Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, has an interesting explanation why even though “study after study has shown that parents, compared to adults without kids experience lower emotional well-being, have unhappier marriages and suffer more from depression, that they insist that..a life without children is a life unfulfilled.” The phenom at work?
It boils down to a psychological phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance.” Defined, it is a psychological defense we create to justify our choices and beliefs. In the case of parenthood, it can explain why parents create the “myth of parental joy because otherwise <they> would have a hard time justifying the huge investment that kids require” (and all the other negatives).
Research exploring the role of self-justification in parent beliefs supports the idea that cognitive dissonance is at play. For example, an article in Psychological Science, talks about a study that looked at how the high costs of kids and parents’ predictions of leisure time with them.
When parents have the high costs of children in mind they were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids. As Herbert says, “In other words, being aware of parenthood’s price tag made them idealize the time they spent with their kids, and this idealized image of family life led them to foresee more shared time in the future.”
Beyond parenthood, we all use cognitive dissonance as a way to justify our choices and feel good about them after the fact. It shows up in irreversible choices like parenthood, but also in much more simple situations. For example, after we buy that new whatever the car is, we tend to start seeing that car everywhere, and like that car even more.
But back to the kid thing—I have been pondering, how is cognitive dissonance at work with the childfree? Unlike parents, we have not made a choice we can’t take back that we might secretly regret and then have to idealize it to justify that choice.
But we have made a choice that if cognitive dissonance is at work, after we made it, we will find ways to confirm its “rightness.” This could include focusing on all the positives that go along with a life with no kids, and not the negatives or the positives that can come along with parenthood.
In my case, I more easily focus on all the things I love about being childfree, which looking through a cognitive dissonance lens, makes it easier to not slip into that tiny slice of me that sees her mom friends have this amazing emotional connectedness with their kids, which I have thought could be very cool. Then I snap out of it (it could be cool but not That cool), and once again revel in the joy of the freedoms that a childfree life gives me.
Going further, though I wonder if the ranting and “breeder bashing” out there is another form of self-justification, which of course can come from both directions, parents and not. I also wonder if those who are deep down not settled in their own mind and heart (whether conscious or not) about not having kids are the ones to have to do the most criticizing of parents or justifying of the choice not to have them…
How do you see cognitive dissonance working with the childfree, or in other areas of your life for that matter?