Parenting Brings Joy, Heartache

Having children is supposed to bring happiness and love into the lives of parents. However, a recent New York Times article says new research suggests that for all the joy children bring to parents, they also cause conflict and stress. New York Magazine reporter Jennifer Senior talks about her story and a group of moms — Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker — talk about the good and the bad of raising kids.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we visit with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. This week we touch on a sensitive topic that's getting quite a bit of buzz. The question is, does being a parent make people less happy? That's the question at the heart of a recent article for New York Magazine titled "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting."

The story reveals that while many parents say children bring joy into their lives, research suggests that kids are just as likely to bring stress and conflict. And, in fact, parents might be less happy than their childless or child-free peers.

To tell us more about that, we've called the author of the article, Jennifer Senior. But also with us are our TELL ME MORE parenting regulars, Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker. Welcome, ladies, moms.

Mr. JENNIFER SENIOR (Writer): Hey, Michel.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Pleasure to be here.

Ms. DANI TUCKER: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: Jennifer, of course we're going to start with you. That's quite a provocative title. And I can just see from the response, I mean, there's something like 400 comments, 13,000 recommends on the website already.

Ms. SENIOR: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I wanted to know, first, what motivated you to write this and what does the research say?

Ms. SENIOR: The reason I chose to do this, I know everybody wants me to say that it's because I had a kid and was suddenly miserable. But that's not, in fact, what exactly happened. I had been looking at, you know, the research for a while about what made people happy and what didn't. And I always knew that one of the chestnuts in this particular body of literature was that kids made you less happy.

And when I first stumbled across this fact, I didn't have any. But I couldn't really think it through until I had a child. And once I did, I thought it would be, you know, interesting to examine it. But that's how I started on it.

MARTIN: We could have a whole separate conversation about happiness and what happiness is. But just for the purposes of this conversation, what is happiness and what does the research show?

Ms. SENIOR: Right. Okay. So, the research essentially shows this pretty much across the board, whether you're looking in the field of economics, sociology or psychology, and also in relationship research, tends to say that your happiness levels go down, your, you know, well-being, your satisfaction levels go down if you have children. Your marriage takes a dive.

The most famous data point out there was that 909 women in Texas, all of whom worked, were asked to sort of rate their daily activities, you know, what they did during the day and how much they enjoyed doing it. And taking care of their children ranked 16 out of 19 activities, just below housework.

So pretty much across the board these are, you know, single mothers are much less happy than married mothers. Mothers are less happy than fathers. The more kids you have, generally the less happy you are. These are just general trends within the literature.

If you want to know how happiness is defined, that's where I think things get tricky. Because the way that all these folks, you know, social scientists tend to measure happiness, seems to me most of the measures that they use, depending on the study, is really about moment to moment happiness and not about the more existential question you might look at. Like, whether you think your life is meaningful or has purpose. Or, say, the kind of happiness that one might measure in hindsight, right? Which is to say, like, what do you think the total of your life meant?

MARTIN: You've given us a lot to work with. So let's open it up. Jolene, you have the most kids, five.

Ms. IVEY: So I should be the most depressed.

MARTIN: So you should be the most depressed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SENIOR: Unless you're single, then you'd be really, really depressed.

MARTIN: Really depressed. So I think it's worth mentioning, you're the co-founder of a parenting support group called the Mocha Moms. And your kids range in age. And you're married. So, what about that do you feel that being a parent has made you more or less happy?

Ms. IVEY: I'd say if I were a single parent, she'd be absolutely right. I can't imagine doing this on my own. But having the support of my husband and him being a great dad, it's not really that bad. It's pretty fun most of the time not all of the time. You really have to define what is parenting. And you have to define, what is taking care of children?

If you're talking about wiping noses, changing diapers, that's not fun. I mean, it's just not. But if you're talking about, you know, laughing with your kids, doing silly things together, stop always having to be the educator and the disciplinarian, occasionally enjoy your children and that makes all the difference.

MARTIN: Just occasionally?

Ms. IVEY: Well, if you do...

MARTIN: Is that a job recommendation? Would you recommend this to the uninitiated?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: Well, if you spend all your time having fun and no time disciplining when they need it, then youre not going to have fun down the line. Just like Jennifer's article, when she mentioned scenarios where the kids are just plain ole bad and the parents are so busy trying to be perfect and trying to say now, one, two, three and discussing, you know, whether or not this kid is going to be obedient and turn off whatever it the mother told them to turn off, just do it. If your kid isn't turning it off and youve asked him to and you know they have to do it, reach over and turn the dial. Move on to the next thing.

MARTIN: Leslie, let's bring you in. You are the, one of the reasons we called you up is in addition to having three kids, you should be a little less happy than Jolene, according to the - is that youre the editor of a book called "Mommy Wars," where you talk about some of the internal conflicts that a lot of women have and the cultural expectations and all that. So what's your take on this?

Ms. STEINER: Well, I thought this article was so refreshing, because finally there's something about parenting that actually has to do with parents. Because almost everything that's written about parenting has to do with children and parents really need information about what it's actually like to be a parent. Not what's the nest thing to do for your kids, but what's the better way to parent, because that also ultimately is best for your kids.

But what I've seen, which really rang true and what I discovered in writing "Mommy Wars" is that American couples delay in general, delay having kids longer than we used to, and we also have fewer kids than we used to. And sort of as a result we romanticize having kids and raising kids the way women used to romanticize marriage. And so we have these huge expectations for what its going to be like and it never lives up to that. And then we try to do it perfectly and we treat it like its a competition and a race. And women, particularly, do this. So it makes it miserable.

And I also think one of the unexpected things that happens when you become a mom, is that all of a sudden when you want to or not most moms divide moms up into other categories. So it used to be just all women and now it's women with children, women who work with children, or women who stay home with children. And youre used to looking at women for support and all of a sudden it becomes a minefield that you dont expect.

I think as you become a more experienced parent - my oldest is now 13 so I feel this way - you get tired, you get jaded, you get sick of all of it and you start to go back to that place where you realize that all women are potentially your friends and that there is a big sisterhood out there, if you can tap into it, and it's a lifesaver. But it's this terrible time where it doesnt feel at all that way, and it's a pretty rude awakening.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? Youre a single mom, I think it's fair which is your also definitely on our common sense spectrum here, so you kind of bring it home that way. According to the data it says single moms are less happy than their married counterparts and you have two children so you should be kind of less unhappy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, if I dont kill myself, right?

MARTIN: ...on the continuation. What is your take on this when you read the piece? What do you think?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I can speak for myself and three of my other girlfriends. I think we're the opposite of that, because we were all married moms who became single moms through divorces. And we were happier, because as married moms, we had husbands who weren't doing their share when it came to the kids. So you had that extra baggage there. So once we got divorced, you know, it was like a weight lifted, because I gave birth to those two, I didnt give birth to you. So I'm glad to get rid of that child. I can divorce that one. But we were happier and then we also supported each other a little more. It was more helpful.

But I do understand how some single moms would be depressed because you could -you have a tendency to get lonely. You know, there are limitations on how you can have a relationship now that youre this single mom well, at least for those of us who have decided, you know, I dont necessarily want to be with someone while I'm raising my kids and I still have to deal with my ex-husband. So I can see what they mean by that. But for us, I dont think we were less happy. I just think we were more content. I mean I know it might be same word but we choose to be content in our situation, we choose to call it happiness, you know, what I mean? You have to make a choice.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about research on why some parents hate parenting. That's the title of a recent piece by Jennifer Senior in New York magazine. She's with us, along with our regular segment guests, Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker. The article is titled "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting."

Jennifer, what about that? Dani talked about contentment as opposed to happiness. That makes sense to me. But tell us a little bit more about how people are responding to this piece, and does it mean anything? I mean one of the things that strikes me is the idea of even having a conversation about happiness despite the fact that it's in one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, is fairly new, that people even think that they're entitled to any happiness.

Ms. SENIOR: Absolutely. And it's one of the things that seemed to push some people's hot buttons. You know, a lot of the comments were things like, oh you, you know, self-obsessed narcissistic mothers who sit there thinking that your children are supposed to make you happy. What did you think? You know, there's a lot of that.

MARTIN: But that's kind of Internet hateration.

Ms. SENIOR: You know, well...

MARTIN: And if had said to people this is how you win the lottery people would be like this is - youre selfish and narcissistic. Who told you youre supposed to win the lottery?

Ms. SENIOR: It is the nature. Youre absolutely right. I mean it is a really interesting - its as much a window into the kind of, you know, Internet culture as it is into the questions themselves. But you get a lot of that though. And I think that obviously there's, you know, I mean I think that being happy started as sort of the Boomer preoccupation and, you know, I think that then the Xers and the Millennials kind of refined it. But I think something that Jolene said was like super important too, which is if you defer having children youre going to notice a very big difference between the before and the after. And it turns out that one of the most interesting MENA studies that I looked at discovered that both the most recent generation of parents and also the wealthiest generation of parents were both the least happy. And the reason that the researcher came up with is that in both instances these are the people who defer childrearing longest so that they feel it the most acutely.

If theyve had the kid they feel like they're wings have been clipped. So that you know, their sense is that their kids have sort of ruined their independence, whereas, a different generation might see having a child as an act of independence. They're finally moving out of their parent's house and having a child. So I think that is a very crucial kind of data point to look at here.

MARTIN: I think that was Leslie who made who made the point about people delaying childrearing.

Ms. SENIOR: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: And so you remember youre life before. In fact, I remember friends of mine who had children earlier than a lot of people in our peer group do, and so they had children right out of college. And he and his wife said we dont remember what we used to do. You know, we really dont. We dont remember. But now guess what? Our kids are still in, you know, Pre-K and his kids are going off to college and it's woo hoo, you know, he and his wife are hanging out again and doing all this stuff that those of us with young children at home aren't doing.

Ms. SENIOR: And they're still able bodied. I mean they're young and healthy. I mean it's great.

MARTIN: I know, I've tried to get them to baby sit, but for some reason they're not going for it. I assume its (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SENIOR: Yeah. Isn't it amazing?

MARTIN: But now that we know this, let me ask this. It's a tough question. I apologize. I'm going to put everybody on the spot. If you knew then what you knew now, do you think you'd still have kids?

Ms. STEINER: Ill go first. This is Leslie. I absolutely would have the kids again, even knowing everything that I know and also thinking that - I think the real reason I had kids was just biology, nothing else. I had an intense maternal desire that was biologically driven. But I still - I love my kids and I love having them. And also, you know, sometimes my husband and I think about having another one. And I read articles like this. I'm like no. Dont do it. Youre crazy. Stop. Stop. But there's still this strong - if I had 100 kids I'd probably want one more because I'm a woman and I'm a mom, and mostly, I really love it.

But I also - what I love just as much is articles like this that really admit candidly, how incredibly hard it is, a lot of the time. And I think it's particularly hard on moms and I'm glad that people are out talking about it. I think that's good in of itself.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you?

Ms. TUCKER: I would take it a step further. We asked that question to each other, but we also ask would we have them with the man that we had them with. And I totally agree - I'm with Leslie. I would do it again and I would have -believe it or not, and this is going to be crazy - kids with him. Because -well, one thing about my two kids, not just being my kids, they are really dynamic people. I like to talk to them. They are very interesting. And to me they wouldnt be that way if I wasnt their mother and he wasnt their father.

So I would do it again. I'd change some of the things we did about it, you know, but I love those two individuals.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you?

Ms. IVEY: Well, Jennifer's article mentions a study that says that each successive child brings diminishing returns. And for me, it's not that way. I'm really glad I have all five. I wouldnt want even one fewer child than I have. At any given moment some of my kids are going to make me crazy, okay. But at that same moment, somebody else is going to make me laugh. And what would I do if I only had one child? I'd only have one opportunity to be really angry or really happy in a given day. I mean...

MARTIN: Or you'd be in the South of France right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: You know, I could afford to, now that you say it like that. I've never been a materialistic person, so that's cool with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jennifer, what about you? Do you mind if I put you on the spot?

Ms. SENIOR: No, not at all. But one thing I was going to say just in Jolene's case, there are some studies that show that like, there's diminishing returns with each but that reach just kind of an asymptote, so that around child four it starts to not matter anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SENIOR: So maybe the distinction - I mean I've seen some studies that say that. So, you know, the difference between four and 17 children is like zero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah, keep going Jolene. Jolene's going yeah, I can have. Jolene also collects them too.

Ms. SENIOR: Knock yourself out.

Ms. IVEY: Stop at six.

MARTIN: She has temporary as well as...

Ms. IVEY: Right. Well, that's all the time.

MARTIN: Yes. Exactly.

Ms. SENIOR: There's the whole in for a diamond for a dollar thing. So what I would say is so, you know, I can't really torture my partner whos already got two from a previous, you know, marriage and I've got - and we have one together. So I would certainly want my one again. But the thought experiment I sometimes do is well, suppose that like, you know, it were not torture to you know, make my partner Mark go through this for, you know, like a fourth time. You know, what if he only had the one, would I want another? And, you know, I think if I were to be honest what I would say is that I'd want to adopt like a two-year-old. You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SENIOR: No really. I mean...

MARTIN: Who could drive?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEINER: And was potty trained.

Ms. SENIOR: That's right. It's really it's just about recruiting the help in the house. I just like, you know, no because I really respond to idea that like, you know, you can help somebody. I mean I'm really intrigued by the idea of adoption. I think it's like the most lovely thing and I'd love to know that I was doing this kind of mitzvah for somebody.

But like, I was one of these women where the age between like zero and 18 months, I so could have taken or left it. I mean it just, I felt so much like what so many of my male friends say, which is eh, you know, I like them when they can start to talk. That was sort of me. So I think my fantasy would be adopt - if I could adopt another, I would - but that will never happen.

Ms. STEINER: And what about you, Michel? Can you answer the question too?

MARTIN: Oh absolutely. No. I know, absolutely.

Ms. STEINER: What is it?

MARTIN: I just can't even imagine. I mean and I do, I was old enough that I could totally remember what I did before, like the theater tickets. I remember exactly where I used to sit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEINER: I remember the shows you saw.

Ms. IVEY: I ran into you once.

MARTIN: Huh?

Ms. IVEY: I ran into you at the Kennedy Center once.

MARTIN: Exactly. Yeah, which was a distant memory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, but, yeah, no I cosign everything that everybody said in terms of appreciating the honesty. But I also think that for some reason, the broader question of what we ask not just of ourselves but of others and the society in which we live is not being asked. And that's one of the things I'm curious about, why not? You know, why is it that its only - this isn't collecting stamps. I think it has broader social meaning and I dont understand why we're never allowed to talk about that.

Ms. STEINER: But maybe that's part of the reason why parents are saying that its hard and they dont feel validated and they dont feel appreciated. Because youre right, you dont hear people talk at all, about that parenting is a really unselfish thing, that we wouldnt have a society and a culture if all of us didnt have kids.

MARTIN: I know I'm just thinking about somebody who cut his eyes at me at, you know, I was one of those people at the pizza place and kids were, you know, louder than they - someone else might have preferred. And my attitude is who do you think is going to do your surgery 20 years from now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: Who do you think is going to be running your government?

Ms. TUCKER: Or better yet, how loud were you when you were eating pizza.

MARTIN: Thank you. Hello.

Ms. IVEY: I know.

Ms. TUCKER: People seem to forget.

MARTIN: All right.

Jennifer Senior is a writer for New York magazine. You'll find a link to her article "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting" at our website, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. She was with us from our bureau in New York.

And here with me in Washington, D.C., our regulars Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker.

Thank you all so much.

Ms. STEINER: Thanks everyone.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. SENIOR: Thank you.

Ms. Tucker: Thanks, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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