Posted Wednesday, May 23, 2012, at 10:17 AM
Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
For years now, studies have been coming out showing the impact that having children has on one's happiness is negative, delighting the willfully childless who have long suspected 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 us childless freaks, probably because it's not really that hard to think of other ways to occupy your time and 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 pointed out that the only people who got a happiness boost from becoming parents were fathers. The researchers gently phrased this with, "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 on hand to do most of the hard work of keeping it up.
So really, it's back to the "gives life meaning" gambit, which researchers leaned on with a whiff of desperation. 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 the more transcendent desires. While it's certainly true that raising children is a big job and certainly has emotional resonance, it's really hard to intellectually justify the belief that you're adding something important to the world by adding more people to pollute the planet and compete for opportunities that become more precious as the number of people vying for a chance grows.
Not to say people are bad people for having children, but it would do our planet and our society good to stop sending the message that life is incomplete without children, and to stop scrambling for excuses why those who don't have them are missing out. Parents particularly 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 that shows women that children don't, in fact, make you happy could help many women who are on the fence decide to opt out and 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.