Monday, October 20, 2008

Why does parenthood make us unhappy

Remaining puzzle #11: Why does parenthood make us unhappy?
Social surveys often show that parents are less happy than comparable adults without children. This makes no sense from an evolutionary psychological perspective. Happiness (and other emotions) have been evolutionarily selected to induce us to do the right thing in order to attain reproductive success in the context of the ancestral environment.
. . .
I have discovered this to be the case in my own work as well. . . . being married is great, but it’s not as great if you also have children.

In her recent article “The Joys of Parenthood, Reconsidered,” published in the American Sociological Association’s journal Contexts, the sociologist Robin W. Simon, who has done a lot of research on emotional well-being of parents and nonparents, notes that parents have more frequent negative emotions, and less frequent positive emotions, than nonparents of comparable age. However, she also points out that parents derive “more purpose, more meaning, and greater satisfaction from life” than do nonparents. I wonder if these deeper, philosophical satisfaction with life is meant to encourage humans to reproduce despite more immediate frequent negative emotions and less frequent positive emotions.

The only reason I can think of for why parenthood may make us unhappy is that we are raising our children today in a wholly unnatural environment, in an entirely unnatural manner, relative to our ancestral environment.
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I . . . wonder whether the “more purpose, more meaning, and greater satisfaction from life” that parents derive than nonparents do means that parents are in fact happier than nonparents despite a whole host of negative emotions they experience more frequently and positive emotions they experience less frequently. At any event, why the very act of reproductive success makes us unhappy, when we are designed to achieve it and everything we do is ultimately geared toward it, remains a mystery for evolutionary psychology (and, once again, only for evolutionary psychology).
So... being happy less often and being sad more often isn't a good indicator of who is "happier"? I'm going to call upon our resident psychological and statistical expert Vinny to determine whether the indications of deriving more meaning reveal actual emotional states or an intellectual excercise we conduct to make us feel better about being less happy. That is, if he can tear himself away from his own PhD research in the meantime.
On second thought, keep studying. There seems to be a pervasive pronatal psychological groupthink, evidenced by the constant strain to find some ultimate pro-parenting indicator despite glaring statistics to the contrary. I think we need some well-trained academics not prone to this intellectual dishonesty.
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Anonymous said...

The mind has amazing ways of reconciling disparities in reality and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if this were the case when it comes to parenting. Perhaps at the end of the day when a person has been through a gauntlet of tiresome labor over their offspring, the only way to not loose sanity is to believe that there is a greater purpose to all that hard work. Is the ability for self delusion a truly valid measure of happiness? That would also bring us to the point that perhaps we do create our own reality and maybe parents are happier in their own world. I say, leave them to it! I'm quite happy in my own little world sans dirty diapers. :) Wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was our sex drive that drove reproduction and we added the social context later. From a biological standpoint, there is no such thing as a desire for children, just a desire for sex. Cavemen didn't have condoms.

The yearning for progeny is a social construct, although the instinct to nurture a child once it's here is pretty firmly ingrained in most individuals.

Child-rearing has never been a happy-happy, joy-joy situation, if history is to be believed. But I also think we put a lot of very absurd pressures on modern parents, especially women, to the point where unless one just really loves hanging out with kids, it makes no logical sense to have them, from a happiness perspective.

Anonymous said...

The Ph.D.'s will never explain that there is often as much variability within groups (among the parents or among the childfree) as there is between groups (parents vs. childfree).

On the whole, the childfree may be happier than parents.

But wholes are made of individuals. Each of us must grapple with life, creativity, the mundane, and relationships.

Being childfree may tip the odds in your favor, but it is no more useful a sociological construct than saying someone is happy because of his or her race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status.

We are not categories. Categories do not remove complexity or make us happy.

That job falls to us, and us alone.

Nursedude said...

As my kids have gotten older, they are 21 and 17-and I have a month old grandson that was NOT planned by my son and his fiancee, I can say that raising kids today is MUCH tougher. I think things will be even more complicated for my son and Andrea than even what my wife and I expected. Clearly having kids is not an instant gratification thing. In the case of my wife and I, we really wanted to have kids. In the case of my son, he did NOT plan on being a parent just 4 days after his 21st birthday.

You do make sacrifices when you decide to have kids. Any thoughts about doing something like joining the Peace Corps, or teaching English in Japan, or doing travel nurse assignments went out the window when my wife and I made our decision. I know that in the case of my son, parenthood has certainly made him have to rethink what he had wanted to do.

I think more to the point, when you add kids to the mix, you introduce independent variables that can certainly be stress provoking. Parents are not always happier, I have seen that with my own eyes. I am glad I had kids-but it is clearly not for everybody. If you can imagine couples with kids as the bucket of crabs, with a couple of crabs representing the population who wants to be child free, you do have almost a situation where the other crabs are pulling the "child free" crabs back down into the bucket. I guess for some people misery loves company. I would agree with anonymous' point and Ken on their points.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking what serafina said. I'm not a psychologist, but my psych 101 teacher called this phenomenon "effort justification." The more effort you have to put into an activity, the more you have to try to convince yourself that it was worth it in order to maintain psychological stability. No one is immune to this. I've had to endure my share of crap in life, and somehow I always find myself saying "but the silver lining was X" or "but I learned some valuable lessons." It's like we're programmed to never admit to ourselves that something was a complete waste of time and energy and just sucked.

And I also agree that there is no biological drive to reproduce. There is a biological drive to fuck (for most people) and sans birth control, children tend to follow. The supposed drive to breed that we see around us now is a cultural construct, plain and simple.

caerni said...

I agree completely that we all have the instinct to have sex but there is no basic instinct to reproduce. Babies are simply a by-product of instinct. The desire to give birth is enviromental not instinctual. Of course when birth occurs, the perps must constantly validate themselves and their actions by coercing others to follow suit. Not all, for sure. Nursedude is a good example. Comfortable with his decision to reproduce without the need to self validate. If only the rest of the world were like that, there would be far fewer unwanted babies and much less misery among adults.

firefly said...

"The yearning for progeny is a social construct, although the instinct to nurture a child once it's here is pretty firmly ingrained in most individuals."

Actually ... not. Mothering is a learned skill. There are lots of studies out there detailing the fact that first-time animal mothers (apes) often lose their babies through inexperience and inattention.

That "instinct" is also a social construct, meant to make women who don't feel it automatically feel like they are abnormal.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree: our culture clings to the consensus that parenting is a net joy because parents are desperate to rationalize a mistake that cannot be undone.

As friends, relatives, environmentalists and concerned citizens I think we do a great service when we can remind those contemplating parenthood of the very real possibility that their decision will not result in a net increase in joy, and that it is absolutely final. The question is, how to do so tactfully and in a manner that is thought-provoking and not just alienating? I'd like to give my friends who are on the fence or moving toward babymaking the chance to rethink before it is too late. Most will--out of peer pressure, the desire to conform, biological urge, or sheer laziness and lack of creativity--opt to procreate, but I would prefer that they do so not for lack of exposure to alternative perspectives on the realities of parenting.

I was absolutely flummoxed when a friend who is considering making babies recently said something on the order of "there's no higher calling than raising another conscious being." Not only was the statement patently wrong, but it was insulting to all those of us who have chosen to pursue our higher calling in ways that do not involve procreation. My mind started filling with all sorts of statistics on the negative emotional, financial, and environmental consequences of another birth, but I could think of no socially adept way to introduce these into the conversation.

Now I think a more personal response would have been the most appropriate. Something on the order of "I our highest calling is in realizing our individual potential. For some people, that is done by making another human and spending your life taking care of it. For others, it is by making great music, engaging in world-changing social activism, and helping others in need."

Liz @ MaybeBabyMaybeNot said...

I completely agree that the disparity between happiness levels and "more purpose, more meaning, and greater satisfaction from life" is a post-op thing done on a subconscious level by people who have to justify the lot they've chosen (or in some cases, been stuck with) in life.

What I find really confusing though is this issue of whether there's a biological drive to have children. If there's not, then what's with the omnipresence of this mythical "biological clock"? I've just turned 30 and have been told repeatedly (when I mention that I'm not sure I want to have kids) that this clock is going to kick in any moment now.

Is it a total fabrication? Is it women seeing other women with cute, gurgly things that they decide they want in the moment, rather than a true biological yearning? Or has my biological clock just gone digital?