It’s well known that children are pricey – from medical bills to diapers to college. These costs can be predicted. Measured. Prepared for.
But there’s a hidden cost to parenthood. One that’s less controlled, but just as important – if not more. Happiness.
Children and Personal Happiness
Parents make sacrifices for their children from the moment they’re born, and the biggest sacrifice is personal happiness.
Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that “one of the dominant explanations for this is that children increase the amount and level of a variety of stressors that parents are exposed to.”
Life is stressful enough, but when you add children into the mix, you’re amplifying everything. Sleep issues escalate to sleep deprivation. Low energy escalates to exhaustion. A tight budget escalates to debt. All of these can lead to depression.
No one is happy when they’re running on little to no sleep, and as a parent, you’re always running low on rest. It starts early for the mom – during the pregnancy, even. Waking up in the middle of the night three different times to use the toilet. Nights spent tossing and turning in discomfort. Early mornings throwing up on the bathroom floor.
Then, when the baby is born, both parents are impacted, waking up for feedings or to change diapers – or both – at all hours of the night. Common advice is to nap when the baby naps, but that’s not often realistic. And even when you can follow that advice, naps aren’t enough to sustain a fully grown human who hasn’t managed a good night’s rest in weeks, months, or sometimes even years. Not to mention there are still all the chores that need to be done around the house.
Even as your child gets older, you deal with them crawling into your bed because of nightmares or thunderstorms. When they hit their teen years, you’re up on your own, worrying over their problems like they’re yours. After graduation, the worrying doesn’t end, either. It may even get worse. And then they’re having children of their own, and you’re back to waking up at 3 a.m., consoling them over the phone as they try to cope with their own personal happiness slipping away.
According to Jennifer Glass, “Depression and anxiety tend to be higher among actively parenting adults,” and it doesn’t take a genius to see why.
Even if you have a miracle child who sleeps through the night right away and doesn’t struggle with nightmares or thunderstorms, your energy is still likely to be low.
Why? Because children are energy-sucking machines. Unless you have six hands, unlimited time, and nothing else on your plate aside from what your children need, you will find yourself physically and emotionally drained by the end of every day. It’s exhausting, keeping a tiny human alive and happy. Some days, you just have to settle for the alive part, gritting your teeth and bearing it as they scream, cry, and toss their toys around the room. There will be times that the groceries in your cart aren’t worth having to carry a child mid-tantrum through a store. Ever seen a half-full cart abandoned in a store? Place your money on the fact that it was left there by a parent.
Perhaps one of the biggest hits to your personal happiness as a parent is the impact on your romantic relationship. According to Lambert Couples Therapy, “researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along.”
And who can blame the relationship? Date nights become a thing of the past. So does sex – unless you’re dedicated, willing to schedule your sessions, and able to accept that you’ll probably still be interrupted on occasion. Plus, there are major decisions you and your partner need to make, some of them the kind of decisions that shape the person you’re raising together. Agreeing on those can be tricky. Simple arguments about housework are nothing compared to how you’ll handle bad grades, bullying, or the sex talk.
We could talk about hobbies here, and the sacrifices you’ll make regarding them, but let’s be honest… hobbies as a parent? Let’s not waste our time.
Parenting and Professional Happiness (or Lack Thereof)
In a New York Times article, Claire Cain Miller wrote that the uptick in people choosing not to have children can at least partially be attributed to “a story of economic insecurity” since “young people have record student debt, many graduated in a recession and many can’t afford homes – all as parenthood has become more expensive.”
You know that extra cash you needed? You can’t bet on skipping the grocery store or winning the lottery. You’ll need a job. And, if you want to be financially comfortable, your partner will need one too. Gone are the days when mothers were expected to stay home with the children while the fathers went off to work – partly because of women’s rights, but also because life is too expensive nowadays to make that dynamic viable.
Yet, you’ll be surprised how often a parent – usually the mother – is expected to drop everything at work for their children. Even before the recent pandemic, a bump on the head at recess required a parent to come get the injured child. Now, a stray cough means sending a child home. Then there are snow days. Professional development days. Half-days.. School holidays.
Jennifer Glass’s studies found that “the ‘price’ of having kids has been compounded by the fact that millions of women with children have been pushed out of the workforce due to increased demands at home.”
A key component of personal happiness is professional happiness – it’s rare to find an adult who considers themselves happy if they’re miserable at least 40 hours out of the week. When your career is constantly taking hits because of your children, it’s hard to maintain that professional happiness, and therefore, your personal happiness as well.
Does Having Children Guarantee Misery?
Not at all. For those who find that the joy of having a child outweighs the obstacles and stressors, the misery might not be so miserable after all. But people have to be honest with themselves about their expectations and what they’re willing to sacrifice.
Dr. Jennifer Watling Neal, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, said it best: “People are equally satisfied with life regardless of their reproductive choices” because “people are making the decisions that are right for them.”