Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Working Parents Hate Life

Having read a lot of chatter on the blogosphere about Jennifer Senior's July 4th article, "All Joy and No Fun, Why parents hate parenting" in New York magazine, I finally had to break down and read the damn thing.  I realize I'm a day late and a dollar short with my contribution to this conversation, but I've been pretty busy with the allegedly heinous drudgery of child care.

In her article, Senior examines a number of studies concerning the effects of parenting on the happiness of adults.  As you might expect from the title of the piece, the implications are overwhelmingly negative (unless you happen to live in Denmark or other countries with progressive parental work-leave policies).  Despite the findings, which include lower reported rates of happiness in virtually every aspect of life among parents as compared to non-parents, and "child care" ranking near the bottom in a survey about the enjoyability of tasks and activities; and despite the provocative title of the piece and hazy photos of quietly desperate-looking parents on its pages, the article ends on a note that is, if not upbeat, at least hopeful.  Senior does not dispute the findings that suggest that parenting makes us unhappy, but she questions what we mean by "happiness," and invokes psychologist Tom Gilovich, who asks whether our "minute-to-minute happiness" is more important than our "retroactive evaluations" of our lives.

 Photo by Jessica Todd Harper for New York

Of course I can only speak from my own limited experience as a parent, but I have a few quibbles with the bleaker implications of this research and the way it is framed by articles like Senior's.

First of all, the subjects of the research and the characters in Senior's anecdotes are by and large harried parents who work full-time jobs and only deal with their kids when they are already exhausted.  I realize that I am in the minority insofar as I have the luxury of being able to stay home with my kids.  Yesterday on the NPR program Tell Me More,  where Senior was among the guests and the discussion revolved around dads' reactions to her article,  Rice Daddies and Daddy Dialectic contributor Jason Sperber (daddy in a strange land) explained in a concise and moving way why parenting makes him happy.  Like me, Jason is a stay-at-home dad with no regrets about having kids and no major resentment toward the day-to-day chores of child care.

I'm not aware of any studies about how having children affects the happiness of those of us who don't have the added stress of trying to bring home the bacon, but I suspect that we would be significantly less unhappy than working parents.  My argument, then, is that the existing research does not really measure frustration with parenting, but rather frustration with trying to fulfill the responsibilities and expectations of both work and family.  This is not a huge revelation, and in fact both Senior and the authors of the studies she cites acknowledge that this is the case.  However, by framing their work in terms of "grueling life with kids vs. freewheeling childless adulthood," they cast parents as victims of their own decision to have children rather than critique a socio-economic model that makes it almost impossible for most parents to both provide for their children and enjoy them.  Maybe the conversation shouldn't focus on parenting as problematic, but instead should be framed as "why working parents hate life." 

Of course, I could be way off base in suspecting that the work side of the equation is at least as soul-sucking as the parenting side, because I'm not a huge fan of being employed.  I have had jobs that I enjoyed, but I have never had one that I would trade for staying home with my kids, and I think that the majority of people I know would rather take care of their kids than go to the office.  I want to see the study that asks people if they would quit their jobs and be full-time parents if they could afford to do so.  Or at least reduce the hours they work by half and spend those hours with the family.   

Senior's article and her comments on NPR emphasize that much of this unhappiness epidemic is caused by a feeling of lost independence on the part of parents, especially those who (like my wife and me) started families later in life, after having lived unencumbered for so many years.  This made me wonder what these unhappy parents were doing that was so awesome before the kids came along and ruined everything.  My wife and I had been together for twenty years before our twin girls were born a year ago, and we had many adventures in the pre-kid era.  But it's not like as soon as the kids were born, everything got boring.  Quite the contrary.  Raising children has been exciting, scary, and hilarious so far.  Sometimes I miss traveling, but if my parents are a valid example, traveling with kids is neither impossible nor necessarily painful.  The other stuff--movies, parties, restaurants--bah!  Who needs it.

I'm not sure why I feel compelled to bicker about the implications of this research, which seem to be bolstered every time a new study comes out (except in Denmark).  Maybe I'm trying to convince myself that I will be able to avoid the crushing stress and disappointment that most parents apparently experience.  Or maybe I don't want people who read about sociological research to be discouraged from producing classmates for my kids.  But part of me feels like the people who report being unhappy as parents probably would have been equally unhappy had they decided not to have children.  And the happy, childless subjects had much more exciting and fulfilling lives than the rest of us schmucks could ever have hoped for with or without kids, and had the foresight to know that parenting was not for them.  The other study I want someone to conduct is a comparison between parents and these childless gadabouts of  their "retroactive evaluations" of their lives once the children have grown up.  I hope that it would show no significant difference.  

Please visit me at Beta Dad, where I post cute pictures of babies.



Ed said...

I was a stay at home dad with our oldest.

Now I have 3 and work full-time while my wife stays home.

I would like to spend more time with my kids, as I feel I have missed out with the last 2 on stuff I shared with the first one.

BUT, I don't think I would want to go back to staying at home all day with all 3 of them. My wife works her ass off. Way harder than me. The difference between 3 and 2 is like the difference between 1 and none.

Didactic Pirate said...

Great article -- Beta's I mean, not Senior's. Studies like this one from New York magazine always seem stilted to me for the exact reason you described: "of the two polarized options, relentless and demanding parental responsibilities vs. total carefree layabout, who's happiest at this exact moment?" It just seems biased from the get-go.

You bring up a good point about how we're told to define happiness and fulfillment today. Let's face it: much of the parenting during the early years is about fulfillment for the child, not ourselves. (Not that we don't get any of it when we interact with our babies and toddlers, but it's definitely about giving more than receiving during those early years.) And our culture is now telling us that true fulfillment comes from a distinct "What can I do for ME?" mentality. Sadly, this seems to have shaped the original article.

Which I haven't read yet. I like to have Beta read this stuff for me so I can just walk in and have big opinion about it.

Bek said...

I too have been reading the chatter and the studies feeling uncomfortable.
I am in a partnership aiming for equal shared parenting but at the moment I am the primary earner, which is tough, but I am definitely a happy person, and happier since I have had my babies. My husband and I are a great team and his flexibility is allowing me to establish my career in a non flexible profession(I am a doctor).

Parenthood is the most amazing adventure I have known so far. And I have not given up on my pre-kid advnetures either, often planning our family's Nepali hiking adventure in years to come.

I think whats missing from the discussion and the studies so far is long term happiness. It is my aged patients surrounded by their families who inspire me the most.

The older people who present to hospital and have not had children (often not for lack of trying) are often lonely and melancholy.

I agree that this is much more a reflection of societal expecations and people feeling as though they are not meeting them that true happiness.

BTW, We have been looking for the voice of the Dad looking after their children for a while, we are in Australia and dad's who stay at home are few and far between. Love the blog and the voice!

Anonymous said...

To be totally equitable, wouldn't you have to compare the happiness of non-working parents to non-working non-parents....? I want to see the study that asks people if they would quit their jobs and be full-time non-parents if they could afford to do so.
Parenting is hard work. Work is hard work. Of course, you can quit your job if you don't find it rewarding enough (emotionally, financially), but you can't quit being a parent.

chicago pop said...

This is a great commentary on what is, fundamentally, a ridiculous discussion. Why is it a ridiculous discussion? Because, above all, "measuring" "happiness" is preposterous, whether the activity involved is parenting or anything else. It seems like the kind of study that deserves to be put up against a few withering quotes from Nietzsche, but this one from the much nicer Albert Einstein will do:

“Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.”

This kind of thing is like political polling: a presidential candidate can be moderately popular before an election, win the election by a hair, and then after 4 years of hard work go down in history as one of the nation's best president's. But you would never have known that outcome based on said opinion poll.

chicago pop said...

@ anon: back in 2005 a survey showed that almost half of the men sampled(49%) would quit work to take care of their kids if they could.

That number has dropped into the upper 30's since due to economic pressures.

Jenni said...

I feel like life ebbs and flows, you know? My husband and I had many great adventures before our children were born that are not necessarily compatible with small children. But we will have those types of adventures again. Parenting children, particularly small ones, takes a lot of energy. But it does not go on forever (though it kind of feels that when when you're in the shit) and the rewards are mighty.

Noah D. said...

@bekkles: you said your husband's flexibility is allowing you to establish your career. In what way are you being flexible that allows him to establish his career?

Bek said...

Noah D, I have just discussed your question with my husband who is studying to further his career and playing in a band with prospects of potentially recording.
Me being the main earner at this time in our life allows him to both study and play in the band. OUr decisions have taken both of these things as well as my career into account.
When his studies are finished he will become an equal if not greater earner than me and I will work less. Whether his career is in Nursing or as a Rock star is yet to be decided but our plans definitely involve compromise and give and take.
I spend many evenings home alone as a band widow! But happily as I know that we are comitted to supporting each others endeavours.

lifeofdad said...

thanks for the insight! very good read. I'm loving life with my 5 month old, and I'm working part time. My wife is home full time, so life is good right now!