Family Matters

In Defense of Motherhood: Why We Keep Having Kids When They’re So Clearly Bad for Us

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Here at Healthland, we devote a considerable amount of virtual ink to reporting on research that disses parenthood. I’ve written several stories in this vein, and I find them both wryly amusing and often uncomfortably accurate. But at least in my experience parenting three young kids, they’re not the whole truth. So in honor of Mother’s Day, I decided to analyze why it’s so fab to be a mom and dig up some data in defense of motherhood — and parenting in general. Because despite the inexorable toll children take on our finances, our patience, our emotions and our energy reserves, they really are pretty great.

Let’s get this out in the open: there is not an impressive cache of objective research extolling the benefits of parenthood. Yet the subjective evidence is overwhelming: the sprinkling of freckles on my 8-year-old’s nose, the offset dimple and Coppertone tan lines on my chopstick-thin 6-year-old’s body, the platinum frizz of curls that waves in the breeze as my almost 4-year-old demonstrates her newfound ability to keep a swing in motion.

In recent months, posts have described how women with children exercise less and eat worse than women without kids and how parents tend to overemphasize the rewards of having children, to the point of delusion. Parents also suffer depression more than non-parents. In truth, anyone who’s got a child living at home doesn’t really need someone with a Ph.D. to drive home the point that parents have less free time and less sex, with more exhaustion, frustration and time spent idling in the carpool lane, than the kid-free segment of our society.

(More on Kid Crazy: Why We Exaggerate the Joys of Parenthood)

So why do we do it? Maybe because despite all the rigors and annoyances, the love between parent and child is unprecedented in its passion. It’s blinding and fierce and feels completely different than romance. I don’t know if scientists have looked into whether parents smile and laugh more than non-parents, but I’ll bet they do. Kids are funny. They are you before you became hardened and wizened, before you experienced sorrow, before you went all cynical on the world.

Having children introduces you to things you never previously cared about: soccer and swim team and peace signs as a fashion statement, pandas and airline insignias and rock-collecting. It re-introduces you to long-lost pleasures: making S’mores and snow cremes. Re-reading Judy Blume and Shel Silverstein. Cavorting in a summer downpour. Running through the sprinkler. Chasing fireflies and chasing each other. Kids epitomize wonder, exemplify joy: they force us with their loud voices and impertinent questions to stop taking life for granted.

Sure, the stress is unrelenting but a study published last year in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that couples with children actually had lower blood pressure than those without, and moms had the lowest measurements of all. The study suggested that, of all things, “parenthood, and especially motherhood, may be cardioprotective.”

(More on Time.comDad Helping with the Kids? Moms: Expect Conflict, Not Cooperation)

Truth be told, researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, was surprised by the results. She has two boys, 4 and 8, and “there were several times writing this paper that I thought, How is it possible they are lowering my blood pressure?”

Yet even after researchers controlled for factors including employment status and number of years married, as well as body-mass index and behavioral factors like smoking and drinking, the results stayed constant.

“It could be the purpose and meaning they provide,” says Holt-Lunstad, since feeling engaged and needed is associated with better health outcomes. “It also could be that people with children tend to be more socially integrated. They develop more relationships because they are scheduling playdates and school activities and sports, so they have greater social interaction.”

In her paper, Holt-Lunstad cited data from a national survey published in 2006 that found that 94% of men and women agreed that “the rewards of being a parent are worth it, despite the cost and work it takes.”

Yet despite the enhanced feelings of purpose and meaning, parents also are more likely than non-parents to report feelings of depression such as hopelessness or joylessness, according to research from Robin Simon, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University. “We are supposed to feel that this is life’s greatest joy,” says Simon, “so when we feel down about our experiences we tend to blame ourselves, and this is an additional burden.”

(More on Time.comWhat Depresses Moms-to-Be the Most? Their Unsupportive Partners)

Purpose and meaning, point out Simon, are very different from mental health. Still, the urge to create life, to nurture another human being and perpetuate their DNA, is insurmountable for most people.

“It’s a complex relationship,” says Simon, a mother of two grown children. “It’s not a relationship that’s making you happy in the long term, but it is a remarkable experience.”

Not that Simon’s advising people to stop procreating. “I adore my kids,” says Simon. “I’d do it again — and I’d have another one. Children are totally awesome. That’s the thing that’s so crazy about this research.”

Of course, having children is not something that anyone should be talked into — being a parent is an unbelievable time-suck and a huge responsibility. Being ambivalent about having children is like saying you’re undecided about which career path to pursue: Navy Seal Team 6 or surfing instructor. Kids are way too much work to not really, really want them.

So why, I asked my kids, do parents have children if they’re so much work? “So you could have fun with them and take them places. So they could keep you good company. Because it’s fun. Because you love them.” All true. And, added my 6-year-old, “sometimes, just sometimes, they help in the kitchen and clean up and sweep the floor.”

In the current issue of TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine, Jean Kazez, who teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University, calls raising children “the activity that’s most compelling to most human beings” and compares parenting to scaling a mountaintop:

The view from all the look-out points is thrilling, but some of the climb is tedious or even excruciating. There are high highs, but total cheer (counting every minute of every day) may not be vast. Avid mountain climbers can find other areas of their lives going less well: spouses get resentful, professional responsibilities can be neglected, the sport is expensive. Ditto avid parents. Parenthood has a tendency to crowd out other powerful sources of life-satisfaction — like career advancement (especially for women) and marital harmony. Still, mountain climbers are glad to be mountain climbers and parents are glad to be parents.

Once, when her children were young, Kazez took them to The Little Gym, where children’s energy is expended, for a fee, through all manner of trampolines, tumbling and crawling apparatuses. “It’s a place you could sit and read the paper and drink coffee where someone else does enriching things with your kids,” she says. “I thought, This is as happy as one can be. You have an incredible sense of pride watching your child, but someone else is doing all the work.”

Along those lines, Healthland wishes all you mothers a Sunday punctuated with lukewarm pancakes in bed and a snatch of time when someone else will tend to your kids while you revel in how technically dissatisfied but actually really, really lucky you are to be their mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.