Earlier this month, I came across Jennifer Senior’s article “All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting” and it’s been weighing on my mind ever since. The article is fascinating throughout, so much so that I scarcely know where to start — really, you should read the entire article — but I’ve included a few choice excerpts (emphasis mine).
On the general trends and issues:
From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly unmysterious why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction. The economist Andrew Oswald, who’s compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, is at least inclined to view his data in a more positive light: “The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. “Then the studies show a more negative impact.” 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. But some of the studies are grimmer than others. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances — whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.
So what, precisely, is going on here? Why is this finding duplicated over and over again despite the fact that most parents believe it to be wrong?
One answer could simply be that parents are deluded, in the grip of some false consciousness that’s good for mankind but not for men and women in particular. Gilbert, a proud father and grandfather, would argue as much. He’s made a name for himself showing that we humans are pretty sorry predictors of what will make us happy, and to his mind, the yearning for children, the literal mother of all aspirations for so many, is a very good case in point — what children really do, he suspects, is offer moments of transcendence, not an overall improvement in well-being.
Perhaps. But there are less fatalistic explanations, too. And high among them is the possibility that parents don’t much enjoy parenting because the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed.
On society’s changing view of children:
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, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.
On the potential downfalls of waiting to have children:
It wouldn’t be a particularly bold inference to say that the longer we put off having kids, the greater our expectations. “There’s all this buildup — as soon as I get this done, I’m going to have a baby, and it’s going to be a great reward!” says Ada Calhoun, the author of Instinctive Parenting and founding editor-in-chief of Babble, the online parenting site. “And then you’re like, ‘Wait, this is my reward? This nineteen-year grind?’ ”
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.
On the potential benefits of stronger welfare systems for parents:
One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children — and happier parents.
Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free) — well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve.
On the brutal reality of children:
This is the brutal reality about children — they’re such powerful stressors that small perforations in relationships can turn into deep fault lines.
This is another brutal reality about children: They expose the gulf between our fantasies about family and its spikier realities. They also mean parting with an old way of life, one with more freewheeling rhythms and richer opportunities for romance.
On the necessity of having a proper definition of “happiness”:
…for many of us, purpose is happiness — particularly those of us who find moment-to-moment happiness a bit elusive to begin with. Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.
To say that parenting is difficult would be to make one of the greatest understatements possible. It’s a Herculean task, and at times, you simply find yourself unable to think of how you’re going to survive another hour, much less make it to the end of the day. It’s amazing — and sometimes disturbing — just how much children can wreck your life, or rather, wreck a particular version of your life. I’ve said this before, but from a certain perspective, having children is one of the dumbest decisions you can make, particularly if you value your autonomy (not to mention your financial security, personal time, relationships with your peers, etc.).
But from another perspective, having children is one of the greatest things you can ever do with your life. True, you’re helping to sustain the human race, but on a slightly more personal level, you are bringing new life into this world and playing an absolutely critical role in its creation and development. Children are a blessing, and it’s a blessing that absolutely annihilates many of our modern ideas (and idols) of happiness and joy. Which, again, seems like a rather obvious thing to say — but something that needs to be said nevertheless.
Or, as Albert Mohler (whose blog introduced me to Senior’s article) puts it:
Christians must see children as gifts from God, not as projects. We should see marriage and parenthood as a stewardship and privilege, not as a mere lifestyle choice. We must resist the cultural seductions and raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and understand family life as a crucible for holiness, not an experiment in happiness.
And when it comes to happiness, we must aim for something higher. Christians are called to joy and satisfaction in Christ, and to find joy in the duties and privileges of this earthly life. Every parent will know moments of honest unhappiness, but the Christian parent settles for nothing less than joy.
I’ll close with these thoughts: I know several people who have emphatically stated that they will never have children, for all sorts of reasons. And up until just a few years ago, I felt much the same way — again, for all sorts of reasons. But now that I have children of my own, I realize that while part of me is certainly envious of the freedom that my child-less friends have, there’s a deeper part that’s not envious at all. When I think of the totality of having children — the good, the bad, and the ugly — I’m glad I made the choice. I’m content with it. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.
Several years ago, I attended a family reunion where nearly all of my mother’s family got together for the first time in God knows how long. My grandfather — a wonderful, Godly man — expressed his gratitude at seeing his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered together in one room. At that moment, I saw — perhaps for the first time in my life — the beauty of having a legacy, of having surrendered yourself to something bigger, something that transcends your own lifetime and even echoes on into eternity.
I think that was the moment when my usual objections to parenting began to wither away. I didn’t think children would make me happy or make my life more pleasant (plenty of stories of trials and hardships had disabused me of those notions). Rather, I was captivated, if you will, by the thought of sitting in a room when I’m in my eighties and being surrounded by my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — a rich legacy in which I, in God’s sovereignty, had been allowed to play a role.
It’s a thought that gets me through even the roughest days and nights of pooping, vomiting, kicking, screaming, and mysterious skin conditions.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.