For the most part, expecting a child is cause for celebration, and certainly congratulations. We usually react to news of an impending birth is with ‘Congratulations!,’ not, “how are you feeling about it?”
But at the same time, studies show that parents often report higher stress, more anxiety and depression than childless adults, and that taking care of their children – feeding them, picking up after them and disciplining them – are among their least favorite activities. And this effect is not the same across all racial and socioeconomic groups – those in lower income groups with less education tended to report more of this dissatisfaction, and sociologists suggested that it wasn’t the children themselves causing the distress, but the financial and social strains that families generate that was responsible for the trend.
To better understand the discrepancy, Stephen Wu and Paul Hagstrom, both professors of economics at Hamilton College, decided to focus on pregnant women, and investigate how pregnancy affected women’s well being and sense of satisfaction with their lives. To account for the potential effects of education and income, as well as age, on the relationship, Wu and Hagstrom relied on data from the Centers of Disease Control’s annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, which included more than 300,000 women between 2005 and 2009. The survey asked women to record their race or ethnicity, whether they were pregnant or not during the survey, and to report on how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale from very satisfied to very dissatisfied.
Because of the size of the sample, the scientists were able to compare white pregnant women to white non-pregnant women, Hispanic pregnant women to Hispanic non-pregnant women, and black pregnant women to black women who weren’t pregnant. Both white and Hispanic women reported boosts in happiness during pregnancy, while the black women did not.
Even when the team looked at different income levels of the black women, they found no increase in happiness among those who were expecting over those who were not. In other words, whether they were low, middle or high income, black women showed no happiness bump from being pregnant.
Similarly, black women showed no more satisfaction when Wu and Hagstrom compared them by education – since women with lower education tend to report less satisfaction with their lives in general than more educated women – or by age, since younger women may feel getting pregnant is more of a burden as they are trying to finish school or start a career.
“A lot of people say that when you find any correlation with race, that maybe race is a proxy for income or education levels,” says Wu. “In this case it doesn’t seem to be.”
In fact, says Alondra Nelson, director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University who wasn’t involved in the study, “Something about being a child of color, or having to raise a child of color, increases the risk” of not being as happy.
Wu says one explanation for the disparity may have to do with the social and emotional support that women receive when pregnant. Both white and Hispanic women reported enjoying more attention and help from their family and community while expecting, while black women actually reported receiving less support from others compared to black women who weren’t pregnant.
The only group of black women who reported a small peak in happiness while pregnant were those who said they currently lived with a partner. (Married black women didn’t report the same satisfaction, since their partners were not necessarily living with them and helping them with the pregnancy and parenting duties.)
In some ways, the pattern wasn’t that surprising, says Nelson, who conducts research on race and ethnicity as well as family and gender studies. For one, it may simply reflect the more realistic perspective that black women have about what having a child means – socially, emotionally and financially. “It could be a practical and pragmatic response,” she says. “And maybe it should be hailed as opposed to being critiqued and looked at as a curiosity.” Given the data that shows married couples with children are less satisfied with their lives in general, the fact that black women don’t necessarily feel more happiness at becoming pregnant may be a realistic acknowledgment of the immense responsibility of being a parent.
And black women may feel that responsibility more acutely. Nelson notes that recent sociological data suggests that black children, especially black males, are at higher risk than those of other races – of being victims of crime, of being incarcerated, of being discriminated, and of living potentially unhappy lives. Studies have even linked the number of black children in second and third grades to the number of jail beds anticipated when those children reach adolescence. “That may be a reason to have a more tempered response to raising a black child in this environment,” she says, noting well-publicized cases such as that of Trayvon Martin, and the Chicago school shootings.
Such a dampened view of pregnancy doesn’t mean, however, that black women are not happy about having children. There is a long tradition in which children serve as the nexus of social networks and the source of community strength in black, and even Latino societies. It’s more common among black than in white populations, for example, for distantly related or unrelated people will come together to support a child, both emotionally and financially if possible.
Understanding how that tradition is affected by modern societal pressures, Wu acknowledges, will take more research. But these the findings are a first step toward a closer look at how race impacts perspectives on pregnancy. Other factors — such as the role of contraceptives, and whether the pregnancy was planned – will also be worth exploring. “In a way, the study answers some questions but actually poses some more,” he says.