Something rotten…except in the state of Denmark

by Katrina on July 12, 2010

Several of my friends have been talking about a story that appeared earlier this month in New York Magazine called “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.”

Do parents hate parenting? According to the story, studies show that

  • Parents are as happy or less happy than their non-parent counterparts everywhere except Denmark.
  • Mothers are less happy than fathers. (Stayed tuned for the results of my “Who Clips the Nails?” survey for more on that topic.)
  • Each successive child produces “diminishing returns” in their parents’ happiness level.
  • Parents’ dissatisfaction grows worse at higher income levels. (In other words, rich parents are less happy.)

What is going on with us?

The article muses on various theories.

  • The “perfect madness” theory. Once children were once considered an economic asset. Now they are “projects to be perfected.” The anxiety we feel to do everything perfectly could be making us unhappy.
  • Parents neglect their own needs. Parent spend more time with their children compared to previous generations. This, despite the fact, that we work outside the home more hours than previous generations. Something has to give. In this case, it’s our leisure time.
  • We feel the loss of freedom. Because many of us are having children in our 30s and 40s, we have a lot of time to experience our freedom as single adults. Then we have children and free time goes out the window.
  • We lack support. In the U.S. in particular, we lack the things that make parenting manageable: maternity leave, sick leave, health care, and other kinds of support. This can make parenting an exercise in fear, isolation, and frustration.

According to the article, there is only one study showing parents are actually happier than non-parents:

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve.

There’s one other theory the article explores, and that is the very definition of happiness itself.

Is happiness something you experience? Or is it something you think?

We can feel happy experiencing the present moment, although for many of us, parenting does not lend itself to this type happiness. Personally, I find it difficult to enjoy the moment when I’m trying to buy groceries with two hungry kids hanging off the cart, or Jake is whining for a cartoon, or Martha wakes up with the stomach flu at 3 am, or Ruby wants to argue about how many bites of dinner she needs to earn her dessert. And I wish I enjoyed playing Sword Man or Candy Land, or reading “Green Eggs and Ham,” (again? really?) but often I do not.

Lucky for us, we get another kind of happiness from remembering the past. Parenting is great for this. The memory of the struggle is often our reward; it strengthens our sense of purpose. Many times Brian and I have paid a babysitter to watch the kids so we can escape for a few precious hours alone, only to find ourselves in a restaurant giggling about the funny things our kids did that day–the same kids we couldn’t wait to get away from an hour earlier.

We love our children. We adore them, in fact. When we’re not multitasking and negotiating and doubting our decisions, we can enjoy them.

Here’s what I want to know. Why can’t we have both kinds of happiness? Why can’t we enjoy more of the moments we spend with our children, and enjoy remembering them afterward, too?

What if you had enough time for yourself, time for your relationship, and time left over to be the parent you want to be for your kids? What if, like those Danish parents, you didn’t have to worry about paying for health care or your kids’ education? How would this affect your experience of parenting?