Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Will Having Kids Make You Happy?

Having Kids Makes You Happy: FALSE

It's a great article, and not long. Recommended reading.

It goes without saying that I love my kids. I'd give my life for either of them without hesitation. If I had it to do over again, I'd have them. And so forth.


I used to feel sorry for people without kids. A decision made in haste, repented in leisure, I thought. They'll be so lonely when they get old without kids and grandkids, I thought.

Those impressions die hard, but nothing has made me more understanding of others' decisions not to have children as my experience as a parent.
In Daniel Gilbert's 2006 book "Stumbling on Happiness," the Harvard professor of psychology looks at several studies and concludes that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child—and increases only when the last child has left home. He also ascertains that parents are happier grocery shopping and even sleeping than spending time with their kids. Other data cited by 2008's "Gross National Happiness" author, Arthur C. Brooks, finds that parents are about 7 percentage points less likely to report being happy than the childless.


"Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."

A friend once told me that he wants to have kids because all the parents he knows have told him that they love their kids, that their kids are the best things that have ever happened to them, that they'd do it again. Well, yeah!

[W]hich parent is willing to admit that the greatest gift life has to offer has in fact made his or her life less enjoyable?

Parents may openly lament their lack of sleep, hectic schedules and difficulty in dealing with their surly teens, but rarely will they cop to feeling depressed due to the everyday rigors of child rearing. "If you admit that kids and parenthood aren't making you happy, it's basically blasphemy," says Jen Singer, a stay-at-home mother of two from New Jersey who runs the popular parenting blog MommaSaid.net. "From baby-lotion commercials that make motherhood look happy and well rested, to commercials for Disney World where you're supposed to feel like a kid because you're there with your kids, we've made parenthood out to be one blissful moment after another, and it's disappointing when you find out it's not."

The quoted studies also come to some interesting conclusions about why we might be less happy (marrying and having kids later, experiencing more years of pre-kids adulthood and career successes). But I'm still glad I'm a parent:
For the childless, all this research must certainly feel redeeming. As for those of us with kids, well, the news isn't all bad. Parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who've never had kids.

To my friend who recently (and cautiously) told me that she and her husband have decided not to have kids, I say, "I understand. Good for you for realizing that."

And to my friend who said that he wants kids because of what other parents tell him: I know you want kids for more reasons than that. But please know that there are things parents aren't telling you.

And, an important thing for all of us to remember: having kids won't fix us, any of us. It won't make us happy if we're depressed. It won't make a fragile marriage stronger. (In many cases, it can actually make a strong marriage falter. Like, you know, mine, a couple of years ago.)

But I'd still become a parent, if I had it to do all over again.


Kristi said...

Well, yes. I second what you said, and what the article said. Before having kids, I was unhappy about different things than I am unhappy about after kids. But now, the feeling that I was missing a piece of my life that was supposed to be there is gone.

If I took a hapiness survey about kids immediately after a hectic morning where both kids were throwing tantrums, then I would give very different answers than I would after, say, a whole-family tickle-fest. Our life is filled with more tantrums, crankiness, and aggravation, but the bright spots in our days are blinding, not just glowing.

If I had to do it all over again, I would too. In a heartbeat. Probably sooner than we did the first time around (assuming I could convince DH any faster).

As the article pointed out, one of the hardest parts of becoming a parent "later" in life than my parents did, was that we had many years of adulthood and career and 2 paychecks and travel, etc. I would argue that many people would be happier having kids much younger so that they don't know what they're missing and can enjoy the life they have instead of mourning the one they used to have.

Sarahlynn said...

On the flipside of that . . .

Have you read Freakanomics? The single greatest prediction of a child's success (high school and college graduation, avoiding prison, etc.) is the mother having her first child after she turns 30.

Sure, we might have a clearer picture of what we're missing by starting having kids a little later than our parents or grandparents did, but on the other hand, we're financially, and perhaps emotionally more ready.

liss n kids said...

*gets scared* Oh, crap, I was 28! Nooooo...my sons are going to prison!

I think the highs AND lows are more extreme when you're a parent. I sometimes wish I could go back to that carefree childfree life, but then what the heck would I blog about? :D

Brian said...

I find it a little strange that people are so cautious about saying they don't want kids. I'll state it right out loud; I don't want to have children, I never have wanted them, and it's vanishingly unlikely that I will change my mind in the future.

I don't mind talking about it. I don't mind people who ask why not. It simply isn't a subject I have much emotional attachment to.

Brian said...

kristi posted:
I would argue that many people would be happier having kids much younger so that they don't know what they're missing and can enjoy the life they have instead of mourning the one they used to have.

I have to say, this is one of the most depressing concepts I have ever read about.

Sarahlynn said...

Liss, all my highs and lows are currently flattened by exhaustion. But that's not really my kids' fault . . . I stayed up too late and budgeted my time poorly way before they came along.

Brian, I agree (about the depressing thing).

And regarding you not wanting to have kids, I've always respected that about you and K. You both know what you want and you're on the same page; that's great. And I very much enjoy living vicariously through you both. I might be doing some tedious parenting task and thinking that you're probably playing Wii. Or K's at the library picking out a tall stack of books to attack in the next week.

People tend to look at me like I've sprung a third head when I say that having kids has made me much more understanding of those who choose not to do the same. That doesn't mean I don't love my kids, just that I have a more realistic picture of what it really means to be a parent (and why it's not for everyone).

Seriously, what is for everyone, other than food, water, shelter, and occasional antibiotics?

Sarahlynn said...

"I would argue that many people would be happier having kids much younger so that they don't know what they're missing and can enjoy the life they have instead of mourning the one they used to have."

I'm thinking: isn't this like snookering people into having children? Shouldn't an informed decision be a better one?

And if some people end up deciding against having children, that's OK, too. The world is over-populated and its resources are over-taxed; we're not in immediate danger of extinction due to declining birth rates.