The question has often been raised: How does having children affect how much happiness there is in a person’s life?
Now a new twist on kids vs. joy has entered the arena. If kids reduce the quantity of happiness, how do they affect the quality of whatever happiness remains?
In an opinion piece on CNN.com, Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, writes about that very question.
He acknowledges that many fathers feel, “that it interferes with romance and tends to make them feel neglected by their wives.” He even cites a 2004 study among parents that found that among 16 various activities, taking care of kids ranked above only housework, their jobs and commuting in its “enjoyableness.” (Who knew there is such a word?)
So far, so good. But here is where Etzioni embarks on the road less taken. “The question is not how much happiness children bring or take,” he asserts, “but how good is the happiness?”
This brings to mind a scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, in which Diane Keaton asks Woody’s character if he’s ever had the wrong kind of orgasm. His response: “My worst one was right on the money.”
How, we wonder, do the criteria for happiness compare? Is quantity more important than quality or do we settle for happiness that is merely “right on the money” but greater in quantity than waiting for the “right kind” of happiness? Is occasional, intense happiness “better” than frequent, pretty good happiness?
Here is what we believe is the crux of Etzioni’s assertion: “We need to return to a precept that social philosophers and religious texts have long extolled: that a good life is not one centered around squeezing as much pleasure out of life as possible. Pleasure of the kind celebrated by those who would rather go out for dinner than stay home with their infants, watch TV than change diapers and gamble than attend a PTA meeting — is Sisyphean. No sooner does one gain this kind of pleasure than one is lacking it again. No wonder it has been called the hedonic treadmill.” What self-congratulatory babble this is.
Does he really believe that we who are childfree are rushing out to dinner, heading for the nearest casino, or just vegetating in front of the tube? What about those who volunteer to help forlorn animals or the less fortunate, write books and blogs, or get involved in local political, environmental, or ethical causes?
In fact, we often find that those who have kids are much less aware of the greater community around them. They seem to be the ones with gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans, whose garbage bins are filled to the brim, and who are clueless about societal issues that don’t relate directly to their kids’ schools.
He claims that children provide a unique “other” in their parents’ lives.
The good professor also assumes that kids in and of themselves are a positive. In the years of research we have conducted in preparation for our book, Enough of Us, we have learned what a high-stakes gamble raising children can be. There are considerable risks that the joy parents expect from their kids may be displaced by sadness, disappointment, grief and even despair.
Its sounds like Mr. Etzioni is merely defending his own fatherhood of five in the face of all the evidence that parents tend to be less happy than the childfree. To his credit he says that while he lost a son (he does not go into details) and has suffered a fair amount of other grief in relation to childrearing, his kids have blessed him with much joy.
But here’s the kicker. He says he now has “a whole slew of grandchildren.”
“What fun—and no diapers to be changed.” Evidently Etzioni’s child-based joy doesn’t give a crap (pun intended) about their environmental impact.
Amitai Etzioni, enjoy your life but please don’t judge the quality, or lack, of happiness in mine.