Wed Feb 27, 2013

What you Can't Expect when you're Expecting

Note: This post is by L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy. The paper it draws on is available here as a PDF.

You should think carefully about whether to have kids. It’s a distinctively modern decision. Until comparatively recently, producing an heir, supplying household labor, insuring against destitution, or being fruitful and multiplying was what having a child was about. Nowadays the decision to bear a child is freighted with a more personal significance—assuming you are physically able to do so, and lucky enough to be well-off and well-situated. Children are an enormous responsibility, we are told, and you should be sure you really want to have one before you go ahead and do it. In particular, you’re supposed to reflect carefully on what it would be like. You weigh the options and make a decision.

Crucially, this involves assessments of your future experiences. You imagine your life with and without kids, and think about what it would be like or feel like to have that experience. In the language of philosophers, you must think about the phenomenology of the experience. When it comes to children, people argue endlessly about what you ought to do. Some claim motherhood is a supremely fulfilling vocation. Some wearily raise their hands (after wiping off spit-up milk) and beg to differ. Others see liberation in the decision to avoid parenthood. They complain about the presumptions of a culture that equates child-rearing with happiness or self-realization, or that looks with pity or suspicion on the indecently happy and child-free. Insofar as there is any detente in the Mommy Wars, though, it’s around the idea that you should personally reflect with great care on these issues and decide for yourself whether this … this—what? Grand adventure? Prison sentence?—this experience is for you.

That sounds like a reasonable compromise, until you realize no-one knows what it’s like to have a child, until they have one. It’s a phenomenologically transformative experience. Fear not, veterans of the Mommy Wars. We are not saying it’s wonderful, or that people who don’t experience it have somehow failed at life. We just mean that people are very different afterwards, in ways they cannot anticipate. The evidence for this is everywhere. New parents laugh ruefully at their detailed pre-kid plans to fit “the baby” into their existing lives. “You ruined everything/In the nicest way”, as songwriter Jonathan Coulton says. Those who choose to remain child-free, meanwhile, bridle at the insulting suggestion that they are missing out on something. Yet they see their friends get body-snatched one at a time, cocooned in minivans and unable to stay out past eight, lost to civilized life, unrecognizable. Something happened to them. Even the parent who reacts to their new situation with numb disbelief, or shock and depression, has a transformative experience. These reactions have their own cruel character because they break so sharply with the official story.

Crying baby courtesy of photosavvy.

Stripped of judgmental overtones, the transformative character of becoming a parent is not a controversial idea. The trouble is, transformative experiences throw a wrench in decision-making based on future experiences. In theory, a rational choice is a series of steps: first determine the possible outcomes, and the costs and benefits associated with each one; then assign a probability to each outcome to calculate its value; finally, choose the option that gives the highest expected value. Real decisions are rarely so clean cut, because we are imperfect calculators and it is probably impossible to figure expected values with precision anyway. Yet this is the decision-making standard we aspire to. For it to work, you must at least be able to assess the costs and benefits of the most important outcomes.

But in this case, the most important outcomes include things like “what the experience will be like for me” or “what it will be like to be a parent”. If becoming a parent is a transformative experience, you can’t know in advance what it will be like for you. You can’t assess the costs and benefits of these outcomes, since you can’t know their values—and so if you choose based on what you think it will be like for you, you can’t even approximate a rational decision-making procedure. Our ordinary understanding of the choice to have a family or remain childless—all that careful weighing of options based on what it’s going to be like for you in the future—is based on a fantasy. You don’t know what it is going to be like. So you can’t rationally make the choice by weighing options involving the experience of parenthood.

You probably have some objections. You might say, “What if I decide to have a child solely because I want to pass along some DNA?” Or, “What if I decide to remain child-free solely because there are too many people on this earth already?” That’s fine. If you’re really not basing your decision at all on what being a parent is going to be like for you then you can make a rational decision. But relying only on criteria like that is not the usual way to decide to have kids.

You might say, can’t a rational decisionmaker adopt a different decision rule, one specially designed to deal with difficult choices? She can—but at a price. For example, consider a play-it-safe rule that says, “Simply choose the option whose worst case scenario is the best one relative to every other option’s worst case scenario.” This rule could help you choose between options without incorporating any special knowledge about what it would be like for you to have a child. Sounds reasonable, but it leads to strange results when considered from any particular individual’s point of view. Take Suzy, for instance, who believes she’d love to have a baby. If the best worst-case scenario involves not having a child (if this is better than having a child and bitterly regretting it, say), then if Suzy follows the play-it-safe rule, she should stay child-free, regardless of her own feelings—as should everyone else following the rule.

What about testimony from people like yourself? Can’t you look at them and rationally expect to have a similar experience if you make a similar choice? No. Without just the sort of self-knowledge you’d get from your own experience of having a child, you can’t know how the experience will affect you, and so you can’t know whether you’re more like the parent or the child-free person. As the saying goes, you get experience just after you need it. Even worse, parental testimony is unreliable. A parent may claim she is happier now than she would have been if she had not had her baby, but that may be because she cannot truly imagine life without it. Once a person has had a child, it becomes psychologically very difficult for her to assess what it would be like if she’d never had it. So even after having the child, she probably can’t weigh the different outcomes.

What about making a simple bet? Shouldn’t you just play the odds and choose to have a family, setting aside what you personally think it will be like? Isn’t it just obvious that having a child will make you happier? The standard account of choosing to be a parent certainly reinforces this view, with its endless talk of deep fulfillment. But the evidence suggests that’s nonsense. The highs may be higher for parents, but the lows are lower. Measures of overall personal happiness suggest that parents with children at home are less happy than those without children. Moreover, individuals who have never had children report similar levels of life satisfaction as individuals with grown children who have left home. If you merely want to play the odds, one shouldn’t have a child. But does that mean you shouldn’t have a child? No! You might be one of the people who find the experience of parenthood fulfilling.

We are not arguing that it is right or wrong to have a child. Nor are we saying people shouldn’t be happy with their choice. You can be happy with a child or blissfully child-free. But if you are happy, you shouldn’t congratulate yourself on your wise decision—you should be thankful for your good luck. Choosing to have a child involves a leap of faith, not a carefully calibrated rational choice. When surprising results surface about the dissatisfaction many parents experience, telling yourself that you knew it wouldn’t be that way for you is simply a rationalization. The same is true if you tell yourself you know you’re happier not being a parent. The standard story of parenthood says it’s a deeply fulfilling event that is like nothing else you’ve ever experienced, and that you should carefully weigh what it will be like before choosing to do it. But in reality you can’t have it both ways.