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When choice creates options, options become valid for evaluating

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, June 30, 2008 15:23 EDT
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This won’t be a popular article, except of course for those of us childless people who are annoyed at the sanctimonious pity we get from people trying to bully us into validating their choices by having children ourselves. Too bad, though. It’s better to know than not before you make what is really a very permanent choice, isn’t it?

In Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book “Stumbling on Happiness,” the Harvard professor of psychology looks at several studies and concludes that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child—and increases only when the last child has left home. He also ascertains that parents are happier grocery shopping and even sleeping than spending time with their kids. Other data cited by 2008′s “Gross National Happiness” author, Arthur C. Brooks, finds that parents are about 7 percentage points less likely to report being happy than the childless.

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term “bundle of joy” may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers,” says Florida State University’s Robin Simon, a sociology professor who’s conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they’re not.”

What’s interesting is that later in the article, she explains that as children became more of a lifestyle choice, the amount of effort and expense to have them went up and added even more stress to people’s lives. There’s a number of reasons for this, including expanding hours at work, the increased cost of childcare, increasing health care costs, and probably the increasing necessity to pay for higher education. But I also have to wonder if the fact that children are more a choice than just a fact of life feeds into it. When you actively choose something and/or take ownership over that choice, you put more of yourself into it. Like the difference between renting a place and buying it. Knowing that you didn’t have to have children just amps up your responsibilities to the children you chose to bring into this world.

On the whole, if my guess is right, then I think it’s a good thing. Parenting is a big responsibility, and people who choose it are obligated, in my opinion, to put their all into it. Your kids didn’t ask for this life, so the least you owe them for bringing into this vale of tears is to give them every advantage you can. I think that the sea change from children being a fact of life to children being a choice has, for this reason, been a huge factor in why child abuse has become a major issue and society is a lot less tolerant of things like beating a child with a switch to discipline them. The downside that’s much lamented in school administrations everywhere is that all this also contributes to spoiling and entitlement. Striking a balance is yet another stress that no doubt factors into why the be-childed are unhappier on average than the childless.

What I also found interesting in the article is that the author, Lorraine Ali, completely skips over something that Gilbert mentioned in Stumbling: the unhappiness factor in having children is far stronger for women than men. Which is to say that the levels of happiness with the marriage plummet more for women than men after the first baby is born. There’s no doubt as to why this is, which is that the combination of having to do more shit work and resenting your husband because he has to do less shit work (with babies, all too often literal shit work) is bound to stress anyone out. Unfortunately, feminism hasn’t made much of a dent in this area. Even as men have been picking up the broom more often, they haven’t actually been picking up the baby wipes more often. No wonder anti-choicers believe that women won’t have children unless forced to by law.

Of course, first comment out is by a grumpy conservative who thinks all this Declaration of Independence-inspired blooey about happiness is just more liberal decadence.

This article reeks of liberal self-centeredness. All right, go ask childless barren couples why they’re so sad. Why have all these orphans from Korea, China, and impoverished eastern european countries been snapped up? And what fool ever said parenting was easy? Nothing in life worth having is ever easy, including successfully rearing and launching children into the world. This article is just plain idiotic, that’s what it is.

No doubt his concern for the individual’s duty to society as a whole dries up when he’s asked to pay his taxes, what with those also being a liberal plot and all. I guess women’s duties to society are a little easier to compel without moral qualms. The irony in that is that with environmental disaster on the horizon, right now the greater duty on people is convincing them to deprive themselves of heirs in order to reduce the stress on the planet from so many Americans with our American lifestyles. There’s a number of comments in there that are flailing like this, because there’s nothing worse for people than when cold, hard facts butt heads with cherished illusions. In fact, this comes up in the article itself.

Simon received plenty of hate mail in response to her research (“Obviously Professor Simon hates her kids,” read one), which isn’t surprising. Her findings shake the very foundation of what we’ve been raised to believe is true.

Oh, I don’t know. The part of me that’s eternally optimistic about human nature was surprised. I keep stupidly thinking that people, when confronted with boring old evidence that really shouldn’t rile them up if they gave a moment to sober, rational thought, will be sitting down to write letters like, “Dear Dr. Simon: I was surprised to read that having children is statistically linked with higher levels of unhappiness than not having children. While I certainly squirmed to realize that my choice to have children was made under false beliefs, I came to realize that I can’t actually regret my children because I love them so much. I’m grateful to you for them, though, because the more research done into these things, the more my own children can make life choices with full information, even if this includes deciding against having children themselves. I only want them to be happy, after all.”

And who knows? Maybe there are a lot of people like that, probably the ones who were on the right end of the bell curve and who had the smallest dip in happiness levels when they had children and thus aren’t so defensive. I can’t help but think the people who lash out the hardest are the ones who are angriest with themselves for those moments of darkness that flit through the minds, the unbidden “What ifs?” that studies like this bring to the surface. Happier parents don’t see themselves reflected in these stats, and probably just can’t summon the energy to be angry.

It’ll be interesting to see how the popularization of this research plays out. I’m always fascinated by the gaps between beliefs and reality, and the struggles that people go through reconciling them when they are at odds. The belief that children are a mandatory part of happiness won’t die easily, I suspect.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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