Tag Archives: #happiness

Childfree Without Regrets

Laura Carroll posted a well-researched argument that parents are more likely to regret their decision than people who choose not to have kids. I hope this encourages the nudges out there to stop telling the childfree that we will regret our decision when it’s too late — like the doctor who pushed and pushed a childfree friend of mine to freeze some sperm before his vasectomy. Thanks for the advice, but we don’t need the ice.

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To Mother or Not to Mother? Is That the Question?

Article first published as To Mother or Not to Mother? Is That the Question? on Blogcritics.

Does parenting promote or impede happiness? The latest scuffle in this debate began with a Shirley Wang article in The Wall Street Journal about the distinction between well-being, which roughly means long-term contentment, and happiness or pleasure, which roughly means short-term enjoyment. Wang writes that the latest studies are finding that while children may not cause moment-to-moment happiness, they do contribute to long-term contentment because they give parents a sense of purpose. And that is the newest formula: the goal is a sense of well-being, and the way to achieve it is to work towards a meaningful purpose. This idea has potential, but for the moment, it is serving as a weapon in the war of words between parents and non-parents.

Parenting proponent Rachael Larimore writes in a March 16th entry on the XX Factor that studies into what makes people happy do more harm than good, but then implies that the particular studies Wang describes are beneficial because they may help persuade the ambivalent to procreate by clarifying the distinction between well-being and happiness. Larimore writes that children are among the best means to well-being, while admitting that they wreak hell on happiness.

Larimore’s fellow XX Factor blogger Emily Yoffe suggests in a March 15th entry that well-being and happiness are actually mutually exclusive. She pooh-poohs the fleeting pleasure non-parents derive from “a carefree trip to Aruba” or “the ability to go out to a movie and dinner any time you please,” arguing that it is in some way better to have unpleasant moments raising children. Yoffe even argues that it is the “challenge of childrearing” that makes it a balm for the soul.

My take-away: parents are on the defensive. I never thought I’d see the day, but parents are grasping at semantic straws to try to convince wavering potential parents (and themselves?) that having children is good for you. Yoffe implies that the only reason previous studies found that parenting was bad for emotional health was that the studies asked “the wrong kinds of questions.” Larimore adds that she “can’t help but think” that studies concluding that “people find themselves mired in misery after having kids” are just evidence that “people are confused about the difference between pleasure and happiness” (or, to put it in my and Wang’s terms, happiness and well-being). Apparently people are also too confused to know when they are mired in misery.

I don’t construe the floundering of these two excellent writers as evidence that having children is the wrong choice for everyone. It is the wrong choice for me, but for most it seems to be right, whether their goal is happiness, well-being, or satisfying their yearnings.

But aside from being good clean social commentating fun, what is the point of these debates about parenting and happiness? Many of the articles on the topic read like recruitment brochures, as though parents and non-parents are battling over who can seduce more people to their side. On another level they read like apologia–public efforts to justify or affirm personal decisions. (Some might say that this describes my own writing, so I realize that I may be posting from a glass house.)

But I think this conversation is about something deeper: how to be a woman in this brave new world where we can have careers in professions that used to be closed to us, where we can win public office, where we can have sex out of wedlock without ruining our “prospects,” and where we are still the primary parents. For most couples, having a child has a much greater impact on the mother’s life than on the father’s. If they are in an economic position to live on one salary and choose to do so, it is overwhelmingly the mother who leaves her career and stays home to raise children. Psychiatry and advertising still focus on the mother as the parent with the greatest responsibility for and influence on children. And no matter how far we come, the physical labor of bearing and, for breast-feeders, nourishing infants is borne by mothers.

Women have more choice now than our mothers and grandmothers did, but we still pay a higher price for our choices than men do. The debate over children and happiness is one of the many ways women are working through the questions of which choices, which tradeoffs, are best. Men do weigh in on this debate, but women seem to dominate it. The stakes are higher for us. Underlying the question of whether to have children is the more difficult question of which choices are best in an uncharted terrain of greater equality still mined with double standards.

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Are Children Necessary?

Article first published as Are Children Necessary? on Blogcritics.

Why do many parents insist that having children is indispensable to human fulfillment, when the number of fulfilled childfree adults proves that it clearly isn’t? I considered this question in my first post on this blog, “The Preachers of Parenthood.” I made some speculations about the explanation, but now there is an actual scientific study that offers a new and intriguing explanation: cognitive dissonance.

The study, conducted by two scientists at the University of Waterloo, published in Psychological Science, and reported by Wray Herbert at The Huffington Post, concluded that parents convince themselves that parenthood is a joyous, “don’t miss” experience to avoid their true feelings about it, which may be mixed or even negative. This should give pause to anyone who is on the fence about whether to have kids.

Herbert, a parent himself, makes a fascinating point about the emotional and intellectual gymnastics some parents do to be (or seem) as happy as they are “supposed” to be about parenthood. In the not-so-long-ago past, he notes, “emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate…and childhood was much less sentimentalized.” The notion that parenthood should be joyous arose only when children no longer added value to the family economy – implying that parents’ personal fulfillment emerged as a substitute reason for people to keep breeding once the financial incentive disappeared.

Of course this study doesn’t show that all parents are deluding themselves or that they would all be unhappy if they were honest with themselves, though it is worth noting (as the study’s authors do) that “raising children has largely negative effects on parents’ emotional well-being.” For instance, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness that “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.” Jennifer Senior reports in New York Magazine that “a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines.” This raises the question whether these studies found a way to cut through the cognitive dissonance that was documented in Psychological Science to reveal deeply-buried dissatisfaction, or whether the parents experiencing cognitive dissonance showed up as happy in the other studies, or whether cognitive dissonance is even the right explanation for the Waterloo findings.

One thing is certain: more studies on parental happiness are to come, and my bet is that they will offer even more affirmation to people who suspect they would prefer a life without kids. Making “non-parenting” more socially acceptable can only increase the choices young adults have in shaping their lives, and that makes me honestly, non-dissonantly happy.

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