Are people without kids happier than their parents? Does having children make people happier? Does having children make you unhappy? Still no proof that children make us happy! These are just a handful of headlines of late probing the effect of kids on parents in the great Happiness-a-thon of life. But here's the problem with them all: While struggling admirably to be "honest," they manage to totally miss the truth.
The truth is that having kids is a lot of things, but a one-way ticket to Happy Town it is not. And I say that as someone deeply satisfied by the parenting experience. When I read studies about how happy parents are and to precisely what degree, it seems about as useful as asking if we're happy being alive, or having careers, or being around other humans. Because the answer is the same: Of course. And of course not.
The decision to have children should not even be framed around whether or not you think it'll be super fun (even though there's a good chance it will), it should be decided based on whether or not you think you're up to the challenge, whatever that looks like, knowing full well you have ZERO CLUE. And the degree to which it's challenging is a little tricky, because there is virtually no way to find out without doing it. Weird, right? Yes, you can read about it, watch other people parent, rent a kid for a day, and conduct informal polls to your heart's content. But how it will actually be for you to have kids? Leap of faith.
Kids as a happy-driver is relatively new. You used to have kids because you needed extra farm labor; now it's to…what exactly? I'd say the reasons we have kids are so weirdly muted and inarticulate and leap-of-faith-y that most of us don't even know what they are. You feel like it. It just seems like what people do. You're dreaming big, living large, putting something into the world and agreeing to be largely responsible for how it turns on. Happiness and fun are definitely in there somewhere in the experience, OF COURSE, but it's hard to imagine anyone thinks having a kid is a tantamount to banking on a party cannon of cool times. So yeah, it's a weird question. I get why we ask it, because parenting is voluntary, so anything we pick all by ourselves that we don't actually have to do should be a blast, right? But other things we endeavor are also voluntary, hard as shit, sometimes fun, and (can be) deeply rewarding: Careers and marriages and exercising and learning French.
The only thing we know for sure is that, in terms of things that guarantee big-picture happiness, having kids is a crapshoot. But so is not having them. How would you ever decide? Books and articles and studies and theories and anecdotal experiences are great at telling you how other people feel about it all, but they can't really tell you how you'll feel about it. That all depends. Which is why I'm inclined to believe only one study I've ever seen about the having of kids or not having kids and the happiness quotient: "Having kids increases your life satisfaction? Yes, if you wanted them." Pretty much, the answer to the question of will kids make me happier is: "It depends." To wit:
The researchers conclude that in the United States, and other wealthy countries, parenthood is often a deliberate choice. So, if you have children because you wanted children, you are likely just as satisfied with your life as a friend who does not have children because he or she did not want to have them.
"A lot of people start out thinking that having children must make people happy," Stone said." After all, the species needs it to continue. But there is no reason to think that people who decide to have children are any happier than people who decide not to have children.
"It's like apples and oranges and I wouldn't think that people who like apples are any happier than people who like oranges."
What's more, they found that having kids does increase positive emotions, but also negative ones. This makes intuitive sense: To feel anything you have to put yourself out there. Relationships require great vulnerability to yield the payoff of intimacy and happiness that leads to the warm fuzzies. Kids require this in spades, often whether you're ready to give it up or not.
Other research backs the higher-highs, lower-lows idea, such as in All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior's justly praised new book about the "Paradox of Modern Parenthood," which examines how anything that can be so tedious and challenging can actually be worthwhile. To parents, this conclusion is very no duh and immensely validating, but it's an important book in the bigger sense because it lays out what we all discover but that most people don't seem to want to admit easily — it confirms the realities of this modern conundrum. The book presents "snapshots," of the breeding experience (mostly middle-class mothers), explains the New York Times' Sunday book review in a piece this weekend, "that allow for cautious universalizing."
Excerpts from the review include:
Raising children is terribly hard work, often thankless and mind-numbing, and yet the most rapturous experience available to adults.
Children alter the adult relationships into which they obtrude. Indeed, Senior says, they provoke a couple's most frequent arguments — "more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex." Mothers are frequently overwhelmed by their attempts to excel both at their paid jobs and at child care.
Senior draws on the psychologist Daniel Kahneman's distinction between the "experiencing self" that exists in the present moment and the "remembering self" that constructs a life's narrative. "Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes — or napping, or shopping, or answering emails — to spending time with our kids. . . . But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one — and nothing — provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it's the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales."
It's all mad true, but I dunno — the actual fun part of kids seems to be getting short shrift here. I have had some of the purest, most transcendently genuine fun-laughs of my life seeing the world through a 3-year-old's eyes, and in some ways, that's made even better because of the gauntlet you run to get there — sleep training, an entire week of almost-pneumonia, recurring fevers, teething. Some of that is joy in the abstract, but I do have the most fun you can have without drinking with my kid.
That said, All Joy and No Fun blows the lid off of the realities of modern parenting's ambiguous payoff, and I think it's an essential discussion we should be having about what parenting is really like, particularly that she reinforces the idea that parents are actually much happier when they have more government-subsidized social services.
But here is my question: Is it going to help anyone actually decide if they want kids? I'm not so sure, because it seems to me that part of the very experience of parenting is going through that very paradox in an intensely individual way — i.e., the process of mourning the loss of your old self, and then finding the new version you're going to be, is, to me, what it means to become a parent. And that process is no less bewildering when you've been told for the thousandth time in advance by well-meaning onlookers that YOU WILL NOT SLEEP AND YOUR LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.
I only bring up this particular way of thinking about this research because in a review on Slate, a woman who says she and her husband don't want children but sometimes want a cat, read the book in "the spirit of ongoing exploration on the subject of children." I did this when I was pregnant — read every kind of way people could talk about what it was like to have babies. I felt armed with the knowledge that I was aware of every possible way things could go, so I'd be "ready." I was still completely blindsided by the realities of adjusting to being so responsible for someone else. And I was like that woman! With the cat! And the not wanting of the children! Now I feel like a pro, but I had to reconstitute myself like a T-1000 to do it.
Anyway, the reviewer mostly marvels at the parenting tedium recounted in the book, what with all these children who are "fully empowered" within their families, meaning the parents overextend themselves to help with homework and constantly tend to the child's boredom, well through teenage-hood. (You don't have to parent this way! But let's just assume it's unavoidable because parenting is so child-focused now in one way or another.)
Senior's book explores the effects of children on parents—particularly, based on the bulk of her interviews and research, mothers. And let me warn you now: If you want to have kids but your partner is on the fence, do not let your partner read this book. Senior scrupulously chronicles the lack of fun. The joy, she admits, is difficult to quantify. ...And yet, no parent Senior interviewed regrets having children. They wished their days were different, but not their lives. Because the joys are there, even though the ratio of no fun to joy in Senior's book is four chapters to two.
I have to reiterate: anyone looking to be convinced that the joy-to-shit childrearing ratio is gonna tip in their favor is just shit out of luck, I'm afraid. That is your own row to hoe. Gotta pay to play, my friend. This is simply not a possible computation with humans. Cats, on the other hand, are known to shit and entertain in a much more reliably satisfying pattern. And hey, they also cost way less.
Image via Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/Shutterstock.