The last “award” a psychologist can win is to have an obituary in American Psychologist. I am happy that A.I. Rabin, who passed away in the fullness of his 98th year, has been so honored. He is best-remembered for his writings on personality development and for his studies of how children grow up in the the Kibbutz. His impact on me (conveyed through his research because we never met) concerned the question of why people have children.
When I first proposed this question for my undergraduate thesis, my developmental psychology professor dismissed it with “What kind of question is that? People have children because they screw a lot”. As is so often the case, the mentors we need are encountered in books, and I was fortunate to find some quarter century-old studies by Rabin and his graduate students on the topic of psychological motivations for becoming a parent. It was enough to encourage me to study the same question, and I think it’s even more important now than it was then.
Of course, my sceptical professor was correct from a biological viewpoint: We have children ultimately because we are sexual beings. But the ability to effectively separate sex from parenthood, either through birth control or abortion, is more widely dispersed than at any other time in history. Birth control, from sheep bladder condoms to crocodile feces spermicides, is thousands of years old. But nothing that has gone before is as effective or as available as are The Pill and its cousins. And the social pressure to have children has dropped to a level in the developed world that would have shocked our forebearers.
My undergraduate thesis, like most of such works, was of no lasting (or even, honestly, passing) interest. The only piquant finding was that among male college students better mental health correlated negatively with the number of children they wanted to have and for female college students the reverse was true. But that may have been an artifact of the measures I used or the sample, and in any case it was a long time ago and the culture has changed much since.
But the question hasn’t: Why do we choose to have children? Clearly, given the greater degree of choice that technology and cultural mores provides, human beings on average tend to have fewer rather than more. The birth rate is even well below replacement in Roman Catholic Italy.
A rational modernist might assume that we choose to have children if they will make us happy and choose not to have them if they will make us unhappy. But as with arranged marriages versus love matches, there is no evidence at all that greater choice makes us more satisfied. We aren’t that good at guessing how we will feel when we have a mate or (even moreso) when we have children. We cobble up a series of fantasies, expectations and wants which all turn to dust at the mysterium tremendum moment when the OB/GYN says “This is your child”.