“Most people assume that having children will make them happier,” notes New York magazine. “Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.” The story “All Joy and No Fun,” wonders out loud “why doesn’t childrearing make us happy?”
For those unaccustomed to New York-style navel gazing, the piece can read dangerously close to Onion-style parody – “Parents surprised to learn parenting isn’t fun” – but if you can get past the whiny anecdotes from Manhattan habitués (“It’s the drudgery that’s so hard: Crap, you don’t have any pants that fit? There are just So. Many. Chores.”) there are interesting ideas to chew on. Writer Jennifer Senior wonders if parents aren’t “deluded” or “in the grip of some false consciousness that’s good for mankind but not for men and women in particular.” She advances the possibility that “parents don’t much enjoy parenting because the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed.”
“As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed….This is especially true in middle- and upper-income families, which are far more apt than their working-class counterparts to see their children as projects to be perfected. (Children of women with bachelor degrees spend almost five hours on “organized activities” per week, as opposed to children of high-school dropouts, who spend two.) Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”
Ultimately, Senior gets around to the critical distinction between moment-to-moment happiness and the long-term satisfaction borne of feeling purposeful. Parenting tends to be short on the former and long on the latter. Good news for the species. And for parents.