Bundles of Oy

Newsweek has an excellent feature by Lorraine Ali on kids and happiness.

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term “bundle of joy” may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers,” says Florida State University’s Robin Simon, a sociology professor who’s conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they’re not.”

This is in fact the best piece of seen on this issue so far, touching on our culture’s intense romantization of parenthood. This is an excellent and accurate observation:

“If you admit that kids and parenthood aren’t making you happy, it’s basically blasphemy,” says Jen Singer, a stay-at-home mother of two from New Jersey who runs the popular parenting blog MommaSaid.net. “From baby-lotion commercials that make motherhood look happy and well rested, to commercials for Disney World where you’re supposed to feel like a kid because you’re there with your kids, we’ve made parenthood out to be one blissful moment after another, and it’s disappointing when you find out it’s not.”

Ali finishes on a hopeful note.

For the childless, all this research must certainly feel redeeming. As for those of us with kids, well, the news isn’t all bad. Parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who’ve never had kids. And there are other rewarding aspects of parenting that are impossible to quantify. For example, I never thought it possible to love someone as deeply as I love my son.

I think here we have the key to the intense resistance to the empirical results. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt the reports of parents like Ali who find that they love their children more than they thought possible. It’s really remarkable how often first time parents, especially men, seem almost startled by the profound depth of their love for and attachment to their child. I’ve heard any number of new parents say that they had heard others talk about this amazing bond, but never really expected to feel it themselves. The almost embarrassed earnestness of this admission is truly moving. And, if they won’t stop talking about it, also pretty annoying. (We are all surprised by the all-consuming intensity of our first teenage crush. But the point is, we all are.)  Anyway, the profundity of the experience of loving a child I think blinds many people to the very real costs of raising them. To accept that we have been made less happy in a real sense by our children threatens our sense of the profundity and the value of that bond. So people get upset when they hear this. But that’s not counter-evidence. Not all values move in one direction and it is a mark of maturity to be able to admit that some of the things we value most comes at a sometimes steep cost. We yearn to love our choices, and our lives, with whole hearts. But to do so is to lie to ourselves about ourselves, to close our eyes and cover our ears like children to the profundity of what we have given up. We cannot have everything. It does not diminish the life one has to face the truth about it. It enlarges it to see it for what it is, to know what it has cost, and to love it anyway.

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