In Defense of Kids and Parenting: They Can Be Amazing (If That’s What You Want)

There's a battle going on between the childs and the child-frees, and parenting seems to be getting a bad rap.

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It seems the latest trend in parenting is to bash it. Quite a few folks are getting attention for making the case that having kids makes your life worse—and they have some studies to support their argument. Parents report being more stressed, anxious and generally unsatisfied with their lives than singles. Me, I was never goo-goo-eyed about babies or tots. I was married seven years before I decided to have my first. Mostly, I felt ready (if scared) and wanted kids. I also believed that if I didn’t have them, I’d be missing out on one of life’s most profound experiences.

And I was right. I was often stressed, annoyed, worried, and exhausted at different moments and eras of my kids’ childhoods. Yet at the best moments, caring for these new lives, watching them grow into separate people, I felt  an overwhelming , transformative joy.  I have never regretted having children. But could my life have been as happy or happier without them? Probably not, suggests a new study. Because I wanted kids and I got kids.

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The study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, evaluated the life happiness of parents and non-parents from two Gallup studies, one surveying people in the U.S. and another globally.  People were asked to imagine the best lives they could have had (a 10) and rate how their actual lives stacked up. Most in the U.S. put themselves at around a seven—with only the slightest differences between parents (with children at home) and non-parents. Parents in less developed countries gave lower overall scores (a 3 in Togo). But the differences were slight. The researchers also asked parents and non parents for a snapshot of their emotions the previous day, including moments of stress,  joy, and anger. Parents had the most highs and most lows. No news to anyone who’s been a parent.

The real significance of the study, says lead author Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton, is exploring whether people wanted to become parents. When people have a choice about whether they want to have children, which they generally do in the U.S., why would you expect one group to be happier than another?

Previous studies showing that people who have kids are less happy or have troubled marriages, Deaton says, are often based on small samples and not well-designed to really measure how having children affects overall happiness. What’s striking about this current study, says Jason Kornrich, a senior psychologist at the Zucker Hillside Hospital, is its breadth and depth: more than two million people over many years and across cultures and languages. “It is remarkable,” he says,  “that the differences in contentment ratings were ultimately so slight.”

In other words, what’s more important than any abstract measure of happiness or contentment is how the parents felt about becoming parents. The importance of choice in being happy with life, says Scott Haltzman, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, is also shown by recent studies that suggest women who are stay-at-home moms by choice are just as happy as women who choose to be working moms. Because that’s what each group wants to be doing. “It’s when individuals get matched with tasks that differ from their goals,” he says,  “that their happiness levels plunge.”

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Happiness also doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. Positive psychology, says Mary Ann Watson, a psychologist at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, defines three kinds of happiness: having pleasure and gratification, which can be fleeting, being ‘”engaged” in life and feeling “flow,” which lasts longer, and third, the “meaningful life,” which research suggests is the most important. Having strong positive social relationships is key to the third, but that could be with one’s children or with other people.

So, if people who choose kids are about as happy as those who choose none, why has there been such a spate of anti-parenthood press lately?  Part of the reason, says University of Mary Washington psychologist  Holly Schiffrin, author of the upcoming book, Balancing the Big Stuff: Finding Happiness in Work, Family, and Life, is the increasing expectations put on parents to make their kids smarter, happier and more successful. “Parenting,” she says, ” has become increasingly time-consuming and child-centered…. We urge parents to find the “sweet spot” where both their own needs and the needs of their children for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are being met to maintain everyone’s well-being.” If these become overwhelming, parenting can become more of a chore than a source of satisfaction.

Of course, life circumstances like marital conflict, financial strain, and emotional problems will affect the happiness of parents. It’s a hugely complex subject. But a soon to be published study by noted happiness theorist Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, aims to clarify all the previous research on whether kids make us happier, even if it doesn’t finally settle the matter.

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The exhaustive paper, in press at the journal Psychological Bulletin, examines studies using the three primary methods for seeking the answer: comparing parents to non-parents, comparing the same parents’ happiness before and after having children, and comparing parents’ experiences when with their kids versus doing other activities.

The short answer, says Lyubomirsky, isn’t that surprising. “Under some circumstances having kids is associated with greater happiness and under other circumstances, the reverse is true,” she says. “However, we have found that parents actually experience more happiness and meaning than do non-parents–both when evaluating their lives as a whole, when going about their days, and when caring for their children.”

As a parent, I gotta say, that seems right to me.