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A conversation with Manon van Scheppingen

An interview

We recently chatted with Manon van Scheppingen about her article, "Stability and change in self-control during the transition to parenthood", which is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the European Journal of Personality. Manon is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam.

Read more about her article on self-control during the transition to parenthood below!


Q: Hi Manon! What made you decide to study the topic of self-control during the transition to parenthood?

My broader interest has always been in personality development and I think parenthood is an interesting context for studying it. This study was part of a larger project on the transition to parenthood, which I started together with my PhD supervisor Wiebke Bleidorn in 2013. I’m interested in this topic because, we of course know that people change in their personality when they are adults, but we know very little about the reasons why they change. Parenthood is a major life transition during early adulthood, making it possible for people’s personalities to change because of it.

I still want to do some studies on parenthood in the future and I think we have some unanswered questions, also with this dataset of course. For example, there might be differences in if parenthood is unplanned or not, and how people change in their personality afterwards. So that’s something I might be interested in. But, I also want to focus on other life transitions. So now, for example, I focus on how people change when they go through a divorce. Another idea is to look at broader personality development over a longer period of time and to see how many transitions influence people’s personalities. So, it’s not that I only want to focus on parenthood – and I never saw myself only as a parenthood researcher, but more than that. But, I think I always want to focus on personality development!

Q: What is your paper focused on?

We wanted to focus on self-control for this study because it is a personality trait that is important for many life outcomes such as academic success, romantic relationships, and health. We already know this, but we know very little about how it develops during the complete life span and also about how it develops during major life transitions, so these are still very much open questions.

We thought that parenthood is something that is connected to self-control because parenthood is something for which you have to change and regulate a lot of behaviours, and this regulation seems to have already begun during pregnancy. For example, a mother may have to stop smoking and, focus on eating healthy – she might have to regulate a lot of her behaviours, and continue after the child is born. Parents have to feed and care for the baby in addition to juggling their role as a worker, and as a partner – parenthood is something that involves self-control.

We collected our own data for this project. It was difficult because it’s not really possible to collect data from people who are not expecting yet. In the end, we decided to start with couples that were expecting their first child, making the first time point of data collection during pregnancy. We also wanted to have a daily diary component in there. This was done to supplement retrospective self-reports about personality with everyday reports of self-control behaviours. Using this design, we followed parents longitudinally during pregnancy but also afterwards to see how they changed in their self-control. We also followed a control sample – people who were also in a relationship but who did not desire to become parents in the near future. This was important because it could be that self-control changes in young adulthood independently of parenthood.

I think the most interesting finding was that we found decreases in parents’ self-control, especially in the first year and especially for mothers. We found that mothers decreased in self-control, showing the steepest decline from during pregnancy to about six months after childbirth. This effect was shown both for the retrospective measure of self-control, but also when we used aggregated ratings of self-control from the diary measure. Interestingly, fathers did not show decreases in self-control when examining the retrospective measure, but they did show decreases in aggregated ratings of self-control from the diary measure. It could be that fathers don’t experience a decline when they look back on the previous period but that when you really look at their daily behaviour, they do experience this decline. It was the first time that we used this diary measure for self-control, which means more work needs to be done on its validity and reliability – perhaps when you measure self-control through a diary, it means something different than how you do it in a traditional personality survey. For instance, maybe it’s more about how many temptations you have on a day-to-day basis, instead of how much self-control you have. These are questions that we still have to answer, but I think the main finding is that mothers decline in self-control, and that this effect replicates for both retrospective and daily diary reports.

We had a lot of thoughts about what the decline in mothers meant. Keeping in mind that the first measure is during pregnancy, it could mean that mothers are just really high in self-control during pregnancy, because it is a more predictable situation. Most mothers have a lot of guidelines about how to change their behaviour during pregnancy; they know they have to stop smoking, they know they have to eat healthy, and so on. But, after childbirth it’s much more unpredictable; you have a child and you don’t know what will happen. For example, some children cry more than others. This unpredictability may be a reason why mothers experience much lower levels of self-control post-pregnancy.

Another idea is that mothers change in who they are referencing when they answer questions about their behavior. Before you have a baby, you might compare yourself with people who don’t have children and afterwards, you compare yourself with other mothers or what you perceive as characteristics of an ideal mother.

This is not the only study we did on parenthood and we have some more general take home messages. We know that this is not the only personality trait or psychological construct that shows these declines in mothers. This happens also for self-esteem. It is important to keep in mind that these declines are happening in the short-term and we do not yet have proof that it’s really a long-term change. So, especially in the first year of parenthood, you see this decline – also in relationship satisfaction – suggesting that it’s just a really challenging phase for parents, and especially for mothers.

Our study is one of the first studies to indicate that major life transitions are related to changes in adult self-control. There are not many longitudinal studies on changes in self-control so I think that this is really important as we see that it can change. With regard to parenthood, I think we should look more at the broad picture combined with other studies. I think that we have strong evidence for short-term changes (with these being mostly negative and mostly for mothers), but not for long-term changes.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

I am doing a post-doc right now at the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam (UVA). My broad plans are to stay in academia and to maybe one day become a professor – first as an assistant professor of course! I also want to focus my research program on personality development (including the Big Five and self-esteem) and on romantic relationships. I also want to integrate open science practices into my research. I am now working on my first pre-registration and am also developing a course with Thomas Leopold, a new colleague here at the UVA, in which we also focus more on open science and replication. I think that it’s really exciting to be an early-career researcher at this time, and to see what we can do to improve science.

I am enjoying open science and pre-registration in particular, but it is also challenging I must say. I usually work with existing data and much of my work focuses on describing how a certain trait might develop over time. I find that it is really difficult to make really specific, detailed hypotheses about what I expect to find. This is something I am working on at the moment. My plan at the moment is to write the whole introduction before I look at the data. To me, it sounds like a good idea to have all your theoretical ideas worked out before you look at the data when working with existing datasets. But, I will have to see if this works, since it’s all new to me.

Q: Do you have any tips or advice for junior researchers?

This is a difficult question, because I’m also a young researcher and I don’t know if I have any advice myself already. I think I’m now really in a phase of becoming more independent. This was already occurring at the end of my PhD, of course. I really learned a lot from my advisors, Jaap Denissen and Wiebke Bleidorn, and they really gave me the opportunity to become more independent so that was really great. I think my own advice would be more about the work-life balance. In the beginning, I thought there was only one way to become successful in academia, to “do it”. People gave me a lot of advice, for example about where to live, how many hours to work, and even if and when I should have children. I think it’s good to have a lot of different role models, to have people who do it all in a different way. I think it’s nice to learn that there is not just one way to have a successful academic career. I think it’s really important to try and find your own path and to find the work-life balance that works for you – instead of only taking all the advice from other people, thinking there is only one way when, in fact, there are several ways.

Q: Thanks for chatting with us, Manon!

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