If You Want to Feel Good About Yourself, Don’t Have Kids

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Photo: Constance Bannister Corp

One of the reasons that self-esteem tends to go up as you get older is that you attain a sense of mastery over your newfound adult surroundings, or so the psychologists say. If you excel at your job or as a partner, you get the sense that you’re capable of doing things; the youngs call it “adulting.” But, as a new study on the links between self-esteem and childbirth shows, a newborn baby is a great way to challenge that sense of mastery — and lower your self-esteem in the process.

Published this month in Social, Psychological & Personality Science, a research team lead by University of California, Davis, psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn tracked 187 newlywed Dutch couples over a five-year period, giving them a self-esteem assessment every year. The researchers expected that there would be a sudden drop in self-esteem right after having kids — which averaged at three years after getting hitched for this sample — and then self-esteem would rebound.

But that didn’t happen: Mothers had an increase before childbirth, a sudden decline in the year after childbirth, and then a sloping decrease in the years following; fathers also had an increase just before childbirth, then had a sloping decline. Unlike the mothers, fathers didn’t have a rapid decline after birth; the researchers reasoned that it was because the stresses of parenthood hit moms harder. “Even though the birth of a child is generally considered a positive event, it is still associated with numerous potentially taxing challenges, and these tangible negative aspects of parenthood may offset the more abstract positive characteristics of the event,” the authors write; so while everybody might agree, in some theoretical sense, that having kids is good, the actual experience of raising them may not be pleasant, as my mother likes to remind me. (Maybe society agrees that parenthood is so good and noble because it’s so hard to be a parent and if people actually knew how hard it was, they wouldn’t be so eager to procreate? But I digress.)

What’s also compelling is how the bewilderment of raising a tiny, slobbering, crying, totally dependent human interacts with self-conception: if we derive self-esteem from being excellent at our jobs, the experiencing of being a total novice at parenting undermines our hard-fought, highly adult, possibly idealized notions of self. “During the first months (and maybe even years) after childbirth, new parents — and especially mothers — might be overwhelmed by these new stressors,” the authors write. “These initial experiences of stress and excessive demand might impede feelings of mastery and, as a result, negatively impact self-esteem.”

A couple limitations jump out with this study. One is that these were almost completely Dutch couples, and the Netherlands happens to be a country with outstanding child care, with the happiest kids and some of the happiest moms in the world. Then there’s the glaring fact that this study only tracks parents into, on average, their second year of parenthood. It would be awesome to see that extend to five or ten years, if not longer. While modern parenthood might be all joy and no fun, you have to hope that the joy, in the long run, wins out.