Benedict Carey summarizes a new UCLA study that documented the life of middle-class families, videotaping their dinners, conversations and leisure activities:
The U.C.L.A. project was an effort to capture a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household. The investigators have just finished working through the 1,540 hours of videotape, coding and categorizing every hug, every tantrum, every soul-draining search for a missing soccer cleat.
“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A. who was not involved in the research. “What it does is hold up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.”
So what did they find? The general conclusion is that family life is extremely stressful, a relentless barrage of problems, mishaps and negotiations. One of the graduate students who spent time with the families referred to the experience as “the very purest form of birth control ever devised.”*
This shouldn’t be too surprising: there is a large body of evidence suggesting that kids aren’t exactly a bundle of joy. For instance, recent work has shown that parents with more kids are more likely to suffer from depression, probably because each additional kid increases the stress burden. As the Harvard psychologist 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. Most people are happier watching bad TV than spending time with their offspring.
And yet, these subjective self-reports and ethnographic videotapes also miss something important. The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis, or document the swing of cortisol levels in saliva, 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 provide a profound source of meaning. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that nipple rash and the endless route. 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, stress) over the intangible (meaning, purpose). Real life is complex stuff.
*According to Carey, the grad student now has two kids.