Alex Blaze

Children won't make you happy

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 04, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: child care, marriage, parent, psychology, social science, study

While times have definitely changed when it comes to LGBT people and parenthood, there are still a large number of us who are facing childless and non-procreative futures. While in the Old Testament that's pretty much the worst curse that can be meted out, nowadays it apparently isn't so bad, according to social science.

"Childless people are unhappy" is one of the myths out there that I'd like to see eradicated, along with "Marriage solves your relationship problems" and "Children have to be born and raised in a marriage to be mentally healthy adults." But, like those other ones, I don't see this going the way of the dinosaurs any time soon.

Over the past few decades, social scientists like me have found consistent evidence that there is an almost zero association between having children and happiness. My analysis in the Journal of Socio-economics (Powdthavee, 2008) is a recent British example of parents and non-parents reporting the same levels of life satisfaction, on average.

But the warnings for prospective parents are even more stark than 'it's not going to make you happier'. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

There is also evidence that the strains associated with parenthood are not only limited to the period during which children are physically and economically dependent. For example, Glenn and McLanahan (1981) found those older parents whose children have left home report the same or slightly less happiness than non-parents of similar age and status. Thus, what these results are suggesting is something very controversial - that having children does not bring joy to our lives.

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Being a parent, itself, absolutely doesn't make you happier -- it adds to the struggles and difficulties you face.

I say that, of course, after having been a parent to 5 kids and a granddaughter, and I'd likely do violence to someone who tried to take that away from me.

I wonder if the study looked solely at being a parent, or if it looked at what it means to be a mother or a father -- because *that* creates a great deal of happiness for many.

Not all -- by any means. And given the choice today, I would not deal at this point in my life with a kid under 4 or 5 -- I just haven't the energy or will for it, lol

Glad you posted this, Alex. And I'm glad that Powdthavee was able to empirically prove what most child-free people have known for ages.

But - and, of course I couldn't let this pass - he's wrong about the greater prospects of happiness for married people, and I think he's aware of how fuzzy that research is given his ah, circumspect wording: "there is a huge hit in happiness for both husband and wife in the year of marriage that tends to last for many years afterwards" i.e. marriage does not automatically lead to greater happiness and the research on that is wonky. Bella DePaulo has done some excellent analysis debunking these "marriage makes you healthier/happier" studies in her book, Singled Out, and here I present, once again, my review of that book: I hunted around my cluttered apartment for the book in order to find her data but, of course, it's tucked away somewhere. Anyway, I think it's a book everyone should read.

And reading about him trying figure out how to ask his "girlfriend’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage without the possibility of him saying no..." made me wonder what century he lives in.

I look forward to living in a world where we don't need to have surveys and studies proving that those who don't marry and/or have children are just fine, thank you. Until then...

Good point! I thought "hit in happiness" sounded like marriage depresses people.

Interesting. Here's my take on parenting: it depends a lot on the kids. Before I had children I thought that good parenting would produce good kids. That isn't always necessarily true. Parenting is a crap shoot; you get what you get largely by chance. Right now I am vainly attempting to parent an 11 year old son who has a pretty severe behavior disorder. Right now I am not a happy parent.

I have to agree with Java on this one. I have five kids. And parenting has contributed far more unhappiness to my life than it has happiness. It was indeed a crap shoot and I rolled some really poor throws of the dice.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 5, 2009 9:09 AM

It was a defining moment for me (while explaining why I could not have a book at age seven)when my mother told me:

"Someday when you have children you will understand."

I took that as a sign that the misery must stop with me (and I got a library card). That there had to be something more rewarding in life than constant work and denial of pleasure. I was loved and loved in return, but there was still a sense "Oh, if I had this to do over again."

Conformity to role expectations?, no thank you. We need to connect with "who we are" and put it into "what we do" which can include being a parent, but does not need to include it. Life is rich, find a passion.

Thank you Alex, among your briefest and best.

hint hint :)

I can take a hint. I should be doing more interesting cultural items instead of always politics, politics, politics. I tell myself that every few weeks but then I never follow through. :)

Do you mean that you weren't allowed to have any books at that age or a specific one? If the latter, which book?

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 6, 2009 5:04 AM

The first book I purchased was "Treasure Island."

I grew up in a house devoid of books of any type other than my school books unless I saved up to buy them myself. Never having an allowance that was a problem. I could usually get further with my dad as he was a high school graduate. Oh, there were some threadbare children's books recycled from my older brother and the Roman Catholic bible and various "sunday school" giveaways. Mom always had to make sure she contributed enough to Mother Church.

Not to sound like Oliver Twist, but my father brought home discarded newspapers left on the trains.

John R. Selig | April 5, 2009 3:44 PM

Happiness comes from within. We cannot expect others to make ourselves happy. Only we can do that. Certainly what goes on around us does have an impact but it is how we play the hands we are dealt that that determine happiness (perhaps with some added Prozac to aid in the process) ... Grin!

I can say this much about being a parent that the biggest accomplishment for me in my life has been the raising of my son, Nathaniel. His mom and I parted when he turned 12 and then I came out. Nathaniel lived with me though his mom and I both co-parented him. All of the work that I have done as a volunteer in the LGBT community and elsewhere, my activism, writing, photography, podcasting and anything that I have achieved through my education and career all pale in comparison to my raising my son.

Nathaniel is now 31 and he and his wonderful wife are raising our grandson who turns one next month. It is a great joy to watch Nathaniel's joy around his son.

I wouldn't have given up the experience of raising my son for one minute. Parenting isn't easy. It isn't convenient. There are lots of frustrations and challenges. At times a gay parent feels ostracized from the rest of the LGBT community because we aren't understood and we can't drop everything at a moment's notice. Not all parents have been as fortunate in their relationship with their children as I have. I know how lucky I have been and remain.

Unfortunately my son and his family live far to far away but we speak nearly every day and video conference regularly. When ever I hear his voice and when we get to visit I have a huge smile on my face.

Parenting isn't for everybody regardless o their sexual orientation. But at least for me it has been rewarding and continues to be so.