The University Record, October 14, 1998

When mothers don’t plan to get pregnant, adult children think less of themselves, study shows

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

When a woman has a baby she doesn’t want, the child’s self-esteem is likely to suffer more than two decades later, according to a U-M study forthcoming in the November 1998 issue of Demography.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was conducted by sociologists William G. Axinn, Jennifer S. Barber and Arland Thornton, all researchers at the Institute for Social Research.

Based on interviews conducted over 23 years, first with a random, population-based sample of 800 married women, and later with their children, the study is among the first to show that unintended pregnancies have negative, long-term social consequences for the children themselves.

“Being born unwanted probably reduces parental support and participation, as well as the quality of the parent-child relationship,” says Axinn, first author of the study report. “Women who didn’t want to have a child when they got pregnant may be less likely to invest time and emotional resources in that child, which may result in lower self-esteem for the child years later.”

For the study, Axinn and colleagues analyzed interviews with women who had given birth to a first, second or fourth child between six and 10 months earlier. All the women were selected from county birth records in the Detroit metropolitan area and interviewed initially in 1962.

Think back to shortly before your most recent pregnancy began, the women were asked. Did you really want to have this child? Nine percent said they did not.

A year later, the women were interviewed again, and asked the same question. Of the 9 percent who said they had not wanted to have the child in question a year earlier, 28 percent had now changed their minds and said they had wanted the child. But most continued to say the child had been unwanted.

Twenty-three years later, the researchers contacted these women’s children and asked a series of questions routinely used to measure self-esteem. Among the questions: How often do you have a positive attitude about yourself? How often do you feel you have a great deal to be proud about? How often do you feel you’re able to do things as well as most people?

Finally, the researchers analyzed the relationship between a mother’s attitudes about her pregnancy in 1962, and her adult child’s self-esteem in1985, controlling for a number of factors that have already been linked to self-esteem, including parental income, assets, education, number of children in the family, and child’s gender and birth order.

They found that children who were not wanted scored significantly lower on self-esteem than those who were wanted. This effect occurred whether or not the mother had changed her mind about wanting the child by the time of the second interview.

“A mother’s attitude in the first year of a child’s life seems to be particularly important to the child’s later self-esteem,” Axinn says.

The social climate surrounding fertility decisions is vastly different today than it was in the early 1960s when the study started, Axinn notes. Then, contraceptive choices were limited and abortion was illegal. But even now, he points out, levels of unwanted pregnancies remain quite high.

“When a mother of a baby who’s at least 6 months old says she didn’t want to have that baby, it could be for a lot of reasons,” he says. “Perhaps she has a lot of kids already. Perhaps her marriage isn’t going as well as she had hoped. Perhaps she wants to go to school or do something else with her life that isn’t easily compatible with being a mother.

“It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love the child. But it does tell you something about how much she has to give, in time, money or emotional responsiveness. And that may be what affects a child’s sense of self-worth decades later.”

 

 


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