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Parental Unhappiness

For anyone who has chosen to not have children, you may perhaps already know that the statistics back up your choice. For the fact is that when given questionnaires about life-long happiness, childless couples consistently report greater measures of happiness than ones with children. The one caveat here is that the couples need to have chosen to be childless; those who want children but are unable to have them feel differently than those who actively make a choice.

You could easily speculate why this is. Childless couples have more time to spend on each other, have more time to pursue joint or individual hobbies, are able to travel more, enjoy flexibility regarding their schedules, and have fewer financial constraints than couples with children. They also have one less (fewer?) subject for marital arguments and at least one less (fewer?) person to argue with.

Several recent studies have taken on this question, attempting to adjust for things like state of unions before children came along and whether the pregnancies in various families were agreed upon and planned. It’s only logical that couples who agreed about having children and carefully planned them would report greater happiness than those who did not agree and/or who did not plan them.

So far, the best the researchers have shown is that these best-case scenarios only even the playing field between couples with children and those without them.

These studies beg two questions:

  • 1. Why does everyone say their kids are their greatest joy if they are not?
  • 2. Who do so many of us have children if they cause such unhappiness?

And again, it’s easy to speculate. We remember moments of transcendent joy and forget the daily niggling irritations. We are wired to reproduce and delude ourselves about how much we enjoy it. Those that want children are more likely to pass on this personality trait than those who do not. We are pressured into having children by societal expectations.  We are pressured to say we like being parents by the same. And, of course, many of us don’t plan our children, and some of us are honest about being miserable after they arrive.

Recently, this topic hit Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog in the NYT, and as when she blogged about talking to your children about death, I clicked into the comments field to see what the village was saying. This time, unlike with the post about death, the responses were not overly reassuring:

  • One half reported not feeling happier per se as parents, but feeling like their lives were richer for the experience. Many of these said that happiness is over-rated, and that fulfillment is the more important quality.
  • One quarter admitted to being less happy as parents, a significant percentage of which claimed that parenthood had led them to divorce or to the brink thereof.
  • One quarter of posters, mostly parentless, claimed that children are miserable, life-force-sucking creatures, and that any of us who claim otherwise are deluding ourselves.

My internal responses fell out more or less like this, following the order established above:

  • Hm. Yes, fulfillment is good and my life is also richer, but are you dodging the question?
  • I pity you and your kids. Seriously-no judging here, just genuine sympathy for a difficult, no-win situation for all parties.
  • I’m glad you can’t pass on your obnoxious genes, you smug little ass.

What I did not see much of, and what my experience has been to date, is those reporting a genuine uptick in happiness. I don’t just feel richer or more fulfilled for having Simon, I also feel measurably happier. And not in some deluded, “I am miserable all day but have transcendent moments of joy once a month” way, but in a totally unmistakable “I miss very little of my pre-child days, I smile more now, I laugh more now, I feel happier engaging the word and those around me” way.

One way I absolutely know this to be true and not delusion is that a good friend of mine visited recently and told me as much. She was catching me up on a mutual friend who had inquired about me when she offered that I seemed very happy in my post-baby stage—and unusually calm (for me, I should qualify), too. This is someone who has seen a fair share of  Jessica freak-outs over the years; there’s no fooling her about my internal state.

She’s right. I’ve had my parenting-related anxieties, and I’ve laid them out here for all to see. But when I compare them to my pre-child feelings, the shift is monumental. I haven’t been this happy since my junior year of college, my first year or so in San Francisco, or my early childhood. Perhaps that will change as Simon grows up and gives me more cause for worry. I expect it will. But for now, I’d like to ask the wanker who chalks up all self-reported parental happiness to cognitive dissonance who is he or she to say whether someone else is happy?

There are lots of things that make others happy that I am unfamiliar with or do not enjoy myself: Things like Nascar races, marathon running, stamp-collecting, playing card games, and eating donuts come immediately to mind. I take no known pleasure in any of that. But I would never be so arrogant as to say that those who DO enjoy a long run or a good donut are deluded.

I know when I’m happy and when I’m not, and right now I’m very happy. What I don’t know is how long this happy (pun intended) circumstance will last.

One Response to “Parental Unhappiness”

  1. Amanda says:

    You *are* happier. And much, much more laid back than I ever thought you’d be. Simon is a joy–not all children are, but then being excellent parents means (usually, the Jeff Dahmer types excepted) having excellent children. Studies like the one you mention always make me laugh–the bottom line always seems to be some people are happy, some people aren’t, some people are miserable and some people are miserable AND judgmental about other people’s lives and choices. And in other news the sky is blue and bears do you-know-what in the woods. I don’t have kids, and strangely am neither happy nor unhappy about that (is that weird?) but I love kids. Kids are our future. And they are endlessly fascinating. People who think they are soul-sucking zombies, well, glad they don’t have them. But I do get sick of singles whining about those with children–“They get more days off then I do” and “Why should I support schools?” Suck it up, dudes. We live in a society where we should all be responsible for each other.

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