Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Does having kids make you less happy?

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
A new round of complaints on child-rearing surfaces annually. This year it's the
A new round of complaints on child-rearing surfaces annually. This year it's the "hit" kids take on happiness, Amitai Etzioni says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amitai Etzioni: Each year people grouse about parenting
  • He says recent articles describe how kids create drudge work, cut into couples' time together
  • He says child-rearing also holds deep mutuality with ups, downs that make us better humans
  • Etzioni: One can find (and he has) contentment, joy, grief and meaning in raising children

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

(CNN) -- Like the annual outbreaks of flu, every year brings a new round of attacks on having and raising children. Some years, it takes the form of articles pointing out how expensive children are. You could buy a fully loaded Porsche for the $250,000 a child costs you these days, we are told.

Some years, those who have no children complain that the tax code and workplace discriminate against them, denying them tax breaks and time off that parents enjoy. The theme this year is that children are not a reliable source of happiness. Indeed, several researchers claim that they take the fun out of many marriages, causing a "happiness hit."

A recent New York Times article contrasted the "non-joie of parenting" in the United States with the more laid-back approach in other countries such as France. Its author, Jennifer Conlin, lamented that her "entire adult life revolves around the children's activities" and that her social interactions were now limited to "sitting next to a friend at a college counseling meeting, chatting (with her) daughter's Spanish teacher during the spring choir concert or cleaning up with another mom after (their) daughters' end-of-season sports dinner." A woman with young children complains about the drudgery of motherhood: "There are just So. Many. Chores."

Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni

Many men -- even those whose wives take on most of the burdens of child care -- also feel that parenthood is less than a party, noting that it interferes with romance and tends to make them feel neglected by their wives. "I already felt neglected" before the first baby arrived, one father of two relates. "And once we had the kid, it became so pronounced; it went from zero to negative 50. And I was like, I can deal with zero. But not negative 50."

Opinion: Breast-feeding is intuitive and easy? No!

Those worried about children and what they do to us point to studies indicating that children reduce parental happiness. In one, published in 2004, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and associates found that among 16 activities, taking care of children ranked above only housework, work and commuting in its enjoyableness for working women. Other studies concluded that marital quality declines significantly after a couple transitions to parenthood.

However, research that takes into account parents' different circumstances indicates that parents who are able to spend more time taking care of their children "take much less of a happiness hit from having kids," according to economist Betsey Stevenson.

We may be answering the wrong question. The question is not how much happiness children bring or take, but how good is the happiness? We need to return to a precept that social philosophers and religious texts have long extolled: that a good life is not one centered around squeezing as much pleasure out of life as possible. Pleasure of the kind celebrated by those who would rather go out for dinner than stay home with their infants, watch TV than change diapers and gamble than attend a PTA meeting -- is Sisyphean. No sooner does one gain this kind of pleasure than one is lacking it again. No wonder it has been called the hedonic treadmill.

Opinion: Hey, baby boomer parents, back off!

In contrast, being involved with others close to us, and reaching beyond oneself to serve a greater good, despite the challenges, is a major source of true and lasting contentment. We are not whole unless we bond with others and involve ourselves beyond self. True, "others" can be spouses, siblings, our own parents and sometimes select friends. However, children provide a unique other.

Because they initially are so dependent on us, then gradually stretch their own wings but still remain bonded, they enable us to unfold a unique personal relationship fully. As a father of five, I found that caring for children teaches us that serving others is not a form of altruism, but is part of a deep mutuality that, despite its ups and downs, makes us into fully rounded, and yes, let's use that big word, better human beings.

A Pew Research Center survey found that, when asked to consider how important various aspects of their lives are to their sense of fulfillment, parents "place their relationships with their children on a pedestal rivaled only by their relationships with their spouses -- and far above their relationships with their parents, friends, or their jobs or career."

Robin Simon found that parents tend to be least depressed when their underage children are living in the house and most depressed when they aren't. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, as reported by Jennifer Senior, "happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn't by how much fun we had, but what we did with it."

Opinion: Parents, why are you pushing your kids?

I must admit that recurring references to the indignities of changing diapers and boring children surprise me. I was much more taxed when I had to hold my kids down while they were getting stitches in the ER, when they took the car for a spin for the first time on their own, when they did not come home on time late at night, and when one was diagnosed with juvenile melanoma and it took awhile before I learned that it was not the type of cancer that ended the life of his grandmother.

All this pales in comparison to when I lost a son and had to live with the fear -- which many parents share -- of what fate had in store for the others. Nevertheless, my children were and are the greatest source of contentment in my life -- one that stands as other fortunes ebb and flow. My children have provided boatloads of joy and grief and meaning. And now they have given me a whole slew of grandchildren. What fun -- and no diapers to be changed (by me).

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT