The Joys of Parenthood – How do They Compare With the Joys of Non-parenting?

Are folks with kids really happier, on average, than those who have decided to skip that option? Scientists have been researching this question for quite a while  now. We’ll leave the outcomes for a later blog. But according to John Cloud,  health writer for Time magazine, we  exaggerate the joys of parenthood.

Photo: St. Clair's Hospital, Pittsburgh

According to his March 4, 2011 column in, researchers have long known that parents with minor children living at home report feeling calm less frequently than those without. Parents are also angry and depressed more than the childfree. Couples who have kids, asserts Cloud, also have better, more satisfying marriages. To us, that says a lot. We wonder how many potential parents take such considerations into account before doing the non-contraceptified horizontal shuffle. Oh yeah, almost half of all births in America are unplanned. (What were they thinking? Oh yeah, they weren’t.)

“All such evidence will never outweigh the desire to procreate,” writes Cloud, “which is one of the most powerfully encoded urges built into our DNA. But a new paper shows that parents fool themselves into believing that having kids is more rewarding than it actually is. It turns out parents are in the grip of a giant illusion.”

He refers to two studies conducted by psychologists at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. The studies concluded that parents rationalize the emotional rewards of parenting versus the financial costs of raising kids. We won’t go into the distracting details here, but this is all about cognitive dissonance. According to Webster, cognitive dissonance is a psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.

How does that concept apply here? Parenting is a strenuous state of being, both emotionally and financially, whatever its genuine joys. The stresses involved should make parents feel worse. Think about it; every minute of every day must accommodate the needs of kids. Nap time, play time, sleep time, school, sports practice, homework, summer activities, screaming, fighting, diapers, bedtime battles, clothes, cleaning, illnesses, doctor appointments,  . . . and never a letup. Help!

So what do parents do? They glorify their lives. They often convince themselves that the benefits of having kids outweigh the costs, both emotionally and financially.

The researchers went about testing this hypothesis.

We interrupt this composition for a peculiar—and serendipitous – reason:

It is Monday, August 8th. We took a break so that Ellis could walk our dog, Ozzie.  (Oh, how much easier to care for a dog than a child – and you can leave them home for hours at a time.) While listening on his portable radio to All Things Considered on National Public Radio (NPR), a report came on about how difficult it is to raise kids. Five Washington, D.C. area parents were discussing the difficulties of managing their lives while meeting the needs of their children. Several of the parents were discussing how difficult it was to  work and fulfill their parental roles, even though they employed fulltime  nannies. One mother confessed that she normally hides how strenuous her life is from friends and associates because she does not like to admit it. Instead, she presents a positive face to the world. Tomorrow’s story will deal with the financial difficulties of daycare. Stay tuned.

It’s Tuesday and we just listened to the second half of the NPR discussion. “How am I going to do this?” was what one mom remembers thinking when she first found out she was pregnant. She had never considered the financial consequence of childrearing, daycare in particular. Most of the parents agreed with the father who said they think about daycare constantly, even when their daycare facility/babysitter/nanny situation is all set up. The strain doesn’t go away until the kids are old enough to care for themselves.  In the D.C. area, daycare can run as high as $40,000 for two little ones. And even with a nanny, one mom was working for a net income reduced by the cost of daycare while feeling guilty that she’s not there to raise her kids. 

           Where were we? Oh yes, the researchers recruited moms and dads who had kids under 18. They divided the parents into two groups. They had the first group read U.S. Department of Agriculture data showing that in 2004 it cost an average middle-class family almost $194,000 to raise a kid to age 18. The second group read the same data with the additional information that adult children provide financial support and other assistance to their elderly parents. Thereby the parents tend to be more financially secure in their later years.

All the parents were then asked to respond to a series of written questions.  Parents from the first group idealized parenting much more than those of the  second group, even though the second group was given information about the financial  benefits of being a parent later in life.

Why this ironic result? According to John Cloud it’s because, “When we have  invested a lot in a choice that turns out to be bad, we’re really inept at admitting that it didn’t make rational sense. Other research has shown that we romanticize our relationships with spouses and partners more when we believe we have sacrificed for them.” In other words, the theory goes, the first group learned of the $194,000 sacrifice and thus romanticized how much that sacrifice was worth. The second group did not see it as being as much of a sacrifice because of the payback, so it did not idealize the parenting experience as much. This sounds a lot like the woman in the NPR discussion who hides her stresses from colleagues. She idealizes the parenting experience for those around her. Cloud continues: “We like TVs that we’ve spent a lot to buy even though our satisfaction is no lower when we watch a cheaper television set.”

The researchers duplicated the first study, but with two additions. This time they added a control group that received no information at all about parenting, and it added measures of participants’ enjoyment of spending time with their offspring and intentions to spend future time with them. The researchers asked the parents to compare spending time with their children to spending time with their partners, with their best friend, and on a favorite hobby.

The results matched those of the first experiment with the first group idealizing parenthood more than did the second group and a lot more than the control group. The first group also idealized time spent with the kids compared to the other activities, even though other researchers found that when measuring how rewarding parents found any given day spent with their children, they rated that day worse than they had expected.

Cloud asserts that you shouldn’t have kids, but you will anyway. “Our national fantasy about the joys of parenting permeates the culture.”

Children used to be part of a family’s work force. They would work, while still kids, to support the family and eventually to support their aging parents, as all four of our own parents did for their families. Cloud quotes the two researchers, Richard Eibach and Steven Mock: “As children’s economic value plummeted, their perceived emotional value rose, creating a new cultural model of childhood . . . ‘The economically worthless but emotionally priceless child.’ Or, as the writer Jennifer Senior put it in a New York magazine article [in the summer of 2010], ‘Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.’”

All we ask, for your own sake, is that you think twice before making children. After all, when you consider the complications of growing your kids and paying for that endeavor, there’s just no way to tell how things will turn out for you, the parent, as well as your offspring.



  1. It seems to me that the romantization of child-raising is a kind of wish fulfillment, tonic in that it perhaps makes the whole biological imperative justifiable in emotional terms, certainly not in economic terms as you point out. Further, we are taught that each stage in a child’s growth offers new joys–teens and “terrible twos” being possible exceptions.

    Did you know that governments in Europe and Scandinavia are offering incentives to encourage higher birth rates? The French have done this since the Napoleonic wars and are still at it:
    The Norwegian government is doing the same thing: With policies like these, persuading people to forego children becomes much more difficult.

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