“Is This Kid Making Me Look Miserable?”

Maybe it’s the unusually long, hot summer that has so many mothers and fathers looking longingly at the fall calendar. Or maybe it’s just that aging Boomer and Gen X parents are finding it harder by the month to do the things that only parents have to do sometimes – like spending the prettiest weekend of the season at an indoor athletic tournament, say; or toiling extra hours online over all that metastasizing school paperwork; or waiting up half of Saturday night for the home version of Breathalyzing a straying teenager. Whatever the cause, the collective groan over the heavy weight of childrearing has been heard far and wide this summer vacation.

It’s a story that starts with a number of recent reports from sociology, and specifically from the genre now called “happiness studies.” For years, those precincts have been reporting the downside of childrearing – namely, that couples with children report more stress and less marital happiness than those without. As one especially noted study in 2009 from the Journal of the British Psychological Association succinctly summarized the results of several such surveys and related data, “having children does not bring joy to our lives.”

As this academic word has trickled down, popular magazines and blogs and other cultural bellwethers have come to agree. If one of yesteryear’s chic-er ideas was toxic parents, today’s is toxic kids. In July, Time magazine made a cover case for the only child. Also in July, a reporter for New York magazine vented at great length (and to much venting back) about “Why Parents Hate Parenting” – a piece perhaps redundantly explained “all joy and no fun.” Not to be outdone, Newsweek opted for a Solomonic take: “Parenthood Sucks – or Doesn’t It?”

Are the complainants right? In part, of course, the question of whether children make parents happy is an impossible moving target; it depends on when you ask it, and of whom. A nursing mother who hasn’t slept through the night in six months, say, is apt to be more aware of the downside of babyhood than one who has. A single father whose truant teenager is in and out of rehab right now will probably answer differently than two happily married parents whose high school senior just got recruited by Stanford. Subjective feelings of happiness, in sum, may tell us less about “kids” in the abstract than about the kid that any given parent has in mind.

For related reasons of observer interference, answering the happiness question seems also to depend on which end of life’s telescope one peers through. Most of the kid-bashing lit these days issues from the usual tony suspects: people relatively young, unaccustomed to adversity, the products of pampered schools and lives, and parents for the most part of rather famously time-intensive young children  (the sublimely dyspeptic New York magazine author, for example, has a two-year-old at home). Of course folks like those miss their freedom, their gym time, and their martinis. Who doesn’t?

But turn the telescope retroactively from the other end of life – as people focused only on their present selves tend not to do – and the question of whether children make parents happy looks inevitably different. Take my forty-five-year-old friend with stage IV cancer, whose wife and three children have spent the last year rotating at his bedside, never once leaving him alone. Do his family members make him miserable? They are the only things on earth that don’t. Nothing puts children in perspective so much as mortality – as anyone who has ever been seriously ill knows already.

Similarly does Christopher Hitchens, in a touching new piece for Vanity Fair reflecting on his own adverse medical news, ask the poignant question: Will I really not live to see my children married? The late journalist Marjorie Williams, diagnosed with lethal cancer at a relatively young age, wrote a crushingly beautiful column right before her death. It was also, of course, about her children – specifically about watching her daughter dress for Halloween. To mothers and fathers who learn the hardest way of all that time really is short as a birthday candle, family and especially children aren’t everything; for most, they’re the only thing.

So the real answer to that question about parental misery would seem to depend partly upon how the definition of happiness itself is rigged, and partly on where, exactly, the parents are located in the greater scheme of life.

And yet to leave the happiness wars with just those observations, true though they are, would be a mistake. For today’s fashionable misery over childrearing also has deeper roots in the long-running Western rebellion against the command to be fruitful and multiply.

Living under the terms of that rebellion, as most modern people have since the invention of the Pill fifty years ago, is incurring costs that are now only beginning to be understood. Parents today are older – and older parents, while richer, are also less energetic than younger ones, less patient, and more likely to get sick themselves. They are more likely than the parents before them to live away from extended family – nature’s original and still best answer to the eternal babysitting problem. They are also far more likely to have small families rather than large ones – thus also missing out on nature’s original and still best answer to the household drudgery problem, too.

Interestingly, the same studies demonstrating today’s parental unhappiness also bear out insights put to canvas in 1840 by famed landscape artist Thomas Cole. His four-part “Voyage of Life” series beautifully illustrates a human fact that social science has lately come to verify: in general, babies and children are happy, old people are happy – and middle-aged people are likely to be miserable. What the summer’s complaints about children really goes to show is that the modern flight from the natural family is only making many of them even more so.

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Some of her previous The Catholic Thing columns (and columns by others in which her work is discussed) can be found here. She is the author of several books including It’s Dangerous to Believe and How the West Really Lost God.

  • Mike Melendez

    “If one of yesteryear’s chic-er ideas was toxic parents, today’s is toxic kids.”

    I wonder if Boomers who demanded permanent adolescence discovered why they were wrong but rejected, illogically, even that. And a number of their offspring bought into their critique.

  • Jeannine

    This is such an insightful column! As a parent of adult children, I can testify to the joy that they bring to my life. And I clearly remember how tough it was when they were the ages of seven, five, three, and one–it was a four-ring circus! But even then I would sometimes stop and think how precious they were to me and what depth and meaning they gave to my life. I wasn’t a very maternal sort of person as a young woman, so having children made my heart much bigger!

    Doesn’t the issue come down to the real definition of happiness? There’s fun in raising young children, and there is misery, too, like the week in which I got a total of 15 hours of sleep. But “fun” isn’t happiness; being entertained isn’t happiness. Happiness comes from being where you ought to be and doing what you ought to do; it is a matter of the soul. So it may actually involve suffering; yet, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, when one looks back on the desert, one sees that in reality it was full of life.

    Thank you for another wonderful article!

  • George

    I have a different hypothesis, actually. I think a lot of the “kids don’t make you happy” meme is not being driven by parents–its being driven by people who chose not to have kids, particularly thre youngest Boomer cohorts and Gen X. They’ve now reached a point where they no longer have a “choice”–they will be childless. By focusing on the seeming travils of their contemporaries who did have kids at the end of their fertile years they are engaging in a massive justification.

  • Liz

    Thank you, Mary, for introducing me to the beautiful Voyage of Life painting by Thomas Cole.

  • Tristan

    Interesting article. I’m getting to the age where I would traditionally get married and have children. I do want a family, but it’s getting harder and harder to have one, not least because of the attitudes described here. Most of my high school and college classmates are still living the “party lifestyle” and don’t seem to be planning to stop any time soon. Either that or, like me, are feeling isolated for regarding the majority as morbid and decadent. Who am I supposed to marry? American culture has become so degraded that bringing a child into it doesn’t always seem like such a great idea. Add to that the “great recession” and a happy family seems like a dim prospect indeed.

  • cranium

    You don’t think that the entire set of stresses and societal circumstances causing a reduced birthrate might be nature’s way of limiting population growth and the damage overpopulation has caused?

  • Mark

    Boethius made short work of the idea that children — or anything else other God — are a source of true happiness. Parents ought not look to their children to make them happy. Instead, they ought to look to God for the grace to live virtuously and to pass on those habits of good-living to their children.

  • Jacob

    Cranium, overpopulation didn’t cause this…a breathtaking, unbelievable abandonment of virtue caused this.

    Right now we have a far better chance of success in raising a child than any other generation in history, yet many don’t. Not because we can’t feed these kids if we have them, but probably because we want to have more sex, or more money or power or whatever else.

    We aren’t the Mayans, hammered by infrastructural breakdown, we’re the Romans, we have too much wealth and power to be much interested in plain boring old reality any longer.

  • Dan

    The very question of whether children make their parents happy underscores the narcissism of our age. Children are not toys whose significance lies in their capacity to amuse us. We are called and commanded to have children. There is much joy and sorrow in being a parent but the sorrow is a holy sorrow that is a privilege to bear.

  • debby

    hey dan, (august 15th comment) on the chance you happen to check back to this page, you are right on the mark, bulls-eye brother! please pray one Hail Mary for me, a mom in a little “holy sorrow” right now over one of my most significant proofs of the indescribable love of God: my second child. she is 17 & running away on her baby feet. she won’t get too far, not too far for the Good Shepherd that is, although the wild beasts may take a few bites out of her (today’s reading from Ezekiel). He promises to shepherd His people, i promise to howl like a border collie until He gets there!
    and mary, as always, great article! i am “making” this kid read your latest book before i “pay her back” for 1/2 of her fall college tuition. if she doesn’t read your book, she’ll have to foot the bill herself….

  • Mike

    “A single father whose truant teenager is in and out of rehab right now will probably answer differently than two happily married parents whose high school senior just got recruited by Stanford”

    This is true. But as a single father of a daughter now enrolled in her second year at a private Catholic university from which she was heavily recruited, let me remind you that there are always exceptions to the rule.