Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Pregnancy Intentions and Parents' Psychological Well-Being

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Pregnancy Intentions and Parents' Psychological Well-Being

Article excerpt

Extant research suggests that parents are more depressed than childless adults, yet the role of pregnancy intentions is largely absent from the discussion. Using 2 waves of data from the National Survey of Families and Households (n = 825 women, n = 889 men), the author found that pregnancy intentions are an important consideration for parents' well-being. The results suggest that unintended births are associated with increased depressive symptoms among fathers and decreased happiness among mothers. This association persisted even after accounting for union status and measures of depressive symptoms and happiness prior to the birth. The author also investigated the social, psychological, and economic mechanisms that explain this relationship. Self-efficacy and financial strain partially explain the link between unintended births and poorer well-being.

Key Words: family planning, National Survey of Families and Households, transition to parenthood, well-being.

Empirical research has found that parents experience more depression and stress relative to their childless counterparts (Evenson & Simon, 2005; McLanahan & Adams, 1987), yet these studies largely overlook the role of pregnancy intentions: whether a birth was considered intended (planned at the time of conception) or unintended (unwanted or mistimed at conception). Unintended births have been linked to a host of negative outcomes for children and families (Brown & Eisenberg, 1995), but the effect on parents' psychological well-being is less understood. In the current study I extend prior research by examining the effects of pregnancy intentions on parents' psychological well-being using nationally representative longitudinal data.

Demographic, social, and cultural trends in childbearing make pregnancy intentions a salient consideration for understanding the transition to parenthood. Despite the increasingly voluntary nature of parenthood, the United States has a surprisingly high rate of unintended pregnancy. In 2001, nearly half of all pregnancies were unintended, and 22% of these unintended pregnancies resulted in live births (Finer & Henshaw, 2006). At the same time, adults are having more planned children outside of marriage. Estimates from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth suggest that nearly half of nonmarital births are planned (49% among cohabitors, 31% among never-married individuals; Chandra, Martinez, Mosher, Abma, & Jones, 2005). Although prior research sometimes relied on marital status as a proxy for pregnancy intentions, inferring that nonmarital births are unintended, this assumption is problematic in light of these trends (Musick, 2002). This study acknowledges the unique role of pregnancy intentions as part of the changing context of parenthood and disentangles the effects of pregnancy intentions and union status.


This study is situated at the intersection of two bodies of literature. One stream of research finds that parenthood is generally associated with poor adult well-being but largely overlooks the role of pregnancy intentions (e.g., Evenson & Simon, 2005; McLanahan & Adams, 1987). Another stream of research finds that unintended births have negative effects on children's health, behavior, and development but pays scant attention to adult well-being (e.g., Baydar, 1995; Brown & Eisenberg, 1995). There are two exceptions, which provide some consideration of how pregnancy intentions affect adult wellbeing. First, Barber, Axinn, and Thornton (1999) found that unwanted childbearing is associated with increased maternal depression relative to mothers with intended births, which in turn compromises mother - child relationships. Second, shifting the focus to residential firsttime fathers, Bronte-Tinkew, Scott, Horowitz, and Lilja (2009) found that unintended births are associated with increased paternal depression compared to fathers with intended births, which is in turn associated with less support and communication with the baby's mother. …

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