In Jennifer Senior‘s New York Magazine piece on recent research into the joylessness of parenting, Senior recalls a time when her beloved 2-year-old son dismantled a wooden garage then proceeded to chuck the wooden planks at her head, leading Senior to turn to booze. But does it make her happy?
Signs point to no! According to Senior, “a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.” Duh, right? While joyless parenting may constitute a newfangled field of research, that whole joyless motherhood thing has been racking up its share of anecdotal evidence for quite some time. In the Atlantic, Sady Doyle recounts 60 years of its horrors: Simone de Beauvoir‘s observation that “the child is merely harassing and bothersome”; Adrienne Rich‘s assertion that children cause “the most exquisite suffering”; Mary McCarthy‘s fictional mother feeling that, “to her shame, [the baby] was a piece of hospital property that had been dumped on her and abandoned—they would never come to take him away.”
Feeling soulless yet? What this edition of Sexist Beatdown needs is a couple of fancy-free non-parents who have not yet been trampled by the misery of child-rearing! So join Sady of Tiger Beatdown and I as we discuss the Stockholm syndrome of baby-making, the luxuries of upper-class depression, and the quiet despair we are told we will forever regret not having!
SADY: Hello, fellow non-parent! Enjoying your non-parental non-miserable lifestyle yet? Because I sure am!
AMANDA: God, I am too. I plan on enjoying it until I have children too late in life, at which point memories of my blissful childless years will only contribute to my ultimate unhappiness.
SADY: If only we were all having children immediately after leaving our parents’ homes! Surely this would alleviate our misery. Also, it would help if we were not so rich and successful. This makes it harder for us, unlike the lower classes and immigrants, who simply take these bodily matters of procreation in stride. POOR PEOPLE: Not at all subject to undue stress in the matter of having kids!
AMANDA: Indeed. It is so very taxing to have the time to dote over our own happiness.
SADY: The thing is, I don’t think that the news that raising children can be stressful IS NEWS. Like 74% of second-wave feminists were talking about how grueling it is to raise children, and/or to have that as your primary responsibility.
AMANDA: Haha. And now that it’s shared, people are suddenly all like, “Should we even be doing this?”
SADY: Right? Like, “wow. It turns out this is HARD. Who knew?
AMANDA: “Who” indeed! I do find these studies of happiness interesting, but I find it strange that people are looking for some sort of definitive answer from them: Like, Everyone procreate! Or, Condoms!
SADY: Right. I mean: “Happiness Studies,” in and of itself, which I hear is actually a growing field, is strange. We can measure what makes people happy or unhappy, but ultimately I guess I’m with Senior on this point: Are we questioning what role “happiness” plays in our life choices? I mean, I have recently come to feel that I might not want kids, but this has to do with the fact that I am (a) poor, and (b) high-strung. I can’t get a dog without Googling care instructions obsessively and researching what sort of terrible ailments might wind up killing it. But was “happiness” what people had children for, ever, anyway? Maybe the issue isn’t that “parenting has changed”—-because it seems to have changed most fundamentally in terms of who has to do it—-but that we EXPECT “happiness” from popping one out in a way we didn’t use to.
AMANDA: Right. I think the happiness part is some new-agey conception of raising children. It’s important to remember that joy aside, the fact is that now a lot of people get to choose whether they have children or not, and if so, when. And so it becomes much more of a quality-of-life question than a biological-necessity one. And so I think it’s fair to expect that you do the thing that you think will make you the happiest. But there’s also a lot of fear-mongering about that, because of that whole ovary-loss thing. So people are like, “If you don’t have kids now, you will never be happy and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life!” And people on the other end are like, “Once you pop it out, there’s no turning back! Life-ruiner!” When, actually, I bet that a lot of people could find meaningful, happy lives doing either of those things.
SADY: Yeah. I mean, women are so, so frequently scared out of, like, LIVING, or doing anything other than having children ASAP, because they’re told that their fertility is evaporating and they’ll be unhappy forever if they don’t have babies. And I think it’s worth noting that a ton of the parents interviewed, who were speaking most directly about being unhappy and frustrated, were women. Men in that article were mostly “experts,” even if they were also fathers.
AMANDA: Right, I think there is some stat in there that women are on the whole less happy. Which, you know, probably has something to do with that whole “shared parenting” thing not being completely shared, and the general added expectations placed on mothers. One of my favorite parts of the story was the suggestion that you “always regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did do.” Like, why does the “thing I do” have to be having babies? There are plenty of things I won’t be doing if I end up having kids.
SADY: Haha, yeah. “I will never regret not having children, when I die because my child threw boards at me and one of them had a nail in it and it punctured my skull and killed me.” But I’m also wondering if being told that children are the KEY TO HAPPINESS (if you are a woman) has to do with the disappointment (among women) that children don’t auto-fulfill you? I mean, Simone de Beauvoir talked about this. Her whole deal was that women are told having children will fulfill them, and then it doesn’t, and then they hate their children. Her solution: Make something else in your life more important than getting pregnant?
AMANDA: But there’s nothing more important than hating your kids! If you never do that, you will regret it for the rest of your life!
SADY: It’s true. You’ll never regret hating your kids as much as you’ll regret not hating them. It is fun to think about fathers in all this, though. I mean, I like to imagine they’re at least MARGINALLY more involved in dealing with the poop and the breaking things and the eighteen years of college prep these kids are all being put through now.
AMANDA: Right. The story did mention that the most unhappy parents of all were those who were the non-custodial parent (mostly fathers). So having a kid and not raising it? Depressed for life. Having a kid and raising it too much? Also depressed—-single parents and moms in general were less happy. Solution: Move to Norway?
SADY: Right. I, predictably, DID enjoy the part where they were all like, “maybe if we had state-sponsored child care?” “Also, longer maternity leave helps?” Like: All of these things that feminists are advocating FOR WOMEN would actually make parents’ lives easier, in the long run. OR, you could just live a life of heedless wanton non-impregnated self-satisfaction. Until you die, and there is no-one who will visit you at the nursing home. Except for that one robot seal thing.
AMANDA: Right. I mean, is that the whole point of it? That someone will be there to care when I die? That seems to be the last-ditch explanation when I press people on why this is necessary. I’m guessing it’s more like a Stockholm syndrome thing.
SADY: Yeah. Probably. We love our tiny oppressors!
AMANDA: The baby captors stole our happiness! Join us!
Photo via Smithsonian Institution