Parenting and the Loss of Autonomy

Berit Brogaard on parenting, autonomy and life-satisfaction.


A new and fairly unexplored area of philosophy is how to make sense of the growing body of data from psychology showing that parenting tends not to increase life-satisfaction or meaningfulness. What do these results indicate about parenting and personal autonomy?

Few would deny that parenting is hard. But mere hardship isn’t proof of loss of autonomy. When you make decisions and act on those decisions, your decisions and actions are at least partly autonomous. When fully based on what you value and identify with, your decisions and choices are fully autonomous.

One indicator of loss of autonomy is hardship that is neither satisfying nor meaningful. This type of hardship undermines autonomy because you don’t fully value it or identify with it. Parenting seems to be a form of hardship that is neither satisfying nor meaningful. The World Database of Happiness, which summarises the result of measures of life-satisfaction and happiness in more than 100 countries, indicates that life satisfaction is lower among parents. These data are consistent with a 2006 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, sociologist Robin Simon and his co-author found that parents are more likely to be depressed than childfree people. Another study published in 2011 in the journal Psychological Science points out that even apparently happy parents may be covering up their true feelings. On average, parents exaggerate how happy their kids make them in spite of financial and physical stressors.

Two studies appear to indicate parent life-satisfaction. Research published in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Science appeared to demonstrate that parenting really is associated with more satisfaction. Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues explored whether parents are more satisfied than their childfree peers, while also looking at whether age and the parents’ sex matter to their feelings about parenting. The researchers found that parents are happier and more satisfied with their lives than their childfree peers. When controlling for the sex of the parent, however, it turned out that only fathers experienced greater overall happiness and life satisfaction compared to their childfree peers.

The other apparent challenge to the finding that parenting does not make people happy comes from German sociologist Matthias Pollmann-Schult. He conducted a longitudinal study of how much life satisfaction parenting adds to people’s lives lasting from 1994 to 2010. He reports on the basis of his findings that “parenthood by itself has a substantial and enduring positive effect on life satisfaction.” The conclusion, however, cannot be taken at face value. The reported conclusion of the study is based on a fairly common way of controlling for various factors before reporting the results of data collection. In this study Pollmann-Schult controlled for the cost and time it takes to rear a child. Basically, the conclusion is that if it didn’t cost anything and didn’t take any extra time to raise children, then raising children would add to people’s life satisfaction.

What about meaning? Meaning is more commonly thought to be positively associated with parenting. People’s self-reports concerning how children affect meaning in life, however, do not point to this being the case. A study published in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Science allegedly showed that parents experience more meaning in life associated with parenting than non-parents. The researchers supposedly found that parents reported “a stronger sense of meaning in life”. But was that in fact what the researchers showed?

It wasn’t. One of the main conclusions of the study was that parents are “thinking more about meaning in life than non-parents do”. This is basically consistent with parents being in a more desperate search for meaning in life compared to non-parents, but not that they experience more meaning in life than non-parents.

This is unsurprising. Meaningfulness is associated with longer-term gratification, not short-term gratification. So, if parents really did find that caregiving gave rise to a significant amount of additional meaning in life, it would be something that could only be experienced following long stretches of parenting – once the caregivers see what comes of their parenting and their parental love.

The psychological data seem clear: being a parent might make you happy and feel you lead a meaningful life but not parenting itself. Although the issue has yet to be fully explored, parenting seems to imply a loss of autonomy. The question that I would be interested in knowing the answer to is whether there is anything else about parenting to offset the loss of personal autonomy.

In my current project on parental love I hope to show that the profound love that normally exists between parent and child is a positive value that is normatively independent of life-satisfaction and meaning and that may make up for the loss of autonomy that comes along with parental activities.

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This essay is one of 50 new ideas in philosophy that appear in a Special Edition of The Philosophers' Magazine. Please subscribe here.

Berit Brogaard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami and author of On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion.