Why Parents Hate Parenting

Parenting is hard work and kids are a giant pain. Is it worth it?

A New York magazine feature titled “All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting” seeks to reconcile the vast body of literature showing that having kids makes people less happy with the fact that most parents don’t believe said literature.

The facts are stark and well rehearsed:

Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction. The economist Andrew Oswald, who’s compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, is at least inclined to view his data in a more positive light: “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.

This is explained as a byproduct of modern life.

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.

Ain’t that the truth!

“Did you see Babies?” asks Lois Nachamie, a couples counselor who for years has run parenting workshops and support groups on the Upper West Side. She’s referring to the recent documentary that compares the lives of four newborns—one in Japan, one in Namibia, one in Mongolia, and one in the United States (San Francisco). “I don’t mean to idealize the lives of the Namibian women,” she says. “But it was hard not to notice how calm they were. They were beading their children’s ankles and decorating them with sienna, clearly enjoying just sitting and playing with them, and we’re here often thinking of all of this stuff as labor.”

This is especially true in middle- and upper-income families, which are far more apt than their working-class counterparts to see their children as projects to be perfected. (Children of women with bachelor degrees spend almost five hours on “organized activities” per week, as opposed to children of high-school dropouts, who spend two.) Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”


A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

That was at least partly the conclusion of psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, who, in 2003, did a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies stretching back to the seventies. Not only did they find that couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids; they found that every successive generation was more put out by having them than the last—our current one most of all. Even more surprisingly, they found that parents’ dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they had the purchasing power to buy more child care. “And my hypothesis about why this is, in both cases, is the same,” says Twenge. “They become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.” (Or, as a fellow psychologist told Gilbert when he finally got around to having a child: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.”)

As a middle-aged and upper middle class father of an 18-month-old, this all strikes me as decidedly plausible.  But yet most of those in my circle not only chose to have kids but many have gone through extraordinary lengths to do so.  Indeed, in many cases, to have another kid.

So what gives?

The answer to that may hinge on how we define “good.” Or more to the point, “happy.” Is happiness something you experience? Or is it something you think?

When Kahneman surveyed those Texas women, he was measuring moment-to-moment happiness. It was a feeling, a mood, a state. The technique he pioneered for measuring it—the Daily Reconstruction Method—was designed to make people reexperience their feelings over the course of a day. Oswald, when looking at British households, was looking at a condensed version of the General Health Questionnaire, which is best described as a basic gauge of mood: Have you recently felt you could not overcome your difficulties? Felt constantly under strain?Lost much sleep over worry? (What parent hasn’t answered, yes, yes, and God yes to these questions?) As a matter of mood, there does seem to be little question that kids make our lives more stressful.

But when studies take into consideration how rewarding parenting is, the outcomes tend to be different. Last year, Mathew P. White and Paul Dolan, professors at the University of Plymouth and Imperial College, London, respectively, designed a study that tried to untangle these two different ideas. They asked participants to rate their daily activities both in terms of pleasure and in terms of reward, then plotted the results on a four-quadrant graph. What emerged was a much more commonsense map of our feelings. In the quadrant of things people found both pleasurable and rewarding, people chose volunteering first, prayer second, and time with children third (though time with children barely made it into the “pleasurable” category). Work was the most rewarding not-so-pleasurable activity. Everyone thought commuting was both unrewarding and unfun. And watching television was considered one of the most pleasurable unrewarding activities, as was eating, though the least rewarding of all was plain old “relaxing.” (Which probably says something about the abiding power of the Protestant work ethic.)


Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)

About twenty years ago, Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, made a striking contribution to the field of psychology, showing that people are far more apt to regret things they haven’t done than things they have. In one instance, he followed up on the men and women from the Terman study, the famous collection of high-IQ students from California who were singled out in 1921 for a life of greatness. Not one told him of regretting having children, but ten told him they regretted not having a family.

“I think this boils down to a philosophical question, rather than a psychological one,” says Gilovich. “Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?” He says he has no answer for this, but the example he offers suggests a bias. He recalls watching TV with his children at three in the morning when they were sick. “I wouldn’t have said it was too fun at the time,” he says. “But now I look back on it and say, ‘Ah, remember the time we used to wake up and watch cartoons?'” The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.

It’s a lovely magic trick of the memory, this gilding of hard times. Perhaps it’s just the necessary alchemy we need to keep the species going. But for parents, this sleight of the mind and spell on the heart is the very definition of enchantment.

There’s actually quite a bit more at the link, passed on by Tyler Cowen, as well as in his comments section.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dantheman says:

    “That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. “Then the studies show a more negative impact.” ”

    A joke in our house (we have 2 daughters) is that with 1 kid, you can double team. With 2 you need to play man-to-man. After that, you need to play zone.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    We had kids late, so we’d already been a couple for almost 20 years. I resisted for some time, pointing out that having kids would make us supporting cast members in someone else’s story, that it would change our relationship, that we would go from economically indestructible to a feeling of constant vulnerability, that we’d lose control of the hour-by-hour schedule of our lives and worst of all: turn into parents.

    All of which turned out to be true. And irrelevant.

    It’s an apples-oranges comparison because one minute you’re playing one game, by one set of rules, with established definitions of happiness, and the next minutes (or the next hours-long labor at least) you are in a completely different game. Like switching from tennis to football in a heartbeat and then trying to equate elements of each game.

    On any given day it’s 90% an incredible pain in the ass. Which somehow adds up to a net positive. Not quite sure how that happens, but math was never my forte.

  3. Trumwill says:

    The studies don’t necessarily say what a lot of people think they say. People read about the aggregate numbers and then assume that it means that everybody or the vast majority of people are made just a little bit unhappier with children. That may be the case, or it may simply be the case that there is a relatively small (unprepared, indifferent, or conflicting-desire couples) portion of the child-rearing population dragging the averages down.

    In which case, it’s less an issue of everybody being made a little bit unhappier and more a case of more people making the error of having children when they are not temperamentally suited for it than people deciding not to have children when having children would have made them happier. Given that having children is the “default” decision, it’s not surprising that more people would err in that direction than in the other.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    In a word. YES. We’ve had three and most of the usual trials and tribulations but nothing too serious mainly because as my daughter (who was the wild child) points out it was always in the back of my mind that Pa would kill me if anything too outrageous happened. Benign fear is a good thing!

  5. tom p says:

    Never read any of the quotes (why bother, I did not read them before I was a father, why now?)

    ***On any given day it’s 90% an incredible pain in the ass. Which somehow adds up to a net positive. ***

    As one who has passed thru to the other side…. my only regret is that I didn’t have more. (“Love isn’t divided, it is multiplied.”)(don’t remember who said that)

    “nothing too serious mainly because as my daughter (who was the wild child) points out it was always in the back of my mind that Pa would kill me if anything too outrageous happened. Benign fear is a good thing!”

    While in my case their were some serious trials and tribulations (drugs, alcohol, violent boyfriendsd, mom went to prison)(twice)

    they turned out OK. Both graduated from HS (because the alternative was not acceptable) and support themselves, one way or the other (neither has ever asked me for money)

    Benign fear is indeed a good thing.