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Does having kids make you less happy?

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

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."

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."

Amitai Etzioni

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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.

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    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."

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    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).

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