[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Mark LeBar, who will soon be joining the Pileus team on a more regular basis.]
Will Wilkinson recently blogged
on the “happiness” research that claims to have shown, first, that parenting produces significantly less happy adults than do childless marriages (“kids are a drag”!) and, second, that we are “delusional” when we think that they do make us happy. Wilkinson is unusually credulous of samples of a broad and heterogeneous body of research and a specific study that wildly overreaches what its data show.
Full disclosure: I write this because I am a parent and I am really glad I am. If Wilkinson and John Cloud of Time (who provoked Wilkinson’s post
) are right, this is because I am rationalizing to “reduce the cognitive discomfort of holding conflicting ideas”. That might be right. However, it might also be right that holding conflicting ideas and trying to make sense of them is part of what it is to be a real grown-up human being, and that wisdom consists in part of knowing how to resolve conflicts between the impulses that do push moods and attitudes in one way or another.
One problem is that even a casual survey of the actual research seems to suggest far greater heterogeneity in results on these issues than Wilkinson or Cloud admit. Cloud cites a study done by Evenson and Simon
which Cloud glosses as showing that “parents are more depressed than non-parents,” when in fact part of the point of Evenson and Simon’s study is to explore the ways that different types of parents (e.g. single parents vs. cohabiting parents, stepparents vs. biological parents) experience depressive effects to differing degrees. And while they conclude that there are no types of parents who experience less
depression than childless married folks, there are also numerous categories (e.g. emptynesters) who seem to come out about the same.
A second problem is that none of these studies, anyway, seems to sort on what I would expect to be a significant difference in the experience of parenthood, which is something like the terms under which one comes to be a parent. Many note that throughout much of human history (and still today in some places) children represent a potent form of economic security. With that incentive gone, the motivational picture for having children is more complicated. But some significant number of parents don’t choose parenting, but have (shall we say) parenting thrust upon them as an unanticipated and perhaps undesired consequence of doing other things they are strongly motivated to do. It would be especially unsurprising if levels of anger and depression were higher among such parents than among those who sometimes go to great lengths to have children in part for the anticipated (and perhaps actually perceived) benefits of relationships with their children—relationships that are not replicated or imitated in other forms of human life, and which can be unfathomably rich in emotional content and accomplishment.
A final concern is about what exactly it is that these social scientists are measuring. In particular, are they measuring things that people actually believe they should care about? Things that are of genuine value? As philosophers have known for 2500 years or more, those are quite challenging questions to answer, but many social scientists seem to operate under the principle that you should look for your keys under the lamppost, because that is where the light is, rather than where you lost them. If it is easier to operationalize some conceptions of happiness than others, then that is what we will study, rather than what we think on reflection might really matter.
The level of discussion of such issues is gradually rising (see for example recent work by philosophers Valerie Tiberius and Daniel Haybron, but I think it will be some time before there are thoughtful measures of the degree to which parenting contributes to good human lives, and I think when it does those measures will reflect of degree of sophistication about how we come to parent that is simply missing from the crude stabs at research now, about which we should be much more skeptical than Wilkinson and Cloud suggest.
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