Bundle of Trouble

Kids are supposed to bring joy. So why are parents so unhappy?

| September-October 2008

Americans harbor a widespread, deeply held belief that no adult can be happy without becoming a parent. Parenthood, we think, is pivotal for developing and maintaining emotional well-being, and children are an essential ingredient for a life filled with happiness, joy, excitement, satisfaction, and pride.

That’s not exactly the case. Although studies indicate parents derive more purpose and meaning from life than nonparents, as a group, moms and dads in the United States also experience depression, emotional distress, and negative emotions (such as fear, anxiety, worry, and anger) far more than their child-free peers. What’s more, parents of grown children report no greater well-being than adults who never had children.

Such facts fly in the face of cultural dogma that proclaims it impossible for people to have an emotionally fulfilling life unless they become parents. And yet: Why doesn’t parent­hood have the positive emotional effects on adults that our cultural beliefs suggest?

Children provide parents with an important social identity. They help them forge emotional connections to extended family members and their communities. Children fulfill basic human desires, including having someone to love and nurture, carrying on family traditions, and allowing us to become grandparents. Watching children grow is enjoyable, and parents often feel comforted by the perception that they won’t be alone in old age.

The disconnect lies in the social conditions in which Americans now parent; they’re far from ideal for allowing parents to reap the emotional benefits of having children. Parents cope with stressors that cancel out and often exceed the emotional rewards of having children. Making matters worse, parents and others perceive the strain as a private matter and a reflection of their inability to cope with the “normal” demands of parenthood.

A significant source of parental stress simply comes from the high financial cost of raising a child to adulthood. Even the basics such as food, clothing, and (for those who have it) health care are expensive, not to mention extracurricular activities and the astronomical cost of college education. Demographers estimate that 70 percent of children in the United States are raised in households in which all adults work outside the home—and there’s a fundamental incompatibility between employment as we know it and raising children.

Kat Logan
9/29/2008 4:51:01 PM

There are some people who were born to be parents. There are also a whole lot that weren't - probably the vast majority. Some people know that children aren't for them, but a whole lot more lack the willpower or the self knowledge to say no, or to really consider the decision. And make no mistake, this is a big decision - one that is very permanent and will affect the rest of your life. The misinformation and myths that are fed to prospective parents are nothing short of cruel and irresponsible. And then after the child is born, the whole thing becomes a competitive circus, where instead of helping each other out parents are backstabbing, finger pointing, and social climbing to get the best for "their" child. Everywhere parents turn they're told that "they're doing it wrong". Nothing they do is ever good enough. No wonder they're stressed and unhappy. Who would willingly sign up for that? I just wish more people would learn to say "no". No to having kids if you don't want them. No to people who tell them they're screwing it up. No to bigger, better, faster, more "for the kids". Learn to trust yourself and do what is right for you, and your world might be a much happier place. Good luck!

9/18/2008 7:23:44 PM

The question - are parents happier, more content, more fulfilled by having children - is flawed. First, because people who choose not to have children have gone through the process to justify that decision so their need to have children has either been dealt with or was never there. Second, because the stress and strain of having children is part of the fulfillment. If you aren't stressed about your children you are probably feeling guilty that you aren't doing enough for them. The question should perhaps be asked of people on their deathbeds. Would those who had children feel more fulfilled and content than those that didn't? I know I will.

suzy garfinkle_2
9/18/2008 11:59:36 AM

I am a single mother and yes, raising my 3 daughters alone is burdensome and challenging. But, through the exhaustion and frustration I CHOOSE TO FOCUS ON THE JOY! I think perhaps the single biggest handicap most Americans suffer is that no one told us that HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE. It's all a matter of what we focus our energy on. Sure, I could focus on the heartaches and the constant sense of overwhelm and the possibility that I will run out of money before they are finished with their educations. (Having raised them with the promise that if they did well, they would get to follow their educational bliss with my full support!) But I choose to focus on the joy on their faces when something magical happens. I choose to notice the warm fuzzy feeling I get when they are basking in the results of a well-made decision. I choose to just watch and enjoy the moment when sibling tensions are absent and they are all serenely playing a hand of cards together. Zen Parenting doesn't change the fact that our society is short changing families at every turn. Zen Parenting simply chooses happiness regardless!

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