Scores of studies over the years have shown that having kids doesn't make people happier. Ask any parent, though, and many will say that they adore their children, even when they're frustrated by them -- it's the parenting part that's a chore.
In the most recent edition of New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior explores these studies in a piece called "All Joy and No Fun" and makes several key points, including:
1. There's a difference between feeling happy and feeling rewarded.
2. In countries with strong support systems, like Scandinavia, parents feel happier.
3. The gulf between our familial fantasies and reality is huge.
All of which makes sense, but you know what? I think being able to consider personal happiness so carefully is a privilege afforded to those for whom the basic necessities -- food, clothing, shelter -- aren't an issue. And I also think that happiness is relative.
Data from the United States General Social Survey shows that women today are less happy now than they were back in 1972. The survey has been asking the same question -- "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?"-- to 1,500 men and women, of all ages, income levels, educational backgrounds, and marital statuses since 1972.
But the survey didn't ask the question of the same women year after year; it surveyed women in the same age groups year after year. So what made people happy (or unhappy) in 1972 may be different from what affects their happiness today. As Senior points out in New York Magazine, "A few generations ago, people weren't stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices -- whether to have kids, when, how many -- may be one of the reasons parents are less happy."
Another possible reason for dissatisfaction with parenthood? People are having children later in life, which means that once that squalling bundle of joy does come along, they're all too aware of the things they have to give up. And those things are probably ones that made them feel very happy with their lives.
"There's a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It's totally different from going from your parents' house to immediately having a baby," points out Jean Twenge, who in 2003 (with researcher W. Keith Campbell) did a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies stretching back to the 1970s. Their analysis also found that the more affluent a couple was, the less satisfied they were in their marriages once they became parents, probably for pretty much the same reason: "Now you know what you're giving up."
I'd argue that, all else being equal, the people who are unhappiest as parents are the ones who were unwilling to believe that having kids is a major lifestyle changes, and that raising them is a lifelong challenge. (Once that diapers-and-bottle stage is over and you've made it past the Terrible Twos and the Terrible Teens, you still get to worry about their well-being for the rest of your life.)
Parents, what do you think? Are you happier or less happy now that you've had kids? Or do you think you're happy, but in a different way?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.