A father and son

Does having kids make you happier? The answer is no, according to decades of social science research. While they may find parenthood rewarding and meaningful, parents are no happier than other people, and in some instances are less happy. This phenomenon is at the heart of Jennifer Senior’s new book “All Joy and No Fun,” which examines evolving notions of parenting and childhood in America.

Jennifer Senior, author and contributing editor at New York Magazine

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Let’s grow up and stop thinking everything has to be ‘fun’. Is work ‘fun’ all the time? Is school ‘fun’ all the time? Nothing is ‘fun’ all the time if we are honest enough to admit it.

    Yet having a child can bring great pleasure, rewards as well as valuable lessons about life. But it helps to be a grown up….

    • thucy

      “Let’s grow up and stop thinking everything has to be ‘fun'”

      Well said, Beth. I think you should add: “Get off my lawn!”

      • kotakoli

        Jeesh…. Beth’s comment seemed genuine and worthwhile. Why insult her?

        • thucy

          I’m sorry, I was merely playfully pointing out a strain of “get-off-my-lawnism” that is consistent in Beth’s comments. That is, everyone should be more adult, more moral, more hardworking, which is to say, more like Beth. Often these comments are made by Beth when the topic concerns people largely outside the realm of Beth’s socio-religious-rural orbit, e.g. non-white minorities, urban dwellers, etc.

          • kotakoli

            Thank you. I clued-in after I’d posted. I’m a newcomer here and realized too late that you all have been getting along quite well without my officiating. That’s nice to see.

          • Beth Grant DeRoos

            Thucy I come from a multi racial, multi ethnic, religious non religious family and live in a community much the same.

            My point that you seem to not have read was why do some people think we are supposed to be happy and having fun all the time.

            Look at the number of people who are on anti depressants because they may believe that life is supposed to be happy all the time.

            I am NOT speaking of people who have serious chemical depression issues.

          • thucy

            Beth, I completely agree with you about the larger point you made about expectations of happiness.
            On the other hand, I disagree that your community up in/around Calaveras (if I recall correctly, based on your previous comments?) is other than largely white and rural. And while I don’t think you’re racist or chauvinistic, I do think many of your past criticisms of people who come from more urban and more diverse communities are made with little insight into how different their environments are – and thereby the pressures they have to deal with. Meanwhile, your own assessment of your own rural community in the Sierras has tended to elide some major vulnerabilities, e.g. significant problems with methamphetamine abuse, alcoholism, etc.
            Bottom line, Beth, we’re all in it together. I support welfare for the good people in your rural area just as I support it in urban/suburban areas. I just think it’s disingenuous to pretend that it’s different when your people need it.

  • thucy

    If you believe John O’Hara and John Cheever, then the generation of parents that gave us the baby boomers were drunk most of the time. That’s right, you lazy whippersnappers, in the old days parents didn’t have TIME to worry about fun; they were too busy working at staying loaded 24/7.
    Don’t judge them, they had their reasons.

    Being a parent these days is a great deal more sober, demanding and stressful. And most parents AND kids, judging by statistics, are far less sanguine about their future in this country. Not even the immigrants I work with believe in the American Dream anymore – they’re just, as are the rest of us, along for the ride until the Golden State runs out of water. But hey, you can’t say you didn’t have fun.

  • Cathy

    I live in a more prosperous area where it is common to see households with two working parents who enjoy their careers and have children later in life, in fact having more than one child closely together due to the age of the parents. It’s not uncommon to hear such parents comment on the joy their children bring them followed with justifications. Or are very quick to say when told about the studies that parents are less happy, that the highs of parenting bring so much pleasure. I often find their statements hard to believe. As to Senior’s references, I suspect it would be more accurate that they find parenting meaningful. Perhaps I’m projecting, but having even just one child at 30 in a household of one working parent where the pressure is less, I would describe my marriage as less happy but more meaningful and there’s nothing wrong with that. Happiness is an American aspiration that is often a let down because our expectations are too high and the pursuit of happiness never seems to end. However, now studies are showing people are more satisfied with their lives pursuing meaning rather than just joy – even having better health. Of course happiness should be an expectations in our lives. But it’s time to repiortize our values.

    • Felicity Dashwood

      “Happiness is an American aspiration that is often a let down because our
      expectations are too high and the pursuit of happiness never seems to
      Cathy this is very very well said. After becoming a parent I have come to see as a society we want to live in a state of happiness at all times. That seems so innocent but it is so frivolous, even decadent. Joy and happiness should be goals, but should not be the focus of our lives. Living only for our own enjoyment is no way to build a good world. Give me satisfaction over happiness any day.

      • Cathy

        Thank you, Felicity. What’s interesting is I’ve read the current generation that have struggled finding jobs have turned to pursuits that give them meaning compared to previous generations, (including my own!) It’s a shift from the well-intended, but not as constructive idea of focusing on self-esteem for kids. It will be interesting what long-term effects may be!

  • Orlando

    I have two kids and love them very much. However before having them I really didn’t want to have any kids and I was perfectly fine if I didn’t have any. However my wife was the one who push for kids and my previous partners also push to have kids. My Question is: Why woman can see this findings men already have and we don’t need a book to tell us?

  • $22911251

    Of course kids make you happier. Children are pure delight regardless of the challenges.

    • Beth Grant DeRoos

      Not all children are a pure delight. Just look around sometime….

      • $22911251

        I worked in the public schools classrooms for close to 20 years and in day care.

  • JennyS.

    Our metaphorical understanding of parenthood circumscribes our relationships with our children. When we understand parenthood as a job or a profession, our child is understood as a project and a product -a direct result of the effort of our labor. Thus, this modern model forces us into a particular construal of parenthood. As a result, we understanding the success and failures of our children as a direct result of our effort as a parent.

  • Amber Keneally

    My husband and I are listening to this en route to our first prenatal appointment. We’re both mid-thirties and my husband was on the fence about having children at all. Talk about bad timing. The poor guy has gone sheet white. I’m cheerfully chirping in the passenger seat that this experience will be what we make of it. And that is what I believe. Still, could have waited a few years to hear this episode.

  • michael

    I was far more mature at 45 than when in my twenties. I believed this helped in raising more mature and intelligent children.

  • KE

    I began to have much more fun with raising my three kids once I stopped reading parenting books or worrying about how I was doing the job of raising them. When I became confident enough to care for them and structure our days the way that worked best for us, we have all become happier.

    To be fair, however, the first thing that made us happier as a family was when I quit my full-time job and stayed at home so the balancing act wasn’t the largest stressor in my life.

  • Karen

    I got married at 30, had my son at 35. I did not love having a baby or toddler and felt very isolated and did not feel safe admitting that to anyone. I think too many parents are afraid to speak about how difficult parenting is and how we need to completely shift our lives around it. I am now 46 with a tween. I hope that your book helps people understand that raising a child does not make people happier, and there is nothing wrong with remaining childless. Happiness is a personal journey, not something that comes from having a child.

  • jurban

    I believe that the drive to be a parent is a primitive drive. It’s irrational. But without it we’ll go extinct unless technology creates an alternative. We definitely need to bring that vocation into the present age if we’re to improve the quality of our progeny and society. Kudos to Jennifer to highlight the subject. Maybe we’ll get more rational about this subject and establish more balance in parents’ lives.

  • HiloHattie

    Where is there the “giving to others’ in this self-oriented age?

  • dorothy

    I think you have to feel happiness, balance, etc., with your own self and I think this is separate from having/raising children. I think it’s good to be somewhat “selfish” with your time, with yourself. I also believe our daughter is better off now – as an adult – because we didn’t overload her with too much attention, too much over indulgence. As an only child, she often had to figure out for herself how to fill her free hours. She is 25 now, thriving, and is self-confident. My husband and I have a busy social life and since I was in my late 30s when our daughter was born, I am now thinking and planning retirement and looking forward to that! We had a lot of loving family support while raising our daughter — we all would not be where we are now without it.

  • Ann Melious

    I was a single parent of two daughters from their infancy, and in some ways it may have been easier because my children’s father had charge of them for a month every summer and a weekend each month. That was “me” time. Besides, no resentment or debates about a spouse not pulling his/her weight. It was all my responsibility, no question. My now adult kids had to pitch in to keep the household together when they were little and are independent, funny and employed.

  • Jennifer Klein

    Excellent points. Children need to spend time orchestrating their own play, and parents need time to tend to themselves, in order for both to learn how to be confident and resilent beings. Personally, I had my child late in life (after advanced degree, etc.) and the fun I had then is different but just as valid as the fun I have now.

  • michael

    I hasten to add, though, at 45 the spirit may have been willing but the flesh was tired.

  • disqus_2cFVaWS60Y

    What’s sad is people need to have kids to feel like they are connected to others, to the world, to the past and to a future legacy. This seems to be a short coming and incredibly selfish. There are infinite ways to connect to others life and legacy and contribution without making new people to do that with. To call someone’s life (without kids) freewheeling is funny. Perhaps people without kids are the ones doing the work which allows others to retreat info family life?

  • victoria s.

    Having children is not for everyone. Count the cost and be realistic before having children… it takes work, absolute commitment and God’s grace to raise children to become productive citizens.

  • Arturo Be├ęche

    My husband and I are the parents of two adopted teenage boys. Like some of our gay friends, we always wanted kids, but not biological ones. We adopted from foster care. It has been a true challenge. At times it felt like they were going to make us drift apart…but we survived it…we survive it every day!

  • Emily Packard

    I am a mother of a 21 month old daughter and I would say I am
    exponentially more happy now that I have a child. My husband and I are
    both college (and grad school) educated but in the working poor income
    bracket. We waited until our mid 30s to have a child not because we were
    out partying and enjoying our free time but because we had student
    loans, no savings, no house and no family in the area. The message from
    both media and our social networks has been exactly that parenting will
    make you poorer and more stressed and that contributed to our fear of
    becoming parents. I thought more about how hard it would be to be a
    mother than how rewarding it can be and was surprised to find how much
    my world expanded once my daughter was born. Every day is a lesson in
    new jokes, ways to play and ways to stay mindful.

    The one thing I wish the author would mention is how people who don’t have
    children can become involved. My life would be so much easier if I had
    childless friends or relatives who I could call on to babysit for free
    once in a while or if I could bring my daughter with me to work (in an
    office, teaching). Society isolates working parents and isolation is a
    big factor in unhappiness.

    However, I have no regrets and I only wish I had realized earlier in life how wonderful children are.

  • Jean

    What about (sub)cultures where there is extended family to support the work of raising children, which is traditionally the human social model? We should not just tell our kids to play by themselves but to go play with family, friends, siblings, and neighbors. They are naturally social, as are parents. Nobody is happy being a “nuclear” family isolated at home. Have you heard about Jean Liedloff (sp?) Continuum Concept? I often wonder how our world has been manufactured into this strange dysfunctional place for families.

  • Natalya Chernykh

    I have a very similar experience. I am a single mom. Even if I had an apportunity to go somewhere on my own I would rather stay home with the child. Now things got easier but I have a lot of pain remembering how hard it was when she was little. I do not recommend anyone to have kids. I feel like I gave up myself completely and just thinking about kids gives me a lot of pain. I d rather have no kids.

    • Beth Grant DeRoos

      I so admire your honesty Natalya Chernkh. Wish we had more honesty in society so that people would not feel so bad should they dare say they do not want children. Or GASP do not even like children.

  • Natalya Chernykh

    I think that kids can be a joy but you have to be ready for them. I was glad to hear some other callers who expressed a similar opinion. My daughter is the joy of my life but at a great cost. Having her later in life would be a much smarter choice.

  • Michelle Wood

    I am not a parent. I am someone who lost her mother to cancer when she was 15 and now is in her 30s thinking of having a child. My mother, like many of the callers, gave and gave and gave to her children, her husband, and her career. I believe her constant sacrifice contributed to her chronic stress which ultimately caused her body to get weak and get sick. For all the mothers out there who think they are being a good mother for being everything to their children and their husband and sacrificing “me time”, please know that at the end of the day, your children would much rather want a healthy (and alive) mother than one who attends every school activity or what not. From age 9-15, I saw my mom in and out of chemotherapy, losing her hair, throwing up, constantly sick…first and foremost, children want their mothers healthy and generally happy (which doesn’t mean never experiencing stress, just not chronically) and their mothers and fathers getting along. I believe if a couple is not at a place (emotionally, physically, mentally, financially) where that can happen, it not only will take a toil on the couple’s marriage and their health, but also the mental/emotional health of their children.

  • wizardofx

    As a 48 year old male, I don’t have children and don’t seem to miss the experience. Ever wonder why so many people have chose to have dogs these days? I believe, if you have a close extended family, the “requirement” of having kids goes down. I like freedom of enjoying other people’s kids because I can go home any time I want.

  • Huy Chau

    listener speaking 36mins in got me having second thoughts about procreating.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor