Having children is supposed to make you happy, right? Then why do most studies suggest it doesn't? That question is fodder for a provocative article published over the weekend in New York Magazine.
Writes author Jennifer Senior:
Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns.
The piece is refreshing in its honesty and depth, and well worth the read. Ultimately, Senior seems to suggest that societal burdens and expectations have much to do with parental dissatisfaction.
Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child's value in five ruthless words: "Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.") Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.
And Senior suggests that questionnaires, while capturing moment-to-moment realities, might be incapable of measuring the sort of gradual revelation of parenthood - what she calls "the very definition of enchantment."