Ask parents if they feel sorry for their childless counterparts, and the response is almost always yes. Parents know how annoying they sound singing the praises of parenthood, but they can’t help it. “What is wrong with them?” one mother I know confesses thinking of non-parents. “How empty is your life? Why do you exist?” She’s only half-joking. What childless people suspect about self-righteous parents is true: no matter how successful you are or how happy you claim to be, they pity you.
I was never particularly dewy-eyed about parenthood. I’d au-paired for a summer, seen eight nieces and nephews from their first day at the hospital to high school. I’d spent bleary-eyed afternoons monitoring toddlers negotiating the jungle gym with the speed of sloths, and nights rocking the high-strung no-sleepers until their parents returned. I liked kids. I loved some kids deeply. But I didn’t understand the unabashed covetousness of the parental state.
But then I got pregnant, and I began to think maybe my old ambivalence was more the result of teenage antsy-ness or because the kids weren’t my own. I began to expect a torrent of nonstop pleasure. I would never be bored or annoyed or frustrated. Acquaintances warned me that I wouldn’t be able to just run out to grab a beer on a whim anymore, but that didn’t seem like a calamitous loss of freedom.
Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick University in Coventry, England, has been studying human happiness for the past twenty years. He has written dozens of papers on the subject and reviewed the results of many thousands of individuals questioned. In his happiness studies, no one was asked directly about what made him or her happy, but enough detail was gleaned to estimate the person’s joy. Some of the markers for increased happiness in life have not been particularly surprising. “We know marriage raises happiness a lot,” he says. So does health. But there was one shocking conclusion:
“Children don’t,” Oswald says. “Most of the people who are parents in society have a strong feeling that children have brought them a lot of happiness. What our work seems to show is that it is just as easy to be happy childless. Those with children don’t understand that fact. I certainly hadn’t anticipated these findings and they’re often viewed as some of the most surprising outcomes from this research.”
In 2004, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and his colleagues published a paper tracking the experience of 909 women going about their daily lives. The women were asked to give a general happiness assessment of their previous day and to reconstruct a diary of their activities. They were then questioned in detail about each event. “Intimate relations” brought women the most pleasure, followed by socializing. That would make sense: Women enjoy people. Well, they enjoy grown-up people. Way down at number twelve of sixteen in the rankings was “taking care of my children.” Childcare was only slightly more pleasurable than “computer / internet / email.” When ranked as a human interaction, dealings with those cherubic darlings rated only slightly higher than spending time with coworkers and clients.
“We know marriage raises happiness a lot,” Andrew Oswald says. “Children don’t.”
In a 1974 paper, marital satisfaction was tracked on a continuum of the aging of children in the household. In four different studies, the levels of marital satisfaction began declining after the wedding, dipped lower when the children were in preschool, climbed up a bit as the oldest child neared age twelve, then plummet precipitously during the teen years. Only when the children left the nest did the happiness numbers begin to rocket back to wedding-day bliss. Parenthood is clearly not all it’s cracked up to be.
That study and others were collected this year in a bestselling book by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert called Stumbling on Happiness. The book, which is already in its seventh printing, includes a chart capable of instantly squelching the enthusiasm of a giddy parent-to-be.
My own moment of disillusionment came when I was e-mailing an old West coast friend, Jeff Rabhan. I happily let him know I was expecting. Did he, a father of an fourteen month old, have any advice? His reply looked awfully spare on the screen: “Get separate rooms. Ooops! Too late!”
More than two-and-a-half years later, Rabhan’s feelings haven’t changed. “I assumed it would be at times similar to mowing the lawn. Just like your job you have now: there are hours. Parenthood is worse than 7-11. 7-11 is open at seven and closes at eleven. This is the store that never closes. This is the door that has no locks because it is never locked.
“You are surrounded by people who try to convince themselves how wonderful [new parenthood] is. Can you imagine going to dinner with some friends. They say, ‘How is everything going?’ And you say, ‘It’s going really shitty. I’m exhausted. My kid doesn’t stop crying. He shits five times a day, I’m sick to death of changing him. I wish this kid would change his own fucking diaper.’ Because that’s what you really think. But if you said that, people’s mouths would drop open. You would look like the biggest animal who ever lived.
“We all grasp onto, your kid smiles after six to eight months, but meanwhile you have got all these other months and months of just nothing, of just a blob, until the child is a year old. If people were a little bit more honest, they’d say, ‘You know, you’re right. It’s really hard and you’ll get over it,’ but no one really wants to admit that because they’re afraid of looking like shallow, insensitive assholes.”
“Having children is one of the few things we do where everyone around us who is old and wise encourages us to think foolishly,” says Daniel Gilbert.
Daniel Gilbert, who has one son, concurs. “Having children is one of the few things we do where everyone around us who is old and wise encourages us to think foolishly,” he says. “Nobody ever sits us down and says, ‘Look, I know you are overjoyed about this, but you really ought to sober up a little bit and think this through.’ Instead, everyone from moms and dads, to aunts and uncles, to coworkers, say, ‘Marvelous!’ ‘Congratulations!’ ‘What are you going to name him?’
“We encourage people to live in a fantasy about their upcoming child, and then when they go off to the hospital and have their kid, we all kind of wink and nod. Why in the world aren’t we saving people from this by preparing them for what’s real? Yes, your child is going to be the source of so much joy in so many ways, but here’s all the hard parts. I’m not sure that would dissuade or should dissuade people from having kids. I’m a psychologist and biologist, and this is what we’re here for. There’s no other purpose to our lives but to pass that DNA on. But at least we shouldn’t be so incredibly surprised when we have an experience that’s been had by every human being on the planet. Right? It shouldn’t be novel.”
Some parents might protest they never reach the state of extreme frustration with their offspring, but certainly the psychological data pegs them as anomalies. If children aren’t bringing us marital misery, they are at least not improving our emotional state. So why are we so deluded into believing that children are a massive plus? For every laugh my daughter and I share running around the botanic garden or consuming salt and pepper soup she imagines she cooked, there are dozens of pulse-stopping protests, battles before which she has carefully obliterated all my countermoves.
“Perhaps parents find it psychologically advantageous to talk themselves into thinking this is a great thing,” theorizes Oswald, who has two daughters. “It would be psychologically difficult to come to the view early in life, I’ve made a huge mistake having these children. I imagine that humans are good at the flexibility of thought that stops them from taking that view.”
The media certainly doesn’t warn us about what we’re getting ourselves into. When was the last time you saw a tantrum played out in real-time in a movie? Even when children challenge their parents on screen, it’s in a cute “I’m going to leave home with my teddy bear” kind of way. Why are there no paparazzi shots of Zahara throwing herself on the airport floor?
I pick my daughter up from school feeling Christmas-morning excited. I’ve brought along a juice for her refreshment like a ’50s housewife with martini in hand for the hard-working husband. She beams and runs to me for a hug and kiss. The symphonic anthem swells. We chit-chat about our day. I open the car door. She scrambles past her seat into the middle of the car. “Okay, sweetie, please climb into your seat.”
That’s funny. “Come on. We have to go. Other people are waiting.”
“No.” The cellist lays down her instrument and goes out for a smoke.
“What’s the matter? Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
“Come on.” I reach for her. “I’ll help you.”
And then comes the blood-curdling scream, the limp body.
“No, no, no.” Kick. Kick. Kick. She knows I won’t water-board her. I can’t walk away on a busy street ripped by speeding cars. Reason has failed. We don’t have time to enter a Buddhist trance of non-Being. If the happiness equation is Experience divided by Expectation, the slow-motion reunion in a field of daisies has been detonated into a billion singed petals. I grab her and wrestle her into her car seat. She screams. She wails. We drive off.Parenthood is like a prolonged colonoscopy. In a good way.
“This stinks,” I say to myself, the martini sippy-cup sloshing in the cup-holder beside me.
Part of our surprise at precious moments like these stem from the fact we can’t remember ever having been the limp-bodied toddler. We remember ourselves as being independent, fairly reasonable. Conveniently for all of us, our parents have largely forgotten too. It was just too long ago.
Researchers once tracked down the authors of panic-stricken letters to Dr. Spock well after the fact. When they put pen to paper, the mothers were beside themselves with horror and frustration. Years later, the women had no memory of those feelings.
“There was also some study I read,” Tara McKelvey, a mother of three, says, “When people go on vacation, the brothers and sisters cry, they scream like alley cats, and then you get to Yellowstone and you ask them about the trip and they can’t remember the fights. But when you’re in that moment, it’s the most horrible thing. Maybe just the intensity of the experience is what you remember, rather than the fact that you were furious. It’s like being in the army.”
And perhaps yet another study by Nobel Prize-winning Kahneman might be helpful in clarifying why people remember parenthood so fondly. In “Memories of Colonoscopy: A Randomized Trial,” Kahneman and his colleagues monitored outpatients undergoing colonoscopies without anesthetic. All patients were asked to rate their pain at sixty-second intervals. In addition to the procedure itself, half of the patients endured an uncomfortable period of four minutes to an hour when the instrument was simply left in the rectum. While both sets of patients experienced equally high levels of pain during the procedure, those who experienced the dull discomfort at the end described their experience as less unpleasant overall than those whose procedure abruptly ended at the high point of pain. The memory of an event appears to be an average of the high point of sensation coupled with the feeling at the end of the event. Equate that with parents at the end of their stint who are enjoying the pleasures of the birds out of the nest while still maintaining a relationship with the birds. They don’t focus on the pain of tantrums and teen-hood. Which means that parenthood is like a prolonged colonoscopy. In a good way.
But let’s take another look at those original happiness findings. Parents interviewed for this story agreed that raising children at times brings a decline in marital satisfaction. If a spouse would rather read the paper than talk, it’s quiet time. If a father would rather read the paper than answer the question of his child posed repeatedly and at ever-increasing volume, it’s a sign of extreme selfishness.
An intense power struggle ensues over almost every aspect of childrearing and it’s not usually about what’s best for the child but what’s best for the parent. With many of us giving birth later in adulthood, we are accustomed to sleeping late after a night on the town, or taking an uninterrupted shower. But young children don’t like those things. When a child calls, parents have to decide who’s up. “It’s who is doing what. ‘Your turn,’ ‘my turn,'” Rabhan says. “‘I did it last time,’ ‘you do it this time.’ ‘Well, I took out the garbage.’ Then you really start grasping at straws. Like, ‘I paid for dinner six months ago’ and ‘I changed your tire.’ You grasp at everything, especially when it’s four in the morning. You will take anything you can get your meat-hooks on.”
Marital fights in the early stages of parenthood are a healthy diversion.
Pre-existing conflicts stand out in sharp relief with a child in the picture. “I realized I was parenting my husband,” says Darcey Steinke, who is now divorced. “All the main ways we weren’t alike came out. The party-boy stuff that I was willing to put up with when we were married, I just wasn’t willing to put up with. You know how there are these certain species that after they have a child they just kill their husbands? I wonder if I might not be like that. It didn’t seem all that crucial for me to have a husband after I had my daughter, or at least the husband I had, even though he’s turned out to be quite a fantastic father.”
Personally, I think marital fights in the early stages of parenthood are an extremely healthy biological diversion. When the baby is screeching after being fed, diapered, burped, rocked, Bjorned, and slung, it’s better to suddenly recognize your extreme irritation at your spouse’s inability to put away his toothbrush than to take out your frustrations on your helpless baby.
Parenting a teenager probably falls into the same category. “It’s hard. All of a sudden when it’s out of your control, but it really can’t be, because they are still your responsibility,” says Gail Rose, mother of two teens.
Or people blame their spouse for the fact that their child has gone off the deep-end. “You go from a very responsible thirteen year old who wants to be with you,” Steinke says she has heard, “who was learning how to make cakes, and studying the Civil War, to a nightmare, a giant toddler.”
Couples despair when they can’t get along like they used to with children in the mix, but Tony Karon points out that probably isn’t the goal. “It’s the realpolitik view: What you’re looking for is not the absence of conflict. You have to basically be able to manage conflict in a way that you both can live with, and recognize that it has some objective sources – that you’re just taking on something that is an incredible strain.”
Perhaps too, the marital dissatisfaction, which looks so bleak on its own, is not so troubling when compared to the arc of human happiness. For many decades, that arc has been smile-shaped over the course of a lifetime. People start out happy, curve down toward the low point around their mid-forties and climb upward into the happiest time: old age. If we overlay the marital satisfaction study on the happiness study, matching the forties to the parents of teenagers (probably roughly true in 1974), marital dissatisfaction might not look so bad. Maybe instead of suffering children, we are merely going through the usual arc. The dips in marital satisfaction that look so bad on the chart might just be bad in contrast to slight lift we receive when the children are in their grammar school years.
And maybe having children never actually promised happiness. We misunderstood all those cooing grandparents when they said they were so happy for us. They truly meant that they were happy, not you. They were happy you were finally going to be broken of your tenacious selfishness.
But let’s assume that we really are miserably unhappy as parents, whatever we convince ourselves to the contrary when we kiss our children goodnight. One detail I failed to mention about my daughter’s car seat tantrum is that I was double-parked. I double-parked because there were no more parking places on the block. I would only be running in and out of the school, I thought, and it was starting to rain.
One could say the original sin was mine. If I hadn’t been in that questionable position, I could have allowed my tired child all the time she needed to want to get in her car seat. If I had been entirely able to live in her moment, we probably would have been able to depart without tears and she wouldn’t exactly have been spoiled. (Getting into a car isn’t like feasting exclusively on lollipops.)
Of course it’s unrealistic to live the cadence of a toddler when an adult, but it points directly to why people cite children as their greatest source of happiness, even when they don’t enjoy actually taking care of children.
“Who wants to ‘take care of children’?” McKelvey says. “I don’t want to take care of my children. I love my children, but it’s a hassle. It’s a pain. I would rather drink a latte.”
When you’re busy, your child doesn’t even need to do anything wrong to annoy you.
Taking into account this gripe with the terminology, one could suspect that study of 909 women was flawed because a wrongly termed category was included. But another set of results calls that would-be loophole into question. “When they replicate this study in France,” says Gilbert, “women in France are not quite as unhappy when they are interacting with their children as women in the United States. We could imagine in some cultures it’s not true at all. The differences aren’t genetic differences. They are cultural differences, and one cultural difference is that in most of Western Europe people are not living lives that are quite as – what shall we call them – professionally frenzied? Running to the job in the morning, coming home at night, both parents working night and day. People in Europe are a little more relaxed and are able to spend more time with their families. And if children were really a source of agony, then the more time you spend with them the worse you would feel. But it turns out that people who have a little more time to spend with their kids are happier with them. Which once again points to the problem being conflict, which is not that children make us unhappy it’s that doing too much makes us unhappy.”
When you’re busy, your child doesn’t even need to do anything wrong to annoy you. Our brains as parents are trained to think of what could go wrong – the glass will break; the pajamas will catch fire; the pen will write all over the wall. We’re inclined toward the negative view as a way to protect our child and our home. But that gets in the way of living in the moment.
I’m working and my daughter is quietly looking at books next to me, but my tension is growing. Pretty soon she’s going to interrupt me. Where is my husband? He’s supposed to be watching her. How would he like it if I let her wander into his office during his work time?
But if we watched the event from on high, it’s really a pretty nice situation: My sweet daughter is enjoying a quiet moment with me, interjecting only a few concentration-breaking asides. She’s certainly providing less distraction than I would get in an office setting and she’s considerably more charming than most officemates. But my rat-like brain is making it a burden.
“Sometimes I have those moments when I’m sitting at home looking after the kids,” Karon says. “I’m thinking about something I’m trying to write. I suddenly realize I’m just not going to be able to do it. There’s that moment of surrender that is actually quite pleasurable.” There are many benefits to being on the kid clock – lingering on a walk, seeing a beautiful park at dusk. “I really noticed things,” says Steinke about the time when her daughter was a baby. “I remember one time – I was so tired – but sitting with my daughter and looking at this bird and thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a bird before.'”
“There are those moments of companionship of the two of you each on your own journey in that moment, that feeling of contentment,” Karon says. “They’re not needing your attention at that instant, but you’re both just reveling in each other’s company. I’m sort of intrigued by the co-dependency emotionally that arises. My daughter, for example, will not go to sleep unless I’m lying there next to her. And we have started to try to change that. I’m putting her to sleep and I’m sitting rather than lying down, trying to avoid falling to sleep with her. And she’s kind of miserable about that, but it’s working too. I have to say, I feel kind of sad about it too. As much as I need the time, there is something great about having that moment of, there’s nothing else to do in the day but lie and chat and go to sleep.”
Are you fulfilled? How about now? Now?
“It’s all about finding your pocket of happiness, your window of happiness,” Rabhan says. “For example, my parents come to visit. We know that window of happiness begins Thursday evening on the last flight in and it ends Monday morning on the first flight out. And that’s our pocket of happiness. It’s the same as, say, Saturday morning, you take your family out to breakfast, you go to the local diner, then you go to the park and you run around, people get tired, they come home. Around 2:30 the naptime kicks in, and you want to kill them. When they’re screaming, they’re crying and really all you want to do is have a moment to yourself. And when you go into the bathroom, you close the door, your child knocks on the door and says, ‘Daddy, are you making a poo-poo?’ You realize that moment of happiness is past.”
Again, the research backs him up. Daniel Gilbert explains that humans have particular trouble remembering mixed events correctly. We can identify purely happy occasions, and purely awful ones, but ones with highs and lows tend to distort in our thinking. “How do [the experiences of parenthood] balance out?” Gilbert asks. “It turns out that if you average all the moments, they balance out a little on the negative side. Being a parent lowers your average daily happiness. But average daily happiness isn’t all there is to be said about happiness. Indeed one could make the case that average happiness across a day isn’t what we’re trying for. As human beings, it’s not our aim. It shouldn’t be our goal. What we should be looking for is special transcendent moments that may even come at the cost of a lower average. In my own experience that’s probably not a bad description of a day with a kid. You know, lots of ‘no’s,’ ‘not yet,’ ‘not now,’ ‘ask me later,’ punctuated by brief moments that are sublime. As social mammals, these are the moments that give us great, great pleasure. That moment when the kid looks up and says, ‘I love you, Daddy.'”
I believe the ‘I love you, Daddy’ moment is accurately described, but it is also where the myth of joy-inducing children begins. Because what’s enjoyable about the ‘I love you, Daddy’ moment is not, as you suspect before you have kids, that you will have a little super-fan in the universe, but because you have entered into a relationship with another human being that is equal – which sometimes expresses itself as affection and sometimes as frustration. He has feelings about you; you have feelings about him.
The child will likely know you better than anyone else, and you without question – at least until he or she becomes a teenager – know him or her better. “Romantic relationships have so many tensions and complications,” says Steinke. “At least in my relationship with my daughter, she gets mad at me, but if only I could forgive my boyfriend as fast as I can forgive her. There’s not any particle of residue after we make up. That’s a good lesson.”
“The pleasure of having children doesn’t come in the backbreaking physical labor,” says McKelvey. “It’s because of the funny things they say. If I didn’t have funny kids, I’d be really unhappy.”
Not many people enjoy bench presses, but they like the results. As Gilbert points out, if children bring us fulfillment, that’s not a moment-to-moment pleasure. Are you fulfilled? How about now? Now?
Children eliminate a great deal of angst, too, simply because there’s no time to sit around contemplating your place in the universe. They confirm your choices. “One could ask oneself, why do we want to be together?” Karon says about marriage. “In some ways there is an arbitrariness – not that you could be with just any old person – but we are the most mobile generation. There are essentially 7,000 scenarios in which we could live our lives and [having children with someone] helps almost to take the tyranny of that wide open choice away.”
They allow you into a secret club that crosses ethnicity, economics and age. Elizabeth Goodman remembers sitting on her stoop with her new baby. “Total strangers came by and said, ‘Bless you.’ They would never have spoken to me otherwise.”
Maybe we parents are all just deluded, but we love our children so much we would rather change the very definition of happiness than admit that we’re unhappy. “Happiness is feeling in sync with yourself,” says Steinke. “There’s that euphoric happiness, but I don’t like that so much anymore. Probably because I don’t get it. Partly because you’re tired after it.”
“It changes the framework of happiness altogether,” Karon says. “It changes the benchmarks. By the measures that you used to determine your happiness before you had children, you’re completely miserable. That’s probably why so many people are so scared of it – because they don’t have access to another paradigm. But as soon as you have your children, those first moments of holding your child, your whole sense of what’s important to you changes, of what your place is in the world. It’s a far more profound happiness and connectedness with everything, that you can’t have when you don’t have a child.”
“It’s impossible to not romanticize [child-rearing],” says Rabhan. “This is your flesh and blood; this is family. And as you get older, you look at these things as really being much better than they were. The hard times in life are dealing with death, and real issues and hardships with children. Losing a night’s sleep is nothing in life. Losing a child is everything or having a child hurt in an accident. The longer you live in life, the more you appreciate things. And the things that were meaningful are that much more meaningful, and the things that are meaningless are forgotten.”
Despite his uninspiring findings, Oswald recommends children to everyone. “Perhaps like many parents,” he says, “I have hoodwinked myself into having views that my data don’t have to share.”
I haven’t said much to my daughter during the first couple of blocks of driving home. “Why are you sad?” she asks from the back seat. I’m impressed by the fact that she recognizes my quiet as sadness and not anger or lack of love. She’s a brilliant little person.
I decide to tell her the truth. “Because I was really looking forward to seeing you,” I tell her, “and then you acted all crazy.”
“I’m not acting craaaaaazy.”
“You were.” I consider the problem. “It hurt my feelings.”
She falls silent. We drive a few blocks.
From the car seat, the voice comes again: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I was just really happy to see you.”
A few blocks later, she starts a new conversation. “Remember when I was all crazy?”
And thankfully, if this colonoscopy goes on long enough, I won’t.