Skip to main content

Giving Birth to Meaning: Understanding Parenthood Through the Psychology of Meaning in Life

Abstract

In a long list of qualities that make us “uniquely human,” our capacity and urge to seek after an ultimate, abstract meaning for our lives surely must take a position near the top. Perhaps another entry might be our propensity to look for resources to help us understand our role as parent, learn how to be better at performing this role, and purchase books and gadgets that promise to make it all easier. Although there are large scholarly literatures on both meaning in life and on parenthood, there are surprisingly few entries that address both. We review this niche of literature and argue that viewing parenthood as an existential matter may yield new insights into the profound impact of parenting—or trying to become a parent—has in people’s lives. We present examples of a variety of parenthood domains and tasks conceptualized through a meaning in life lens and identify some of the difficulties people may encounter along the path of parenthood. We elucidate how the challenges and successes inherent in parenting experiences might contribute to or detract from the meaning people derive from parenting in addition to ways in which parenting may add to people’s overall sense of their lives as meaningful.

Keywords

  • Meaning in life
  • Personal meaning
  • Parenting
  • Parenthood

Ah, babies! They’re more than just adorable little creatures on whom you can blame your farts. Like most people who have had one baby, I am an expert on everything and will tell you, unsolicited, how to raise your kid!

—Tina Fey

Marge, don’t discourage the boy! Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals! Except the weasel.

—Homer Simpson

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-24864-2_1
  • Chapter length: 17 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   84.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-24864-2
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   109.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

References

  • Ashton-James, C. E., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2013). Parents reap what they sow: Child-centrism and parental well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(6), 635–642.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Aubin, E. D. S. (2013). Generativity and the meaning of life. In J. A Hicks & C. Routledge (Eds.), The experience of meaning in life (pp. 241–255). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 505–516.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Buckles, E. E., Beall, A. T., Hofer, M. K., Lin, E. Y., Zhou, Z., & Schaller, M. (2015). Individual differences in activation of the parental care motivation system: Assessment, prediction, and implications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 497–514.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Cheung, S. K. (2000). Psychometric properties of the Chinese version of the parental stress scale. Psychologia, 43, 253–261.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conti, R. (2015). Compassionate parenting as a key to satisfaction, efficacy and meaning among mothers of children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), 2008–2018.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Coulson, J. C., Oades, L. G., & Stoyles, G. J. (2012). Parents’ subjective sense of calling in childrearing: Measurement, development and initial findings. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(2), 83–94.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Dunlop, W. L., Walker, L. J., Hanley, G. E., & Harake, N. (2017). The psychosocial construction of parenting: An examination of parenting goals and narratives in relation to well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 18(6), 1729–1745.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • George, L. S., & Park, C. L. (2017). The multidimensional existential meaning scale: A tripartite approach to measuring meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 613–627.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Grolnick, W. S., & Apostoleris, N. H. (2002). What makes parents controlling? In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 161–181). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hansen, T. (2012). Parenthood and happiness: A review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Social Indicators Research, 108, 29–64.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Hirschi, A. (2012). Callings and work engagement: Moderated mediation model of work meaningfulness, occupational identity, and occupational self-efficacy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(3), 479–485.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Johansson, M., & Berg, M. (2005). Women’s experiences of childlessness 2 years after the end of in vitro fertilization treatment. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 19(1), 58–63.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776–1780.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(3), 292–314.

    CrossRef  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • King, L. A., & Napa, C. K. (1998). What makes a life good? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 156–165.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kushlev, K. (2011). Exploring parental well-being: Is childcare associated with parental well-being and what factors can enhance it. Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kushlev, K., Dunn, E. W., & Ashton-James, C. E. (2012). Does affluence impoverish the experience of parenting? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1381–1384.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531–545.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • McMahon, C. A., Gibson, F., Leslie, G., Cohen, J., & Tennant, C. (2003). Parents of 5-year-old in vitro fertilization children: Psychological adjustment, parenting stress and the influence of subsequent in vitro fertilization treatment. Journal of Family Psychology, 17, 361–369.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Meier, A., Musick, K., Flood, S., & Dunifon, R. (2016). Mothering experiences: How single parenthood and employment structure the emotional valence of parenting. Demography, 53(3), 649–674.

    CrossRef  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014a). Parents are slightly happier than nonparents, but causality still cannot be inferred. Psychological Science, 25, 303–304.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., English, T., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science, 24, 3–10.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014b). The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin, 140, 846–895.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2015). Juggling family and career: Parents’ pathways to a balanced and happy life. In K. Page, R. Burke, & C. Cooper (Eds.), Flourishing in life, work, and careers: Individual wellbeing and career experiences (pp. 100–118). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, S. K., Robbins, M. L., Andrews, S. E., & Sweeny, K. (2017). Disrupted transition to parenthood: Gender moderates the association between miscarriage and uncertainty about conception. Sex Roles, 76(5–6), 380–392.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Ngai, F. W., Chan, S. W. C., & Holroyd, E. (2007). Translation and validation of a Chinese version of the parenting sense of competence scale in Chinese mothers. Nursing Research, 56, 348–354.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Nomaguchi, K. M., & Milkie, M. A. (2003). Costs and rewards of children: The effects of becoming a parent on adults’ lives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 356–374.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Pakenham, K. I., Sofronoff, K., & Samios, C. (2004). Finding meaning in parenting a child with Asperger syndrome: Correlates of sense making and benefit finding. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 25(3), 245–264.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Palkovitz, R. (2002). Involved fathering and child development: Advancing our understanding of good fathering. In C. S. Tamis-LeMonda & N. Cabrera (Eds.), Handbook of father involvement: Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 119–140). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 257–301.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Reker, G. T. (2000). Theoretical perspective, dimensions, and measurement of existential meaning. In G. T. Reker & K. Chamberlain (Eds.), Exploring existential meaning: Optimizing human development across the life span (pp. 39–55). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Rizzo, K. M., Schiffrin, H. H., & Liss, M. (2013). Insight into the parenthood paradox: Mental health outcomes of intensive mothering. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22(5), 614–620.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Roese, N. J., Pennington, G. L., Coleman, J., Janicki, M., Li, N. P., & Kenrick, D. T. (2006). Sex differences in regret: All for love or some for lust? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(6), 770–780.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Sawyer, A., & Ayers, S. (2009). Post-traumatic growth in women after childbirth. Psychology and Health, 24(4), 457–471.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in life. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 679–687). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F. (2012). Experiencing meaning in life: Optimal functioning at the nexus of spirituality, psychopathology, and well-being. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning (2nd ed., pp. 165–184). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F. (in press). Meaning in life: A unified model. In S. J. Lopez, L. M. Edwards, & S. C. Marques (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F., Bundick, M., & Yeager, D. (2012). Understanding and promoting meaning in life during adolescence. In R. J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Encyclopedia of adolescence (pp. 1666–1677). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F., Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2012b). Measuring meaningful work: The work and meaning inventory (WAMI). Journal of Career Assessment, 20(3), 322–337.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80–93.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Steger, M. F., & Park, C. L. (2012). The creation of meaning following trauma: Meaning making and trajectories of distress and recovery. In T. Keane, E. Newman, & K. Fogler (Eds.), Toward an integrated approach to trauma focused therapy: Placing evidence-based interventions in an expanded psychological context (pp. 171–191). Washington, DC: APA.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sweeny, K., Andrews, S. E., Nelson, S. K., & Robbins, M. L. (2015). Waiting for a baby: Navigating uncertainty in recollections of trying to conceive. Social Science and Medicine, 141, 123–132.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Taubman – Ben-Ari, O. (2014). Well-being and personal growth in emerging motherhood: And what about meaning? In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in positive and existential psychology (pp. 415–434). New York: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Taubman – Ben-Ari, O., Ben Shlomo, S., & Findler, L. (2012). Personal growth and meaning in life among first-time mothers and grandmothers. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(5), 801–820.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The posttraumatic growth inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455–471.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • To, S. M. (2015). Development and validation of a quantitative measure for Chinese sources of parental meaning. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(12), 3580–3594.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 574–583.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Vaughan, E. L., Feinn, R., Bernard, S., Brereton, M., & Kaufman, J. S. (2013). Relationships between child emotional and behavioral symptoms and caregiver strain and parenting stress. Journal of Family Issues, 34(4), 534–556.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Verhaak, C. M., Smeenk, J. M. J., Evers, A. W. M., Kremer, J. A., Kraaimaat, F. W., & Braat, D. D. M. (2006). Women’s emotional adjustment to IVF: A systematic review of 25 years of research. Human Reproduction Update, 13(1), 27–36.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • White, M. P., & Dolan, P. (2009). Accounting for the richness of daily activities. Psychological Science, 20(8), 1000–1008.

    CrossRef  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael F. Steger .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2019 Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Morse, J.L., Steger, M.F. (2019). Giving Birth to Meaning: Understanding Parenthood Through the Psychology of Meaning in Life. In: Taubman – Ben-Ari, O. (eds) Pathways and Barriers to Parenthood. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-24864-2_1

Download citation