Some new evidence suggesting that children aren’t such bundles of joy:
Sociologists are discovering that children may not make parents happier and that childless adults, contrary to popular stereotypes, may often be more contented than people with kids.
Parents “definitely experienced more depression,” says Robin Simon, a sociologist at Florida State University who has studied data on parenting.
“Part of our cultural beliefs is that we derive all this joy from kids,” says Simon. “It’s really hard for people who don’t feel this to admit it.” Social pressures to view only the positive aspects of child rearing only make the problem worse, she says. “They’re afraid to admit it because it runs so counter to our cultural beliefs that children make you happy.”
This data jives with the self-reports of parents. As Daniel Gilbert notes, “The only known symptom of the empty-nest syndrome is increased smiling. Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” According to the data, looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.
And yet, these subjective self-reports also miss something important, I think. The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis that it is to quantify something as intangible as “unconditional love”. Changing a diaper isn’t enjoyable, and teenagers can be such a pain in the ass, but having kids can also be a profound source of meaning for people. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that rash and how the race seems like it’s taking forever. But when the running is over they are always incredibly proud of their accomplishment. Having kids, then, is like a marathon that lasts 18 years.) The larger point, though, is that just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that we should always privilege the quantifiable (pleasure) over the intangible (meaning). Real life is complex stuff.