When it Comes to Parenting, What’s the Difference Between Joy and Fun? (Part 2)

Where were we? Oh yes, continuing from last week’s discussion of why, on average, parents seem less happy than the childfree in modern America, part of the answer seems to be choice. The abundance of choices as to whether or not to have kids, how many, when – and if one (or two) wants to adopt – seem to writer Jennifer Senior, reasons for unhappiness among the child-burdened.
“While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while (‘All joy and no fun,’ as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.)” Senior refers to a collection of essays in which the writers debate whether to procreate. Those who chose childfree existence mentioned that it enabled them to travel, to take physical risks, and for one novelist, it enabled her to inhabit her characters without the hazard of being pulled out of her mindset by the demands of her real life.
Allow us to interject personal observations here concerning the child-associated deepening of emotional life. We are both animal lovers. Correction; animal L-O-V-E-R-S.  Between the two of us, we have had a wide assortment of domesticated creatures in our pre- and post-marital abodes. And we L-O-V-E-D them all deeply. In May we had to have our beloved greyhound Ginsberg euthanized. This, just five months after his right front leg was amputated. The latter brought us much grief. But he rebounded and after a couple of months he was back to his old running-just-for-the-joy-of-it behaviors. Except for the days he was recuperating, he brought us joy and fun every single day he was in our lives. When he left our lives (by “our” we mean the two of us and our 15-year-old mutt), we grieved. We are still grieving. No previous pet affected us the way he did. He was such a pure soul; a naïve personality who depended on us. But after his passing, we realized how dependent we had been on him – how he expanded our lives and how he deepened them. Our point is that there are other ways to deepen each of our lives and make them richer without taking on the responsibilities, burdens and risks of creating children. While you may not like dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, parakeets or any other animals, surely there are alternatives to kids. Otherwise, wouldn’t those who want kids but are unable to have them — and who don’t care for pets —  be the shallowest people of all? Somehow, however, members this group are as likely as any others to find meaningful ways to deepen and expand meaningful lives.
While mothers often feel that kids take up too much of their time, dads often feel they don’t spend enough time with them. According to studies by the Families and Work Institute, “It’s the men, by a long shot, who have more work-life conflict than women,” according to its president Ellen Gallinsky.
The hazards don’t end there. Children adversely affect the relationship between parents. Thomas Bradbury is a UCLA psychology professor with two kids. “Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent,” he says. One study that examined disagreements among 100 married couples found that 40 percent of them were about their respective children. That percentage did not include conflicts that were precipitated because the parents were already at wit’s end.
According to Senior, one man in the study put it this way: “I already felt neglected . . . And once we had the kid, it became so pronounced; it went from zero to negative 50. And I was like, I can deal with zero. But not negative 50.”
Senior’s article touches upon the fact that dissatisfaction grew with the greater wealth of the parents, that it dipped when the kids were between ages six and 12, and that its ugly head reared again during the kids’ teen years. “But one of the most sobering declines documented in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life is the amount of time married parents spend alone together each week: Nine hours today versus twelve in 1975.” What’s more, one UCLA study of 32 families found that spouses spent less than 10 percent of their time at home alone together (we assume this number does not include time sleeping).
There is frequently a disconnect between loving your kids and loving the act of parenting. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “When you pause to think about what the children mean to you, of course they make you feel good,” he says. “The problem is, 95 percent of the time you’re not thinking about what they mean to you.” And we would even dispute the notion that when parents think about their kids they “of course” feel good about them.
Personally, we have lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances who have told us that when they think about their kids they are overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, anger and fear . . . and sleeplessness. “Thinking” is the operative word here. All of the above are reasons enough to think twice before making children.


  1. Hi–These statistics are quite frightening, aren’t they? I was fortunate enough to have a father who at home much of the time and, as a professor, had free summers and a not-very-grueling schedule. I think these more recent changes also stem from a number of cultural transformations over the years: the workaholism that is so rampant, the rise of TV that pulls families apart, the constant driving everywhere to various sports, lessons, and other childhood activities. Combined with guilt-mongering media and fear of child molesters and kidnappers, parenthood has indeed become a misery for many people. I personally feel that people should adopt children who need homes rather than indulging in the selfish notion that their own genes are necessary in their children. Jane

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