Childfree and Parenthood - The False Dichotomy of Happiness
Apparently, parents are unhappy. More unhappy than their non-parent counterparts. In the New York Magazine article by Jennifer Senior ‘All Joy and No Fun – Why Parents Hate Parenting’, Jennifer dives into a wealth of studies which consistently say the same thing, non-parents are happier than parents. This seems counter-intuitive. Everyone keeps expecting the research to say the opposite. And unlike pictures of happy families, children decrease marital happiness. The majority of the studies were American, and while some found the difference in happiness to be statistically insignificant, some definitely found parents to be unhappier and they become increasingly more unhappy the more children they have.
Interestingly, a Scandanavian study did show the opposite. Parents were happier. Perhaps that could be boiled down to increased support services and parental leave options available in Europe. But even more interesting, is that the American studies showed that parental dissatisfaction increased with the more money they had, indicating that it’s not just about being able to afford child-care (or it being subsidised by the government).
And perhaps the disconnect is in the measurement of happiness vs reward. Because studies that specifically assessed parental vs non-parental feelings of reward and meaning consistently showed parents had a greater sense of reward. So the question becomes, what do you value more – moment-to-moment happiness or a retrospective sense of reward? But is this sense of reward simply looking back with rose-coloured glasses? And do those absolute moments of ecstatic joy as a parent really outweigh the frustration?
So there you have it. My very imperfect summary of a detailed article. There are of course, problems within the research itself – it doesn’t account for those who choose to be childfree vs those who have not been able to have children for whatever reason. And it doesn’t account for parents who chose to be parents rather than those who became parents without conciously choosing it. A recent study, detailed in this article, highlights that were it is a concious choice the marital relationship is likely to improve, rather than worsen.
But what I found really fascinating about the debate that erupted was the chasm that divided parents from non-parents (particularly those who are child-free by choice). You can dive into the colourful commentary here and here. At it’s most reductive, it had parents accusing non-parents of being intrinsically selfish, unable to experience true love or fulfillment and somehow not fulfilling their duty and the childfree accusing parents of being uncivilised breeders, lacking fulfillment in their own lives, truly unhappy but unable to admit that they’d made a mistake and one parent was even told ‘spare me the poetry and go change that diaper’.
Really?! Just because someone is happy with their choice, doesn’t mean everyone else has to make the same choice to validate your happiness. If a parent is happy, it doesn’t automatically mean all non-parents are unhappy (and vice versa). While the research spoke to generalities and averages, individual choices, are just that. Individual.
I think the childfree should be commended for taking the decision to have children or not have children seriously. It is the biggest commitment anyone is ever likely to make and one of the most life changing. Not everyone has the desire to be a parent. And why subject children to such ambivalence? And as for the dehumanisation of parents by some – I find that pretty abhorrent. Depicting parents as ‘breeders’, ‘rats’ and servants does not make anyone morally superior.
The way I see it – it’s not surprising that parents and non-parents have such a hard time understanding one another. As a parent you can never go back, once your child (or children) are born you cannot imagine a world without them, and nor would you even want to. And as a non-parent you will never really know what parenthood would be like. I’m sorry, you just can’t. And I’m sure there are so many things that the childfree love and relish about their life – the spontaneity, the freedom, uninterrupted sleep, careers independent of interruptions and the ability to finish a cup of coffee without reheating it in the microwave.
But parenthood isn’t about chores, or colic, or tantrums, or crying, or changing nappies or laundry – although that’s all part of it. You can’t talk about parenthood without the poetry. Because as a parent you can be exhausted, frustrated and complaining about your kids and still love them (and your life) with a fierceness that sometimes scares you. Parenting changes your world in a way that you previously wouldn’t have even had the capacity to understand. And all of those negatives are minuscule by comparison to a new word or a belly laugh or a cuddle.
To be frank, my decision to be a parent was a giant leap of faith. I believed I wanted to be a mother. But I was scared to hold babies and toddlers kind of creeped me out (because I could never understand what they were saying). I thought I would most likely struggle to be at home with a baby and would yearn to go back to work. There were so many things that I wanted to do – study, write, travel. And I was sure I would miss going out with my friends. But I knew that I could still do all of those things, they would just be delayed. So I leapt into the abyss of parenthood.
In life, anything that’s worth a damn is challenging and involves sacrifice of some kind. But I was surprised after Riley was born how easy it came. I was exhausted, but I didn’t care – I would still stay up to watch her sleep. And I was even more surprised that I was even more fulfilled being home with my baby than I was at work. Of course it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s extraordinarily challenging and frustrating and sometimes I even feel like a screaming room might come in handy. But all that hangs in the shadow of those many transcendent moments that fill my day with joy.
And that’s me. That’s what makes me happy. And my happiness doesn’t take away from anyone else’s, regardless of their choices.
Cross Posted on Good Goog