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All Joy and No Fun

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So how do they explain your anguish? I ask.

“They just think that Americans are a little too complicated about everything.”

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.”

MOMS: Ever feel alone in how you perceive this role? I swear I feel like I’m surrounded by women who were once smart & interesting but have become zombies who only talk about soccer and coupons.

This was an opening gambit on UrbanBaby this past April. It could have devolved into a sanctimommy pile-on. It didn’t.

I totally feel this way.

I am a f/t wohm—Work Outside the Home Mom—have a career, and I don’t feel smart or interesting anymore! I don’t talk about soccer or coupons, but just feel too tired to talk about anything that interesting.

I freely admit that I have gained “more” than I have lost by becoming a parent, but I still miss aspects of my old life.

More generous government policies, a sounder economy, a less pressured culture that values good rather than perfect kids—all of these would certainly make parents happier. But even under the most favorable circumstances, parenting is an extraordinary activity, in both senses of the word extra: beyond ordinary and especially ordinary. While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while. (“All joy and no fun,” as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.) Lori Leibovich, the executive editor of Babble and the anthology Maybe Baby, a collection of 28 essays by writers debating whether to have children, says she was particularly struck by the female contributors who’d made the deliberate choice to remain childless. It enabled them to travel or live abroad for their work; to take physical risks; to, in the case of a novelist, inhabit her fictional characters without being pulled away by the demands of a real one. “There was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable,” she says. (Leibovich has two children.)

Fathers, it turns out, feel like they’ve made some serious compromises too, though of a different sort. They feel like they don’t see their kids enough. “In our studies, it’s the men, by a long shot, who have more work-life conflict than women,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “They don’t want to be stick figures in their children’s lives.”

And couples probably pay the dearest price of all. Healthy relationships definitely make people happier. But children adversely affect relationships. As Thomas Bradbury, a father of two and professor of psychology at UCLA, likes to say: “Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent.” He directs me to one of the more inspired studies in the field, by psychologists Lauren Papp and E. Mark Cummings. They asked 100 long-married couples to spend two weeks meticulously documenting their disagreements. Nearly 40 percent of them were about their kids.

“And that 40 percent is merely the number that was explicitly about kids, I’m guessing, right?” This is a former patient of Nachamie’s, an entrepreneur and father of two. “How many other arguments were those couples having because everyone was on a short fuse, or tired, or stressed out?” This man is very frank about the strain his children put on his marriage, especially his firstborn. “I already felt neglected,” he says. “In my mind, anyway. And once we had the kid, it became so pronounced; it went from zero to negative 50. And I was like, I can deal with zero. But not negative 50.”


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