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To Mother or Not to Mother? Is That the Question?

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Does parenting promote or impede happiness? The latest scuffle in this debate began with a Shirley Wang article in The Wall Street Journal about the distinction between well-being, which roughly means long-term contentment, and happiness or pleasure, which roughly means short-term enjoyment. Wang writes that the latest studies are finding that while children may not cause moment-to-moment happiness, they do contribute to long-term contentment because they give parents a sense of purpose. And that is the newest formula: the goal is a sense of well-being, and the way to achieve it is to work towards a meaningful purpose. This idea has potential but for the moment is serving as a weapon in the war of words between parents and non-parents.

Parenting proponent Rachael Larimore writes in a March 16th entry on the XX Factor that studies into what makes people happy do more harm than good, but then implies that the particular studies Wang describes are beneficial because they may help persuade the ambivalent to procreate by clarifying the distinction between well-being and happiness. Larimore writes that children are among the best means to well-being, while admitting that they wreak hell on happiness.


Larimore’s fellow XX Factor blogger Emily Yoffe (whose writing I often enjoy) suggests in a March 15th entry that well-being and happiness are actually mutually exclusive. She pooh-poohs the fleeting pleasure non-parents derive from “a carefree trip to Aruba” or “the ability to go out to a movie and dinner any time you please,” arguing that it is in some way better to have unpleasant moments raising children. Yoffe even argues that it is the “challenge of childrearing” that makes it a balm for the soul.

My take-away: parents are on the defensive. I never thought I’d see the day, but parents are grasping at semantic straws to try to convince potential but wavering parents (and themselves?) that having children is good for the soul. Yoffe implies that the only reason previous studies found that parenting was bad for emotional health was that the studies asked “the wrong kinds of questions.” Larimore adds that she “can’t help but think” that studies concluding that “people find themselves mired in misery after having kids” are just evidence that “people are confused about the difference between pleasure and happiness” (or, to put it in my and Wang’s terms, happiness and well-being). Apparently people are also too confused to know when they are mired in misery.

I don’t construe their floundering as evidence that having children is the wrong choice for everyone. It is the wrong choice for me, but for most it seems to be right, whether their goal is happiness, well-being, or satisfying yearnings.
But aside from being good clean social commentating fun, what is the point of these debates about parenting and happiness? Many of the articles on the topic read like recruitment brochures, as though parents and non-parents are battling over who can seduce more people to their side. On another level they read like apologia–public efforts to justify or affirm personal decisions. (Some might say that this describes my own writing.)

But I think this conversation is about something deeper: how to be a woman in this brave new world where we can have careers in professions that used to be closed to us, where we can win public office, where we can have sex out of wedlock without ruining our “prospects,” and where we are still the primary parents. For most couples, having a child has a much greater impact on the mother’s life than on the father’s. If they are in an economic position to live on one salary and choose to do so, it is overwhelmingly the mother who leaves her career and stays home to raise children. Psychiatry and advertising still focus on the mother as the parent with the greatest responsibility for and influence on children. And no matter how far we come, the physical labor of bearing and, for breast-feeders, nourishing infants is borne by mothers.

Women now have more choices than our mothers and grandmothers did, but we still pay a higher price for our choices than men. The debate over children and happiness is one of the many ways women are working through the questions of which choices, which tradeoffs, are best. Men do weigh in on this debate, but women seem to dominate it. The stakes are higher for us. Underlying the question of whether to have children is the more difficult question of which choices are best in an uncharted terrain of greater equality still mined with double standards.

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About Piper Hoffman

  • Rebecca Law

    My compliments on a well-written article, Piper. If it has not already been done (and what hasn’t?), a social anthropologist could do a huge study on the child-free vs. with-child dynamics in our society that you mention.

    One of my favorite comedians Wanda Sykes has a funny routine from her earlier days when she was “out” as a heterosexual, married-but-childless person. She mentions how people with-child pressured her to join their group ASAP by repeatedly saying “Kids – they’re a lot of work…but they’re worth it.” Except she noticed that not one parent looked her in the eye when they uttered the part about “they’re worth it.” Funny stuff. As a post script, Wanda today is delighted to be parenting her children with her lesbian partner.