Abruptly, the dream had come to an end, leaving a nightmare in its wake. New York magazine contributor Jennifer Senior felt deep down that things were not supposed to be this way; parenthood should have been like something out of a Hollywood picture in which love, honor, and tranquility conquered all. What she was experiencing, though, was more akin to that which might be expected to take place during a particularly nasty breakup between two passionate romantic partners. The male in the picture picked up a splintery piece of wood and, in a fit of anger bordering on rage, hurled it at her head. Seeing that the debris had not hit its target, he reached for a screwdriver to finish the job.
Then it was time for bed, though not without a stern, but one-sided, discussion on the rules of the house. Promptly after, Ms. Senior made a beeline for the liquor cabinet as she pondered what her once adoringly innocent two-and-a-half-year-old son had done. A while later, she sat down and began to write a lengthy article on why having children can be, to the shock and repulsion of many, a joyless and bitter endeavor.
While many would indeed perceive the option of refraining from parenthood to be controversial in the extreme, it is an increasingly attractive one for Americans from coast to coast. The reasons for this are numerous and, needless to say, vary greatly based upon the individual, or set of individuals, in question. Nonetheless, as a great deal of researchers have found, one’s happiness is most certainly not assured by membership in the baby boom. As a matter of fact, such a thing can actually result in one becoming a considerably angrier person, lending credence, like nothing else possibly could, to the argument that being a mother or a father simply is not for everybody. With the childless craze receiving perhaps its most notable press yet in a cover story of TIME magazine earlier this year, there can be no denying that the once spat-upon status of child-free is engaging in some serious upwards mobility.
To understand exactly why this is, though, one must examine the facts on the ground closely . When coming home from a long day of work, generally speaking, what any given person almost definitely wants is a period of respite, something that is a faint wish if children are present. While such a thing has been common knowledge for ages, a 2004 study conducted by Robin W. Simon and Leda E. Nath, researchers from the University of Florida and University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, respectively, found that parents sharing a home with their offspring felt, on average, far less calm than their contemporaries whose places of residence were devoid of youths.
This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, however. Roughly one year later, Simon collaborated with Vanderbilt University sociologist Ranae Evenson to settle the question of whether or not raising children actually causes depression. Both came to the resounding conclusion that it assuredly does, and even went so far as to assess the very meaning of modern parenthood in American society. In addition to these developments, they also discovered that with every additional child comes an increased degree of personal depression.
Considering this, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of parents, in the words of psychologists Richard Eibach and Steven Mock, tend to idealize, “the emotional rewards of parenting….to rationalize the financial costs of raising children.” Their study on the subject matter, which recently appeared in the journal, Psychological Science, proved decisively that mothers and fathers alike delude themselves into believing that the pitfalls of child rearing outweigh the pinnacles. Such a startling conclusion was arrived at after two groups of parents were given different sets of information about raising minors; the first group was informed only of the negative attributes, while the second was given a comprehensive analysis of the financial necessities of parenthood. Ultimately, the former group compensated for the inconveniences of children with romanticized visions of happiness derived from their offspring, while the latter acknowledged that a childfree life was, essentially, a more personally beneficial one. In order to confirm their findings, Eibach and Mock recruited a group of non-parents and repeated their experiment, this time adding the question of whether or not time spent with children brought joy to the individuals in question. Their finding would most definitely be considered disturbing by a great deal; those with a well-rounded perspective of parenthood ranked the time spent with children on any given day as, in comparison to other activities, unsatisfying.
On the other side of the page, in the domain of those forging through life without the presence of kids at their heels, the landscape is drastically different. In her 1993 comparison of adults childless of their own volition and those who chose to have children, Temple University social scientist Marsha D. Somers uncovered that marriages featuring no children were all-around happier ones, with a profound sense of spousal satisfaction to boot. Taking this into account, it is unsurprising that the precise opposite was true for couples opting to have children.
Needless to say, one extremely important topic has managed to evade being addressed; money. Over the past decade, the cost of raising a single child from infancy to adulthood has risen by a staggering 40 percent. In terms of cold, hard cash, this is an increase of $60,000 to a jaw-dropping grand total of $226,920. Considering that the median American weekly wage for those employed full-time stood at $747 in fiscal year 2010, not having children makes stellar economic sense for most. This is reflected in the national birthrate, which has seen a drastic decrease over the last few years, neatly in keeping with the ongoing recession’s timeline. It is also worth noting that, as America continues to shed its agrarian past in favor of a distinctly urban and suburban future, the need for children as manual laborers dissolves and these children themselves become a financial burden rather than asset to their parents.
Oddly enough, as a specific family has a greater number of children, the financial cost for each one plummets. By the time the three child mark has been hit, up to 22 percent can be conceivably saved on every child thereafter. Of course, this unexpected discount does not compensate for the emotional costs incurred, which are manifested in the higher rates of depression mentioned earlier. Truly, when weighing the objective facts about parenthood, the old saying that “one cannot have a slice of cake and eat it as well” comes to be realized in only the most profound of fashions. Since deciding on whether or not to have children is an undeniably delicate tradeoff, a constant war of wits between one’s capacity for reason and sense of unbridled emotionalism, it is no surprise that the topic itself is such a lightning rod.
When the rhetoric has been pushed aside and the realities considered, having kids in contemporary America simply is not a swell idea, from either a psychological or a fiscal standpoint. As proud mother and New York TImes columnist Lisa Belkin aptly states, there is “no logical reason” for wanting to bear children. None. Zilch. Zip. Zero. It would seem that the urge to become a mother or father is rooted in a hybrid of cognitive and social constructs, both of which are unlikely to go away anytime in the near future. Nonetheless, the choice to be child-free is one that has gained tremendous respectability over the last several years, and is effectively presenting itself as a viable, mainstream alternative to the faltering status quo. While it is unlikely that the number of those deciding to live a life devoid of parenthood will ever be on par with those choosing to do otherwise, perhaps if the tallies were evened out a bit, those having children would be doing so for legitimate, deeply personal reasons instead of attempting to fit into yesteryear’s ever-constricting mold of stereotypes.
A future this bright should be able to illuminate even the dimmest of hearts and minds.