploding, becoming less stigmatized, and may well be better socially for individuals than cohabitation, a practice usually associated with marriage. Essentially, even though we keep telling ourselves that marriage and parenthood are beneficial, fewer of us are doing either/both. I think it might be that parents are setting themselves off as a strong subculture that is clearly embedded within mainstream society but that is increasingly in tension with it for a number of reasons. I digress, though.

I think we need to be careful to dismiss the meaning/purpose generating role that parenthood plays in people's lives. Emotional well-being is important but so is having a sense of meaning.

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