Sunday, July 06, 2008

Having Kids Does Not Make You Happy

My favorite part of Lorraine Ali's Newsweek article (July 14, 2008) about the effects of children on happiness is this:

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.

I also like the part that says that Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies and has drawn similar conclusions, has "received plenty of hate mail in response to her research." I'm sure people who are raising kids hate being told that they have walked into a less happy life than those who have avoided the responsibilities of parenthood. But maybe spreading such news far and wide ("Good morning, Mrs. Hernandez. Did you know that parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childress peers?") can start to make up for all the judgement that the childless have had to take.

I know that I'm a a bit odd for having made a decision to never have kids. I'm especially odd for having specifically chosen, at the age of 41, a husband who also doesn't want to have kids. And I'm even odder for being a Mexican American woman who doesn't want kids.

Actually, I spent my 20's giving not a single consideration to marriage or children, but then at the age of 30 (imagine) I suddenly panicked. I began to worry that if I didn't get on with the process of marriage and children, I'd miss out. I began to think about motherhood in a very focused way. Then I took a job as a part-time nanny to an infant.

My first day on the job, the little boy was seven weeks old and it was the mother's first baby. Along with her, I figured out how to discern his needs, distinguish his cries, handle his little body, keep him entertained. Oh, he needed a LOT of entertaining. How do you engage with a tiny human? I did a lot of carrying, a lot of walking and a lot of singing.

My hours eventually settled at 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He was mine all day long. At six months of age he began regularly having fits for no reason. Had he suddenly realized that his mother was leaving him with a stranger three days a week? Maybe. I was at my wits end and often wanted to quit. This wasn't MY kid. Why should I put up with this screaming stress? But I hung in there.

I took care of that child until he was three and a half years old and began pre-school. I was pretty good at feeding him, keeping him safe, keeping him engaged, making sure he had everything he needed for those 24 hours a week he was in my care. I even spent the night with him one weekend when his parents had to be in two different cities. That really taught me why parents are so sleep-deprived!

With that experience, the strong desire to have children left me. My maternal instinct had been exercised and satisfied and I moved on to other interests. I wasn't against having kids, but the baby fever was gone. I dated men who were uncertain about having kids, but I also dated men who definitely wanted them because at that point I was on the fence about it. Did I want to be a mother one day? Uh, sure, maybe. I wasn't really certain.

I spent the rest of my 30's in that state. I figured if I wasn't sure about the children question, I'd better stay uncommitted. In the meantime I gathered anecdotal evidence from family and friends that having kids didn't have a net positive effect on your life. In fact, one friend was award-winningly candid when she said that having kids had brought an equal amount of positives and negatives into her life. Really, the hundreds of day-to-day changes that kids brought, added up to a big push. But when she considered the overall, gestault, big picture, she was glad she had kids.


It wasn't until I reached my late 30's that I looked motherhood square in the face and decided to pass. I knew that the extremely high maintenance of infant-care was not for me. Nor was the extremely high energy of toddler care. Nor was the discipline and patience of childcare. Nor the - well, you get the idea (Ali's Newsweek article estimates that raising a child from birth to age 17 costs between $134,370 and $237,520. And that's without school or college tuition).

Early in our dating, I made absolutely sure Bob didn't want kids either. Unlike me, he had grown up imagining himself with a family one day. His dreams of fatherhood had died some time during his 30's, as his search for a life partner dragged on and on. By the time he met me, in his 40's, he knew he no longer had the energy and patience for raising children. This was good news for me. No baby discussion for this couple, although I did make absolutely sure Bob really didn't harbor any remaining fatherhood-longing. Nope. He insists (at the age of almost 46) he's fine with DINK-hood ("dual income, no kids").

I shared this article with him and he found it interesting. We know we've made the right choice.

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