Last week, a business associate of mine pointed out an interesting paper on parenthood that was published in The Psychologist, a UK-based medical journal by The British Psychological Society. The paper is written by Nattavudh Powdthavee (who fortunately goes by “Nick” on a casual basis), a young lecturer in the Department of Economics and Related Studies at the University of York.
Nick is at the age where his friends are getting married and having kids, and he wants to do the same with his long-term girlfriend. However, he writes, “Over the past few decades, social scientists like me have found consistent evidence that there is an almost zero association between having children and happiness.”
Happiness, Statistically Speaking
In his own analysis, published in 2008 in the Journal of Socioeconomics, British parents and non-parents said they were equally satisfied.
Some of his colleagues have gone even farther. In both Europe and America, Nick says, “numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.”
Does this shock you? Well, Nick doesn’t think it should. “We all know that being a parent is really hard work. So the most surprising thing about the results I have described above is that we find them surprising!”
To Parent, or Not to Parent?
I can understand why he said that, because he doesn’t have kids. The only difference between him now, and me 10 to 15 years ago, is that he knows he wants children… and I was never certain. Throughout my first marriage, I had a so-called life partner who said if I wanted kids, I’d have to be the one to raise them… and to me, that was no partnership at all.
Besides that, I didn’t have the time to focus on it. I was a career girl. I lived in a big city, and for years I made my living through a combination of TV show hosting, radio reporting, freelance writing, sales and marketing jobs, and bartending in trendy night clubs (I say I made my living because, past the first couple of years, I was the sole breadwinner).
Obviously there was no room for children, nor did I want to bring them into the world under those circumstances. Besides that, I believed the same things that the studies cited in Nick’s paper pointed out: kids would make life less fulfilling.
After all, my in-laws and friends who had children were not only tied down, but they all seemed to be constantly run ragged. How fulfilling could that possibly be?
It took a committed relationship with the man who would become my second husband to make either of us, at almost 40 years old, decide that we were up for the challenge of raising a child.
And now, with a 15-month-old toddler underfoot, I agree with Nick’s original findings, and what he still wants to believe: it all evens out in the wash.
“I would buy the results that showed statistically insignificant association between happiness and parenthood, but I find it harder to accept the findings that children only bring overall misery,” Nick writes. “This is simply because I (along with most people) believe that all parents do experience a 50:50 ratio of positive and negative things about raising a child.”
The Yin and Yang of Parenthood
I understand that having only been a parent for 15 months, I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I do know that everything in life is constantly in a balance of yin and yang, up and down, high and low, good and bad. If it wasn’t, we’d have a big uneven mess on our hands.
Sure, sometimes it seems like there are more bad things (or good things) going on, but if you really examine it from a big-picture perspective, you’ll probably find that while your life balance teeters slightly up and down, it eventually rests perfectly symmetrical, like the scales of justice.
What I can’t figure out is how so many parents are not realizing that. Nick has a plausible explanation, though: that where we put our attention causes a “focusing illusion” which skews our perception of reality. We might only rarely experience the amazingly “positive” or “good” parts of parenthood, like our child’s first smile, college graduation, or wedding – but they are far more impactful than the daily “negative” or “bad” stuff like dealing with dirty diapers and whining…
Winning the Happiness Lottery
However, he says, “it is these small but more frequent negative experiences, rather than the less frequent but meaningful experiences, that take up most of our attention in a day.” So when a parent is asked in a study about whether children bring them happiness, they focus on the daily grind and forget those “winning the lottery” moments.
What I’d like to add to the discussion is that all this comes down to your definition of “good” and “bad”. Because personally, I find that the “good” stuff is not so rare.
I admit that it’s not fun changing dirty diapers five or six times a day, and it’s highly annoying to hear a toddler whine or cry because he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s also very frustrating when he refuses to eat the nutritious meal I’ve prepared for him. And, well… we can’t just take off for a romantic date any time we like.
But to balance all that out, my son smiles at me, laughs with me, or spontaneously hugs me at least 20 times a day. I love watching him learn, I love seeing him try to communicate, and I love watching him play ball with his daddy or try to be involved with the business going on at one of our computers. I’m constantly amazed at the (nearly) perfect little being that my husband and I created and manifested together.
The Little Things
In other words, it’s not just the major milestones that are rewarding, but the everyday little things.
So I’m thinking that perhaps the parents who took part in these studies may have had overly-positive views of what parenthood was going to be like. They pictured themselves prancing through meadows wearing rose-colored glasses, and clasping perfectly-behaved little beings in their arms. Against those high expectations, reality had no chance to flourish.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with high expectations, because if you reach for the stars, you might hit the moon. But at some point, you need to re-evaluate, and take a reality check, to get your journey back on track.
As for Nick, he recently got engaged to his girlfriend, and still wants to have kids. As he wrote to me in an email exchange, “My thoughts on kids have never changed. Despite what I found empirically, I would prefer to have kids in my life than not.”
Me too, Nick. It’s a fascinating part of life as a human.
Elise and Frank Wedding © Bali Art Photography
Goss Family © Heather Vale Goss
Graduation © Bdway Diva1
Konan Swim Star © Heather Vale Goss