The conditional benefits of parenthood (or childlessness) for subjective well-being in older adulthood

Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, University of Pennsylvania


Research in gerontology and the sociology of the family has emphasized the importance of adult offspring for providing social and emotional support in old age. Childless older adults are regarded as potentially disadvantaged, whereas the presence of adult children is used as a marker of social integration and resources among older parents. The simple distinction between parents and childless adults, however, masks a diversity of experiences and attitudes which condition the link between parental status and subjective well-being. Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households (1988), this dissertation finds no significant differences in loneliness and depression between parents and childless adults, aged 50–84. A more nuanced typology of parental status, based on parent-child relationship quality and attitudes about childlessness, demonstrates a more complex, conditional link between parenthood or childlessness and subjective well-being. For both men and women, poorer quality relationships with adult children are associated with significantly higher levels of loneliness and depression, compared to parents with better relationships or childless adults. Among childless women, those who hold attitudes that conflict with their own childless status (they believe that it is better to have a child than to remain childless) report higher levels of loneliness and depression compared to the childless women with congruent attitudes or mothers. Qualitative analyses of life histories and in-depth interviews with older adults illuminate the diversity of experiences among the childless and parents. The reasons and attitudes underlying the childless status, as well as re-assessments throughout the life course, define the meanings, salience, and consequences of childlessness for older men and women. Negative assessments of childlessness are linked with persistent pro-natalist attitudes as well as re-appraisals of childlessness in the face of social losses, health declines, or economic constraints. Childless adults who express high levels of satisfaction and well-being describe their childlessness as chosen and consistently preferred or as a benign and accepted aspect of their lives. The discussion highlights the interconnection between structural and normative contexts and individual, cognitive lenses in shaping the evaluation of subjective well-being in older adulthood.

Subject Area

Gerontology|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology|Social psychology|Psychotherapy

Recommended Citation

Koropeckyj-Cox, Tanya, "The conditional benefits of parenthood (or childlessness) for subjective well-being in older adulthood" (1998). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9913485.