Last month, an article in New York Magazine cited research across a variety of fields, reproduced again and again, that indicates that people with children are less happy than people without children.
“The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. “Then the studies show a more negative impact.” As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns. But some of the studies are grimmer than others. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances—whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.”
Naturally, this is not the case for all parents, and I am pleased to report that so far, I am no less happy as a result of the birth of my daughter. But I am also not so naive as to assume that this will always be the case, or that a second or third child might someday deliver a crushing blow to my happiness. But I firmly believe that a great deal of a parent’s happiness is dependent upon the relationship that a person has with his or her spouse, and I could not be happier with the relationship I have with Elysha.
However, I also strongly believe that for most people, the findings in these studies are accurate, and perhaps they may hold true for me one day as well.
And I also believe this:
Men know by the time that they are twelve that children will probably make them less happy. Women do not realize this until the baby is is about two.
Ask almost any twelve-year old boy about the prospects of raising a child someday and he will frown and gag and run away. This is because boys are not raised with dolls and tiny cribs and the desire to emulate their mothers. Boys want to play baseball and stay up late and eat Doritos and ride their bikes and play video games. They want to drive fast cars and kiss girls and get into trouble and climb rocks and procrastinate.
And any reasonably intelligent twelve-year old boy knows that a baby will seriously interfere with every one of these desires.
And here’s the thing: This does not change when boys become men. We still want to play baseball and kiss girls and drive fast cars and climb rocks, and the addition of a baby will still interfere with these desires.
And we know it.
Does that mean that none of us want to have children? Of course not. The key difference, however, is that we expect to be less happy with the birth of our children. We know what we are getting into. We are prepared.
Women, I am convinced, are not.
Girls are raised with plastic kitchens and baby dolls and tiny strollers. The grow up basking in the warmth of a mother’s love, and they connect this to everything that is good and right in the world. They spend their childhood playing games like House, in which they literally spend their time simulating household chores, cooking and parenting.
Consider this: Girls are given Betsy-Wetsy dolls so that they can imitate and glorify infant urination, and they are happy when they receive these dolls.
If little girls had a realistic view about raising children, would one of their preferred activities be to change the pretend-diaper on a baby that can pretend to pee?
Girls grow up dreaming about engagement rings and wedding bells and picket fences and tiny feet scrambling across sun-bathed kitchens. I don’t know if this is a result of biology or culture, but regardless, the result is an idealized view of pregnancy and the raising of children.
When women think of parenthood in the abstract, they imagine all the good things.
When men think of parenthood in the abstract, we think of all the bad.
And when a woman’s friends begin to get married and have kids, it’s a universal truth that the husband-less and childless women who remain will feel intense pressure to begin families of their own.
Men do not experience this pressure. When a man is single and his friends are married, there is no stigma associated to the wife-less, childless man. In fact, in many circles, there is envy and admiration, because we know that he can still be happy, and maybe even happier, than the rest of us.
It’s only through the accumulation of parental responsibility that women come to the realization that children might make them less happy. What a husband has probably known for at least a decade does not occur to a wife until she has chased her toddler around the house for ten thousand hours and changed two thousand real diapers.
Not the Betsy-Wetsy kind.
In order to prove this theory, I will need to become an amateur sociologist, which is one of my dreams. When this happens, I will conduct a study that asks twelve-year old girls and boys about their attitudes, opinions and predictions for their future as parents.
Will boys predict that they will be less happy with children. I say yes.
Will girl? Absolutely, positively not. I shouldn’t even waste my time asking.
Then I will compare these findings with all of the research cited in this New York Magazine piece and it will become clear:
Men know that children will probably make them less happy, and they know it early on. They know it when they are children. Women do not.
And then we may finally have an explanation as to why study after study indicates that men are generally happier than women.
It’s all about expectation.
Men do not believe in the primacy of sun-dappled kitchen floors and tiny cherubs running about, emanating waves of joy and happiness into the world. We know what we are getting into when we become parents, and we do it anyway. And for that reason, we may not be as happy as we once were, but we tend to be happier than our wives.