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In Love With an Illusion: On the Delightfully Grim Joys of Parenthood in Modern America

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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.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alexandria-jackson/ Alexandria Jackson

    Well written article. Perhaps not a great time for me to be responding since I am currently stuck in the silently-rebellious-preteen-grumpy-of questionable hygiene period with my youngest….but…..

    I want to say OF COURSE parents are more depressed than non parents. On its face it’s obvious. We have many more responsibilities, and not just financial. The hardest part is, as stated, when you come home from work exhausted and have another little soul to nurture. To me that’s the most difficult. If you are a non parent, and are partnered, you have a (hopefully) grown person at home who can nurture you. Parents cannot (should not) get their nurturing from their children. It is exhausting, especially at the stage I am in. However, I always question psychological studies, because that is how future research is generated.

    I know my childless couple friends have more money, fewer wrinkles, less stress and are generally pretty stable. In fact, they are a little bored and a little boring. Parents convince themselves that the joys of parenting outweigh the negatives, true. I stipulate, however, that the research, if conducted, might also show that parents have a greater sense of self-worth, greater skills at negotiating and setting priorities, greater time management skills, larger capacity for empathy, and possibly feel greater joy/happiness than non-parents. The lows come with some great highs.

    Let me share that I have been struggling with this latest child phase, trying to be compassionate and firm, loving but strict…etc. I’ve been in senior management positions that don’t require this level of skill. I’ve been pulling my hair out, questioning myself and my abilities as a behavior modification expert….I have felt “at the end of my rope” for months. And yet I dig deeper. Because there is no alternative. (I’m not talking about the abusive parents out there). I have to come home from working a 10 hour day and dig deeper. I dig and dig and dig. Because I have to. There is no alternative. And when there is a slight shift (the dishwasher being unloaded without my having to ask), the euphoria I feel brings me to tears.

    Non-parents don’t experience the type of joy that only comes from digging so deep within yourself that you bleed, because you absolutely MUST put someone else first.

  • Captain Akhmed

    I think everyone that has the means and the temperament should have kids. Even the Bible says “be fruitful”. The problem is too many kids born to parents that have no business or interest in raising them. Now for those like me that, as my girlfriend says “are old”, and kidless, yeah you could say it’s selfish. We want our freedom and our money and we are well aware kids take both. But each side has negatives. When we get old and ” delicate ” we have no one to run the farm or keep us safe from the world like parents do for their kids. And when we tell others who ask that we have no kids, we get a variety of looks ranging from disbelief to uneasy curiosity, like those characters that work for the circus. Then there’s the gossip crowd that naturally will question and debate the sincerity of our heterosexuality…..

  • Arch Conservative

    Do you have children Mr. Cotto? The demeaning tone of your article and your complete lack of disguise of the hostility your harbor toward those who’ve chosen to procreate strongly suggests that you don,t.

    “Parents convince themselves that the joys of parenting outweigh the negatives, true.”

    I know these aren’t your words but you felt the sentiment was valid enough to include in your article so it begs the question, “Is it possible that you could be any more condescending.”

    After all. Who knows more about my life and what I value as well as the lives of countless other parents and their values than you or the so called experts that you cite Mr. Cotto?

    My wife and I were together for a number of years before having children so we know first hand the realities of life with and without children. Those who’ve never had children of their own but feel the need to demean the choice to become parents do not.

  • Costello

    A wife and children? That explains why you use an alias. No doubt they would be mortified to be associated with such [Personal attack deleted by Comments Editor] as your comments reveal you to be

  • Janet

    I could have told them this years ago, when I realized at 16 that I never wanted kids. I have never regretted that decision. People used to tell me I was selfish, but ask a parent why they chose to have kids and 99% of the time the first two words out of their mouth will be “I wanted…” I’ve also had chats with parents who actually chose to be honest about it — yes, they love their kids but admit that the idea of “happy family” is a myth — it is 80% pain and suffering for 20% reward.

    One commenter said their childfree friends are “boring”. Really? You mean because they don’t talk about soccer or projectile vomiting?

    I am involved with the local theatre company, I am an active member of 4 organizations (to which I give thousands of hours of volunteer time each year) doing a variety of good things in our small community. I am on the board of our local volunteer fire department. I recently organized a lighted tour of trees to support our local businesses and non-profit organizations. For 25 years I worked in the field of high tech but thanks to not having to deal with college tuition or adult children moving back home, I was able to semi-retire. I am now a potter and have a wonderful dedicated studio at my ranch. I scuba dive and have done so all over the world. My husband bought a vintage plane and is both restoring it and learning to fly. I built a 1000 sq. ft. indoor tiki bar at our ranch and regularly host everything from a monthly girls night out to a book discussion group to our artists guild.

    My life is rich and full. I do not feel deprived or lonely. Those who know me tell me I am never boring and am always up to something new. I do not worry about “who will care for me when I’m old” (a ridiculous argument in the first place if you just look at how many old folks in nursing homes never have visitors). I’d rather pay for professional care when I am old than rely on selfish or simply overburdened offspring for my long-term care.

    And before anyone comments about all we have/do being due to our income, we are strictly middle class but our childfree status lets us use our money in many creative ways. Our money goes to support local non-profits and to provide us with a comfortable and productive lifestyle.

    To anyone “on the fence” who is reading this article, spend a few hours sitting in a mall or Walmart. Watch and listen to the families who walk by. Take special note of how many include at least one individual who is angry, crying, sulking, fighting, etc. Those cute family pictures with smiles and hair bows? THAT’S the illusion. Reality is what you see walking around you.

  • Fruity

    When the bible said be fruitful and multiply it meant to spead the religion. It has nothing to do with having children. A common misconception about the bible. Everyone does interpret it differently so I guess to me it means be fruity and study math! haha!

  • Anna

    “Non-parents don’t experience the type of joy that only comes from digging so deep within yourself that you bleed, because you absolutely MUST put someone else first.”

    Really? That interesting considering that most abuse and neglect take place in the home with children as the victims. Having a child doesn’t mean the parent MUST put them first. And not having a child does not mean that childfree people don’t put others first. That was an assumption that simply is not true.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Actually, God’s instruction meant exactly what it says.

    “Be fruitful and multiply” made sense for the ancient Hebrews, since a larger population made them politically and militarily stronger in a region where competition for scarce land and natural resources was fierce.

    While those conditions arguably still exist as far as Modern Israel is concerned, they don’t in most of the rest of the world that has adopted Jewish scripture as its own, so the relevance of the edict today is more tenuous.

    Futhermore, since Judaism is not an evangelical religion – there is plenty of evidence in the Old Testament that the Hebrews and their deity had far more interest in evicting or slaughtering heathens than in converting them – the interpretation about spreading the religion doesn’t hold water.

  • Fruity

    Dr Dreadful, Thank you for that informative response. I found it very interesting. I love learning about different religions and enjoyed your views on this.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    I’m not sure why we can’t just all respect one anothers’ choices based on what we know our personal limitations and strengths to be.

    A culture that wants to be around this time next century, on the other hand, had better be actively encouraging those in its midst who plan to be “fruitful and multiply” in the baby-making sense.

    There are also Biblical ways to be “fruitful and multiply” without bearing children. Jesus didn’t, and neither did Paul, and both of those individuals preached that choosing that lifestyle could free an individual up to live a life that was fruitful for God in ways that weren’t available to people who had families to care for.

    Having kids takes a LOT of love and patience and energy. That I can say, and I can also say that with every step my kids take towards being ready to make it on their own out in the world, my husband and I have more love, patience and energy left over to give to people and causes outside our family.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/marina/ Marina

    In a previous comment, I mentioned the idea that too many people are obsessed with there being only one way to be. There is a strong parallel to this story.

    My husband and I adopted from foster care by choice and after having been married for many years. Our arrangement is something of a reverse culturally in that his business operates from a home office and mine requires me to go out every day.

    Over the years I have experienced every kind of negative reaction to my choices in terms of creating a family. Initially, people couldn’t tell me enough that I had to get going because I wasn’t getting any younger. That discussion always degraded when I informed them that for a variety of reasons I was not planning on having biological children.

    Along comes adoption. First, come the weird looks when I mentioned to people that we were not seeking to adopt infants or toddlers. We chose to adopt somewhat older children. Following that, people demonstrated no compunction about “warning” us about the inherent problems adopting from foster care. (Um, as if we hadn’t done our research and been forced to take a class by the Department of Children and Families)

    So, once again I come back to my argument that there are so many ways to be as a human being. If everyone had four or five kids, we’d quickly outrun our resources as a species. There is plenty of room for those who choose to have children and those who choose not to. Why be so judgmental about it?

    And yes, I suppose you can tell I agree that only people who want children – for whatever reason makes sense to them – should have them. It’s best for the parents and for the children. The cultural pressure for everyone to procreate must end.