For Independence Day, ironically, New York Magazine saw fit to publish a fantastic article on parenting and well-being titled “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting” by Jennifer Senior. It details research around parents and their childless peers, men and women, singles and couples, and how and why parenting can be both joyful and rewarding and simultaneously less pleasurable than even housework! [Kahneman, 2004]
I’m still processing, but here are some of the bits that caught my eye:
I thought of something a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan—“a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar”—and rued how, at that moment, the same thing could be said of my apartment. Two hundred and 40 seconds earlier, I’d been in a state of pair-bonded bliss [with her 2 1/2 year old]; now I was guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol. My emotional life looks a lot like this these days. I suspect it does for many parents—a high-amplitude, high-frequency sine curve along which we get the privilege of doing hourly surfs. Yet it’s something most of us choose. Indeed, it’s something most of us would say we’d be miserable without.
…what children really do…is offer moments of transcendence, not an overall improvement in well-being.
Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time…. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”)
…all parents spend more time today with their children than they did in 1975, including mothers, in spite of the great rush of women into the American workforce. Today’s married mothers also have less leisure time (5.4 fewer hours per week); 71 percent say they crave more time for themselves (as do 57 percent of married fathers). Yet 85 percent of all parents still—still!—think they don’t spend enough time with their children.
(see also a parentsguild question thread about this contradiction: Parenting time on the rise?)
Mothers are less happy than fathers, single parents are less happy still.
… psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge… in 2003, did a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies stretching back to the seventies. Not only did they find that couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids; they found that every successive generation was more put out by having them than the last—our current one most of all….“They become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.” (Or, as a fellow psychologist told Gilbert when he finally got around to having a child: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.”)
When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea.
(sidenote: we launched parentsguild.com to help counter the pervading message in the parenting media and marketplace that there’s a right and wrong way to parent.)
“In our studies, it’s the men, by a long shot, who have more work-life conflict than women,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “They don’t want to be stick figures in their children’s lives.”
One of the things [Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania] noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents….“We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.”
Most studies show that marriages improve once children enter latency, or the ages between 6 and 12, though they take another sharp dive during the war zone of adolescence.
Seven years ago, the sociologists Kei Nomaguchi and Melissa A. Milkie did a study in which they followed couples for five to seven years, some of whom had children and some of whom did not. And what they found was that, yes, those couples who became parents did more housework and felt less in control and quarreled more (actually, only the women thought they quarreled more, but anyway). On the other hand, the married women were less depressed after they’d had kids than their childless peers. And perhaps this is because the study sought to understand not just the moment-to-moment moods of its participants, but more existential matters, like how connected they felt, and how motivated, and how much despair they were in (as opposed to how much stress they were under)…. Parents, who live in a clamorous, perpetual-forward-motion machine almost all of the time, seemed to have different answers than their childless cohorts.
“Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?”
What do you think? Are you more or less happy than before you had kids? Is happiness the right question?
[update: thoughtful response at Salon's Broadsheet - Joyless Parents: You're doing it wrong]