The Myth of Joyful Parenthood

Raising children is hard, and any parent who says differently is lying. Parenting is emotionally and intellectually draining, and it often requires professional sacrifice and serious financial hardship. Kids are needy and demanding from the moment of their birth to… well, forever.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my children dearly, and can’t imagine my life without them. But let’s face the facts: Study after study has shown that parents, compared to adults without kids, experience lower emotional well-being — fewer positive feelings and more negative ones — and have unhappier marriages and suffer more from depression. Yet many of these same parents continue to insist that their children are an essential source of happiness — indeed that a life without children is a life unfulfilled.

How do we square this jarring contradiction? Two psychological scientists at the University of Waterloo think they have the answer. They suspect that the belief in parental happiness is a psychological defense — a fiction we imagine to make all the hard stuff acceptable. In other words, we parents have collectively created the myth of parental joy because otherwise we would have a hard time justifying the huge investment that kids require.

In the jargon of the field, this is called “cognitive dissonance” — the psychological mechanism we all use to justify our choices and beliefs and preserve our self-esteem. Richard Eibach and Steven Mock decided to explore the role that such self-justification plays in parental beliefs about their irreversible choice to have and raise children. They focused on economic hardship, and here’s how they studied the costs of parenthood in the lab:

They recruited 80 fathers and mothers, each parent with at least one child under age 18. The parents were about 37 years old on average, and the kids were about eight. Half the parents were primed to focus on the financial costs of parenting. They read a government document estimating that the costs of raising a child to age 18 exceed $190,000. The other parents got this information as well, but they also read about the financial benefits of parenting — that is, the fact that adult children often provide financial and practical support to aging parents. The idea was that some of the parents would be mentally calculating the out-of-pocket costs of having kids, while others would be left thinking of children as a mixed blessing, at least financially.

Then the scientists gave the parents a psychological test designed to measure how much they idealized parenting: Did they agree strongly (or not) that there is nothing more rewarding than raising a child? Do adults without kids experience emptiness in their lives? And so forth.

Finally, they measured the parents’ feelings of mental and emotional dissonance: Do you feel uncomfortable, uneasy, bothered?

Eibach and Mock were testing a couple ideas. First, they suspected that parents who were focused on the costs of parenthood would be more likely to experience feelings of conflict and discomfort — because they would be torn between the reality they have chosen and the costs of that choice. But second, they also expected that these negative feelings would motivate them to idealize parenthood in order to trump the negative feelings.

And that’s what they found, with a slight twist. If they measured the parents’ feelings of emotional discomfort immediately after priming their thoughts about cost, they felt much worse than did the parents with a more mixed view of parenting. They were conflicted. But if the scientists first gave them the opportunity to idealize parenting and family life, and then measured their conflicted feelings, those negative feelings were gone. In short, thinking about the high costs of children created significant emotional discomfort, which motivated the parents to focus on the joys of parenting, which in turn dissipated the uneasiness over choosing such a difficult path.

As a parent, I find this remarkable and discomfiting. How else might I be fooling myself in order to justify the high costs of my decision to be a parent? The scientists were curious about this, too, and designed a different version of the experiment to find out. In this study, parents were again primed to think about their pricey life choice or both costs and benefits of parenting. But this time, the researchers asked the parents about their intrinsic enjoyment of various life activities: One was spending time with their children, and others were spending time with a romantic partner, or engaging in their favorite personal activity. They also asked them how much leisure time they hoped to spend doing something with their child on their next day off from work.

The results were clear. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the parents who had the high costs of children in mind were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids. In other words, being aware of parenthood’s price tag made them idealize the time they spent with their kids, and this idealized image of family life led them to foresee more shared time in the future.

All this makes sense from a historical perspective, the scientists point out: In an earlier time, kids actually had economic value; they worked on farms or brought home paychecks, and they didn’t cost that much. Not coincidentally, emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate back then — and childhood was much less sentimentalized. Paradoxically, as the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon.

This doesn’t strike me as a bad thing entirely. We may be uneasy thinking of our families as all dollars and cents, but bank accounts don’t lie. If knowing the bottom line makes us want to spend more time on kids instead of, say, TV or golf or work, that sounds like a healthy bargain for all involved.

Comments

Give me a break! Yes, we parents lie to ourselves, but so do non-parents! Where is the study that examines how non-parents rationalize the lack of children in their life and whether they are not delusional in their reports of being happier? There is no such thing as an objective reality – we all make choices and we’ve got to live with them.

Non-parents lije me don’t lie about being happier without children, nor is there any compelling reason to “rationalize” my decision not to have any. My happiness is hardly “delusional,” but an obvious fact. Any grandparent will likely confirm it. Most parents don’t give any thought at all to the consequences of having children.

I think parents lie because if they told the truth then people would call DCFS on them, assuming that they were child abusers because only child abusers don’t looooove being parents.

When talking with trusted childless friends, however, I do try to convey to them that parenting is a job and they shouldn’t do it unless that’s the job they want to do, similar to being a nurse, or a firefighter, or any other job.

I never wanted my own kids, but thought I’d be ok with someone else’s kids if they were well disciplined and a little older. I had to raise my younger siblings and know what a job it is. I never felt like I was missing something, rather I felt annoyed that most people think something is wrong with me because I don’t want and don’t prefer the company of kids. Now I have a step-son who is a teenager and is well disciplined. He’s been in my life for six years. I do love him, but I’m counting down the days until he grows up and praying that he makes it to adulthood without screwing up his life. I’m sure all parents feel that way, but what I cannnot do is convince myself that I love being a parent. I hate it so much. Its such a drag. Our whole life revolves around his schedule, and I hate punishing himand arguing about punishments. I make good money, so the financial issues aren’t that big of a deal. Its the emotional roller coaster and sacrifice of my own time, interests and desires that frustrate me. I want my life back! But I suppose that is also what marriage is about too – and that has plenty of benefits to get me through.

Wow. That poor teenage boy senses your resentment. He probably feels responsible. He didnt choose you. You chose his father, who you knew had a son. The best thing you can do is leave them. Be single, or with someone who has no children. What you expressed it selfish and has such an impact on that teenage boys life

Thank you for keeping it real.

Jenny I hear you… totally agree with you..
I have a son.. he is 3 weeks old.. I would never give him away but the anxiety and emotional burden on what is waiting for me for the next 15-20 years makes my heart stop.. I hope he does not screw his life up, cause I am giving my away for his…
I have no life what so ever, i hope to god this changes sometime in future!

Oh my. Ma’am, You are going to persuade someone into a miserable life of pain & regret. ‘KEEPIN IT REAL’ Is something most parents just don’t do when talking about raising kids. A number of people told me that I should have at least one or two… Biggest mistake of my life hands down! To ALL those who considering having kids… DON’T DO IT

If I could do it all again I would never have my son. He’s a nice kid, but I think that unless your kid ends up curing cancer or the next Michael Jordan, forget it. My son is home finishing his last semester of a crappy college career that I paid $100,000 plus for (I should have let him graduate with debt). He’s messy, he games, he doesn’t look for a job as hard as I think he should, he has a low paying part time job and, of course, needs my financial support. I want him out. He’s nice and average in regards to being responsible, but I realize he adds nothing of value to my life and is just a drain. I think if your kid is very self reliant (job at 16), smart or talented enough to get college paid for and responsible and organized enough to get a job right out of college (or just wildly successful) that keeps them from coming back home, it might be worth it. I look at my son and realize it’s not enough to have a sweet kid with a good heart. In my opinion, the average kid takes too much from your life. Hopefully my son gets a job and gets the heck out of my house. But even if that happens, I will look at him at his regular job, just another cog in the wheel of society, and will think “22 years of financial and life sacrifice so I could raise a middle manager at company X”. Whoopee!! Not worth it.

Taking care of kids is not that hard – anyone who says otherwise is psychologically ill.

The most important things to keep in mind are:
1) Kids don’t really need that much, so don’t indulge them.
2) It can’t be done alone. Throughout history, parents have had help raising kids from extended families; the atomized lifestyle that many modern first world people live makes that very difficult.

A simplified life is the cure, here.

OK,so if you have no help or family around you ,how do you do it?

Kids are sacrifice and work. It is 85% work and 15% fun and joy. To raise a successful,balanced,educated and confident human being it takes alot of work, so don’t think otherwise. My Uncle who had no kids stated to me once “To do it right, its tough, most people just do it, not easy to build good people, yep, lotta work there.” I have worked at it, hung in there during stages of growth, sacrificed etc, they are getting ready to graduate and it has paid off.They are both good well rounded young people. I did give up the prime of my life for these children and still have to get them through college, and yes some days i do get tired of parenting, it is a long haul.

Good to see a Psychological perspective on parenting. Agree with a lot of it.

This article and comments are so strange to me. I really tried to take a step back and figure out where I fit in those results stemming from the study. And the truth is…. My daughter gives me so much joy. So much absolute utter joy. I can’t go on a vacation without her and When I do, I cant wait to get back to her. I adore every single thing she says and does and am amazed at how I can shape this tiny little person and who she becomes and how she thinks. Yes, sometimes I need a break from her for a few hours. So we are not attached by the hip. But my overall love for her is endless. so the feeling of dissonance about my child is just very foreign to me.

I once were duped into believing that I was a father, for 6 months, plus the duration of pregnancy.

And as far as I can tell from experience, my best guess is that there’s also a biochemical explanation for this.

My life was undeniable miserable back then, but I realised it AFTER leaving that woman and her bastard,

I was working extra hours, but somehow ended with barely enough for bus fare, my social life practically ended, I had less and less time and energy to do the things I liked, life became a dull routine.

But still, watching that baby’s smile, it made it all worth it, somehow I was no longer tired, frustrated or angry, life was good.

Or so I thought, when I snapped out of it I noticed how underslept, malnourished and in bad shape I was, I was in my 20s and I already had a tuft of white hairs, all of which sprouted on the months after the pregnancy was confirmed.

I’m married again, no kids yet, and 3 years until we decide on the matter, I’m strongly opposed to have kids, I’m 37 now, and I never felt happier, I really love my life just as it is, any change just would hurt my level of happiness.

My only possible motivation would be to have someone take care of my old self someday, but there’s no guarantee, also fear is not a valid reason to have children.

So I better keep on excercising and eating healthy, I want to spend the whole time I have left on earth being able to wipe my own ass, because there will be no one else doing it for me when I’m old.

I have 3 kids and 2 step children. Hands down the hardest, most emotionally draining job ever. They said “it’s the hardest job you will ever do”. I just thought they were trying to make stay at home moms feel better in an almost condescending way. I was wrong. Not very much ROI or even ROEI. Oh, to have known for real.

Why is everything so complicated? Being a parent is just another relationship in your life. Just like you are a son / daughter/ spouse / sibling to someone, you are a parent to someone too. It requires effort and time to build a healthy relationship with anyone, including your child. There are some joyful times, some hard times, and mostly just “normal” times. In the past we had a village to help us raise our kids. Living around our moms, aunts, grandparents, and other family and friends, so it was not such a big deal. Kids just grew up watching, playing with and being “entertained” by their siblings, cousins, friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents etc. Now you have just one person (usually mom) who has to stay home with the kid all day, with ZERO social interaction, … that’s enough to drive anyone up the wall! Ever noticed how it is easier to have a playdate with other parents, your kids are more entertained and you are in a better mood? Imagine that all the time. That’s what a village did. Even now, I immensely enjoy the times with my son when my extended family comes over to stay with for a few weeks. Everything becomes SO EASY, when you have a few more helping hands and family members who love to play with the kids and care for them. When we started moving away from our villages, started living in these nuclear family, and started valuing independence over interdependence, parenting became so much harder.

Life is not about being happy. It is about reproducing strong offspring that can continue your biological existence.

If you can be happy then that is great. But being happy is not the aim of life. What other species spends its time trying to be happy instead of trying to ensure its biological survival as a species?

From an evolutionary or biological standpoint a man who has 10 kids but is unhappy is more sucessful than a man who has no kids but is always happy.

The latter has committed biological suicide and his entire life was pointless – his particular combination of genes amounted to nill and he may as well have not existed in the first place. Nothing to be happy about!

So yes, having kids won’t make you happy. But then again, probably nothing will make you happy. You either are happy, or you are not happy. It has nothing to do with external factors and does not really matter. People place too much emphasis on being happy. What are we, clowns?

Ah Dave, you just made my day mate. Spot on and your parting comment made me laugh by myself for the first time in too long.

That all depends on the quality of the potential parent involved and his/her offspring;we are the highest evolved species on this planet therefore we have more than just survival and biological needs,kids do give purpose to your life but I would have never thought in a million years that it would be so hard,in my case bcoz it’s been 97% on my plate,having no family or help makes it an agonizing chore just to keep the basic things going(feeding,school ,homework,bathing,brushing hair and so on).Can’t imagine life without them but knowing this ,I could have potentially chosen a different path.Besides,all legacies left in the world are left from what an individual has done ,not how many kids has had..

Oh Dave, Dave. Life is everything about being happy. You got yourself some cognitive dissonance going there, pal.
The idea of raising kids who might possibly love you back when you’re old and decrepit is quite a gamble. I am so glad that woman said No to me when i asked her to marry me back when. She must have really loved me to set me free. Free to travel, meet new people, enjoy the occasional relationship .. and you’d want me to swap that for me trying to ensure the biological survival of my species. Surely there are enough bewildered children on the planet as it is for me to worry too much about survival of the species.
I am sorry for your situation, Dave. Chin up though – those kids just might love you back

I don’t have kids and I love it. I love my freedom. All my friends with kids have boring, stressful lives and making boring conversations. Honestly, why after giving birth a woman’s brain turns to mash? Like the child sucks the life, fun and brain out of its parents. I am 40 and do what I want. I raised my sisters when I was a teen and saw how miserable my parents were. They hated having us. But didn’t have any choise. I have. And i love my life. There are plenty of people in the world and i believe if people knew really how hard it is and ungrateful job it is to be a parent they will never have kids. Also, i believe that not having kids is a intelligent and informed decision. Else is medieval instincs and beliefs.

I find that the parents who are the happiest are the ones who have ample amount of domestic help whether they are wealthy with paid domestic help or have lots of family to help with the children to allow themselves time to regroup psychologically.

But then again that raises the controversial by his philosophy that the more financially stable you are the more fit you are to be parents.

Not true. Rich people can be just as miserable as poor people. Look at the royal family. They have all the help they need and they still get divorced and unhappy in their marriages like anyone else. There is no direct correlation between money and TRUE HAPPINESS. Children of these parents with nannies often grow up feeling emotionally detached from their parents. Prince William himself said he did not like having nannies. A nanny is a stranger she can never replace you. She just gives you anothet set of things to worry about. Nobody life is perfect. In life you just have to keep positive and keep going. Knowing that u never gave up is what makes u somewhat happy.

Money makes a huge difference.
Especially with less village style living.

I am a 36 year old who now has a 2 year old boy and 4 month old daughter. My nose would be longer than pinochio’s if I said everything has just been fine and dandy. In my 34 years (before childeren) I studied, travelled the world, partied, played professional rugby, set up my own business, bought and sold property, I’d defnitely had a crack at most things. This weird feeling of emptiness still resided inside me though. I can honestly say I was meant to be the father of this cheeky fun little boy and beautiful wee princess of a girl. There have without doubt been some 0 out 10 times but there has also been some 12 out of 10 times, and I’m pretty sure the rollercoaster is going to continue. My son gave me a hug on Christmas morning 2 days ago without any initiation, my eyes welled up and my heart melted! I truly believe each and every one of us has a different purpose for their existence on this planet. I believe there will be an inner desire in each of us directing us towards becoming a parent or not. Do the math, get yourself and your partner into a good head space, make the call and go full noise! One of the most selfless acts you will ever do is become a “GOOD” parent. What is more important than populating this planet with good, kind, loving human beings wanting to make a positive difference. Feel free to rip the piss out of this opinion but my wife and family don’t really give a shit.

I agree with the comment above about a village vs just 1 person.

Circumstances mean I’m a single mum of twins. I have no partner and no family support. I can’t get a job without childcare – I can’t get childcare without a job. Abd do I am stuck in a never ending cycle just holding out until they go to school,

When people tell me to treasure moments and the joy of parenting – I was to strangle that inconsiderate adult.

Parenting is hard work. I have worked 24/7 without respite for 4 years. I have no sense of self, no life, no friends, financially I’m on the edge every week.

I love my kids but there are moments I wonder if I made the right choice.

As a single childless male at age 35 I can tell you that those who choose to not have kids don’t understand those that do. Kids are terrible. they’re annoying, needy, loud, incapable of interesting conversation. If you believe that we feel we are missing out you are are right – we feel we are missing out in the same way we feel we are missing out on the experience of being paralyzed from the neck down – and wee are quite happy about it.

I’ve just had a child 6 weeks ago at the ripe old age of 41 and although I knew it would be hard, nothing prepared me for the sleep deprivation and frustration at getting nothing done on my ever long to-do list! For me it’s the physical exhaustion, and I do believe that family support is key to being able to stay sane and actually enjoy parenting. Otherwise I just feel like a formula-making machine…it is true that I forget all when she smiles at me or I stroke her face and she coos in pleasure. I don’t miss my old life as such as still do stuff I enjoy with partner’s help…but I just wasn’t prepared for the change in dynamic between my partner and I, with the constant bickering due to sleep deprivation. I know it’s early days for me yet but I can sense my anxiety and worry for my daughter will continue on a daily basis for probably her whole life! I feel happier than before in some ways, like I’ve achieved something great, but in other ways I feel incredibly out of control and declining in health which I don’t like as I’ve always been a bit of a health freak. Now I munch on croissants to give me a quick boost. If I had a nanny to help more with the mundane tasks of nappy change, cleaning etc then I feel I could focus more on the enjoyable nurturing aspects of parenting. I do love her immensely though and I look forward to seeing her grow up and change.

I am a single female about to turn 60. I have never had nor wanted kids, and don’t like being around them. I was ostracized by my family and have had no contact with any of them in over 40 years.acording to them there was something “wrong with me” since I didn’t play with dolls or acted female enough for their satisfaction. I do have a great life, friends, enjoy travel and a healthy bank account. No, I am not gay, I just never wanted to be tied down, I wanted my own life. Freedom is everything.

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