Why Having Kids Won’t Necessarily Make You Happier

This originally appeared on Alternet.org. Republished here with permission.

A growing body of research finds that procreating can be a bit of a downer.

We’re often told that procreating will make our lives happier, and that not having kids will be an empty, bleak experience. Nonsense, says a growing body of research.  

From Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s 2004 study tracking happiness in women to a brand new report released by the UK’s Open University, researchers find that having kids can actually be a bit of a downer.

The UK study examined various factors that make for happy relationships. After poring over information collected from 5,000 respondents, they hit upon this conclusion: Having kids made couples less happy. 

Both men and women, whether they were married or not, were found to be “happier with their relationship and their partner than parents.”

I don’t have kids (perhaps you’ll soon see why), but that kinda rings true when I look at my own parents.

Once I asked my dad how he and Mom felt about procreating. “It lowered the quality of our lives,” he replied matter-of-factly. (OK that was harsh, but this was a man who referred to Christmas as an “orgy of materialism.”) Dad was quick to follow up that once my sister and I got older—i.e. left home—he felt much better about the whole thing—something researchers find is commonly the case.

Raising kids was clearly a stress-bomb, and he and Mom had a lot more fun at the later stage of their marriage, when they could travel to exotic countries together and not freak out about who was doing the chauffeuring, breaking up fights, paying bills, etc. 

Unfortunately, the authors of the British study didn’t explain exactly why kids make couples less satisfied. But it’s easy to use your imagination. If you have kids young, you lack the maturity to deal with the daily stresses. If you have kids at a later stage, you may be more set in your ways and liable to disagree on the right parenting methods. At any age, the financial burden can be a doozey, and just the sheer physical and emotional burden of dealing with screaming tots, getting the kids to school, and confronting the monstrous reality of unruly adolescents, etc. makes me feel exhausted just watching my friends do it. After vacationing with friends who have kids, I need a vacation.

But isn’t there a difference between being happy and being fulfilled or existentially satisfied? My job may sometimes make me unhappy when I have to meet a deadline or see a nasty review of my article, but working also makes me feel fulfilled, which I guess means being purposeful and using my talents. Having your kid barf on you would not make you happy, but having the relationship over time is no doubt a source of fulfillment for many.  

Turns out even the fulfillment part may not really be a big deal according to a Scottish paper in the Journal of Happiness, which found that “the effect of children on the life satisfaction of married individuals is small, often negative, and never statistically significant.”

Fact: I once met a beautiful, vibrant 80-year-old innkeeper, who pulled me aside when she heard that I was getting quizzed about my status as child-free. She whispered in my ear, “I would have been just fine without children. It’s not as big a deal as they tell you.” And as for marriage? (She had been married twice). “The sex is good for three years and then all we wanted to do together in bed was the New York Times crossword puzzle.”

Alrighty then!

I can now say as a 40+ woman that I am (mostly) both fulfilled and happy without kids (or husband), contrary to most of the unsolicited advice I got in my 30s. Who knew?

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

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