Now, it may be that these statistics simply indicate that modern women are just exerting more control over when and under what circumstances they become mothers. To a large degree that's true. But it doesn't jibe with an even more shocking reality: that half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. Once you factor in the abortion rate and pregnancies that end in miscarriage, we're left with the rather surprising fact that one-third of babies born in the United States were unplanned. Not so surprising, however, is that the intention to have children definitively impacts how parents feel about their children, and how those children are treated -- sometimes to terrifying results.
American culture can't accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother.
Jennifer Barber, a population researcher at the University of Michigan, studied more than 3,000 mothers and their close to 6,000 children from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Barber and her colleagues asked women who had recently given birth, "Just before you became pregnant, did you want to become pregnant when you did?" Those who answered yes were categorized as "intended"; those who answered no were then asked, "Did you want a baby but not at that time, or did you want none at all?" Depending on their answer, they were classified as "mistimed" or "unwanted." Over 60 percent of the children studied were reported as planned, almost 30 percent were unplanned ("mistimed"), and 10 percent were unequivocally "unwanted."
The results of Barber's research showed that the children who were unintended -- both those who were mistimed and those who were unwanted -- got fewer parental resources than those children who were intended. Basically, children who were unplanned didn't get as much emotional and cognitive support as children who were planned -- as reported both by the researchers and the mothers themselves. Barber's research looked at things like the number of children's books in the home, and how often a parent read to a child or taught them skills like counting or the alphabet for the "cognitive" aspect. For the "emotional" support rating, they developed a scale measuring the "warmth" and "responsiveness" of the mother, how much time the family spent together, and how much time the father spent with the child. Across the board, children who were wanted got more from their parents than children who weren't. Children who were unplanned were also subject to harsher parenting and more punitive measures than a sibling who was intended.
Barber pointed out that this kind of pattern could be due to parental stress and a lack of patience that's "directed explicitly toward an unwanted child," and that a mistimed or unwanted birth could raise stress levels in the parents' interactions with their other children as well. She also says that in addition to benign emotional neglect, parenting unintended children is also associated with infant health problems and mortality, maternal depression, and sometimes child abuse.
When Torry Hansen of Shelbyville, Tennessee, sent her seven-year-old adopted son by himself on a plane back to his home country of Russia with nothing more than a note explaining she didn't want to parent him, she became one of the most reviled women in America. Russian officials were so incensed that they temporarily halted all adoption to the United States. We sometimes expect fathers to shirk their responsibility; but when mothers do it, it shakes the core of what we've been taught to believe about women and maternal instinct.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argued in a 2001 Utah lecture, for example, that being female is seen as synonymous with having and nurturing as many children as possible. So when mothers abandon their children, it's seen as unnatural. This simplistic, emotional response to parents -- mothers, in particular -- who give up their kids is part of the reason Americans have such a difficult time dealing with the issue. As Hrdy says, "No amount of legislation can ensure that mothers will love their babies."
That's why programs like safe haven laws -- age limitations or not -- will never truly get to the heart of the matter. As Mary Lee Allen, director of the Children's Defense Fund's child welfare and mental health division, has has, "These laws help women to drop their babies off but do nothing to provide supports to women and children before this happens."
Unfortunately, discussing the structural issues has never been an American strong suit. Hrdy notes that legislators are too afraid to focus on sensible solutions. "Talking about the source of the problem would require policymakers to discuss sex education and contraception, not to mention abortion, and they view even nonsensical social policies as preferable to the prospect of political suicide."
If policymakers and people who care about children want to reduce the number of abandoned kids, they need to address the systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care. We need to encourage women to demand more help from their partners, if they have them. In a way, that's the easier fix, because we know what we have to do there; the issues have been the same for years. The less-obvious hurdle is that of preparing parents emotionally and putting forward realistic images of parenthood and motherhood. There also needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that not everyone should parent -- when parenting is a given, it's not fully considered or thought out, and it gives way too easily to parental ambivalence and unhappiness.
Take Trinity, one of the mothers who commented on the Secret Confessions board about hating parenthood. She wrote, "My pregnancy was totally planned and I thought it was a good idea at the time. Nobody tells you the negatives before you get pregnant -- they convince you it's a wonderful idea and you will love it. I think it's a secret shared among parents ... they're miserable so they want you to be too."
By having more honest conversations about parenting, we can avoid the kind of secret depressions so many mothers seem to be harboring. If what we want is deliberate, thought-out, planned, and expected parenthood -- and parenting that is healthy and happy for children -- then we have to speak out.
This post is excerpted from Why Have Kids?