FOMO is driving Americans to have kids — but many eventually regret the decision

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — The choice to become a parent is not a decision that people should take lightly. Caring for and raising another life isn’t a job that one can simply clock out of at 5 p.m. Surprisingly, however, researchers from Rutgers University actually suggest many Americans are having kids simply out of social envy. Even worse, many report regretting their decision later on.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” has motivated countless people to spend money on extravagant items they don’t need or can’t afford. Similarly, “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, has emerged in recent years as a new term to describe that lingering worry so many feel while staying in on a Saturday night. No one wants to miss out on a memorable experience or great party, after all.

While splurging on a shiny new car or getting off the couch to meet friends are the typical consequences of social envy, this latest report indicates FOMO is also motivating many to become moms and dads.

“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 study co-author, in a university release. “In the context of what it means to be a parent, FOMO could be a valuable consideration.”

Estimates show that about one in every 14 U.S. parents (roughly 7%) admit they wouldn’t have had children if they could turn back the clock. Interestingly, this sentiment is even higher in European nations like Germany (8%) and Poland (13.6%).

Parental regret is largely an oxymoron within the context of society. Social norms explain that parents, especially mothers, are “supposed to love their children unconditionally from conception to eternity,” according to the research team.

parent child
(Photo by Bruno Bueno from Pexels)

So, in an effort to better understand what motivated now-regretful parents to start a family in the first place, study authors searched through and collected narratives posted to Reddit’s /r/childfree subreddit, an online community of roughly 1.5 million child-free individuals. However, the subreddit’s “moderators” also allow regretful parents to post about having children as well. The team cataloged a total of 85 testimonies from 2011 to 2021.

Study authors worked to code the Reddit posts with items like “investment of time” and “relationship sacrifices.” Next, they grouped those codes into themes, like “resource-intensive work,” which helped clarify and illuminate these so-called discourses. Along the way, three discourses from regretful parents kept coming up: parenting as heaven; parenting as hell; and parenting as (the only) choice.

After that, researchers analyzed how those discourses interacted to guide decision-making in reference to having kids. This led to the emergence of a new, previously unconsidered driver: FOMO. Researchers stress this work holds major, 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 write.

As abortion in the United States continues to become increasingly restricted, the potential for parental regret should be part of reproductive counseling services, the research team notes.

“Because of social norms, anyone who doesn’t subscribe to dominant views on parenting gets marginalized or stigmatized,” Prof. Scharp concludes. “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.”

The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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