Do children really make us happy?

Thursday, January 26, 2012
Do children really make us happy?

From TV brats to natural born serial killers, prospective parents have been given stark warnings about the dark side of child-rearing. So, asks Bettina Arndt, are the naysayers about parenthood right?

It's a mesmerising image. The gaunt mother stands stock still surrounded by road workers, clutching her baby pram right next to the booming rat-a-tat-tat of a pneumatic drill.

Relief sweeps over her face as her baby's screaming is momentarily drowned out.

Related: The science of happiness

This is actress Tilda Swinton in her recent movie, We Need To Talk About Kevin, as she engages in a teeth-grinding struggle to mother a malevolent son who ultimately commits a high-school massacre.

It's hardly fun entertainment and most disconcerting for anyone toying with the idea of having a baby.

Prospective parents would also hardly have been reassured by the ABC's recent drama series, The Slap, where an angry man slaps an obnoxious child at a family barbecue.

Here, the monster is more clearly of the parents' making, as needy, self-absorbed, volatile adults fail dismally to provide the consistent, loving care that the child needed.

In the wake of all this gloom, who would take on the tough job of parenting? For years now, there's been a steady stream of research suggesting it's just all too hard.

Parents aren't happy. The daily grind of screaming fits, nappy changes, runny noses and wars over bedtimes and homework gets them down. Let alone the damage to their bank balance.

Research on happiness has long shown that parents are less happy than their childless peers.

One famous study, by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist, surveyed a large group of Texas women and found they preferred almost anything to childcare — preparing food, watching TV, shopping, even doing housework.

How about that? Doing the ironing is more fun than having your little poppet on your knee for the 32nd reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

People with kids generally show up as less happy, showing less satisfaction with their day-to-day lives compared to non-parents, with happiness declining soon after having a child. Parenting also has a marked effect increasing marital strife.

The real question is why would parents keep having children if the first one made them feel so bad?

Yes, parenting forces you to dig deep, but I wouldn't have missed it for quids. Some years ago, I was asked to speak at a career night at my daughter's school.

I talked a little about the great life I have had as a sex therapist, journalist and writer, but my major message was simple, "Don't forget to have babies," I said, telling the girls that motherhood is not to be missed.

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The careers adviser was thrilled. "No one has ever told them that before," she said. How sad is that?

There's no denying that many people enjoy happy, fulfilled lives without children, but it would be a great shame if the negative talk about parenting put people off embarking on this thrilling life adventure — the ultimate white-water rafting.

Read more of this story in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

Your say: Do you think children make us happier?

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