Last week happiness and women seemed to be a very hot topic. I wrote about my newfound happy and Sallymandy wrote a very thoughtful post, “Why women are unhappy” in which she quotes two of my favorite saucy redhead writers, who I feel sure are both pretty happy women, write about happiness and how women are generally not as happy as they used to be. Saucy redhead # 1, Arianna Huffington, wrote, The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling and Maureen Dowd, saucy redhead #2 wrote “Blue is the New Black” . Both articles are fascinating and worth reading even though I am feeling uncharacteristically happy and was slightly worry that Huffington and Dowd might impinge on my hedonia. They didn’t. Rather in reading why women are feeling so unhappy I was left feeling very happy to have a He-weasel husband who shares the housework and that I, unlike the women that Huffington and Dowd write about, feel like I have lots of choices, freedom and time to pursue what I want.
As one who has had a long term case of the baby blues, I was especially struck by this quote in “Blue is the new black”: “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,” said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton College who co-wrote a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”
Really? Can it be true? Sure, I have heard this research before but I was always unhappy when I heard it and dismissed it as statistics can be manipulated and I try to be cautious about who was producing the studies and what their motives were. I was much more influenced by the irrefutable hard science of Johnson and Johnson’s ad campaign that “having a baby changes everything” and/or Faith Hill’s lyrics.
Dowd’s article, and Stevenson’s quote in particular, got me to Googling to find more on the impact of those who talk goo-goo-ga-ga on glee and I found an article in Newsweek,by Lorraine Ali, “Does having children make you happy?“. Ali writes about the childless couple on her childhood street:
“When I was growing up, our former neighbors, whom we’ll call the Sloans, were the only couple on the block without kids. It wasn’t that they couldn’t have children; according to Mr. Sloan, they just chose not to. All the other parents, including mine, thought it was odd—even tragic. So any bad luck that befell the Sloans—the egging of their house one Halloween; the landslide that sent their pool careering to the street below—was somehow attributed to that fateful decision they’d made so many years before. “Well,” the other adults would say, “you know they never did have kids.”
All through infertility treatment, each time we would fail to become pregnant, I would think of that couple. No, not the Sloans. I had my own version of the Sloans. Lynne and Lenny; Mirjam and Paul; He-weasel’s Aunt and Uncle. They were all that sad couple, that sad childless couple with no children that I pitied. They were the couple I didn’t want us to be. I wanted to be the couple with the house filled with kids, bikes on the lawn, and a tree house in the yard. We would not be the couple who spends holidays at others homes—we would have a family, or so I thought.
Lorraine Ali continues: “Each time I visited the Sloans, I’d search for signs of insanity, misery or even regret in their superclean home, yet I never seemed to find any. From what I could tell, the Sloans were happy, maybe even happier than my parents, despite the fact that they were (whisper) childless.” It is this and the research that makes Ali conclude that having children does not lead to happiness; the statisticians agree with her:
- Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard professor of psychology and the author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” claims that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child. The happiness rate, according to Gilbert, increases only when the last child has left home.
- Gilbert claims that studies show that parents are happier when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television than when they are spending time with their children. Arthur C. Brooks, the author of “Gross National Happiness” reports that parents of children are nearly seven percentage points less likely to be happy than their childless counterparts.
- Robin Simon, a sociology professor at Florida State University, finds that “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers.”
- The National Survey of Families and Households done in 2005 looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans, concluded, according to Simon, “No group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It’s such a counter-intuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they’re not.”
- According to the National Marriage Project’s 2006 “State of Our Unions”, parents have significantly lower marital satisfaction than non parents because they experienced more single and child-free years than previous generations.
I share all these statistics not to make the argument that my new found happiness is caused by my childlessness, especially as for so long I have been very unhappy just because we couldn’t have kids. Truly, if I could, I would give happiness in order to have the “unhappiness” that comes from having children. Lorraine Ali concludes her article by saying that even if having children doesn’t make you happy, “Parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who’ve never had kids.” Purpose and meaning, at least for me, are a better and more noble pursuit than happiness. Don’t get me wrong, happiness doesn’t suck. I am grateful for the happiness I have and all the freedom, choice and sleep I have. I really am. And even though I am happy, I do ache knowing I will never know how having a baby changes everything.