This article originally appeared in
The New York Times on June 27, 2014.
By Eli J. Finkel
Everyone knows that being the parent of an infant is hard. There’s the
sleeplessness, the screaming fits to tend to, the loss of autonomy, the social isolation and the sheer monotony of it.
Everyone also knows that there is only one socially acceptable response to this predicament: a dogged insistence that the adoration you feel for your child makes all the sacrifices worthwhile. It’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” The only valid excuse for feeling sad or despondent is a postpartum hormonal crash. What other justification could there be for greeting your bundle of joy with despair?
This is the ideology of modern parenting, and it can lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame, for it ignores an inconvenient truth: that many women and men experience significant psychological distress in response to becoming a parent and that much of this distress isn’t caused by a hormonal epiphenomenon of the birth process. It is driven instead in large measure by the objectively bleak circumstances new parents often face. That you love your child is not always sufficient to counteract this reality.
Fortunately, over the past few years, the ideology of parenting has been challenged by social scientists, who have repeatedly demonstrated a profound disconnect between parenting dogma and the actual experience of parenthood.
Although many parents happily take to their new role, millions every year respond with despair. According to
a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, among new parents — three to six months postpartum — 42 percent of mothers and 26 percent of fathers exhibit signs of clinical depression. In a longitudinal study reported earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics, men on average experienced significant increases in depressive symptomatology across the first five years of fatherhood (if and only if they lived with their child). Indeed, in the years after becoming a parent, both men and women experience significant reductions in their overall level of satisfaction with their lives, according to a 2008 paper in The Economic Journal.
The story is similarly bleak when we look at people’s day-to-day experiences. In a
study published in the journal Science, people reported their emotional experiences during each of 16 activities over the course of the previous day: working, commuting, exercising, watching TV, eating, socializing and so on. They experienced more negative emotion when parenting than during any activity other than working. And they experienced more fatigue when parenting than during almost any other activity.
Parenthood takes its toll on your relationships as well. A
2009 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the transition to parenthood is linked to reduced happiness in the marriage and more negative behavior during spousal conflict. Evidence also demonstrates that this transition is connected to substantial reductions in the size of a parent’s networks of family and friends.
This research, which doesn’t even touch on the staggering financial cost of raising a child, provides clear evidence that for many people becoming a parent is one part blessing, one part trauma.
Given the ideology of parenting, it’s not surprising that we typically blame biology for the experience of postpartum depression. But the circumstances parents face are often demonstrably miserable. The fact that postpartum depression rates are much higher among the poor than among the wealthy, who can purchase peace of mind through hired child care, supports the idea that the phenomenon is, in most cases, more circumstantial than biological.
As a recent parent myself, I urge you to consider this the next time someone you know greets the transition to parenthood with hopelessness or even despair. Pursue kindness over ideology. For a person whose suffering has been met with judgment, a sympathetic ear can make all the difference.
- Eli J. Finkel is a professor of psychology and of management and organizations at Northwestern University.