Parenthood and Meaning
Does parenthood make us better off?
Having a child makes another person matter to you as much as you matter to yourself. Parenthood also enlarges us by connecting us to a wider community. Before kids come along, our circle of friends is usually based on shared interests. After kids, we can find ourselves sitting at the park or in a playgroup or in a school auditorium with a much wider assortment of people. We become more involved in the public life of the community we live in than we once were.
Being enlarged sounds positive, but it’s not an obvious life good—like happiness, or well-being. By enlarging us and by altering our lives in myriad other ways, does having kids make our lives happier or better?
THE HAPPINESS PARADOX
If research in positive psychology is to be believed, parenthood does not make people happier. As economist Richard Layard puts it, "There is indeed great rejoicing when children are born. Yet within two years parents revert on average to their original level of happiness.” Actually, when I read the footnotes associated with these sentences, I discovered the situation is even more dire. Andrew Clark and three other psychologists studied a large quantity of German survey data and found that reported levels of life satisfaction go up on average upon the birth of your first child, but subsequently go back down, and eventually dip below what they were before the child was born. Both men and women wind up with about a half-point less life satisfaction (out of a possible total of eleven points) by the time their child is four years old, compared to what they experienced before having children. (Women experience a bigger initial surge when the baby is born.)
Reported overall life satisfaction seems to dip as a result of becoming parents, but what about the time we spend in the company of our wonderful children? Is that at least enjoyable, even if appraisal of our lives as a whole is a little more negative, after children? That’s not so clear either. In much-reported research done by Daniel Kahneman and several colleagues, roughly a thousand employed women created a retrospective diary of their activities in the previous twenty-four hours, noting how they felt during each activity. The researchers’ goal was actually to develop a new tool— the day-reconstruction method—for the study of all aspects of well-being, but they stumbled on some surprising data about how women feel while doing the hands-on work of childcare. Ratings of positive affect showed that these women were happiest during intimate relations, followed by socializing, relaxing, and praying (or worshipping or meditating). Then came eating, exercising, watching TV ... the list goes on and on. You have to descend all the way to the twelfth line on the list before you come to "taking care of my children.” Even more surprising, taking care of their children generated more negative feelings than any activity besides working. Since Kahneman was really just developing the retrospective diary as a research tool, he didn’t take pains to make sure his sample of women was representative of all women, or even all American women, but the study is still suggestive and puzzling.
It may come as a surprise that parenthood isn’t a cause of greater happiness, especially to parents who think of their children as their greatest joy. What’s going on here? One factor must be that many of the activities on Kahneman’s list are undertaken voluntarily, whereas parenthood can just happen to us. We voluntarily and deliberately choose intimacy, socializing, worshipping, and exercise, whereas people can fall into parenthood when they were looking for sex, or maybe a relationship. To see whether parenthood boosts happiness in the way that these other experiences do, based on an apples-to- apples comparison, we would have to look at the subgroup that chooses parenthood, instead of the whole class of people with children, and I am not aware of any research on that subgroup.
Another worry is that these researchers are focused on the time of life when parenting is most labor-i ntensive. The Clark study only follows parents until their children are age four, and in the Kahneman study the only child-oriented activity is "taking care of my children.” What if a study compared midlife men who have no children and midlife men who have teenagers they spend time with—watching their sporting events or going running together or attending concerts? Would this sort of recreation really be low on the list of enjoyable activities? I would be extremely surprised if that were the case.
And of course, being a parent continues, past the point when children require any taking care of at all. My obstetrician had to have a colleague deliver my children because she’d gone to Los Angeles to visit her college-age daughter. She beamed while telling me how much fun they were going to have shopping together. In fact, parents do an awful lot of beaming, if they’re not having much fun. My friends and siblings seem genuinely elated when they talk about visits with their grownup children.
And then there is the last stage of the parent-child relationship. My father, at age ninety, resides in a senior-living facility and spends time on Skype every day with me and my two brothers. Unless he is an amazing fake, the time he spends with us is some of the most enjoyable time in his day. Residents in the facility who don’t have children visiting them shouldn’t be assumed to get equal enjoyment from other visitors, because aside from spouses and children, there aren’t many other visitors, from what I can see. In the fullness of time, children can be an irreplaceable blessing.
But focusing again on the first five or ten years of childhood, when having children is most labor intensive, it’s worth asking why childcare makes us less happy—assuming it really does. Berit Brogaard hypothesizes that the crux of the matter is that a parent’s autonomy is reduced by a demanding infant. It’s not only the feeling of fatigue that is unpleasant (recall Anne Lamott’s description of her son’s first year, which I quoted in chapter 11), but also the sense of not being able to control your own days and hours. When the grating sound of your baby’s crying grabs your attention, you have to stop what you were doing and meet the baby’s needs. When an eight-year-old has to be coaxed into finishing a homework assignment that’s due tomorrow, the showdown must take place now, whatever else you have on your plate.
Some people are happier than others while doing the work of caregiving, and that deserves an explanation too. Partly it might be because they find ways to avoid autonomy deprivation—they let themselves not respond immediately to a crying infant, and they let the eight-year-old deal with his own homework. There is another factor at play here as well, which also has to do with a parent’s sense of who is in charge. Once people have children, they can feel like leaders of their own very small country, with its own distinctive culture, values, and traditions. Growing up in my family of origin, our little country was extremely different from the ones in neighboring houses. We ate different food, ate at different times, went different places for vacations, had different books on our shelves. My mother was the show-runner for our household, more than anyone else, and I believe that was a source of enjoyment for her. My hypothesis— granted, I have no proof for it—is that people enjoy parenting more the more they play that sort of executive role, or at least share it with their partner. A mother will not feel like the leader of a tiny country if her husband insists on complete control, and vice versa. Likewise, mothers living within an extended family might find themselves under the control of a mother-in-law, instead of enjoying an executive role. Some parents will feel they must be completely obedient to a church or another institution, doing just as the school dictates with respect to homework, for example, or just as the church asserts with respect to sex education, for another example.
There is also the possibility of feeling like a slave to so-called experts. Parenthood will not give you an increased sense of governing—that is, governing both yourself and your family—if you are nervously consulting your favorite childcare guru at every turn, looking for the one right way of handling the many dilemmas parents encounter. It seems at least possible that personal satisfaction can be increased if parents choose a more independent, selfsufficient approach to parenting—though it would be unwise for parents to insulate themselves entirely from all external norms and advice.
Even in the best of cases, the first years of parenthood are often stressful and sometimes boring. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture, but based on first-person experience and anecdotal evidence, I’d say a parent of young children is a bit like someone hiking up a mountain. The view from all the lookout points is thrilling, but some of the climb is tedious or even excruciating. One of the dynamics accounting for the lower total happiness of parents is that one enjoyable activity can interfere with others. Avid mountain climbers can find other areas of their lives going less well: spouses grow resentful; professional responsibilities can be neglected; the sport is expensive. Something similar can be said about avid parents. Parenthood has a tendency to crowd out other powerful sources of life satisfaction—like career advancement (especially for women) and the satisfactions of an adult relationship. Still, with few exceptions, mountain climbers are glad to be mountain climbers, and parents are glad to be parents.