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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT