Fear of death during the transition to parenthood and the effect of mortality salience on parental self-efficacy
The encounter with death evokes fear, dread and anxiety in most people, and thus the individual’s coping mechanisms with death have been the subject of much research throughout history. The current study addresses the possible changes in conscious and unconscious fear of death that may accompany the transition to parenthood. This period is characterized as positive and rewarding on the one hand, while accompanied by stress, anxiety and many changes, on the other.
According to Terror Management Theory (TMT; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991), people use cultural defensive means, including identification with worldviews and strengthening self-esteem, to cope with the awareness of their own mortality. Another symbolic way of coping with the terror of death is through the biological mechanism of birth and continuity. This coping mechanism has been confirmed in several studies and thus led us to hypothesize that couples in early stages of parenthood, following the birth of their first child, will report lower levels of fear of death, both conscious and unconscious, compared to childless couples. Additionally, we sought to examine the effect of exposure to one's own mortality on parental functioning, specifically parental self-efficacy.
The current study included two sub-studies, one correlational and one experimental, in which 147 couples participated (294 mother and fathers).The first, correlational, study included 150 men and women (75 couples) divided into three study groups: childless couples, couples in transition to parenthood (parents of a first child aged two weeks to six months) and couples in the late stages of the transition to parenthood (parents of a first child aged one year or more). This study examined the parents' attachment orientation, conscious and unconscious fear of death (through implicit and explicit measures) and looked into the dyadic effects of spouses’ attachment orientation. The second, experimental, study included 144 men and women (72 couples), parents of a first child aged three months to two years, who were exposed to a mortality salience manipulation. We then examined the effects of this manipulation on parental self-efficacy. This study also examined the unique contribution of parental attachment orientation and level of neuroticism.
The findings of Study 1confirmed the hypothesis that childless couples are more occupied with thoughts of their mortality, both on the conscious and unconscious levels, than couples with children, and that people (mothers or fathers) with an anxious attachment orientation report greater fear of death on both levels while those with an avoidant attachment orientation report greater fear of death only on the unconscious level.
Additionally, the findings suggest that one spouse's attachment orientation contributes to the other spouse's conscious and unconscious fear of death. Overall, a more avoidant attachment orientation on behalf of the spouse was associated with higher levels of conscious and unconscious fear of death, whereas a more anxious attachment orientation on behalf of the spouse was associated with higher levels of fear of death mainly on the unconscious level. Sex and study group were moderators of these associations.
The findings of Study 2 indicated that the mortality salience manipulation did not lead to increased parental self-efficacy. That is, no differences were found between study groups in the measures of maternal or paternal self-efficacy. Similar to previous findings, current results indicated that mothers reported greater parental self-efficacy than fathers, and that attachment orientation and level of neuroticism contributed to parental self-efficacy among bothstudy groups.
These findings add to the existing literature about conscious and unconscious fear of death among couples at different stages of the transition to parenthood, and add empirical validation to the meaning of symbolic immortality achieved through birth as a defense mechanism against death.
Understanding the meaning of symbolic immortality achieved through birth has practical implications for therapists treating couples facing the loss of a child, not only in the period of transition to parenthood but also later in life. This is also relevant for therapists treating couples who are dealing with infertility issues.
In summary, it is necessary to further examine the effects of awareness to one's own mortality on parental functioning, broaden the knowledge on parenting as a defense mechanism against fear of death, and explore the role of parenting as providing meaning in this and other contexts.