Bundle of Trouble

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image by A. Richard Allen

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.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild was the first to document how the lack of flexible work schedules, high-quality and affordable child care for preschool-age children, and after-school care for elementary-age children all contribute to stress from what’s now commonly referred to as the “second shift” for employed parents, who leave their jobs at five o’clock only to start another job caring for children at home.

There are few policies or programs to alleviate this stress. In the end, the collective response to stressed out employed parents is that they need to become better organized.

Although financial stress and the strain of the “second shift” subside as children become more independent, the majority of parents continue to be involved in the lives of their adult offspring. Among other things, parents worry about their grown children’s financial well-being, social relationships, happiness, and mental and physical health.

Our culture also places high expectations on parents for the way children “turn out.” Irrespective of their children’s age, we question parents’ child-rearing skills when kids have problems. In fact, the way children turn out seems to be the only measure our culture offers for assessing whether men and women are good parents.

Yet unlike other societies, ours offers comparatively little preparation for parenthood, and most parents raise their children in relative social isolation with little assistance from extended family members, friends, neighbors, and the larger community. We lack institutional supports that would help ease the social and economic burdens–and subsequent stress and social disadvantages–associated with parenthood. Instituting better tax credits, developing more and better day care and after-school options, as well as offering flexible work schedules for employed mothers and fathers would go far toward alleviating some of the difficulty of raising children.

Of equal importance is the need to take stock of and reevaluate existing cultural beliefs that children improve the emotional health and well-being of adults. These cultural beliefs–and our expectation that children guarantee a life filled with happiness, joy, excitement, contentment, satisfaction, and pride–are an additional, though hidden, source of stress for all parents. The feelings of depression and emotional distress that parents experience can cause them to question what they’re doing wrong.

These negative emotions can also lead parents to perceive themselves as inadequate, since their feelings clearly aren’t consistent with the cultural ideal.

Reducing the enormous and unrealistic cultural expectations we have for parenthood is as important as greater cultural recognition of the unrelenting challenges and difficulties associated with having children. Hallmark stores stock baby cards filled with happy wishes for new parents, celebrating their precious bundles of joy. Perhaps the selection should also include cards to acknowledge the difficult emotions that often accompany parenthood.

Excerpted from Contexts (Spring 2008). Copyright © 2008 by the American Sociological Association. Contexts seeks to understand people in their social worlds;www.contexts.org.

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