Will Having Children Make You Miserable?
Are parents less happy than their childless counterparts? According to many studies, the answer is yes. These are not comforting stats. I have three young children, so I wonder if I'm doomed to a lifetime of subpar happiness.
The studies showing that children do not necessarily make people happy should not be shocking to any parent. I remember ushering a screaming toddler into a timeout, while my boob leaked all over the carpet because the reason for said timeout was my toddler’s choice to hit both me and her brother while I was nursing. My toddler screamed. My baby screamed. I wanted to scream. If some researcher had called me at that moment and asked if I was happier now that I had kids, I’d think back to the days when I could shower in peace, go to a coffee shop, or have a decent conversation with my husband, and I’d say, “NO!”
That was then. Has parenting become more joyful in the intervening years? Well, in the last ten minutes, I’ve had an 8 year old yell at me because I asked her to clean her room, a 6 year old wander away as I was mid-sentence, and a 4 year old demand I get off the computer because he wants me to feed him even though he is capable of lifting spoon to mouth. If that researcher asked me to rate my happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably give it a four, which is higher than leaky boob, screaming toddler territory, but not particularly happy.
My experience coincides with the happiness literature. The journalist Jennifer Senior notes, “As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns.”
In a particularly famous study, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman surveyed over 900 working Texan women and discovered they didn’t find childcare to be all that fun. Duh. Any study that looks at the minute by minute act of parenting will conclude wiping a kid’s butt is less fun than getting coffee with friends.
A couple of years ago, I was even offered the chance to participate in one of the happiness studies. I was asked to remember my day and rate my levels of happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Unsurprisingly, the moments when I wasn’t the primary caregiver for my children rated higher than the moments when I had to put them to bed. I’m certain the researchers crunched the numbers and came to the same conclusions repeated every few years: People with kids are less happy than those without.
As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns.— Jennifer Senior
Why Are Parents Less Happy?
Psychologists and social scientists have tried to analyze these studies and figure out why parents are so unhappy. These are some of their conclusions:
- Parents are stressed and anxious because of inadequate government policies, specifically, the lack of paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, and work flexibility.
- Kids stress relationships, and relationships are important to happiness. (Conversely, kids create new relationships, so this analysis is muddled.)
- Parenthood is more demanding than it used to be, which may or may not be true.
- Happiness studies are inherently limited because they measure minute to minute and day to day fun, rather than purpose. As Senior writes, “The very things that at the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.”
All of these explanations are probably true. However, explanation 4 deserves extra attention. I helped supply some of this happiness data, but I think the data is misleading. Snapshots aren’t particularly helpful when defining or rating something as vague as happiness. This is because fun and happy aren’t the same things, even though the two terms are conflated by both researchers and study participants. Existential rewards are not the same as coffee breaks.
Existential rewards are not the same as coffee breaks.
The Studies Aren’t Completely Useless
Although the happiness studies are limited by a philosophical shortcoming, they still show that, in general, having kids makes parents less happy than their past selves. However, this doesn’t mean they are less happy than the childless. More recent studies show that parents have higher highs and lower lows, but in terms of happiness, aren’t much different than childless peers.
If happiness is only defined in terms of discrete fun, having kids probably won’t make you happier in the short term, maybe not even in the long term. But, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a mother or father who sincerely regrets having children.
Raising another human being is hard work, even in the days before our parenting manuals and overthinking blogs. I don’t know about you, but working on a farm while having ten kids doesn’t sound like a clear path to our definition of happiness either. Nonetheless, people have continued to procreate for reasons that are hard to articulate, but are no less valuable and profound than day to day joy.
Therefore, asking whether kids make parents happy might be the wrong question. Instead, we should ask if having kids is worth it. I was never asked this question when I participated in that study. If I had been, I would have said, "All the bodily fluids, screaming fits, spilled food, missed vacations, and sibling rivalries are worth one 'I love you' and cuddle at the end of the day."
Parenting is joyfully miserable, a paradoxical category that doesn’t appear in any of those happiness studies.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 M Riley