For years now, studies have been coming out showing that the impact of having children on one’s happiness is negative, delighting the willfully childless who have long suspected that parents who bully us about our unwillingness to reproduce are just misery seeking company.
Attempts to minimize these findings, such as suggesting that happiness is less important than finding meaning in life, haven’t really worked their magic on we childless freaks, probably because it’s not that hard to think of ways to give your life meaning that don’t involve diapers or sticky fingers.
But the urge to pressure the childless will not go away so easily, which is why there was a flurry of excitement over an anomalous study recently released that showed that parents are happier than nonparents.
Eager busybodies should slow their roll, however, because a closer look at the study shows that it didn’t prove that parenting is super awesome so much as that sexism continues to work out pretty well for men.
Amanda Hess of Good magazine pointed out that the only people who got a happiness boost from becoming parents were fathers. In the researchers’ gentle phrasing: “The pleasures associated with parenting may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood.”
In other words, having a kid is a lot like having a boat: It’s way more fun if you get to name it after yourself but have staff to do most of the hard work of keeping it up.
So really, it’s back to the “gives life meaning” gambit. Researchers found that parents reported “a stronger sense of meaning in life,” but as Hess points out, they failed to distinguish between “the search for meaning” and “the presence of meaning,” which allows for the possibility that doing what’s expected of you is being unintentionally conflated with more transcendent desires.
While it’s certainly true that raising children is a big job and has emotional resonance, it’s hard to justify the belief that you’re enhancing the greater good by adding more people to pollute the planet and compete for opportunities that become more precious as the population grows.
That’s not to say people are bad for having children, but it would do our planet and our society good to stop sending the message that life is incomplete without children. Parents in particular should be grateful to those of us who opt out, since that’s just fewer college applications that admissions offices have to consider when determining your child’s future.
Research showing that children don’t, in fact, make you happy could help women who are on the fence decide to find meaning in life elsewhere. That’s such a massive benefit that the downside of making parents a bit defensive about their choices pales in comparison. Amanda Marcotte, 34, is a journalist, blogger and the author of “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.”