Do kids really make us happier? It’s a question that Jennifer Senior tackles eloquently in a New York Magazine cover story that just hit newsstands, and one that, as the father of two boys (and as co-founder of Babble.com), I consider both highly relevant to my life and pretty high-stakes.
There is some history here: In the fall of 2006, when we were mapping out plans for Babble.com on a white board, I was in the thick of Stumbling on Happiness, the book by Daniel Gilbert that Jennifer cites in her article. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I was gobsmacked – nearly knocked off my chair – by a chart of four different studies of human happiness that showed the same woeful roller coaster pattern: reported happiness grows throughout early life and reaches it’s apex when people are married without kids. First child comes out, reported happiness plummets. First kid hits six, seven, eight, becomes more independent, happiness rises. First child hits adolescence, happiness drops again to its nadir. First child goes to college, happiness starts to rise, eventually returning almost to its previous heights. It’s an utterly grim collection of data to gaze upon when you have, as I had then, an 18-month-old son and harbored hopes of having more. The next two decades of my life, not to mention the subject of our beloved website, were suddenly limned before me as a descent into misery.
I set out to find what was wrong with the chart – not whether there was something wrong with the chart, mind you, but what was wrong with the chart. (Let’s face it, the stakes were too high for impartiality.) We hired the wonderful writer Biz Mitchell to interview Daniel Gilbert and the various scientists who created the study and find the missing silver lining. Every bit of conventional wisdom, after all, says the precise opposite: that the single most joyful experience in life (with the possible exception of making children) is having children. We give up rock concerts, spontaneous travel involving the renting of convertibles, hours of chasing one’s lover around the living room with a wound-up bath towel, mornings of leisurely newspaper reading – all this to have kids! It’s hard to imagine the long laundry list of sacrifices, made at the mercy of our biological imperative, is not more than offset by the joy of scampering little feet. On the other hand, my first 18 months as a new parent were not entirely inconsistent with Gilbert’s findings – I found it to be equal parts wondrous and exasperating.
Biz did indeed find a silver lining, carefully extracted from Gilbert and his fellow gloomy scientists, and it was as follows: though average happiness goes down when you have kids, experiences of extreme pleasure and pain increase. In effect, by having kids you are re-submitting your life to the turbulent intensity – the highs and lows – of earlier phases of life.
The more I thought about this answer, the more it made sense to me. We learn in our late twenties and early thirtees to hedge, to play it safe, to increase our average happiness at the expense of experiences of transcendent joy. We learn not to go to the rock concert that could be revelatory, that could cover your body with goosebumps and levitate you into the air alongside thousand of suddenly simpatico fellow head-swayers because it’s equally likely we will find ourselves battling mild boredom followed by claustrophobia in the beer line. We fall in with a wonderful collection of friends who remind us how loveable and politically astute we are, we read and watch the kinds of books and movies that make us feel understood and in-the-know, and we generally become incrementally better technicians at juicing pleasure from life and avoiding the bitter rind.
This pre-child, young professional phase is a wonderful stretch. Though it’s easy for breeders to dismiss this life stage as lacking in substance, that’s not entirely fair. If creative expression – writing, singing, filming, yodeling, chainsaw sculpting – is one of life’s great joys, along with enjoying the creative expression of those around us, then let’s be honest and acknowledge that people with young kids experience less of this. Not only because of the time it takes to make sure your kids are fed, diapered, and not beating each other silly with a light saber, but also because of the time it takes to make the money to buy the diapers, food, and pay the babysitter to help keep the kids from beating each other silly with a light saber. This loss of time for creative expression and consumption are, for me, a very big sacrifice indeed, the biggest of them all.
Rufus’s two sons, Grey and Declan, playing
A good friend of mine has been having a very hard time having kids, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Though I am confident he will eventually succeed, I want to say to him, “You know what, as magical as kids are, there is an argument for not having them. Sure, you will be missing something, but you will also gain an enormous amount of time with which you can do great things.” This is heresy, mind you – you are not supposed to say this sort of thing – but more often than not, the things we are prohibited from saying are true. Jennifer Senior quotes a friend of Daniel Gilbert, who says, “Kids bring a lot of joy, but they turn all the other sources of joy to shit.” Though I wouldn’t go quite that far, there is truth in it, and perhaps a pinch of consolation for the child-free.
But I don’t say this to my friend because it might sound defeatist – and because it is woefully inadequate consolation. Parenthood is a front row seat on the unfurling of a human life – how could you not want to experience it, inconveniences be damned? How could you not want to know someone as deeply as a parent knows a child, to have a chance to help him or her navigate life’s perils and opportunities, even if you know that your wise utterances will have all the effect of a spitball on a tank? Parenthood is one of life’s crucible experiences, as mixed as every other, but on the very short list of reasons it’s exquisite to be alive.
Much of the problem with these studies, and this broader discussion, is obviously semantic. We should really have more words for happiness; fulfillment, pleasure, gratification – none of them really fit the bill. There are dozens of varietals of happiness, and the most sublime among them require a certain amount of sacrifice.
The truth is that we get too good at life, and we need to be humbled again. We may lose a big chunk of our adult lives to the repetitive maintenance of children; we may lose time to think novel thoughts and enjoy those of others; we may drink less wine and smell more poop, and we surely spend less time in a serene state of equipoise, but there is a payoff in raw human experience that is not measured in the studies. A life with incrementally rising average happiness can get stale, predictable. Novelty, not of scenery but of experience, is harder to come by than average happiness, and consequently has more scarcity value. In the trials of parenthood, we are resubmitted to the work-a-day, stomach-clenching highs and lows of childhood, to the shriek-worthy revelation that is a paper airplane’s first launch or the betrayal of a parent’s departure. We are damned lucky to have all this, even if, in moments, it almost kills us.