Family planning and the fear of missing out

October 4, 2023

Keeping up with the Joneses—social envy—can push people toward attaining goals that they otherwise might disregard or shrug off, such as buying a car they can’t afford or seeing a popular new movie.

It also might be a motivator for becoming a parent, a Rutgers study finds, as reported by EurekAlert.

Indeed, one of the main reasons why regretful parents have children in the first place may be fear of missing out, more colloquially known as FOMO.

“Why do you really want to have a child? What are your motivations?” asks Kristina M. Scharp, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and coauthor of the study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. “In the context of what it means to be a parent, FOMO could be a valuable consideration.”

Parental regret is antithetical to how parents are expected to feel about their children. Social norms suggest that parents, and especially mothers, are “supposed to love their children unconditionally from conception to eternity,” the researchers wrote.

To understand what moved regretful parents to start a family, the researchers collected narratives from Reddit’s /r/childfree subreddit, an online community of 1.5 million child-free users. Moderators allow parents who express regret about having children to post to the subreddit, which has cataloged 85 such testimonies between 2011 and 2021.

Scharp and her colleagues coded the Reddit posts with items such as “investment of time” and “relationship sacrifices.” Codes were then grouped into themes—such as “resource-intensive work”—which helped illuminate so-called discourses. Three discourses from regretful parents emerged: parenting as heaven; parenting as hell; and parenting as (the only) choice.

Finally, the researchers examined how these discourses interacted to guide decision making about having children. What they found was a new, previously unconsidered, driver: FOMO.

The findings have broad implications for family planning.

“By better understanding potential motivations for their actions, people might be more inclined to make value-concordant, autonomous reproductive decisions,” the researchers wrote.

With access to abortion in the United States increasingly restricted, the potential for parental regret should be included in reproductive counseling services, they added.

“Because of social norms, anyone who doesn’t subscribe to dominant views on parenting gets marginalized or stigmatized,” says Scharp. “Sometimes social norms are good. We know it’s wrong to steal. But sometimes social norms have unintended consequences and punish people for their choices – including people who want to be child-free.”

Research contact: @EurekAlert