Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Children and Happiness

Via this Sadly, No! post about something completely unrelated, I stumble across Megan McArdle, who agrees with Will Wilkinson, who says that nobody should really be all that surprised that studies show that people who have children are less happy than people who do not. Here's McArdle:

I don't understand why Will Wilkinson finds this so surprising: children don't make you happy, even though society tells you it does. Surely, a great deal of our raising involves society tricking you into doing things that are not in your immediate self-interest.

And here's Wilkinson:

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.

Hmmm. Well, despite Wilkinson's assumptions, I have no interest in arguing with the empirical results of these studies. In fact, I'm perfectly willing to admit that many parents are less happy with children than they were without, and that's why many children in our country are treated so atrociously by their parents. It seems to me that the issue is more about expectations, and how they skew one's view of parenthood. Wilkinson appears to think so as well, but he and McArdle both overstate the case; instead of admitting that some parent's perceive themselves to be less happy, they seem to think that having children actually makes people less happy. Wilkinson again:

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.

Okay, but not everyone feels like they've given up more than they've gotten in return. Or really even misses what they've given up. Some parents do, and perhaps they secretly hide their bitterness, or perhaps they drink and scream at their children, or hit their children, or abuse them emotionally. Maybe those parents thought they'd love having kids, maybe they knew they'd hate it and had them anyway, or maybe they didn't care one way or another. But some people eagerly await becoming parents, and enjoy parenthood fully and profoundly, without feeling like they've really given up much at all. They don't do this because society "lies" to them, as McArdle seems to think, or because they are unwilling to admit that they are actually less happy, as Wilkinson seems to think. In fact, they are genuinely happy. I would even go out on a limb and say that some people who were unsure how happy they'd be having children, turn out to be quite happy indeed with the turn of events and never spend a moment thinking about life absent their children. So even though they failed to fall for society's lie that having children makes you happier, they managed to be happier anyway.

Lastly, I would add that it really makes no sense for non-parents like Wilkinson and McArdle to write posts about whether or not having children actually makes you happier or not (and not simply what studies say about how parents feel, which anyone can write about.) Truly, you cannot know what having children makes you feel like until you have them, and I know this as someone who at one time had no children and wanted none, and who now has children and does not desire to imagine life without them. I don't say this because I think parent-hood is an exclusive state and that only parents are permitted or qualified to discuss it, but only because it is difficult for one to truly write about something that one hasn't experienced ( for example, who among us who hasn't experienced the death of a parent could convincingly write about how painful it is?) Wilkinson, absent this experience, can only talk about the "profundity" of the parent-child bond that somehow makes you less happy anyway (and condescend to parents, whose love of their children he equates with puppy love) and McArdle can only pen nonsense about a "noble lie" that perpetuates our species. Had they children of their own, they might sense the disconnect between this study's conclusions and their own. But absent children, and apparently eager to stay that way, they over-reach to demonstrate that they, child-free, are demonstrably better-off than parents...and these studies prove it. Which is as silly as those who condescend to the childless, and question how they can possibly be happy without children in their lives.


Nat-Wu said...

Dude, you just don't want to admit that your kids make you miserable!

Xanthippas said...

I was hoping for a more substantive response from one of my co-bloggers.

Nat-Wu said...

Shows how dumb you are!