A longitudinal study published in the European Journal of Personality found evidence that life goals remain relatively stable over time, even during the life-changing transition to parenthood. However, prior to the birth of their first child, mothers are less likely to endorse goals related to status improvement compared to nonmothers.
Major life goals help guide our decision-making and behavior and appear to be quite stable as we move through life. But it is unclear how these ambitions are affected by substantial life changes like entering parenthood for the first time. Researchers Caroline Wehner and her team proposed that since parenting takes up immense time and resources, new parents likely adjust their goal priorities to free up resources. This adjustment might include a shift toward family-oriented goals over achievement goals like pursuing a career.
To explore this, Wehner and her colleagues conducted a study to examine the stability and change of life goals during the transition to parenthood. The researchers analyzed data from a Dutch longitudinal study of first-time parents and couples without children. At the first assessment, the participants were 248 first-time parents and 294 non-parents between the ages of 19 and 45. The researchers focused on data from the first assessment, six weeks before the expected birth of the child, and the third assessment, one year after the child was born.
On both occasions, all participants completed a self-report questionnaire that asked them to rate the importance of three agentic goals related to getting ahead in life (achievement, power, variation) and three communal goals to do with getting along with others (intimacy, altruism, affiliation).
For the most part, the researchers found that life goals appeared to be highly stable among both parents and non-parents. When comparing average ratings from the first and second assessments, there was little change in the participants’ preferred goals, regardless of parenthood status. This falls in line with the view that life goals offer people direction and may help them maintain consistency during times of transition.
The researchers did, however, find evidence of selection effects, suggesting that participants’ goals predicted their parenthood status. When comparing the parents’ and nonparents’ goal ratings from the first assessment, they found that mothers were less inclined to embrace agentic goals compared to non-mothers. Examples of agentic goals were aspirations such as seeking to improve oneself or live an adventurous life. Importantly, this first assessment was conducted six weeks before the mothers were expecting to give birth, suggesting that mothers had different goals than nonmothers even before having children. This could be because women who are planning to have children tend to shift their goals toward settling down instead of adventure-seeking.
Interestingly, fathers did not differ from nonfathers in their goals prior to parenthood. The authors of the study say that this finding could be a reflection of gender differences in parenthood experiences. Mothers tend to be more involved in child rearing than fathers, and their careers are more likely to be affected by having children. In the Netherlands, for example, mothers are especially likely to be working part-time while fathers have a comparably short leave from work. It stands to reason that mothers might feel a stronger need to adjust their goals prior to parenthood compared to fathers.
On the whole, the study suggests that life goals are relatively stable, even throughout important life events such as parenthood. Wehner and colleagues note that their study was limited because it only included two time points, making it impossible to ascertain when exactly expecting parents might shift their goals during the time leading up to parenthood. Future studies could address this by conducting multiple assessments prior to a couple’s decision to have children.
The study, “Stability and change in major life goals during the transition to parenthood”, was authored by Caroline Wehner, Manon A. van Scheppingen, and Wiebke Bleidorn.