Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Do Parents Hate Parenting?: Joy Versus Happiness

We were having a little taco night with some fellow parent friends the other night who recently bought this awesome house near the lake with a great backyard.

As you all know, it is fun to be around fellow people with a couple of kids once in a while. As we were saying, once adults have kids, and particularly, more than one kid, you can see/feel/nearly taste the fact that they've given up.

Given up what you might ask?

Well, at some level, you start to give up what was formerly known as your adult life.

This is not to say that you can't have some semblance of an adult life. I work. I work out. I consult. I read. I see movies. I (once in a while) have conversations with other adults. But in all honesty, I don't do any of those things as much as I'd prefer.

Note: even as I write this I am stealing some adult time, blogging and watching the Tour de France as Big plays Batman on his DS (Yes. I'm THAT kind of Baba).

But what I mean is not so much even that. What I mean is what I've noticed of other friends with a little older children, particularly children whose kids participate in sports. Cousin, for example, and Sidekick's parents spend three or even four nights per week nearly year round attending sports events: hockey, soccer, baseball with their ten-or-less year old kids.

And get this: they love it.

I signed Big up for soccer this sumer and BioMom sort of groaned at the thought of spending summer nights on the sidelines of a hot soccer field watching four-year-olds chase a ball around like the Keystone Cops.

We have just not yet quite given in yet.

But it is coming.

Anyway, the other night we were chatting over tacos and Summits about this article: Why Parents Hate Parenting by Jennifer Senior.*, **

From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly unmysterious why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet 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.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist found that women preferred housework over childcare.

Other research shows that children reduce marital satisfaction.

Here's some more preference rankings:

Having kids doesn't necessarily make you unhappy, they simply don't make you MORE happy.

Each additional child produces diminishing returns.

Mothers are less happy than fathers.

Single parents are less happy than couples.

Babies and toddlers are the hardest.

What is interesting about all of these results is not really the results themselves, but how people react to them. We don't believe them. Maybe more precisely, we don't WANT to believe them.

So what's the deal with kids?

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist claims that what children really do, he suspects, is offer moments of transcendence, not an overall improvement in well-being.

The article author makes the claim that perhaps parenting has changed quite drastically over the years, making it less of a happiness-producing activity.

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.

My bold.

Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: "Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child's thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work." Yet it's work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, "lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage."

One study found that parents' dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they had the purchasing power to buy more child care. This is explained by the fact that we're having kids later in life and as a result are aware of the loss in autonomy. We are aware of the alternative uses of our time. Of kids one psychologist commented "They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit."

While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while. ("All joy and no fun," as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.)

Another quote:
Loving one's children and loving the act of parenting are not the same thing.

It turns out that the question really is what is happiness? What is joy? What parts of happiness are about sheer immediate experience and satisfaction or about reward and long-term pleasure?

One study found that the least depressed parents are those whose underage children are in the house, and the most are those whose aren't.

This is key. Technically, if parenting makes you unhappy, you should feel better if you’re spared the task of doing it. But if happiness is measured by our own sense of agency and meaning, then noncustodial parents lose. They’re robbed of something that gives purpose and reward.

I know that I feel a great sense of purpose and reward because of the kids. Great losses too. Losses that I feel, really every day. I also have a constant sense of nagging and questioning: did I do that okay? Did I just stomp on his/her self esteem? Are we spoiling them? Are we not spoiling them? Etc. etc. I guess at some level, my over-thinking style of parenting produces a lot of emotional agony. I know that sounds dramatic but it is true. Ten and I butt heads so often and we are so different that I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our interactions.

This article hit a nerve for me. I have to say that I am happier with them. And there certainly is joy. And I am a better person for them in my life.

I just wish I could go on that three hour bike ride this afternoon. . .

*Here is the Michelle Martin NPR show on the story.
**Also check out the reference to the article and its own additions in an Economist article.

1 comment:

Lemonpuss said...

Thank you - I'd not have found this article had you not posted about it. Loved it!