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Study: The Source of Parental Joy is Self-Deception

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The more it sucks to have children, the more parents tell themselves how great it is:

Parents rationalize the economic cost of children by exaggerating their parental joy

Any parent can tell you that raising a child is emotionally and intellectually draining. Despite their tales of professional sacrifice, financial hardship, and declines in marital satisfaction, many parents continue to insist that their children are an essential source of happiness and fulfillment in their lives. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that parents create rosy pictures of parental joy as a way to justify the huge investment that kids require.

The study found that the more parents were primed to think about the realistic drawbacks of parenting, the the more those parents felt conflicted and bad about parenthood. But when given an opportunity to idealize parenting, they gladly took it – and the negative feelings disappeared. Parents primed with a more balanced view of parenthood were less likely to feel conflicted or negative about parenting and less likely to idealize.

Parents reminded about how bad parenting really is actually predicted they would spend more of their leisure time with their children in an upcoming weekend, versus matched controls primed to have a more balanced view of parenting!

From the press release:

Eibach and Mock put their findings into a historical perspective: 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. 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. [Emphasis mine.]

Thanks Rob!

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Written by Sister Y

March 4, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Polite Conversation about Children

with 3 comments

A commenter “Elle” on a blog called ginandtacos points out that, while it’s socially acceptable to inquire into someone’s reasons for NOT having children, many of the likely reasons are not polite to mention, such as:

3. I’ve had four miscarriages, and I feel like my heart is breaking in my chest when I think about having another one.
4. My partner and I are both Tay-Sachs carriers, and the risks seem too great.
5. When you had a child you became so boring and self-involved that I shudder to imagine that happening to me.
6. I don’t know how I could have a child and keep them safe from their grandpa, without moving away.

I would also note that it is NOT socially acceptable to inquire into someone’s reasons for HAVING children (found that one out the hard way).

Written by Sister Y

July 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm

How Babies Destroy Your Fuckability: Female Edition

with 6 comments

Don’t worry.

Your body will still be beautiful after your pregnancy . . . in a way.

Your husband will still find you sexually attractive . . . sort of.

He won’t cheat on you . . . and if he does, it’s not the end of the world.

You’ll be able to lose the weight . . . probably.

The sagging skin isn’t such a big deal.

You brought life into the world – and that makes you beautiful.

You can learn to see beauty in yourself – even if most men don’t.

It will all be worth it in the end.

“You’re not a real woman until people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.” –Louis CK

Written by Sister Y

July 8, 2010 at 1:01 am

How Babies Destroy Your Fuckability: Male Edition

with 7 comments

Having children makes people less happy.

But more specifically, having a child reduces both a man’s expected frequency of intercourse and quality of his sexual partners. This is true both for a monogamously married man and for a man who does not have an exclusive sexual relationship with the mother of his child. Choosing to reproduce virtually guarantees a worse sex life for a man than he would have had if he had remained childless.

In our society, it is a little disingenuous to speak of a man “choosing” to have a baby. As I have previously discussed, men have zero reproductive rights in our legal system, beyond choosing to avoid sex altogether or to have a vasectomy. However, although the final say is not theirs, men often participate in the decision to procreate. I wish to present an argument from self-interest why men should use what little reproductive power they have to avoid reproducing.

You and Your Baby Mama

The fact that having a child destroys one’s sex life in the context of a marriage is a cultural axiom. In this case, it appears that stand-up comics are, in fact, in touch with empirical reality.

Having a child has disastrous consequences for married couples’ sex lives. 60% of females report decreased frequency of sexual intercourse six months after the birth of her first child than before pregnancy.[1] How much less frequent is intercourse? Half. Frequency of sex eight months after the birth of the first child is about half the (already pretty dismal) pre-pregnancy sexual frequency levels, as reported by both men and women.[2] Eight months after birth, 64% of women and 47% of men reported having sex five times or less per month, compared to (“only”) 29% of women and 15% of men pre-pregnancy. Id. Both men and women were much more likely to rate their sex lives as “not very good” or “poor” compared to pre-pregnancy. Id.

Is the decrease in sexual frequency a byproduct of fatigue? Not really. Levels of fatigue do not significantly predict frequency of intercourse after four months postpartum.[3] Being a great dad who changes diapers will not necessarily get you more sex. Breastfeeding massively reduces sexual frequency[3] – but it’s hardly responsible to avoid breastfeeding in order to have more sex.

Human Mate Selection: Effects of Reproduction

In all the research that has been done on mate selection in humans, two themes[4] recur:

  1. Men care mostly about physical beauty.
  2. Women care most about wealth and earning capacity.

Nature is perverse; having a child, while certainly a fitness-promoting act, comes with serious fitness consequences, most saliently:

  1. A woman’s physical appearance is damaged greatly by pregnancy.
  2. A man’s financial prospects are damaged greatly by having social responsibility for a child.

The most obvious effect of pregnancy on women is postpartum obesity. A Brazilian study found that 35% of each kilogram of weight gained during pregnancy was retained nine months postpartum – even after adjustment for age, pre-pregnancy BMI, body fat at baseline, and years since first parturition.[5] But even women who maintain their weight are affected; every year, thousands of women are rendered clinically unfuckable by pregnancy. Stretch marks, loose skin, horrific changes in body shape, varicose veins, scarring, vaginal muscle weakness, and the incredibly common pelvic floor disorder are all consequences of normal pregnancy.

These are certainly reasons for a woman to avoid pregnancy – but, realistically, a man considering bringing children into a monogamous partnership should be aware of these factors as well. Can you really promise to be faithful – forever! – to a woman who will suddenly become much less attractive, and most likely never really recover? Even if you’re married to Cindy Crawford, pregnancy will take its toll.

Impact on Standard of Living

Most people, of course, do not remain in monogamous partnerships for their entire lives – even those who have promised to do so, and brought children into the world based on that promise. How will your sex life be as a single dad?

First of all, you will have less money. A LOT less money. Methods used to calculate child support vary by state, but expect to pay one quarter to one third of your income – much more if you have sired more than one child. A California man who makes $3000 per month, whose former wife is not employed, will pay $559 for one child – $895 for two children – per month. (Join the fun – calculate your expected child support award in California!)

Not only is your actual earning capacity reduced, but the existence of your child advertises to your potential sex partner that you are less able to provide for her and her hypothetical future children.

It’s not just money, either. Your time and attention are valuable resources, and they are permanently affected by having a child. The above child support calculation assumes a visitation schedule where the visiting parent has the child 20% of the time. In practice, that means half your weekends, and then some. The fact that you have less time, money, and attention makes you a much less attractive potential sex partner to a woman – if you even have time to date.

All this is intended to appeal to self-interest. But being realistic about one’s future prospects helps one make responsible decisions about the future – and that’s not selfish at all. Fewer babies means more sex – and that’s good for everyone.

Your unborn children won’t thank you – but they would if they could.


1. Kumar, R., H.A. Brant, and K.M. Robson. Child-bearing and maternal sexuality; a prospective study of 119 primiparae. J. Psychosom. Res. 1981; 25(5): 373-383.

2. Dixon, M., N. Booth, and R. Powell. Sex and relationships following childbirth: a first report from general practice of 131 couples. British J. General Practice 2000; 50:223-224.

3. De Judicibus, M.A. and M.P. McCabe. Psychological factors and the sexuality of pregnant and postpartum women – Statistical Data Included. Journal of Sex Research, May 2002.

4. See, e.g., Fisman, R., S.S. Iyengar, E. Kamenica, and I. Simonson. Gender differences in mate selection: Evidence from a speed-dating experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2006.

5. Gilberto Kac, Maria H.D.A. Benício, Gustavo Velásquez-Meléndez, Joaquim G. Valente, and Cláudio J. Struchiner. Gestational Weight Gain and Prepregnancy Weight Influence Postpartum Weight Retention in a Cohort of Brazilian Women. J. Nutr. 134:661-666, March 2004.

Written by Sister Y

July 2, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Is Suicide Selfish?

with 11 comments

Suicide is commonly characterized as a “selfish” act. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die (who revealingly refers to suicide as “self-murder”), describes his response to a suicide thus:

How could she do it to her friends and to her family and to the rest of those who needed her? How could such a smart kid commit such a dumb act and be lost to us? There is no place for this kind of thing in an ordered world—it should never happen. Why, without asking any of us, would this beloved young woman just go ahead and take herself away?

Those who characterize suicide as “selfish” tend to focus, as Nuland does, on its effect on those left behind, rather than on the pain of the suicide, and whether it is fair to expect her to continue living so that her friends will not be deprived of her company. (Note that it is also common for them to characterize the suicide in demeaning ways, such as “dumb,” “stupid,” or “cowardly.”)

Duty, Self-Interest, Reasonable Generosity, and Selflessness

It is important to figure out what we mean when we call an act selfish. One possibility is that “selfishness” occurs when someone violates a duty to another. As I will explain, this is not the sense in which we usually use the term “selfishness.” In addition, even under this definition, the act of suicide is not in violation of a duty.

Duty

Selfishness does not entail the violation of a duty. For instance, we might speak of someone as “selfish” if he does not share his popcorn with his friend. He owes no duty to share his popcorn, and the friend has no right to the popcorn, but we may nonetheless properly characterize his failure to share as selfish. “Selfish” must therefore have another meaning.

However, even though we must look elsewhere to figure out whether suicide is selfish, we can briefly touch on the question of whether suicide entails the violation of a duty. The identification of continued life as a duty must mean that, on the other side, others have a right to our continued life. However, it is very strange to think of someone as having a right to our company, care, or even presence in the world (with the exception of our children, as I have explained before). In most cases, bodily autonomy and self-determination are held to be more fundamental rights than any “right” to be free from the emotional pain of someone’s absence. Given that bringing someone into existence is a serious wrong, I am not sure what distinguishes the suicide case from the escape-from-slavery case. In both cases, the agent removes himself from a horrible situation after a serious wrong has been done to him. In the process, he harms those with an interest in his remaining in the horrible situation (friends and family for the suicide, the slave owner for the escaping slave). But it would be very strange to say that the interests of the people left behind are sufficient to create a duty not to leave the horrible, unfair situation.

Taking Self-Interest as More Important than the Interests of Others

Another candidate for a definition of “selfish” might be taking the interests of oneself as more important than the interests of others. By this definition, we are selfish if we ever put our own interests ahead of those of others. But this definition must also fail, as it gives ludicrous results. Mainly, the definition fails to take into account that the interests of oneself and the interests of others may be of objectively different strengths. If I suffer a serious fall and yell to my neighbor to help me, I am putting my interests (in summoning an ambulance) ahead of my neighbor’s interest (in not being bothered with my problem). But it is ridiculous to call my action selfish. Similarly, if I end a romantic relationship because I no longer love the other person, I am putting my interests in being free from a loveless relationship ahead of his interests in having my continued company. But, again, rarely would we characterize this personal decision as selfish. In fact, it would be selfish of my neighbor to refuse to help me (assuming he hasn’t anything more important to do), or for my lover to demand that I remain in a loveless relationship. Therefore selfishness must refer to making a wrong judgment about the relative strengths of my own interests and that of others. One way to say this is that it is selfish, all things considered, to put a minor interest of my own ahead of a serious interest of someone else. Another way to put it, and one that captures more dimensions of the problem, is to say that it is selfish to fail to show that generosity that can reasonably be expected of people in a particular relationship.

Reasonable Generosity

When someone fails to share his popcorn with his friend, he is not violating a duty, but rather failing to show that level of generosity that can be reasonably expected of someone in a friendly relationship. The generosity that can be reasonably expected must take into account the magnitude of the sacrifice that is demanded, and the strength of the interest in whose name the sacrifice is to be made. If the sacrifice is slight or even roughly equal to the interest served, then, depending on the relationship, it might be selfish not to make it.

And this is the essential disagreement as to the selfishness of suicide: whether it is reasonable to expect someone to continue to live a miserable life for the sake of the feelings of his friends and family. I suspect that most people, like Dr. Nuland, cannot imagine that life could be so bad that one’s suffering could outweigh that of one’s friends left behind. These are the people that David Benatar characterizes as “cheery” (he means it as a swear). It may be impossible to accurately measure or assess the difference in suffering between the would-be suicide who remains alive despite wanting to die, on the one hand, and the friends and family deprived of the deceased suicide, on the other (but see my previous post on qualia of happiness). Almost certainly, it varies. (An interesting outcome of this way of looking at things is that, by this definition, the suicide of a person with no friends or relatives is not selfish at all, even if he is only experiencing slight suffering, whereas the suicide of a person with many friends and relatives may be very selfish, even if he is suffering severely.) But certainly it is a bit rich to assume that, in all cases, the suffering of the would-be suicide is outweighed by the possible suffering of his friends and family from being deprived of his company. In fact, in many cases it must be that it is selfish – even indecent – for a suffering person’s friends and family to expect him to continue living, if his suffering is so serious that it outweighs their interest in his continued company.

Selflessness

Some people who feel that their lives are not worth living, and who would very much like to die, nonetheless continue living for the sake of saving their friends and family the sorrow that their suicide would entail. Is this merely what is expected of them? Or might we characterize their action in continuing to stay alive as particularly selfless? If selfishness is failing to exhibit even a reasonable minimum of generosity, selflessness must be exhibiting an especially high level of generosity, much more than is ordinarily expected. If one’s suffering is so great that one prays for death every day, and yet continues to live to spare one’s friends and family the pain of the lack of one’s company, we must certainly say that for that person, merely living is a selfless act.

The Trap of Existence

Suicide is not easy, practically or ethically. One reason to avoid having children, as Benatar points out in his conclusion to Better Never to Have Been, is that even if one’s child suffers so much that he wishes to die, he may be prevented from ending his suffering by generous ethical considerations, such as the worry that his suicide will cause pain to those around him. Benatar refers to this as a kind of trap: after suffering the harm of being brought into existence, we cannot end it without causing still more harm in the horrible, blighted, wretched universe into which we have been cast.

Written by Sister Y

May 13, 2008 at 8:55 pm