To breed or not to breed

Jennifer Senior’s New York magazine piece on “why parents hate parenting ” (hint: in general, it makes them less happy than non-parents) has generated plenty of buzz. It’s a well-written article, full of interesting insights, but I’ll be damned if I understand why an analysis of the down-side of squeezing out yard apes strikes many people as such a revelation after so many generations of first-hand experience.

It’s not like having kids is a recent fad with unforeseen consequences.

The key insight in the article is this: “From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly unmysterious why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think.” The reason for the mystery quickly becomes clear, as Senior summarizes the rather copious research on the subject of having kids and the effects of breeding on those of us who engage in the activity:

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.

In past generations, when kids were your labor force, your disability insurance and your retirement plan, all rolled into one gooey and then pimply package, the stresses of having children could be balanced against the pragmatic advantages of having mini-mes roaming around, tied to you by bonds of law and culture.

But today? Today, every dollar put into raising a child is a dollar that doesn’t go into the 401K — or into the new entertainment system, for that matter. Having kids is purely optional, and an expensive option at that. So why do so many people still do it?

In fact, as Senior explains, parenting is, in many ways, more stressful than it once was — probably because it is so completely optional these days. According to one study, parents today spend just nine hours alone together each week versus 12 hours as recently as 1975. The TV series “Mad Men” has stirred interest in the way children of the 1960s are portrayed — largely in the background, and expected to stay out of the way. But while the show puts its own spin on reality, there’s no doubt that kids in the past were much less a focus of familial attention than today’s wee tots who barely have time to catch a breath between their Spanish tutor and piano class. All that modern effort to craft the perfect offspring is likely a bit more stress-inducing than even our great-grandparents’ dilemma over whether having ten kids was enough to make sure that eight survived to work in the fields.

From an economic necessity, child-rearing has now become the equivalent of that meticulously detailed landscape your odd uncle built in his basement around his HO-scale model trains.

Senior’s conclusion is that modern first-world people (because much of the world is still at the labor-force stage of parenting) continue to have children, though at a much-reduced rate compared to the past, because if parenting isn’t necessarily enjoyable, it’s still rewarding.

But there’s a major point that our thoughtful author is missing: A great many people aren’t thoughtful at all.

Oh sure, Manhattan is infested with people who plot against each other for placement in the right nursery schools, and for them, parenting their one perfect child (who is destined to grow up to be a highly talented basket case) is certainly rewarding, in a twisted and obsessive way. But for much of the population, bearing children really seems to come as something of a surprise, to be dealt with only when the unanticipated new arrival explodes from their groins and skitters across the salty snacks aisle at Wal-Mart.

Where’d that come from?

And some of us … Some of us arrived at our current status through a deal-making process of negotiation that completely missed the big picture and, in retrospect, seems almost as arbitrary and ill-considered as the “where’d that come from?” surprise that animates so many of the parents of my wife’s patients (as their disturbingly earnest kin assure them that “every child is a blessing”).

Jennifer Senior’s article thoughtfully points to the competing considerations many people face when deciding whether or not to have children. I wonder, though, if she gives us too much credit in assuming that actual reasoning is necessarily involved.

Some of us, anyway.


  • akaGaGa says:

    At the risk of sounding a strange instrument, perhaps the point of having children is to change the mindset that the worth of our lives is determined by our level of happiness, however that nebulous concept is defined. Perhaps they arrive simply to help us stop contemplating our navels.

  • J.D. Tuccille says:

    Perhaps so, but it looks like those Manhattan-style helicopter parents have found a way to keep their navels in the picture, and some other parents would be well-served by a little more contemplation. Still, your point is well-taken.

  • akaGaGa says:

    Somebody else did a little more contemplation on that article, too. Thought you might be interested:

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