A few decades ago, children were ‘just there’, and something that almost every adult was expected to have. Since it was considered unavoidable, no one asked whether they augmented overall happiness or wellbeing. Even in the United States, it was a powerful expectation just 60 years ago that marriage came with children, and child-free couples were very much the suspicious exception.
It’s obvious, at least in my mind, that having a choice about parenthood, and choosing parenthood, is indisputably better than not having it. But as it always happens when we have alternate options, we try to discern and make the best choice, we measure. We do brand comparison. We shop around to see what our options are. We do what can be described as ‘lifestyle comparison shopping.’ And we suddenly have research studies suggesting that parenthood diminishes marital happiness, and even happiness overall. Other, more pragmatic studies that produce horrifying bottom-line estimates of how much money a child will cost from birth through college, probably send many an undecided couple back to the pharmacist for their less expensive birth control.
Right answer, wrong question
There’s a luxury simply in asking the question whether marriages with children are happier, since the question assumes that children have, or should have, an emotional benefit and dividend. Besides these studies use the most slippery metric for parenthood—happiness. The question also reflects the unsentimental reality that children no longer have the economic utility that they once had. The social safety net takes care of us in old age, children aren’t expected to help out on the farms that we no longer own, and they don’t go out to contribute wages to the family coffers when they turn 12. To put things in the most unsentimental, blunt terms, what is a child ‘good’ for, now, in the global middle class, except to provide a more emotional and existential fulfillment?
I think this is absolutely the right answer to absolutely the wrong question.
It’s the right answer, because the conditions of modern parenthood would logically diminish our happiness dividend. With parental choice comes the agony and ecstasy of having choice. We acquire all the potential for analysis paralysis, buyer’s remorse, fears, and second-guessing. We no longer have the fatalistic nonchalance of our parents’ generation. When we do opt to have children, we’re also more likely to pour every effort into making good on that choice. We ‘invest’ in the process, and aim for perfect outcomes. Sometimes this results in notorious hyper-parenting and helicopter parenting, when you constantly hover around your children doing everything and anything for them, as if once you’re a parent, you can only be a parent. The fashion of hyper-parenting isn’t a recipe for mental wellbeing or happiness. Instead, it can make for exhaustion, anxiety, and frustration when, invariably, children prove to have lives and minds of their own, that weren’t entirely in our control to begin with.
In this sense, the research resonates with my observations that parenthood might not make you happier. While I agree with the answer, I disagree with the question. If it’s advisable, or possible, to put the calibers to parenthood, then ‘happiness’ isn’t the most pertinent emotion to measure.
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