The Paradox of Parenting

New York magazine reports on one of the great puzzles of parenting: “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.” While parenting doesn’t do much for “moment-to-moment” happiness, parents do find the job rewarding. Despite this, psychologist Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness), thinks potential parents still need to consider their options carefully. “So you have to think about which kind of happiness you’ll be consuming most often,” says Gilbert. “Do you want to maximize the one you experience almost all the time or the one you experience rarely?” [%comments]


Sam

For me personally, I disagree with this. Sure, I'm more tired all the time now and have a larger financial responsibility, but I am way happier now that I have a son. I love being a parent and get so much out of it each day. Maybe it's because I'm still fairly new at it (only have 1 kid and he's 4 months old) but either way, I experience so many aspects of happiness. It's not just one kind of happiness - it's many kinds. And you can only get it from being a parent.

Good Dad

Now that I have been married and have a kid, I can tell you why we are sometimes unhappier....

Very simply, my wife an I have grown FAR apart. Though we have been faithful to one another, there is little or nothing left of those glory days from our early marriage. Resentments and unforgiveness cloud all our decision, it seems.

For lack of a better example, it is as though we are both cups that are filled to the very brim...and the slightest disturbance between us caused invective and anger to run over.

But we have the most wonderful child in the world. If not for him, I cannot imagine us staying together at all.

Which is the problem, I am afraid.

While my wife and I are TERRIBLE spouses to each other, we are both very good parents to our child (leaving aside the question of whether it is good parenting to have a relationship that does not model excellence for our child). While I would be happy to never see my wife again (and the same for her, I'm sure), I could not bear to have my child never see here again, for she does love him and care for him (and he for her).

THAT is the source of unhappiness, I think. We both know we are unfit for each other, with no conceivable way to fix the matter. We don't wish each other ill. We just wish each other gone. Yet neither of us would give up our child under any circumstances.

So we stay together in a largely loveless marriage (with occasional glimmers of what used to be). So we stay unhappy. Because to part would make us even more unhappy, since we would surely either hurt our child by removing one is his parents from close contact...or would hurt ourselves by not having our child with us each day.

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Vince

I always wonder about "happiness" surveys. My life is far more fulfilling with two children, and we are plotting another. If you had asked me before I had had children to rate my happiness on a 10 point scale, I would probably have given you an 8.5 or thereabouts, and that's about what I would say now. However, there is simply no comparison in the two states, before children and with children. The latter is the far more desirable condition, now that I have had the opportunity to compare.

Phil

I think this gets to happiness v contentment. Parenting is an emotional rollercoaster with very tough challenges. Life without kids is simply easier. An easier life probably leads to more immediate happiness but over the longer term, I think life with kids (and ultimately grandkids) provides for greater contentment when looking back on life.

In the meantime, you just have to resist the urge to strangle misbehaving children :)

rw

My wife and I often joke that if we didn't have three kids, we would have more money than we know what to do with. But kids are expensive (even without considering college) and if your goal in life is to have a lot of money, having kids is probably not a good idea.

That said, we wouldn't trade our kids for anything. We love them and they love us. The memories of our lives together and the anticipation of life ahead fills us with joy. That is worth more than any bank account.

Have our kids caused us some unhappiness or anxiety? Of course. Having kids is a risk. So is crossing the street. So is making a lot of money. I've never met any parent who regretted taking the risk of children. I certainly haven't.

Ray

Parenting is hard work, and like any hard work happiness is found when the job is done, not while doing the job.

Christine

Happiness is not everything, it's a momentary emotional response to an external situation. Thirty minutes with a two year old or an adolescent can show you how wildly emotions can swing in response to external stimulus.

However, joy and satisfaction are internal and those increase immeasurably, in my opinion, when you have children. At any given moment I may be bored, excited, happy, sad or angry about any number of things, but having children always brings me joy and watching them grow up is enormously satisfying.

Things that are worth doing are worth doing because of their inherent value, not how they make you feel at any given moment.

Kris

This is so subjective, this happiness. I'm a new Mom and I can say I am far more happier than I have ever been but I also choose happiness. I don't think happiness just happens, one has to work at it and have a mindset for it. An example would be, if I really want to read another chapter in my book but my son seems to be doing everything to keep me from it, I could get frustrated and be thinking more about that chapter than my beautiful little son in my arms. If I'm always thinking about what I'd rather do, other than what's in front of me at the moment, I'll always be unhappy. It's a basic Buddhist principle of being in the moment.

Justin James

I love being a parent. My son brings a huge amount of joy and happiness to my life. Even when he is driving me nuts, I still do not mind it.

That being said...

I had hopes and dreams when I was growing up. None of them involved a child. I am at a point in my life where financially, I have earned the ability to have everything I wanted growing up. But instead of acting on my hopes and dreams, I am a parent. I never wanted to live in the suburbs, but the local schools are abyssmal, so being a good parent meant living someplace I hate to give my child the best opportunity. I never wanted to own a house, since it locks you down. I now own a house a hate because of the schools. I was trying to leave South Carolina when I met my wife, but she has a ton of family here and is too close to them so I am not going to take her away from that. Because of the expense of having kids, having my wife stay at home, and owning a house in the middle of nowhere, my career flexibility is gone. Because we moved deep into the suburbs, there are few jobs that I can take unless I want a 45 minute commute.

Every time I wonder, "why am I driving a Grand Marquis instead of the Corvette I always wanted?" the answer is, "because you have a wife and a child." Whenever I ask, "why have I never been to Australia, Japan, Greece, Italy, or any other country I wanted to visit?" the answer is the same. Every time I get upset at having to drive to get groceries instead of having nice stores within walking distance so I can get fresh meats, seafood, and produce for dinner instead of canned/frozen goods... same answer.

In other words, while being a parent is immensely rewarding, and has made me happy in and of itself, I am also incredibly unhappy regarding the sacrifices that are involved.

J.Ja

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Adam L

I blame the Xbox.

Robert

Parenting is work, but it introduces an entire new dimension to life. Would you like to be blind to avoid seeing an occasional unpleasant sight? There is a richness and entire new set of experiences parents have. And, of course, in old age there is nothing sadder than a lonely isolated "senior citizen" with noting to do and nobody to care...

jw

The problem with these studies is that they're comparing apples to oranges. Sure, on any given day the childless are enjoying more leisure time and disposable income than parents -- not to mention more sleep! But the happiness of a new car or a fun vacation doesn't have much to do with the profound fulfillment of watching your children grow, learn and become their own independent people. Stephen Colbert had a guest on his show a few years ago who made this argument. And as usual Colbert had the perfect answer: "Kids aren't fun; they're sublime!"

Barry J

I also disagree with their conclusion. Seems to me that a lot of the people interviewed for the survey may have their priorities out of order. Well, a better way to put it would be they haven't grown up yet and are being quite selfish... Once you make the decision to have children, it's no longer all about you. That's just the way it is. It's sometimes hard work (a lot) but it's also enormously rewarding to see your little one mature and develop. I'm not wearing rose colored glasses here, and I know that things will get harder as he moves toward adolescence and into his teen years. But to me, it's worth the effort to give him a solid foundation for the rest of his life. That truly makes me happy.

PaulD

If you're the kind of person who has a marked preference for getting over giving -- despite dominical statements to the contrary -- then perhaps you'll be more happy without children. But even then I encourage you to think what it will be like when you're 80 years old and no one really cares if you're alive or dead.

Paul Wertz

In the realistic world of wildlife, many animal populations regulate their numbers in order to stay within the carrying capacity of their habitat--the amount of food, water and cover their species needs to continue to exist. Until now, the human species' overpopulation has seemed to be insulated from that need. Perhaps the arrival of a discussion about the advisability of adding more humans to this earth is a sign that even Homo sapiens has a tick of DNA that senses there are too many of us.

Wayne

Significance and meaning is a HUGE deal now in career choices, investments, and many other areas. Parenting is meaningful and significant. Using a career analogy: would you prefer a high salary, or doing something significant and making a mark (given a reasonable salary, of course)?

Ben McFarland

This doesn't show a problem with parenting. It shows the inadequacy of "happiness" as an end goal.

tnj

children are not a happy pill that are capable of filling a void in one's life. if someone out there is having a child in order to remedy malaise it simply won't work!
however, for those people fortunate enough to find joy in life prior to having children and who are willing to take on life's challenges with optimism and a sense of humor, having a baby is rewarding, FUN and can offer a joy deeper than any they've known before. i mean how many adults get to say they've spent the afternoon doing something like making a lego castle with somebody who loves them like no other human ever could!
rule of thumb: be happy first, then procreate!

kevin benner

comparing the happyiness of people with children, to the happiness of people without children, is apples and oranges. Why don't you ask a bunch of senior citizens with children if they think their lives would have been happier without their children, and see what they say? I doubt you would see a high rate of positive responses.

lkwobgn

Sam, let's talk again when your kids are 19 or 20 years old and we'll see how you feel then! When our first child was four months old I, too, was in the flush of starry-eyed love with my baby. My children are now finishing high school and one is in college- and I am TIRED. Spent. Empty nest syndrome with accompanying tears? Not in this household.

Parenting these days entails a level of sacrifice, both financial and emotional, unheard of in prior generations. I think this is due to many factors, mostly cultural, including (for partner and I ) a loss of extended family/support network in raising children, young adults delaying onset of independence from parents, and the type of world we are living in which requires a complicated skill set just to survive (this is not the world I grew up in and we as parents are attempting to guide our children through a maze of issues that we never had to deal with.)

The whole sad truth is that you cannot possibly know, until you're smack dab in the middle of it, just how much energy it takes to parent thoughtfully and well. And by the time you realize this, it isn't as if you can just rewind the tape or call a mulligan.

There is joy, yes. At a cost.

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